Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Gender, blogs and discussion lists

Last week I taught a session on language, gender and technology. As part of their activities, the students read and discussed Susan Herring's (2003) work on gender and CMC, then went away and looked through a range of discussion forums and blogs to see how far they could find evidence that supported or challenged her claims. Most of the students looked at discussion lists, I think because they are more familiar with these than with blogs) but some looked at blogs too. What was most interesting was that one of Herring's claims was that men contributed more frequently to academic discussion lists than women did. So the students looked at the length of postings and number of contributions. While they did find that men dominated the discussion lists in most cases, when it came to personal blogs, women wrote more than the men did. One student then asked why it was that we attribute dominance to men's interventions in discussion lists and not to greater length of entries written by women in their blogs. My response was that this was more to do with the value judgements we make about (a) genres and (b) gender and (c) types of interaction. Is it the case that personal blogging is feminized, and so having a greater presence in cyberspace in this mode doesn't count for so much?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Collaborative Narrative: The Wiki novel

My knowledge and encounters with digital narratives are painfully limited. But last night I came across a project involving the ioct guys at dmu along with Penguin publishers. This is the wikinovel A Million Penguins. For me, this was fascinating to see the polymorphous, polyphonic nature of the collaborative writing. Even more so was the comment on the blog that users should not try to read it like a conventional narrative, and instead just dip in for 10 minutes or so at a time.

I've got to spend more time looking at the comments and discussions people are having about this, because my experience was that students really did not like this kind of reading experience. The power of print conventions and the actually experience of reading online made hypertextual reading really frustrating for the students I was working with. An initial summary of some of this project is in my book. I've just been showing some of my current students a million penguins, so it will be interesting to see what they make of it too.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Blogging, ethics, research and emotion

This post is my initial thoughts on the vulnerabilities of blogging. I carried on reading Bruns and Jacobs' collection, including Jill Walker's piece, which I really enjoyed. Not least because it broke with academic convention and there was a sense of personal voice there which I don't tend to see so much in the academic writing. One point she made was about the lack of control there is in blogging, in so far as an unknown audience can assume knowledge of the blogger as an individual. It is one of those strange things that someone unknown to me, might be reading this and then bump into me in an unpredicted context. This, no doubt, is a risk that any blogger takes in putting their thoughts 'out there' (or rather 'out here'). And I guess, I have deliberately kept any references to my personal life, my family, kids separate from this blog (incidentally we do have a family blog, languishing, unupdated out there in the blogosphere).

So far, so uncontentious. But this morning I started doing some serious sifting through blogs as I have begun to think about the data I want to look at for my 'blogs and research paper'. I had the idea some months ago that I would look at personal blogs - the idea being to redress the balance pointed out by Herring et al (2004) that personal blogs, whilst being the fastest growing genre in the blogosphere are the least researched. Well, I thought I would delimit this a bit and look at blogs written by people who are battling cancer. So I started looking, and there are many blogs that come under this category. They are moving, honest, intimate, painful. And as I sat there with tears running down my face time and again I realised that the personal element of these stories is completely unescapable. And the writing was amazing in so many of these texts, but I also felt deeply uncomfortable as a stranger looking into the most personal expression of these people's lives. So if I am going to go ahead with this, I have letters and emails to write, seeking permission to use extracts from the blogs - clearly, although the material is so easily accessible in the public domain, there are ethics involved here. I would not like this blog reproduced, analysed by some unknown academic so I certainly would not inflict that on someone else.

And that said aside, it made me realise afresh that the division between the personal and the professional is illusory. For a long time I felt that my academic research was quite separate from the personal 'me'. A year or so back, someone said to me that my research was deeply bound up with who I am. And I have begun to realise that that is true - not just in terms of my interests, or the relationships that lie behind the data that I sometimes collect (always with consent, of course!). But the emotional reaction I had reading through these blogs this morning caught me unawares. How I work that through alongside the academic questions of blogging remains to be seen.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Blogs and gender

I've just been reading Susan Herring (et al)'s piece, 'Women and Children Last', both in preparation for a class I am teaching on language, gender and technology and whilst thinking about a paper I am going to write about blogging, gender and identity. While I have been teaching about feminist stylistics and textual feminism, I have been trying to explain the principle that academic research is not some kind of objective, neutral form of observation that simply describes data 'as it is'. As is well known, all analysis is inevitably selective and partial. What Herring et al point out so well that as far as the blogosphere seems to be concerned, the research up to the point at which this group were writing (2003/04) a fairly uncontested masculinist dominance appears. I wonder if this is still the case. Bruns and Jacobs' collection had a wide range of contributors (although about half as many female writers as male), and the pieces about gender was written by a woman. Does this, should this, make any difference? I should point out, that I am not suggesting that the editors of the collection are sexist in any way shape or form (or that the gender of the writer should have made any difference to their contribution). More that I wonder how far the apparently democratizing potential of blogging maps on to academic discussion and how both of those in turn are embedded in the gender politics of social realities.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

On the uses of blogs

Well, I've finally made it back to using this blog. At last I'm starting to get into the reading and thinking for a new paper I'm working on. I've been waiting to get my hands on Uses of Blogs for a while now. This morning I've sat and read the chapters by Melissa Gregg, Jean Burgess and Angela Thomas, all of which have got me thinking both about my own project, my own approach to blogging and how I use technology in my teaching and learning.

On my own use of this blog....
I was struck by what Jean Burgess wrote about the challenge of 'finding a voice'. She writes: 'it proved extremely difficult for many students to find a writerly voice other than their most formal 'essay' voice, or a personal voice other than their most casual 'email' voice" (p.109). That resonated with my own feelings about this blog. My intention for using this space was primarily work-driven: to create a space where I could both collect my thoughts, but potentially, engage with the 'blogging community / gurus' who are 'out there'. Given that I'm starting to look at blogs in my own research, then it seemed crazy not to have had at least some experience of being part of that community.

But when it comes to writing here, I don't want to use my 'formal' 'essay writing' voice. I know the purpose is to stimulate academic debate and so on, but my initial reactions and responses that are here don't come fully formed as essay rhetoric. Maybe, because despite some claims to the contrary (my daughter decided that I was a glossary the other day) I don't speak or think in academic-ese. In that sense, then, my experience of blogging makes me recognise the immediacy of the communication. But, on the other hand, I know that this is going into the public domain (although I am not sure anyone is going to read this!). And that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable about not using an academic voice.

I think Jean Burgess is right - using Blogs requires a new form of literacy with social and textual dimemsions that take some getting used to. And it is for that reason I haven't launched into using them in my teaching yet. But I am thinking about how I could put blogging to use in the teaching workshop that is going to be part of the Narrative Symposium I'm organising. More thoughts on that here later.