Sunday, March 13, 2005

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Can academics be bloggers?

A truncated version of what I said at the Public Choice roundtable with Michael Munger and Chris Lawrence on the question of "Can Academics Be Bloggers?":

1) Of course academics can be bloggers. The more interesting questions are:

a) Can academics be good bloggers?

b) Should academics be bloggers?

My answer both of these questions is "yes, with significant caveats."


The answer should be yes:

1) 40% of TTLB's Higher Beings have Ph.D.s, so clearly it's possible.

2) Academics possess skills that are useful for blogging -- expertise, writing experience, analytical and critical thinking skills, etc.

That said, the answer for many academics is no:

1) To put it gently, some top-notch academics have not completely mastered the art of the blog. In all likelihood this will change, but it points to a barrier to entry for good scholars; unlike lower-level primates like myself, high-profile academics will often attract attention the moment they start blogging, stripping them of the opportunity to stumble out of the gates and move down the learning curve under the radar.

2) Furthermore, tenured academics have to adjust to a new and strange power structure if they start blogging. Suddenly they're in a world where mere graduate students, or worse yet, people possessing only a B.A., wield more power and influence than them. I mean, it's been three months and Munger is still in a fetal position from being exposed to my "mighty" hit count. And that's just between a full professor and an assistant professor!

3) Richard Posner's theory of public intellectuals suggests that as academics stray from their area of expertise, their signal to noise ratio of the information they generate drops. Some academic bloggers strongly confirm this hypothesis.

4) Yes, academics have writing experience, but they've been trained within an inch of their lives to eschew clear prose for jargon-laden discourse. There are sound and unsound reasons for this within the academy, but for blogging to the general public it's disastrous.

5) It should be stressed that these hindrances are not permanent, but they do constitute a barrier to entry.


*By academics, I mean untenured ones, because if you have tenure, f$#% it.

**By blogging, I mean political blogging rather than blogging only about one's research, which is an unalloyed good.


1) Blogging can be thought of as part of service. It's a low-cost way of reaching beyond the ivory tower. It's also acting like a quasi-referee of public intellectual output.

2) As blogging has become more respectable, the stigma associated with the activity has faded away.


1) It can be addictive.

2) If the blog is successful, it will breed resentment from colleagues, because it creates an alternative path to acclaim where tenured faculty do not function as gatekeepers.

3) Colleagues who do not write for a wide audience will overestimate the amount of time you devote to blogging, because they assume a one-to-one correspondence between public articles and scholarly articles (the actual ratio is more like 1:3). They will also underestimate the possibility that blogging is a complement rather than a substitute to traditional scholarship.

4) Scholars who out themselves as not part of the mainstream political persuasion of academics will have some uncomfortable hallway moments -- though this cost is often overestimated.

5) More serious are the academic political minefields that blogging can trigger -- you know, thin-skinned senior academics who are perfectly willing to carry a blog grudge into the academic realm.

Thanks to Michael, Chris, and the lovely Leslie Johns for making my 20 hours in New Orleans so enjoyable.

UPDATE: Munger posts his round-up as well. His most telling point:

I still think there is a legit question about whether a junior person can blog, or if a senior person can blog, and ever get a first/another academic job. Same as with a supreme court justice nominee: too much paper trail, and people who oppose you can find stuff to use against you. I am clearly going to die at Duke, so it is easy for me to act all tough, but I think this is a real concern. I have colleagues who have tenure, and say they would like to blog, but that the stuff would be used against them in their Senate confirmation hearings if they ever get a top appointment in a regulatory agency. They are completely right, of course.

I'll be up for tenure next year, so -- lucky me -- I get to be the first test of Munger's first thesis -- and I hope he's wrong. However, he's dead right about a blog potentially sabotaging a confirmation hearing -- which is why I pretty much threw any dreams of those positions out the window once I started the blog.

Mike also came up with the best turn of phrase for describing the tenure process -- "the star chamber."

posted by Dan on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM


"...stumble out of the gates and move down the learning curve under the radar". Whopper of a mixed metaphor, Prof.

Love the blog.

posted by: Sam R on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

Hmm I actually like the Becker-Posner blog. It's true that their posts are longer and more formal than average, but that allows for more detalied arguments. The quality of the comments on their blog is also high.

I also like Juan Cole. The political rhetoric is mildly annoying at times but there is a lot of useful background analysis and information as well. And the Middle East ,especially the Shia part, is part of his academic expertise.

In general I think academic blogs do a good job at something that the traditonal media aren't very good at: giving timely background analysis to current events and issues. Brad Setser is a good example of this on macroeconomic issues and your blog on outsourcing.

posted by: Strategist on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

Gee, I'm glad I'm not a Rhodes Scholar! At least my chances have increased, being armed only with a measley B.A.

However, I've been blogging over a year now. Any suggestions on promoting or improving my blog?


Tom Proebsting

posted by: Tom Proebsting on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

Well, Tom, if you annoy Dan sufficiently you might get a Dreznerlanche (or should it be called The Drezner Effect?). And, as I told the panel, there is no such thing as bad publicity... ask Ward Churchill or Martha Stewart!

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

Left2Right is, in my opinion, an outstanding blog. The discussions are as civil as they can get in the blogosphere, the posts are interesting, and the hosts are remarkably welcoming and responsive.

posted by: pedro on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

Dan Drezner wrote:

"Richard Posner's theory of public intellectuals suggests that as academics stray from their area of expertise, their signal to noise ration of the information they generate drops"

Despite my admiration for Judge Posner as a jurist and intellectual I have to offer a caveat.

Being a very successful academic often means you know more and more about less and less that would be of interest - or use - to a significant number of people. If you are at the very top of your field you can probably converse on a basis of equality on your niche specialty with around a half-dozen other people.

At this point, to receive intellectual stimulation it helps to start thinking horizontally and interacting with other experts in cognate and even unrelated fields. You'll find yourself picking up on analogies and possible patterns. Some of them will be wrong and the further afield you wander - Posner is correct here- the greater the chance you will be in error, but the insights you gain when you are right will be well worth the time invested.

If an academic is too worried about looking foolish momentarily on a blog while playing around with an idea, their ego satisfaction is taking precedence over their intellectual progress.

Just a thought from a humble M.A.

posted by: mark safranski on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

I bet in 25-50 years, the majority of interesting intellectual work will take place in informal online networked communities. The fact that degrees and tenure are irrelevant online is a feature, not a bug.

posted by: Matthew Cromer on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

L2R had a very rough opening, thanks to both its odd mission statement and its no-time-for-a-learning-curve high profile debut. But it's improved a lot, especially as Don Herrzog and Elizabeth Anderson have become frequent contributors. Those who were turned off by its beginnings should give it another try.

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

The immediate result of stumbling out of the gate would be to put oneself very low to the ground, and thus below most radars now in use. So in that sense Dan isn't using a mixed metaphor. Of course, a person standing on the ground would also be below most commercial radars, unless he were unusually tall. academic who wanted to avoid adverse attention during a blog shakedown period could always begin by blogging under a cybernym. Glenn Reynolds certainly didn't begin blogging by announcing: "Behold! I am Glenn Reynolds, a tenured law professor, and I will now blog!" In fact, there are probably lots of people even today who read Instapundit without more than a vague idea who its proprietor is.

I suspect the "Behold!" approach has a degree of appeal for some academics, especially the more senior ones, and to the extent it does they are less likely to be successful bloggers than are people who approach this medium with a degree of humility. It doesn't matter how smart, how experienced, or (especially) how well credentialed a new blogger is, he's going to get some things wrong. He'll forget to proofread posts, link to articles that don't say quite what he thought they did, and post comments on subjects about which someone else knows more than he does. He will also post essays that make cogent, even wise arguments that his readers don't get at all -- the "pearls before swine" phenomenon. At least this is what I've been told.

In any event, a new blogger worried about public embarrassment might help himself by being a little less public. After a few months of blogging -- some good posts, a few timely links -- he can drop the cybernym. And if he decides he can't succeed at blogging, he can drop the blog and most people will never know he started it in the first place.

posted by: Zathras on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

And you can get the "behold!" attention factor without compromising your identity by just sticking up a pretty picture of some chick on your blog and claiming that it's you.

posted by: fling93 on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

On the subject of prospective Senate confirmation hearings gone sour, this post by Brad DeLong is on my short list for "I Will Never Be Able To Explain This When the New Administration Calls..."

Honesty may have been the sub-optimal policy.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 03.13.05 at 05:00 PM [permalink]

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