deLong explains why academic blogging is good for the soul

I would not have dared to blog openly before tenure (and, no, I did not blog anonymously back then), basically it would not have been well received by most of the tenure committee, or the Dean.
Strangely, if I had been writing a regular short column for SEED magazine or equivalent it would probably have counted as a mild plus for most of the committee, but the web equivalent, not so much.

I started the blog as an experiment – the possibility had been tossed about as an outreach exercise for a particular project I was involved in, and rather than talk about it in yet-another-meeting, I decided to see how easy it was to do this blog thing, and then it evolved. No design.

As I have noted before blogging has its pros and cons. It does take up valuable time from both work and family, but it also lubricates the wheels of research, in my experience. With suitable coarse graining, my blog output correlates well with my research output – blank blog periods are indicative of less work, whether due to travel, extrinsic causes or quaint archaic concepts called vacations I once heard about…

Do I need an additional activity in my already rather too busy life? Maybe not, and if the blog ever seriously impinged Real Life I like to think I’d drop it; but I am also a firm believer in the concept that in the long run you need some free association and play to maximise sustained productivity and happiness (not necessarily in that order).

Only way to find out is to try it.

PS: two major benefits – it motivates me to stay updated with the broader aspects of my field and related issues, such as policy and activities in other branches of science, which I firmly believe is important for me, both personally and professionally.
Blogging has also lead to at least one decent paper.

PS Bérubé speaks

Little Professors are even harder to impress

Rob at Galactic Interactions has a useful perspective


  1. #1 Steve
    July 26, 2006

    Deans may not be that easy to impress, but I don’t think we deans are all that easy to disturb, either. I have faculty who blog, and for the most part I don’t think that it is either a plus or a minus. Obviously things could go very wrong for someone violating student or committee confidences, but I don’t see much of that in the academic blogosphere.

    When I read a faculty file, I’m far more interested in what has been accomplished (in research, teaching, and service) than in what might have been accomplished if someone could work effectively 18 hours a day and never took time to blog (or surf, or …).

    I strongly disagree with the idea that search committees are looking for people who are only interested in a narrow goal of advancing their research. Just as one often should give urgent work to the busiest person around, job candidates who have already demonstrated that they can effectively juggle complex and busy lives are usually pretty good bets for being able to thrive in university life (and especially in the science fields I know best).

    On the other hand, particularly for those not yet hired to a tenure track job, there is some danger in being too candid about one’s frustrations and unhappiness (or, even worse, substance abuse, sex life, or legal problems). Remember that a search committee member is searching for a productive, happy colleague to share department meetings with for years to come, and a dean is (at least in the sciences) making a large financial commitment to lab set-up costs in addition to offering one of a limited number of faculty lines. I can’t afford to take a risk on someone who has been publicly debating chucking it all in because he or she has lost interest in the field, or who appears to have problems with alcohol, to pick two examples.

  2. #2 Steinn Sigurdsson
    July 27, 2006

    Well, Deans, strangely, are human and variable. The best are very good indeed, and the worst, not so much. They do have process to follow, established by centuries of practise, but process is also fallible.

    Confidence violation is a major blog danger; if only because some of the most interesting stuff is the most confidential. You see some of that on pseudonymous blogs, the most delicious of which sometimes cross the line, and there has been at least one real world repercussion.

    Search committee dynamics are curious – how that goes depends to some extent on the size of the department and its focus – but the choice is often between “the best person overall” and “must get someone in this hot area”; in both cases there is a pitfall – if looking for someone in a specific area, any perception of dilution can be counted as a negative – not always, having someone who is not trapped in a narrow specialty can be a consideration also, but the default instinct seems to be to go for the most focused narrow specialist.
    When looking for a generally “best person” when that is not a code phrase for “cosmologist” or “particle physicist”, the temptation again is to look for a monk, so to speak, not someone diluted by interest in outreach, or too involved in teaching, or even having notable signs of “life”. Ideally this does not occur, or having-a-life may count as a positive in a “well-rounded” or “pleasure to have around”, but in practise I think it does occur. A lot of our colleagues would rather have someone who bring in a lot of money and/or published shitloads, then someone they actually actively get along with. Not that these are mutually exclusive.

    I know that teaching and outreach are a “real concern” and in principle a positive; in practise, at least at major research universities, my perception is that teaching can only hurt you – in that if teaching is bad, it is negative; and if teaching is “too good” it is also a negative, since clearly the person is putting “too much effort” into teaching. This is not hypothetical, though obviously it’d not be a good idea to discuss specific cases on this here blog!
    Outreach is definitely perceived overall as negative, except in so far as it brings in money. Too many of our colleagues only pay lip service to the mission to inform the public. It is at best a mild neutral and never decidedly positive, in my humble opinion.

    For tenure, this counts double. There the major pitfall is bean countingquantitative objective measures, and extracurricular activities and outreach activities are not active positives. Tenure committees are terrified of the phenomenon Rob on Galactic Interactions mentions – the fraction of post-tenure faculty who burn out in the process and go idle indefinitely (in research) after tenure. In that sense, the tenure process in science departments in research universities is perverse, in the formal sense.
    It is also anecdotally true that there are departments out there, that, for example, have never tenured female faculty members who have children (and, no, I do not care to name one!). Small number statistics, but word is out there.

    Phew, I think I’ll have to proof read this in cold daylight.
    Told you Deans weren’t easy to impress!

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