Pure Pedantry

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a symposium on the benefits of academic blogging. This symposium addresses ostensibly the failure of Juan Cole, a prominent Middle East scholar and proprietor of the blog Informed Comment, to recieve tenure at Yale University. Many have attributed that failure to his publishing his views on the Internet, though Yale has thus far refused to comment.

Many of the contributors to the symposium also talk in depth about the benefits of academic blogging. Here are some choice morsels:

Brad De Long:

The hope of all of us who blog is that we will become smarter, do more useful work, be happier and more productive, and will also impress our deans so they will raise our salaries. The first three hopes are clearly true: Academics who blog think more profound thoughts, have a bigger influence on the world — both the academic and the broader worlds — and are happier for it. Are we more productive in an academic sense? Maybe. We will see when things settle down.

Are our deans impressed? Not so far, but they should be. A lot of a university’s long-run success depends on attracting good undergraduates. Undergraduates and their parents are profoundly influenced by the public face of the university. And these days, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed Web logger like Juan Cole or Dan Drezner is an important part of a university’s public face. Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty. Yale loses from not having an equivalent.

A great university has faculty members who do a great many things — teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, the many things that are “research,” public education, public service, and the turbocharging of the public sphere of information and debate that is a principal reason that governments finance and donors give to universities. Web logs may well be becoming an important part of that last university mission.

Glenn Reynolds:

Does Internet fame necessarily spell academic doom? Given that hiring and tenure decisions in higher education are usually made by committees, and that strong public opinions voiced on any subject will probably offend at least one member of a committee, the results are likely to be a negative. Though the academy gives lip service to academic freedom, it’s quite clear that a candidate’s expressed views, and politics generally, are often important factors in hiring or tenure decisions.

Is that a bad thing? It depends. Jacques Pluss was fired from Fairleigh Dickinson University after it became known that he was a member of the National Socialist Movement. (He claimed his neo-Nazi affiliation was for research.) Not many people seem to have been upset by his case. One doubts that an admitted member of the Ku Klux Klan would do well, either. On the other hand, far less controversial beliefs, including opposition to affirmative action or the belief that senior faculty members should teach heavier loads than colleagues who produce more scholarship, might well stand in the way of hiring or tenure at many institutions. Expressing such ideas on a blog merely ensures that they are Google-searchable if anyone bothers to check.

My own feeling is that blogging is like most hobbies — something that should be peripheral to hiring and tenure decisions. (Has anyone been denied tenure because of a preference for wet over dry flies? Probably somewhere, sometime, but it’s not common.) When blogs focus on topics at the core of scholars’ expertise, of course, they’re likely to play a bigger role in evaluating academic fitness, fairly or unfairly. Obviously, fraud or plagiarism on a blog is still fraud or plagiarism. But smaller matters probably shouldn’t play much of a role. When blogged comments produce prejudice or bias on the part of hirers, well, I don’t like that,but so long as hiring decisions are subjective, that sort of thing is unavoidable. We can hope, however, that faculty members will be aware of their own prejudices and open-minded enough to rise above them. Sometimes those hopes will be fulfilled.

Ann Althouse:

If you veer away from purely scholarly writing and engage in polemic or satire or elliptical snark about controversial subject matter, you may very well win a widespread audience and feel highly gratified by this response, but then you will also be motivating some people to oppose you, perhaps quite viciously, and you will be generating the material they can use to try to bring you down. The very fact that you’re a professor is leverage: This person purports to be a scholar, but look how he writes!

Successful blog writing is sharp and clear. Controversial opinions will look quite stark. You lay it on the line, and you mean to startle readers and make your opponents mad. Academic writing is temperate and swathed in verbiage. It creates a comfortable environment for academics and wards off casual readers. In the blogosphere, you’re newly exposed, and it’s a rough arena, where you have far less control over what happens to you. That’s part of what makes blogging empowering and, often, great fun. But it’s a big risk, and of course, it risks your career.

Dan Drezner:

Blogs and prestigious university appointments do not mix terribly well. That is because top departments are profoundly risk-averse when it comes to senior hires. In some ways, that caution is sensible — hiring a senior professor is the equivalent of signing a baseball player to a lifetime contract without any ability to release or trade him. In such a situation, even small doubts about an individual become magnified.

The trouble with blogs is that they seem designed to provoke easy doubts. Blogs are an outlet for unexpurgated, unreviewed, and occasionally unprofessional musings. What makes them worth reading can also make them prone to error. Any honest scholar-blogger — myself included — could acknowledge a post or two that they would like to have back. At a place like Yale, one bad blog post can erase a lot of good will very quickly.

There are other risks. At Chicago, I found that some of my colleagues overestimated the time and effort I put into my blog — which led them to overestimate lost opportunities for scholarship. Other colleagues maintained that they never read blogs — and yet, without fail, they come into my office once every two weeks to talk about a post of mine. Today’s senior faculty members look at blogs the way a previous generation of academics looked at television — as a guilty, tawdry pleasure that should not be talked about in respectable circles.

In some ways, this problem is merely the latest manifestation of what happens when professors try to become public intellectuals. Most members of the academy unconsciously accept the maxim that “foolish names and foolish faces often appear in familiar places.” Blogging multiplies the problem a thousandfold, creating new pathways to public recognition beyond the control of traditional academic gatekeepers or even op-ed editors. Any usurpation of scholarly authority is bound to upset those who benefit the most from the status quo.

I must admit that it was a big decision for me to decide to blog under my own name. It was a bigger decision to inform my boss and the chair of the graduate school about it. Understanding that I may be making a fatal career decision, I still decided to do those things for two reasons:

  • I sincerely believe that it is important for all scientists to reach out to the public to demystify what we do. I view blogging as an extension of what I do at cocktail parties and family gatherings: explain science and medicine to people who have questions. In that context, I hope my colleagues and superiors will view what I do here as both very important and inherently casual.
  • I try to maintain the same standards of academic and personal integrity that here that I maintain in every other publication. Just because something is on the Internet doesn’t mean it has vanished into the ether. When you put your name on something, it matters because as experts our names have power and prestige. Therefore, I don’t think it is a good idea to shoot your mouth off about what you don’t understand or to indulge in personal attacks. To do so would be abuse of your position in a scholarly article, and the Internet is no different. I hope that in keeping to a similar standard on this blog, my colleagues and superiors will recognize that I bring the same level of integrity into other areas.

That being said, politics is trouble for academics. I feel like Juan Cole should have known that he was playing with fire. If you are going to bring the public spotlight on yourself as a public intellectual, you should realize that spotlight has negative effects. This is why I try and avoid talking about very political or partisan issues. 1) Doing so always has consequences. 2) It is a distraction from the other good things that I would like to write avoid that are significantly less risky.

All in all, I think that blogging will eventually become an accepted part of academia — and even a positive one. People will be judged by what they write, but by a similar standard to their other scholarly writings — intellectual honesty, relevance, etc. Eventually this sort of arbitrary distrust will recede into a kind of acceptance.

Hat-tip: Daniel Drezner.

Comments

  1. #1 ChemJerk
    July 25, 2006

    There are some interesting insights about blogging and academia here. Although I blog as “ChemJerk”, and despite the fact that I have never told students, fellow teachers or administration that I maintain a blog, I have been outed. There are enough clues on my blog to make the connection, but I never went public. I even received an email from my district’s business administrator encouraging me to keep it up. While many of my posts relate to the daily ins and outs of teaching and educational philosophy, I take great care not to air dirty laundry. At the same time, if a student inquired if I was ChemJerk I wouldn’t deny it. However, I would make it very clear that the blog presents my view and my view only.

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