November 16, 2005

Academic blog controversies.

Slate has a big piece today, written by Robert S. Boynton, about the dangers of blogging when you're an untenured academic. It's loaded with material about Dan Drezner, but there's not a peep about Jeremy Freese, recently tenured in the Sociology Department here at UW, who wrote and still writes an unusually quirky blog that is dotted with pithy applications of his expertise.

From the Slate piece:
In many respects, Drezner's predicament was merely a cyber-version of an age-old dilemma. Whether online or off, the kind of accessible and widely read work that brings an academic public recognition is likely to draw the scorn and suspicion of his colleagues. Furthermore, so-called public-intellectual work won't count for much when it comes time to decide whether one gets tenure. In most disciplines at large research universities, tenure is directly related to the number of peer-reviewed books and articles one publishes. Teaching and community service are factored in but are usually far less important than one's publishing record. "For the time being," says John Holbo, an assistant professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore and the founder of a group blog called The Valve, the most academic bloggers will receive is "a bit of 'service' credit, for raising the department's profile."...

But in another sense, academic blogging represents the fruition, not a betrayal, of the university's ideals. One might argue that blogging is in fact the very embodiment of what the political philosopher Michael Oakshott once called "The Conversation of Mankind"—an endless, thoroughly democratic dialogue about the best ideas and artifacts of our culture. Drezner's blog, for example, is hardly of the "This is what I did today …" variety. Rather, he usually writes about globalization and political economy—the very subjects on which he publishes in prestigious, peer-reviewed presses and journals. If his prose style in the blog is more engaging than that of the typical academic's, the thinking behind it is no less rigorous or intelligent....

The current antipathy toward blogging may have something to do with the fact that universities have no tools for judging blogs. And most people agree that blogs would need to be evaluated through some kind of peer-review mechanism if they are to be taken into account. "It is utterly absurd to propose giving someone credit for activity with no barriers to entry," Holbo says.
One thing missing from this article is the recognition of the fear nonblogging academics have about bloggers. For one thing, they don't understand what the bloggers are doing and worry that we'll do something damaging or dangerous with our power (such as it is!). But they also don't want to know that it's good, because that unleashes the other fear: Will I be required to blog? If blogging is good, are they going to be judged deficient for not blogging. And they are probably already at least a little jealous about ther colleague's heightened profile. It seems a little unfair that the ability translate expertise into blog form brings prominence that nothing ensures will be proportionate to the quality of the traditional written research. Of course, the actual quality of the traditional research has never been precisely calibrated to an academic's prominence, but blogging lets different individuals use different paths to prominence. Most notably, it gives new power to persons who don't teach at elite schools and don't have elite connections. It's a new way to get connected. It's threatening! And since it may be intertwined with political power and a kind of pop culture celebrity, it can be infuriating!

In any case, I agree with Holbo that most academic bloggers really deserve service credit for what we're doing. Most of the on-topic things we write are communicating our knowledge to the general public, which is a worthy old tradition, long categorized as service, not research. It is possible for some parts of blogs to count as research, but that, of course, would need to be judged to count in the tenure process.

If various academic departments are looking for a way to judge writing published in places that are not peer reviewed, I have some advice: Look to the way law schools do their tenure process, because most of what law professors publish is not peer-reviewed. Here at the UW Law School, our tenure process goes through the Social Sciences Divisional Committee and is judged by committee members who serve in departments like Political Science, Economics, and Sociology. You can image how these folks look at the student-edited law reviews where lawprofs publish. But we've developed ways to interact with them. Adapt these techniques for blog-writing that deserves to be treated as research.

13 comments:

Tristram said...

What is intresting is really, how different is the Blog than the letters that used to circulate among the leading minds of the 16-18th Century? The great minds exchanged and refined many deep insights on the way to writing formal treatise (sp?).

Granted not all the communication was of the highest quality, but a lot of thinking in progress can be seen in those the letters of Descartes, etc.

Bet they would have blogs today...

Ann Althouse said...

Tristram: That's a great insight! I love the move of fighting tradition but getting ultra-traditional!

Jacques Cuze said...

One might argue that blogging is in fact the very embodiment of what the political philosopher Michael Oakshott once called "The Conversation of Mankind"—an endless, thoroughly democratic dialogue about the best ideas and artifacts of our culture. Drezner's blog, for example, is hardly of the "This is what I did today …" variety.

I agree. Weirdly, on many well known academic blogs, the academics will post blogs about their domain with little thought on how to explain it to the public, and from their behavior, a great antipathy towards having to explain it to their public. And then, if they offer a comments section, they will rarely engage the public directly, and will speak only to others in their field. The comments then become an echo-chamber, "You're not an X, why are are you speaking here with all of us X?"

Feynmann: if you cannot explain it to a high school student, you don't understand it yourself.

As a member of a very privileged and well regarded profession (professors that is, not law), what is the ethical obligation of a professor to engage with the communithy itself, and not just cloister with other members of the canon?

Palladian said...

I think that it also has to do with the codification of the rules of academia into modern corporate practices. The loose, almost quasi-mystical role of the professor in pre-19th century universities became more institutionalized, as did the various disciplines he taught and studied. in he 18th century more and more scientists, philosophers, poets formed societies that discussed and judged each other's work and I think that served as a model for the way we think about various subjects today, more as professional and collective exercises than idiosyncratic and individualized activities. I rather miss the days of yore when there was less of a rigorous wall between various pursuits, when a scientists' philosophical or literary endeavors were seen as more a part and parcel of his work than as frivolous extra-professional endeavors. Imagine if Benjamin Franklin's scientific achievements were criticized and nullified by the fact that he ran a printing business and wrote political pamphlets. "Bah, all that time-wasting populist junk that Franklin wastes his time with! How unimportant it all is!"

I guess I just wish that there was less emphasis on being a professional academic and more on being an exemplary thinker and well-rounded person who happens to want to extend his scholarship and pass it on through the academy. I think the whole goal of the academy should be thought of as service to humanity and human thought, rather than just thinking of that concept as a modifier to weightier scholarship. Maybe I'm just too much of a free-wheeling "hippy" type to understand the workings of "weightier" subjects than the one I teach in academia. It's probably good that I teach at an art school!

Ron said...

It's strange to me to see how many academics have a Potemkin Oxfordian facade with an American corporate capitalist interior. It's a dangerous disconnect that I fear will ultimately work against both universities and academics. Perhaps people are still lulled by ivy-covered buildings and leather-elbowed tweed jacket humbugs, but when the day dawns that people perceive the whole game is approximately like the mainstream 9-to-5 grind...it will be bad for genuine scholarship. Just the other day I noticed an article on "the salaries of the CEOs of the largest educational multinationals."

Embracing, instead of scorning, a more public role for academics might be a hedge against an anti-corporate backlash...

PatCA said...

That's right, Tristam. Peer-reviewed journals are not really conversations; blogs are. Journals exhibit the final product, but omit what is really interesting and enlightening, the discussion. Lots of schools are now giving courses in e-critical studies, and I hope it flourishes.

Dave said...

Ann, two questions:

1) What "power" do professors have? I'm not trying to negate the importance of education here. But what is the power that professors think they have? Certainly, Tom Cruise is more powerful than any professor ever will be.

2) Does Drezner's blog really have anything to do with him having been denied tenure? I read his blog psot from when he was told that his tenure application was denied and he didn't seem to know if there was a connection. Odd that others infer one.

the pooka said...

Ann said:

"Look to the way law schools do their tenure process, because most of what law professors publish is not peer-reviewed."

Um, let's not.

The law review publishing process -- and, for that matter, the law school tenure process -- is arguably the worst system in all of the academy for advancing the intellectual enterprise. The lack of any (let alone meaningful) peer review is just the beginning; the entire exercise is riddled with aspects that lead to academically perverse incentives for all concerned. The Epstein/King critique in the U of Chi. LR (2002, I think, along with a companion piece in J. Leg. Ed.) begins to get at the matter, as do lots of others.

There is a reason peer review -- particularly double-blind review by field experts -- is held up as the gold standard: simply put, it is second to none as a means of encouraging and vetting first-rate scholarship. I agree wholeheartedly that some academics' blogs might count for "service points," and they certainly should not be held against them come tenure time. But as viable contexts for the dissemination of academic research, blogs in their current form leave a lot to be desired.

Ann Althouse said...

PatCa: I hope someone's writing a dissertation about me.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: "What "power" do professors have?" I was referring to the power of the blogger (who has an amplified voice compared to the professors who are jealous of her... if they are).

Anthony said...

I linked to this post and added a couple thoughts myself, FYI.

http://archaeoblog.blogspot.com/2005/11/ann-althouse-is-blogging-on-academic.html

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