Thursday, August 11, 2005

academic blogging

I'm involved in a panel presentation on "doing ethnomusicology" at the musicology and ethnomusicology congress of South Africa in a few weeks time, and below is a draft of my paper. Feedback and comments would be greatfully welcomed. I'm afraid the citations are not up to par yet, though I will correct them over the next few days, so please forgive me if you are incorrectly, or not, referenced, and feel free to point out my errors as appropriate. Also, any jazzy suggestions for a title would make a huge difference! I really am stuck on that one.
Enjoy :-)

The internet is often criticized for being too information rich, overwhelming, difficult to filter and navigate, and unreliable in terms of quality of content. And to some extent, this is true. The greatest strength and greatest weakness of the internet is that anyone can put anything they like in the public realm. Responsibility remains with the reader to assess the value, or validity, of the information available.

The various systems of peer reviewing that facilitate the validating of information published offline have equal potential online. And in fact the internet, by virtue of the increased speed and diversity of communication available online, has great potential for diversifying and facilitating peer review opportunities and mechanisms. Most news and current affairs pages, for example, include forums for discussion of the information presented, and many lively, and often very informative discussions spring to life on these forums. Weblogs (blogs for short) were originally developed as a way of filtering information.

While there is now a proliferation of “personal journal” type blogs available, weblogging systems were originally developed with the intention of allowing bloggers to collect and comment on links to information. Readers typically would find a few blogs whose authors had similar interests to themselves, and read them regularly, as a source of information of interest. Virtual intellectual communities continue to form around well-authored weblogs on various topics.

I began blogging just over a year ago, when I came across Anthroblog (now out-dated) while searching for information relating to a paper I was researching on South African choral music. After several weeks of reading about and mulling over the blogging phenomenon I was won over by the sheer convenience of being able to organize, comment on, and access information I found online while working at home and university. Unlike offline or mirrored web pages, the urls of blog-linked pages remain in tact, and links and comments are automatically dated, making referencing a much easier task. And one’s research is accessible from any internet-connected computer.

But there is more to the addiction that is blogging than these practical conveniences. My first three entries were published privately (accessible only to myself as editor of the blog), but rapidly, the idea that someone might be able to comment on what I was reading, won me over, and I began to publish, and promote, my blog. Last October I wrote “I can think of few other ways [than publishing] of making what I do accessible to the broader public. Perhaps this is the way to do it. Maybe blogs are the ultimate way of getting what I do out into the public sphere.” The conventional publication process is slow, and somewhat laborious, and while a combination of peer-reviewing and informal communication on published papers does have the effect of generating conversation and debate around topics of interest, the amount of real feedback and interaction is limited by the inconvenience of the process. Blogging facilitates instant publication, and instant conversation (for anyone willing to engage in it) in that most conventional blog tools allow the publisher to enable comments pages for each of their posts. Readers can then post their thoughts, reactions and general feedback, either under a user name, or anonymously, and the original authors, or other readers, can read and reply to them in the same place. It is easy to track discussions on particular topics by clicking on the links pages, and authors are empowered to update their original posts, or post newer drafts, as their work is influenced by these conversations. An option also exists to create multi-author blogs, that allow several authors/editors to post and manage blog entries in a co-operative manner, while still allowing those not listed as authors to engage in the conversations through comments, as described above. Such blogs are frequently created for academic or information-oriented groups in which many (approved) voices are more desirable than a single “authority”. The result can be very like a rapidly edited, easily developed, technology enriched journal that invites and documents readers’ participation alongside that of the authors/editors.

Similar real-time discussion is, of course, possible in face-to-face forums like conferences, discussion groups, or informal meetings, however, these are obviously limited by practical concerns in the number of participants they can include. Blogging has the potential to broaden the field of conversation, opening the author and their work to a broader range of opinions, creative ideas, and expert comment. And online interactions are easily documented and archived, and hence, more easily referenced than the somewhat ephemeral interactions generated in face-to-face encounters.

An additional benefit of recording more that just research findings online is the creation of a research ‘trail.’ Aside from lending a degree of transparency to individual research projects, this trail empowers a willing reader, who may not have the background in academic discourse and theory, to follow the process of enlightenment originally taken by the author. Rather than “dumbing down” data for general consumption, then, one is able to publish with integrity in an accessible form. The reader is educated, rather than the data being compromised.

In early February, this year, I began to published my field-journal on my blog. I gave my informants the url, and suggested that they might want to comment on what I had written. Most declined to comment online, but engaged with what I had written in follow-up interviews. A conversation was thus established, not only on the subject of our interviews, but on the actual knowledge being produced.

The notion of dialogic knowledge has had a profound impact on the discipline of anthropology (and congruently, ethnomusicology), mainly as a result of the postmodern move toward a recognition of the collective/interactive nature of knowledge. Disciplines like ethnomusicology, largely because of their work with culture, a fundamentally dialectical entity, have increasingly moved toward a recognition of both the knowledge, and the agency of the “subject” of research. The notion of authorial privilege, and even of authorship itself, is contested, and researcher’s attempt to introduce alternative voices into texts, in order to produce a more holistic perspective. And yet, while we actively work outside of the academy “in the field”, we tend to restrict our conversations on, and publication of, the data we collect, to the constructed environment of the academy. Peer reviewed journals, in practice, are not open to the general public, and neither are our conferences, conversations and interactions. Relatively little of the information we produce is distributed to the broader public, and when it is, it is usually in a non-dialectic form. The people who are making the music, by and large, are not participating in the conversations about that music, and the result is a loss of both an important intellectual perspective, and the opportunity that our research can have some real effect. Who are we writing for, if not the people about whom we write, and those who don’t as yet know of them?

By publishing my field journal online, in a format that encourages interaction and conversation, I aim to not only disseminate the information I am gaining, but also to enrich it by encouraging input both from within, and beyond, the academy, and from the people who really hold that knowledge. The continued dominance of the Western cannon on music scholarship limits our potential for understanding music that is not of this cannon. Unlike mathematical or scientific knowledge, which can, and usually is, studied without consideration of cultural and contextual circumstances, musical production has a fundamentally cultural grounding. While it is (arguably) possible to study music without considering context within which it is produced and consumed, and within which meaning is constructed, consideration of these influence can, not only enrich understanding, but potentially also facilitate music making at all levels. Shifting emphasis from, for example, a pitch-centered understanding, to a timbral-focused interpretation, can open up new sound possibilities, and expand creative potential. Opening conversation on music up to the people who make and consume it, increases the chance of understanding it in terms one may not have considered.

Another benefit of online publication of in-progress work, and field-journals in particular, is the increased accountability that I, as the researcher, am faced with. In February, I wrote “I am finding that the field-notes make me more aware than ever of how judgmental I am. Everything has to be checked for bias or judgment, and I am struggling to write about race, or language group. Anything that is 'other' for me is difficult to put into words without sounding judgmental or patronizing.” On the (thankfully increasingly rare) occasion that I find myself writing something that I am not prepared to show my informants, I am forced to reconsider my perspective, and generally, to reach a deeper understanding of the situation, often in conjunction with my informants.

The purpose of the peer-review process in conventional print journals, with its parallel in the conversations generated around blogs, is to screen data for deficiencies or inaccuracies, and to facilitate the publication of quality data for dissemination. While not infallible, the system is widely accepted in academia, and used for the assigning of credit, and hence employment, allocation of funds, and the like, within universities. The system is so entrenched, that it is difficult for individuals, regardless of experience, contribution to intellectual endeavor, or extent of research, to gain recognition within the academy without some publication in accredited journals.

While there are several high-quality online journals available for general access, many have suffered from the widespread suspicion with which the academy, by and large, have viewed free, digital resources. Online journals rarely receive accreditation unless they are little more than offshoots of established print journals, and even when they do, they are seldom the first choice of publishing academics. The development of online technology, however, should have made the print journal, if not obsolete, then at least less dominant as a mode of disseminating researched and reviewed information. Ironically, however, the convenience of online publishing in journal format has not loosened the strangle-hold of traditional publication processes on the industry. Journals are still published (by and large) in formats that encourage passive consumption rather than interaction. Whether it is the online, or the free status of these publications that invites this distrust is impossible to determine, but as Stevan Harnad points out, while scholars and reviewers have been producing research reports and comments in their professional capacities for years, neither group has received reimbursement directly for these activities, despite the fact that money has been changing hands. This money originally went toward covering the cost of producing and disseminating hard copies of journals, and was viewed as “a lamentable filter (a financial filter), blocking access to their work, reserving it only for those who (or, rather, whose institutions) could/would pay” (Harnad, 1999).

In the commercial and entertainment writing worlds, it is understandable, and expected, that one pays for the content of texts, and not just the paper on which they are printed. Authors in these fields are writing in order to earn money, and market the products of their creativity appropriately. While the result is that an author has the potential for developing an extensive audience that is willing to pay, they are also compelled to “sell” their work to this audience, writing what the audience wants to hear, and potentially resorting to sensationalism or half-truths in order to achieve this. The academic system is designed to shield scholars from this need by paying them for research and teaching (directly or indirectly), rather that commercial value of the texts produced. That does not mean that value is not placed on texts, as these, in the form of research reports, or publishable papers, are the means by which research output is measured. But the scholar is paid and supported by the institution to which they belong, and not by the reading public, and therefore has a reciprocal responsibility to that institution.

While collaboration within the broader intellectual community is what makes the peer review system, among other collaborative systems, work, there is a level of elitism within the academy that alienates not only the general public, but also the student who has yet to prove herself, or the enthusiastic amateur. By blocking access to academic content, both financially and practically, a discipline not only limits its audience in the immediate instance, but also limits its future reach. Understanding academic content, and particularly music, because of the ‘specialized’ nature of the subject, takes practice. Old habits associated with publication prevent those without the resources from accessing the information we produce, while old attitudes about the inability of the general public to understand, prevent those with the will, from learning. And the more people that learn to interact with music scholarship, the more potential for profitable collaboration and the development of our discipline there is. Music scholarship, particularly in the South African context, deals with an expressive medium that is an entrenched and valuable part of society. And yet, on a continent in which simply feeding people remains a major challenge, it can be difficult to justify assigning resources to music scholarship. The knowledge which we produce belongs to the people from whom we learn it, and needs to be taken to them in order to entrench its value in the social conscience. Generating self-perpetuating, self-consuming knowledge in an insulated, privileged community, is no longer an option.

Opening research up to the general public in the form of weblogs, or similar technologies, and allowing, and even encouraging general comment and interaction does create the risk that one may receive worthless or even destructive critique. Not making it accessible, however, carries the greater danger that it may become irrelevant in the “real world”, beyond the academy.

The general public is more capable that we give them credit for.

The potential of digital and online technologies to impact positively on academia in general, and music scholarship in particular cannot be overestimated. Particularly in the South African academy, which has been traditionally somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, almost instant online communication and interaction broadens both our intellectual community, and our opportunity for disseminating our scholarship, while alternative publication formats enhance our ability to communicate effectively on the topic of our research, with a wider audience.

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