Keeping score in academe: blogging as 'professional activity' (or not).

During the discussion after my talk at the Science Blogging Conference, the question came up (and was reported here) of whether and when tenure and promotion committees at universities will come to view the blogging activities of their faculty members with anything more positive than suspicion.

SteveG and helmut both offer some interesting thoughts on the issue.

SteveG takes up the idea that academic blogging can often be a productive way to communicate the knowledge produced in the Ivory Tower to the broader public. Arguably, public outreach is part of the larger mission of institutions of higher learning, and so it's not unreasonable to think this should count as "service" in the tenure and promotion scorekeeping. (The other two columns in the scorecard are usually "scholarship" and "teaching"; the relative weight of the three columns varies from institution to institution.)

Indeed, SteveG goes even further. Perhaps this kind of service to society (whether accomplished by blogging or by other means) is not just a good thing that ought to count in one's favor. Maybe it is, in fact, an obligation scientists have. He writes:

Scientists are technicians in a largely scientifically illiterate society in which science and technology play more and more central roles. They already have professional obligations to do research and advance their field and to teach students (training some to be the next generation of scientists and teaching the large majority the basic foundations of their field). As it currently stands there is virtually nothing in the professional reward structure to encourage this third service component to the wider society. By virtue of having specialized expertise, do scientists take on a special obligation to be significant contributors to the general discourse around matters that have scientific components? Should we see those scientists who don't so participate as having failed to live up to social expectations? Or are the advances they make to their science and the teaching itself their contribution?

SteveG notes the specialized expertise of scientists as one potential source of an obligation to communicate with the public: the non-scientists need them to understand the relevant scientific issues that are woven into the fabric of our modern life. (Another source of an obligation to communicate science to the public, which I've discussed before, is the fact that a scientific education in the U.S. is heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars.) He also notes that, at present, there really isn'tmuch in the way of professional reward for stepping outside the university classroom or the lab -- which might mean that this is a professional obligation whose fulfilment might bring with it professional costs. Needless to say, this doesn't seem like a good arrangement!

Responding to SteveG's post, helmut wonders whether pulling blogging into the realm of professional activities on which academics are scored might have some bad effects:

If academic blogging ends up qualifying as a "service," then it will likely be constrained by the expectations placed on academics in the non-virtual life of the academy. If not, what criteria would be used? For example, although I'm an academic (for now), I wouldn't call this blog an academic blog. Sometimes I want to write about academic issues; sometimes I want to write about whatever comes to mind. This is not to say that I have the right attitude about blogging. I probably don't. It's simply to say that if this blog was judged in terms of "service," it probably wouldn't look at all like it does (for better or worse).

The way academia functions has a lot left to be desired anyway. Would we wish blog-service to be considered based on the number of readers, "prestige" of the blog, link ranking, advertising revenue? Much as academics say they dislike the characterization, the quality of work is often reduced to quantities (analogously, everyone disdains GRE scores as a measure of the quality of a student, but every department strives to have higher GRE scores from incoming students - money and prestige are involved). A massive amount of publications, regardless of their quality and importance (and there are well-known philosophers who have made their careers writing essentially the same paper over and over), almost always outweighs a smaller amount of more thoughtful pieces. "Research" and number of publications almost always outweighs influential teaching. A nice fit in the orthodox characterizations of problems and the going discourse almost always outweighs looking creatively at actual problems - academic or not - and to what can be done to alter a moribund discourse. Schmoozing trumps quiet generosity. Fashion almost always trumps creative idiosyncrasy. Money almost always trumps loyalty and commitment.... All of this is pretty much a reflection of society itself, at least for American academia and society. Would we want these factors to determine how academics blog? If blogging was deemed to be a service for the sake of tenure review, wouldn't these factors be precisely how blogs are considered?

I'm very sympathetic to these concerns. While I am of the opinion that many blogging academics are engaged in serious thinking, educating, communicating (to other academics, students, and the broader public), and even mentoring on their blogs -- all of which does contribute to their profession and to society -- how exactly their "work" and "contribution" should be evaluated is unclear. And the reality is, for an activity to "count" for tenure and promotion, it need to be evaluated. At this stage, academic blogs are new enough that few people on tenure and promotion committees would have a clear view of how to judge their quality or "impact". (Indeed, the list of potential axes for judging them helmut suggests seems like it might miss the point of some of what makes blogging useful.) Also, in the absence of general agreement about how blogging might fit into the range of professional activities, it's hard to believe there wouldn't be a good number of folks on the committees judging blogging time as time one could have been using for real professional activities.

If making blogs "count" means academic bloggers will change their subject matter, their blogging voice -- if blogging will become one more source of academic anxiety -- then I'd rather they not count. To my mind, there are already too many blogs (in philosophy more than the science) whose posts read just like journal articles. That's fine, but that's not what I come to the blogosphere to read. (Our library lets me access a good number of online jounals already.)

Also, as I noted in my talk, one of the ways that academics use blogging is less about being a productive academic than about surviving as a whole human being. (See Zuska's discussion of the "conversations about the tribe" for more useful insights.) All the anonymous bloggers talking about the slings and arrows of being a graduate student or junior faculty member, or about the astounding stuff that goes on when you're not the standard-issue member of your academic tribe, are building community, mentoring and supporting each other, and keeping each other sane. It's a real contribution, but not one that will turn up in anyone's tenure dossier. In some ways, these academics might be using blogging as an act of resistance -- making their stand to say, "Work doesn't own me. My life belongs to me!"

Maintaining the blogosphere as neutral turf, rather than as one more thing for your committee to scrutinize, might turn out to be a way to build a community more inclined to have a broader view of what counts as an important contribution.

Having backed myself into a nice little paradox, I welcome your views on the matter.


More like this

I am not yet in "the academy" and am presently waiting on PhD programs to accept me after finishing my MA. But I have some thoughts, anyway.

And actually, I've had some hesitation about my blog right now, as I wonder if potential programs will, in addition to looking at my grades, CV and writing sample, Google me and find my blog.

I wonder if they might find some of the unfinished thoughts on my blog and dock me for their not being polished. Or, will they look down on my keeping close tabs on the application process? Will it make me look desperate?

Personally, I find that my blog gets traffic primarily from non-philosophers, and that is something I hope would continue. Ideally, I'd like to see my future employer think of my blog as an extension of my classroom/mentoring activities, and a place which reflects positively on their institutions. That may be naive, especially since my blog could easily be used as a way of showing I didn't spend enough time doing X (whatever the "X" is that they want me to be doing).

Further, as a woman, I am concerned about my thoughts appearing less polished than my male colleagues--so I tend to write more derivative things (summaries & reviews) than my own work. Until I'm as established as my former professor, Brit Brogaard (who also has a blog) I'm trying to use it as sort of a sketchbook for my work, but in a way that protects me rather than leaves me open.

Don't know if any of this is useful...but since I'm online right now as I procrastinate on a conference paper (case in point, anyone?) thought I'd add to the discussion. I'm going to work on the paper now, though. Really.

The point about quality is very important. It's extraordinarily difficult to judge whether a particular blogger is making a contribution to science education. I'd hate to have to judge whether a blog was equivalent to several papers in a leading journal.

In my field (biochemistry) we will continue to hire young people who will get grants and publish papers. Serious blogging will interfere with that process. It will be a long time before a tenure committee recognizes blogging as a legitimate activity.

We should be encouraging more senior faculty to blog.

Do not know if you have read the symposium on academic blogging that the The Chronicle of Higher Education ran this past July. If not, it is worth a read for some insights on this front.

Set in the context of Juan Cole and the role his blogging may or may not have played in his not geing hired at Yale, it includes the following pieces:

The Lessons of Juan Cole, by Siva Vaidhyanathan
The Politics of Academic Appointments, by Glenn Reynolds
The Trouble With Blogs, by Daniel W. Drezner
Exposed in the Blogosphere, by Ann Althouse
The Invisible College, by J. Bradford DeLong
The Attention Blogs Bring, by Michael Bérubé
The Controversy That Wasn't, by Erin O'Connor
Juan R.I. Cole Responds

In Sweden, academe nominally has a Third Task besides research and teaching. It's vaguely defined as "interaction with society", which is taken to include both science outreach such as blogging, and cooperation with industry and government to make money and solve problems.

Unfortunately, the Third Task is largely unfinanced and counts for nothing when academic job applications are evaluated. But I guess it's a step in the right direction to at least establish outreach as a nominal task of academe.

I see a hierarchy of internet activities which are ignored, questioned by, or in ambiguous status for faculty.

(1) Electronic journal publication: some, but perhaps a minority, of universities explicitly accept refereed electronic journal publication to be equivalent to traditional hardcopy journal publication, with the emphasis usually on the editorial board, submission policy, rejection/acceptance ratio; final decision as to promotion/tenure being handled by the same committee which evluates scholary publications in general;

(2) Edited on-line non-journal publication; such as my 1,700+ postings on the AT&T Research-hosted Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, or my 19 entries on the web encyclopedia; these are held to be somehow related to academic research and publishing, clearly less than a journal publication or conference presentation; one American Culture professor openly complained to me that many of my online pseudopublications of this kind were only a page in length, and that in his field one could not write anything that short, and blamed the compressed or compact nature of Mathematics itself;

(3) blogging, except when it is somehow considered to be a variety of legitimate journalism, seems to be considered something close to graffiti as nominally based on the written word, but not writing as such, but somehow akin to the transcripts of telephone gossip.

One university where, for over a year, both my wife and myself taught, formed a committee to update the school's official website. I complained politely that they had not thought to include me or my wife, whose web domain (which included technical papers and extremely compendious biographic/bibliographic encyclopedia databases) was getting over 15,000,000 hits per year, and perhaps we knew something about the web. They apologized, but still would not appoint us. When I suggested that the school also have a blog, to be more in tune with student social interactions and style, this was brushed off as a problem in oversight and inappropriate language.

There was also some ruckus about an exhibit in the foyer of the university library of recent faculty publications in a glass case. At first, only books were included. I pointed out that my wife and I had science journal publications, and that was considered appropriate for display by one dean, but not another, and it deadlocked. But they allowed display of a self-published CD-ROM of lessons by a department chairman who actually had only one (!) academic publication in his career. The highlighted a book by the head of English Composition/Creative Writing, but there were unpleasant consequences when I submitted a cover-story in a popular magazine which I'd sold for a bigger payment than the professor had gotten for his whole book. He was enraged, in part when he realized how poorly paid academic writers are compared to mainstream writers, and kicked me out of the next meeting of the Faculty Senate.

Conclusion: anecdotally, blogging is at or near the bottom of the barrel in some universities as a category of writing. At best, it is judged vastly inferior to valorized book publication, which is still superior to all but the most prestigious jornals. At worst, it is an assault on the values of the university itself, and pandering to student activities which are themselves suspect.

There seems to be a sour-grapes backlash by less-published faculty against more-published faculty if the more-published use popular venues and web venues to widen the gap. Issues of payment, advances, and royalties exacerbate that difference.

This is not the venue to go into how the once-published department chairman actually tried to have my wife's teaching contract to not be renewed, and at least delayed her promotion, on the basis that some of her international conference proceedings publications coauthored with me were "Not even Physics, but more like something by Isaac Asimov."

When my wife rebutted this in writing, noting that the international conference had standards high enough to have rejected a paper by Physics Nobel laureate Brian Josephson (who was allowed to present it in a poster session), and that Asimov was in fact a Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University Medical School, and that, further, there was nothing wrong with writing as clearly for the public as Asimov, the personnel committee expressed strong disapproval of this line of argument. My wife's contract was renewed, but the issue of her promotion delayed a full year.

Corollary: being prolific, paid, popular, or clear can underminesone's publications in the context of hiring, retention, promotion, or prestige.

I left this comment on Helmut's post but since you brought up the question, Janet [and it provokes me to think...]:

Perfesser! Notice that there button you hit every time you blog: its says "Publish". That, to a 1st order approximation is what you are doing when you blog....only usually without peer review or much interfence from an editor or your department chair.

Now recall the slightly dated but probably still applicable maxim of academic survival: "publish or perish". If the quality of your blogging is such as to inform a wider audience than paid to sit in your class in the why and how of your field of expertise then you are doing exactly that publishing that is demanded.

Would I, a software researcher in Massachusetts even know there was a campus in Morris, MN were it not for phyrangula? Not likely. My opinion is that blogging by academics has the potential to enhance both the field of study and the institutions. If you ask for that to be included in judgements of an academic career [tenured blogger!] you also cede a degree of the freedom of speech that blogging represents to the common blogger.

Ideally the choice of whether to have ones blogging included in their CV should be an individual one rather than a blanket institution policy. But if you can keep yourself from getting Dooced, you can have it both ways.

Can you imagine the crap produced by faculty who are forced (or think it would be good for the career) to blog? It would be boring like business blogs. I hope it never becomes a Big Plus for hiring and tenure, but that it quits being a Minus in anyone's mind.

If and when I ever get to the point of getting job interviews etc., I do not expect anyone to want to hire me because of my blog (though name recognition through the blog may help), or place me above a similar candidate because of the blog. But if a department counts it as a negative and places me below an equivalent candidate because of my blog, well, then, I don't want to work in that department....

Over at Pharyngula, PZ mentioned the Wikipedia problem, and I promptly filled up the comment thread with various rants I've had bubbling within me. It seems like a whole lot of the stuff mentioned here applies to wiki-work (both on WP and elsewhere) just as well. The big differences appear to be that to a first approximation, writing for WP is less about "surviving as a whole human being" (unless you spend your time contributing to articles on rock bands or comic strips), and your contributions are less directly tied to your own name.

Although things are probably quite different in the world of academic librarians, I do know that my blog was viewed quite favourably by my tenure committee and was seen as a significant contribution to the profession. In particular my My Job in 10 Years series was mentioned as important to my file. So, I think there's hope that more and more tenure committees will be able to place blogging activities in the proper positive context of a person's professional activities.