Re-Blogging the City
In November 2013 I chaired a session called “Scholarly Blogging: What? Why?” at the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH) meeting in Toronto. The purpose of the session was to bring together scholars in the United States and Canada who use blogs as platforms for working on research projects. At issue were the merits of blogging as a medium for developing projects, disseminating research results, and achieving other outcomes.
Inspired by our short time together, my session colleagues and I wrote a paper detailing why we do what we do. The paper has just been published by the International Journal of E-Planning Research. We’re grateful to the anonymous peer reviewers who saw our article as making the realities of blogging understandable to a wider readership, and were willing to indulge our atypical first person narrative.
A brief summary of the Toronto session upon which the IJEPR article builds—focusing on the particular motivations for why each of the participants has embraced blogging as a form of engaged scholarly activity—is available elsewhere on this blog. These short excerpts demonstrate that my blogging colleagues are keen to use their platforms as a way to more widely disseminate scholarly knowledge about the city, especially knowledge that, for whatever reason, has been purposely forgotten or simply fallen between the cracks. There is no one best way to do this.
Whether there are any institutional rewards for scholarly blogging—i.e., whether the work will be valued by university tenure and promotion committees and academic deans who dole out annual merit raises—is another matter. It’s certainly an open question on my campus, where several of us senior scholars are blogging without any assurance that our superiors understand and value what we do. Younger scholars certainly need to carefully balance blogging with more traditional forms of writing; i.e., they need to find the right level of “digital engagement.”
But blogging is still writing, and can invigorate scholarship. Certainly, writing for Intercultural Urbanism liberated and sharpened my thinking about the city. It also created numerous opportunities—like the invitation to chair the Scholarship Blogging session at SACRPH, James Brasuell’s invitation to write for Planetizen, David Thorpe’s generous re-posting of Intercultural Urbanism essays at Sustainable Cities Collective, and an amazing opportunity to attend an Intercultural Cities placemaking conference in Venice—that I never would have gained if I limited myself to traditional forms of writing in and for my academic discipline. Blogging also has considerable pedagogical utility. It has helped me better focus my teaching while giving my students the sense that their writing about the city for class assignments really matters (e.g., see here and here).
The Scholarship Blogging session succeeded in sponsoring a fruitful discussion of its subject across the disciplines of anthropology, history, sociology, and urban planning. Still, participants were puzzled that our session wasn’t better attended given today’s tectonic shifts in how information about the city is being gathered and disseminated. This was especially puzzling given what I took to be the most compelling discussion topic that percolated throughout the SACRPH conference over its three days, one that remains salient today. That topic concerns the relative merits of Big Data Generalizations vs. Particular Narratives of Place as a way to understand the life of a city. Aggregated Big Data (e.g., individual transactions gathered from smart phones, credit card purchases, and other sources of information) invite all sorts of interesting studies of consumer choice and human behavior as they relate to urban planning. However, at the end of the day there’s no substitute for the individual, place-based, “thickly described” narratives that document city life in all of its sensory glory: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feels, the chance encounters, the brushes with human difference. This is the stuff of city life that bloggers are uniquely positioned to communicate.
Several other Toronto SACRPH sessions highlighted the importance of place-based narratives for humanizing and, where appropriate, politicizing that which Big Data risks dehumanizing and depoliticizing. Indeed, I was delighted to discover that an anthropological sensibility was clearly in evidence throughout the three days of meetings. In addition to championing anthropological methods, panelists in several sessions noted the role of culture in shaping the questions we ask about cities and anthropology’s utility in drawing larger meaning from individual narratives about city life. There was a clear concern to unify planning theory and practice and to engage the public in participatory planning and design. Many in the session audiences seemed to favor these fully experiential and deeply anthropological approaches to studying city life, educating planning professionals, and formulating urban policy. Given this receptivity, blogging is a particularly good way to advance those understandings of the city that many urbanists across disciplines and national borders are keen to develop.
This essay was re-posted to Sustainable Cities Collective.