A Gateway to Academics and to the World: HTTP in Action
As we’ve mentioned before in podcasts and our mission statement, we at HTTP are always looking for ways to expand our academic empire and engage with as wide an audience as possible. Since returning to her home university in Shanghai, therefore, Wenqing has been working tirelessly to spread the word about us – and has met with considerable success. Her efforts as ambassador have raised fascinating questions about the value of academic blogging, as both a gateway between academics and the broader public and a space for cultural exchange between Chinese and western researchers.
Collaborative Blogging for Research Students
In the UK, and also now in the United States, doing public outreach is a part of research. Often, government-based funding of research projects includes some sort of public engagement in its criteria – so it’s also done to benefit one’s career. Having to learn how to write a for a non-academic audience is tricky, especially if you’re only used to more formal academic writing. Many of us feel that is a part of being an academic to disseminate research more broadly, so those who do not study what we study can gain an understanding of what we do and why we research what we do.
We all experience from writing a sense of ‘intercultural communication’, as it enables us to disseminate new ideas and interpretations for a wide audience. For many of us, this is really one of the most exciting dimensions of this project. We all sit in our national, cultural and institutional contexts and share ideas through this one platform. Again, this sort of networking activity is something all researchers need to learn to do anyway – but we’ve attempted to find the tools to make this easier.
For our blog, although we work collaboratively and edit together, we are highly independent because we’re all working towards different (career) goals. Some of us are not planning on staying in academia, while some of us hope to stay. Yet, we work together because we share one main goal: to present our research and research interests to a wider audience and develop new skills. So in that way, we are quite similar to magazines or the like, but we do not do blogging for monetary gain.
Despite all the advantages of academic blogging, though, the means by which new researchers are usually introduced to it remain informal and haphazard, particularly in the humanities. Group blog projects such as HTTP offer a great alternative way to become part of an active, productive scholarly network.
Sharing Research Openly
In terms of its public impact, our project continues to grow each month – and we’re continually diversifying. We’re working on podcasts and considering moving on to videos. We’re also benefitting from a growing acceptance, by academics and the wider public, of the blog as a medium for sharing ideas. The advantages of academic blogging are (slowly but surely) becoming more widely recognized in the humanities, and scholars are increasingly using individual or faculty blogs as a testbed and public forum for new work. Examples abound, but prominent blogs include History and Policy and The Conversation, as well as institutional blogs such as those by University College London’s European Institute and the London School of Economics.
For non-academic audiences, the upsides of this kind of research dissemination are obvious. First, it offers access to the latest scholarship without any kind of barrier or paywall (as is the case with traditional journals, for instance). Only by becoming more accessible in this way can scholarship provide a viable alternative to Wikipedia and journalism as a source of public information and interpretation.
Second, these projects serve to illustrate the true value of the humanities to an often sceptical public. Particularly in the UK, humanities subjects are often valued less highly in popular consciousness than more ‘practical’ fields, notably economics- or science-based subjects. By making clearer the contributions of humanities research to our general knowledge and their relevance to current affairs, blogs such as ours show that the humanities are far more than the obscure, isolated and esoteric interests of academics or hobbyists. Blogs can also help to demystify academia more broadly, by breaking down the barriers between researchers and the public and making the research process more transparent. Research, after all, is a career like any other, and a publicly visible blog where scholars discuss the ins and outs of their working life is an invaluable way of normalizing it. This in turn makes it easier for academics to become part of the mainstream public conversation.
Last (and maybe less importantly), there’s the ‘value for money’ argument. Much humanities research is at least partially publicly funded, and disseminating that research freely allows the public to share in what they helped pay for. Aside from being good ethical practice, this too should help integrate academic into public life over time.
A Gateway to Western Culture for Chinese Students
For ordinary Chinese students, at least before and during my stay in Britain, they are reluctant to join international groups to do something for non-profit and interest only, even among the Chinese students I met in London. In our education system, we are taught to put everything to a certain use; if something is not “useful”, we are discouraged because the school or society would blame us for wasting time. I don’t want to generalize by assuming that the situation in British education is the opposite, but I think it is much more open and more tolerant of individual diversity. Yet, for me, the blog is a gateway for us Chinese students to understand western culture, a more interest-oriented culture with more focus on individual diversity. At the same time, it is a means of providing insights into Chinese history for an audience outside of China. This is important, as Chinese culture and history are subject to many misunderstandings.
I am delighted to make this project known to people in China. Since I got back from London to Shanghai last year, I’ve tried my best to introduce HTTP to my friends over chats or even in lectures. Though it was not as attractive for them as I had expected, more and more people around me are getting to know this collaborative work. Until one day this past April, one of the faculty in the PR department of Shanghai International Studies University contacted me to ask for a special interview on my joining the HTTP group, since he had been impressed by the blog. I gave an interview about it.
The article based on the interview includes another two stories about Chinese students joining international groups or efforts in sharing knowledge or research on online platforms. Reading their stories, I realize that I am not alone here. Chinese students are becoming more international and embracing different cultures. It is a great start.