Friday, November 18, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

So I see there's an article in Slate....

You know you've reached a new and bizarre degree of "fame" when you read an article that features you prominently.... even though you were never contacted by the author prior to publication.

I'm talking about Robert Boynton's article in Slate on the perils and promise of scholar-bloggers. A few corrections and clarifications for those wandering over here from that story.

First, let me stress yet again that I have never said that the blog cost me tenure. My information on this front is imperfect, but rest assured that whenever more than twenty senior academics are meeting about anything, there are myriad, obscure, and frequently bizarre factors involved in any decision. Click here for more about that.

Second, although it's a great ending for Boynton's essay, the Fletcher School did not find out about my tenure denial from the blog. That said, a lot of other places did find out that way, and I did get a very healthy number of queries through the blog.

Third, I agree with Eric Alterman that having three Stanford degrees and a forthcoming Princeton University Press book is "good, but hardly sufficient" for tenure at the University of Chicago. In my own defense, though, I have a wee bit more than that under my scholarly belt.

I am grateful to Boynton for the kind words in this paragraph:

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 Oakeshott 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.

Boynton goes on to point out the basic conundrum of how to count blogging -- even if the output is high quality, what is the external and replicable measurement through which this is assessed?

Ann Althouse, Orin Kerr, and John Hawks (whose blog was mentioned but not linked to in the story -- what's up with that?) have further thoughts. Hawks makes an interesting point here:

Should blogging count in some way? I don't know. I think my blogging makes me a better researcher. If I'm right, it has its own rewards. And I don't think that any blog post approximates a review article in any way -- if they did, they would be a lot less interesting!

But the cumulative whole is greater than any single review article. And I would say that a sizable number of my posts are "worth" more than a book review, which would get counted in a minor way. It would be nice if the choice between different forms of productivity did not involve such a stark difference.

Let me suggest that there are two issues that are conflated in the story. First, there is the idea of a blog as an output for public discourse, a la op-eds and the like. On that score, blogging counts as a form of service and not much else.

Second, there is the idea that academic blogs facilitate better scholarship by encouraging online interactions about research ideas. Take, for example, this exchange between Marc Lynch, myself, and others about whether international relations theory is slighting the study of Al Qaeda, or this exchange between Erik Gartzke and R.J. Rummel about the root causes of the liberal democratic capitalist peace. Even better, the private responses I received to a post on trade-related intellectual property rights facilitated my own research efforts in that area. This sort of thing happens off-line as well, but the blog format is exceedingly well-suited for enhancing and expanding this kind of interaction. In this sense, blogs may very well supplant the old practice of having exchanges of letters in journals.

Should it count for anything? As Hawks points out, it should lead to better research anyway, which should get recognized by the traditional standards.

So I'm pretty sure that the contribution of blogs to academic output can be measured using pre-existing standards -- with one exception and one caveat. The exception is that maybe the whole of an academic blog is greater than the sum of its parts. Precisely because a blog can contribute to public discourse, scholarly research, and teaching pedagogy at the same time, it encourages a greater mkix of ideas and information than would otherwise be possible. Whether this is true I will leave for the commenters.

The caveat is that even if blogging can be counted via conventional means, there is no indication that academic units will do so. As I've said before, academics are a very conservative bunch in many ways, so the idea that blogs should count for a plus will take a long time to seep in. For the present moment, my hope is that blogs do not count against you.

posted by Dan on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM


Oh, Slate. My oh my. Never contacted you? Great.

Journalism is on life support right now.

posted by: Chris on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Once again, a thoughtful post from Dan. But I think the crucial broader question is: why are we even having this discussion at all? In other words, what does it even occur to someone that a blog should relevant in any way to scholarly promotion?

As a junior professor, I have been told that the main criteria for my promotion is (in this order): (a) contribution to knowledge, (b) teaching and (c) service to the university.

How many professors seriously try to produce substantial contributions to knowledge through blogs? Yes, blogs, can help scholarly work. As Dan rightly points out, debate and criticism occur among bloggers. This can only help.

However, an intellecutal contribution is generally thought to be: (a) a written/electronic document that (b) offers a carefully crafted argument/thesis, (c) builds on prior work or shows gaps in prior work and (d) presents all revelant evidence. (e) The work is open to scrutiny by anyone else, especially those who know a lot about the topic. Peer review is the academic community's stamp of approval, although we all recognize it is far from perfect.

In some fields (like the hard sciences), peer review is so slow that knowledge becomes quickly outdated. In those cases, the paper/book is deposited in electronic archives for open criticism, or reported in conference proceedings, which tend to have a faster turn around time than traditional journals.

Given this view, it is reasonable to argue that blogs are, in general, irrelevant. What blog is intended to stand up to repeated scrutiny and falsification? Not many. Which blogs have been screened for scholarly practice, like citations indicating engagement with prior work? Not many.

So unless someone includes a blog in their packet of materials for review, why should any committee ever consider a blog? It is neither a negative or positive reason for promotion in a traditional academic department.

The *only* exception is when a blog is extremely unprofessional. For example, a professor who blogs about confidential meetings should be penalized for doing so. One can imagine other extreme examples of blogs.

Otherwise, blogs ought to be irrelevant in promotion decisions, even if they are germane to your research. It's a good thing to have such a polished blog like Dan's, but he, and all academics, should be judged on the most highly polished and strongly argued works like books, articles and other similar arguments. It's a brownie point at most.

posted by: Fabio Rojas on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

I suppose when this generation of bloggers has reached their 50s and they start to percolate up the academic food chain, then they will look more favorably on the young turks in their late twenties who blog and are looking for tenure.

posted by: Rue Des Quatre Vents on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

I have a substantive reason to believe, but admittedly with no smoking gun, that Dan's blog was a net positive, albeit very small, factor in Fletcher's offer.

posted by: Acad Ronin on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Funny- how this all works out. I am a third year student and used the slate article for an assignment in my Sociology of the Arts class. I would say that if Fabio Rojas thinks that (1) contribution to knowledge is a deciding factor in tenure (as it should be) then an blog by anyone in anysort of academics should be considered positive and scholarly because it forces people to think about things in an different way. Blogs allow us to communicate with people in ways we have not been able to in the modern era. Blogging is the modern form of folk-art story telling. Granted in this specific case the stories are often opinions based in fact- more of a non-fiction than fiction (therefore not qualifying as literature) but thought provoking and interesting - or sometimes when you disagree enraging.
And as for the wonderful world of journalism never even contacting you-- i am not sure they had too since your blog is part of public domain and hey if nothing else exposure like that can make your blog readership increase exponentially then you can sell ads on your blog (see for how great this is) ad if you don't get tenure - oh well you still have income and the satisfaction of being able to tell old fuddy duddy academics that a change is coming and thisi s the first sign of the academic apocolypse.

posted by: dy-Anne on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Slate should not be just contacting Dan. It should be hiring him.

I've believed for a while that Slate's best option for the future was to become a mega-platform for elite bloggers. It has an established readership and advertising base, a standard (and, with proper management, a very good) format for comments, and both the motive and the means to encourage its bloggers to produce high-quality output, often though not always of column length. The current Slate profile -- sort of an online New Republic-lite for snarky hipsters -- is getting pretty tired: not that it isn't working from a business standpoint now, but it isn't moving forward in the online world either in terms of profitability or of political relevance.

posted by: Zathras on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Hello, "Acad Ronin" & "dy-Anne." Reading your comments suggests to me that I should really explain what most academics would count as "contribution to knowledge," and why, in my opinion, even an outstanding blog like Dan's should not count (positive or negative) for promotion. It's simple, when an academic publishes a book or journal, they are saying "this is new & important, nobody has shown this before." Blog simply don't do that.

Now let's look at the post immediately preceding this post. It's about Russian politics. Does Dan make any claim that his observation is some great contribution to our knowledge about Russian politics? Of course not. It is not based on years of research and thinking, although only a knowledgable person like Dan could consistently generate such insightful commentary on such a wide range of topics. It's exactly that - a well informed comment on a recent event of public concern. And that's great. It's awesome. But it is nowhere near what one would call original research. Not even in the ball park.

My prediction is that 99% of academics will continue to be evaluated on traditional scholarly output and this will not change during my lifetime. And this is a good thing! Journals and books may be imperfect, but they tend to be way more refined than most blogs can ever possibly hope to be. They present lengthy, detailed arguments that have been edited and critiqued by other experts.

A few folks will be evaluated on public outreach, like blogs. Cornel West, for example, has not produced much original philosophy in years, but he is more of a "public intellectual." He makes films and writes popular books. Dan is lucky in that he now seems to be the rare outstanding researcher who is also a "public intellectual."

More power to him! But since most blogs, including Dan's, do not present systematic arguments and evidence it is simply not on the par of articles or books. Not even close.

So unless you are specifically hired as a "public" scholar, as Dan appears to have been, then blogs should be considered like charity work. It's great if you can do it, but it is really irrelevant to your status in the academic world.

posted by: Fabio Rojas on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

I'm certainly in general agreement with Fabio. But he's made a few comments to the effect of But I think the crucial broader question is: why are we even having this discussion at all? that lead me to ask: Fabio, do you take yourself to be offering a description or a prescrtiption? When you say that blogging "is really irrelevant to your status in the academic world," does that express a confident judgment that blogs aren't held against junior faculty or graduate students? Or just a view that they shouldn't be?

I know-- you've mainly been responding to arguments that blogs ought to count as net positives. There, I'm with you-- they neither do nor should. But as far as counting against, they shouldn't but may well, it seems to me. That makes them something other than "irrelevant."

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

poker Have a nice day! :)

posted by: poker on 11.18.05 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?