Many American academics blog. British academics don’t on the whole. But the threat to Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, has spawned a Support Classics at RHUL blog as part of the campaign to save Classics at RHUL. I see two wholly disparate benefits which this blog, posted by Edith Hall, may bring: first, there are good arguments, to which I make a small contribution here, for keeping the subject alive at RHUL; second, the blog–generated by an unfortunate emergency–may turn out to represent one more small step in encouraging British academics to be more positive, and less resistant, to blogging and other informal conversations held publicly on the Net.
Why Save Classics at Royal Holloway?
Ending Classics at RHUL would be a mistake. The department has a distinguished history, and for reasons which are difficult to analyse precisely, the reality is that universities and colleges with a strong history of excellence in Classics tend to continue and transmit that excellence from generation to generation. That light should not be put out.
Universities must face financial realities. Not commercial realities: universities are not, at least not primarily, businesses. Financial realities, yes. Within that context, the manager motivated by money will ask, ‘What can Classics do for Royal Holloway?’ The manager motivated by academic values will say, ‘I do not ask what Classics can do for the college, but what can the college can do for Classics?’ If the management are so strapped for cash that they simply cannot pay salaries, they may be forgiven for destroying value. But the managerial team motivated by academic values will of course do everything in their power to maintain that excellence whose stewardship has been entrusted to them.
Classics is not in decline. I can remember a time when it was. The current generation of senior university managers formed their assumptions and perceptions of academic life in a generation when Classics was in decline, and it would be understandable if academics from other fields were not aware of how times have changed. They need to be made more aware of the vigorous interest the subject is attracting in the twenty-first century.
British academics have been sceptical about blogging
As said, part of the campaign for the subject is a blog. There are various reasons academics are suspicious, nervous, or dismissive of blogging. I understand those reasons, discussed in this Times Higher Education Supplement article from 2008, entitled By the blog: academics tread carefully. Only last night, a friend who holds a university post in Classics said ‘If you are going to blog, you need to get it right.’ I suggested in reply that there should be room for informal academic conversations, where there is space for error (and for replies correcting errors), to be held not only in private, or in seminars, but also in the broader and more public sphere of the Internet.
Getting the message out on the Net is important
The Royal Holloway blog is clearly not directly about the substance of what Classicists do. It is about an administrative and institutional matter. Nevertheless, as academics see the value of turning to the Net as a forum for advocacy for their work, it is likely some will be increasingly convinced of the value of not only of more or less technical publication in peer-reviewed journals and books, but also of more informal conversations about the substance of their work, on the Net. This will turn out to be a central to advocacy for the public and institutional support for, and interest in, their subject.
I do not mean to suggest that academics should blog about their work on the RHUL Classics campaign blog. In the context, that might be valuable, but it might be distracting and inappropriate. I am in no position to judge. But if this blog contributes to an increasing awareness of the value of Internet conversations, those conversations will come and they can only be fructifying for the academics themselves, and for Internet users (who are numerous) generally.
Social Net as a method of persuasion
Incidentally, I did look for a Save Classics at Royal Holloway Facebook page. Perhaps that would seem frivolous, yet marketers know the value of such networking. Today I heard Stephen Fry’s programme on Radio 4, on Persuasion. An advertising expert said that we know advertising works, even though we often do not really understand why. Persuasion works at a subliminal level. Speaking for myself, I do not see that any route to getting the message out is ‘inappropriate.’ Non-Classicists brought up at a time when Classics was in decline need to be persuaded of the current health of the field by reason, but also by effectively presented reasoning. These days, Internet conversations are key to persuasion. A blog, like a Facebook page, is not just an advertisement, it is social in the sense that it engages in a conversation of sorts. For example, the latest post on the RHUL blog is a comment from Ian Hislop. By contributing, he has engaged in and continued a conversation.
Such conversations have great persuasive power, which marketers understand. One of the blogs on Mary Beard’s blogroll purports to be by a young lady interested in fashion. It is (I believe) written by professional hacks as a marketing tool. 99.9% of its readers assume they are engaging with a real person when they read the blog: Internet marketers are so desperate to promote conversations on the web that they fake them, it is one of their secret weapons. Real conversations held by academics on their subject will be hugely valuable both for the matter they contain (not only didactic matter: bloggers, like geniuses, flourish when they risk mistakes); they will also be valuable for promoting public awareness of the subject. The student of classical Greece also knows the value of conversation: would a twenty-first century Socrates have published in peer-reviewed journals, or would he have held conversations on the Net? The answer is obvious
In conclusion, this post, having strayed into the topic of academic blogging, might seem a little tangential to the RHUL Classics campaign, but my support for it is direct.