Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blogging in the Academy

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Thanks to Ed Blum (History, San Diego State Univ.) for letting us cross-post his comments on blogging. Blum points out some concerns he and others share about writing for a popular audience in a non-peer review context. The post originally appeared at
Religion in American History.

"Academic Blogging: Some Reservations and Lessons"
by Edward J. Blum

Last summer, I was chatting with a collection of amazingly talented graduate students and newly minted PhDs in American religious history about the role of blogging. They all agreed that blogging was a godsend for those new to the profession, for it let them “be known.” Blogging offered an instant opportunity to present ideas, critique other works, and sound off publicly on any number of issues. Time and again, these brilliant scholars expressed their belief in the blogosphere: that it was the place to gain recognition.

I was worried. I wondered if the perils outweighed the possibilities. Paul Harvey’s American Religious History blog was created after I was finished with graduate school and had two monographs published. I was just at that moment becoming an associate professor and so “making a name for myself” had less immediate importance. I saw his blog and others as a place to promote and to play – not a place to stake a reputation.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the academic turn to the blog, and my gravest concern is for junior scholars – knowing full well that by avoiding blogs, junior scholars may be missing out on many important opportunities. But here are my reservations and lessons:

1) Why would you give away for free the primary commodity you create? Your ideas are your intellectual property; when you publish them in a book, you and the press own them. You can make money off of them (sure, not a lot, but sometimes a nice chunk of change). You can receive credentials from them that include a job, promotion, and tenure. Just as much as publishers may benefit from a blog-inspired recognition, they may also not want to print concepts that can be found already on websites. I haven’t asked, but I wonder.

2) Peer review matters. Academic disciplines will lose all credibility without peer review; it is essential to what we do – as protection for the author and publisher, and as a way to get the best out of your work. When the five or ten or twenty reviewers (I can’t remember) for the Journal of American History sounded off on one of my dissertation chapters, I was shell-shocked. I could never have imagined there were so many problems with my essay. But those criticisms made it a better chapter, and my dissertation a stronger book. The JAH didn’t publish my essay, but the reviews transformed my approach to the topic. After graduate school, the number of people available to read your work may shrink. My experience is that there are fewer and fewer people who have the time to read my ramblings. Peer review allows the geniuses in our fields to challenge us, push us to new sources, and help with our prose. I’m grateful to have friends like Katie Lofton, who will read my essays and tell me what’s wrong with them – but it’s hard to make friends that brilliant and as the years pass on, we all seem to have less time for it. Blogs do not, as of yet, offer such a system of peer review and hence do not aid in that capacity in our development as scholars.

3) Post-publication review matters. Blog posts don’t get reviewed in the Journal of American History or the Journal of Southern History – books do. They are reviewed there and in other journals as another stage of peer review. It’s where we sound off – not just to say that this or that book “makes a significant contribution to” … whatever topic the book is on. It’s a place where real debates and real problems can be addressed. Comment sections in blogs aren’t the same, and they probably can’t go in your tenure file. Professional book reviews can and do.

4) Blog posts could hurt your reputation just as much (if not more) than help it. Fascinating blog posts probably won’t get you an interview or a job, although they may make your name noteworthy enough so the committee looks at your application (although I doubt this for most positions). Articles will, solid dissertations will, fantastic conference papers will. Blog posts are far more likely to hurt you in any number of ways: perhaps you write something that is too outlandish; perhaps you come off as too political (guess what, not all academics vote Democrat – some are more leftist, some are to the right – I learned this when one colleague of mine explained to me that even though I study and teach African American history, he hoped I didn’t vote as “they” did – an odd thing to say to a new colleague, but whatever). I’ve written a number of posts that I wish I could take back (usually the ones praising Matt Sutton’s work – and this, right here, is a joke, that could backfire if I didn’t point out it was a joke. And by this point, the joke is dead because I had to explain it so no one is even grinning). More honestly, I have in blog posts been rough and curt with some essential and important works (namely Barbara Dianne Savage’s very interesting Your Spirits Walk Beside Us), and I was wrong. I should have been more careful and thoughtful. Could that hurt me professionally – you betcha!

5) Blogs often function like the current American media: extreme, partisan, and amnesiac. Jon Stewart recently told Bill O’Reilly that all the messianic love for President Obama in 2008 set Americans up for heartache. Guess who said this in a Religion Dispatches blog essay in 2008? I did. Guess who remembers? Only me. As I see it, the current media is in the business of producing ideas each and every minute and there can be no regard for past claims, words, or interests. Stories and sound bites must be made new constantly. This is not how the scholarly world has functioned or should. We must take the time to think ideas through, to hash them out, to consider alternatives, and to weigh various other texts. Reacting to every new media story is not the path of most scholarly work; it’s the domain of the journalist.

6) Finally, and this is most apropos for our blog – this is a blog about religion and religions, the most powerful ideas, rituals, concepts, and communities that exist. As I understand the spiritual, it is the deepest core of people, ideas, organizations, and communities. Writing about it flippantly or without review or without consideration can be extremely damaging. I have done my fair share of rough handling with religion in these blogs, and I wonder at what cost. More and more, I think Robert Orsi is right when he calls us to be worry about our presentations of religion, especially of how those presentations get into the mass media. We’re observant to religious damages of the past, and certainly do not want to perpetuate them in the present and future (at least I do not).

So those are my concerns. I recognize the incredible work that blogs have done in American religious history. The Juvenile Instructor gang is amazing. The essays here are fantastic. Religion Dispatches is entertaining, insightful, and provocative. It’s not that we shouldn’t keep taking blog and technological leaps: it’s that, I think, we should look first.

3 comments:

Adam S. said...

Are any of these things problems with blogs themselves? They all sound like precisely problems with the academic community not taking blogs seriously.

1. If the community took blogs seriously, it would give status to young scholars who make open contributions and collaborate with other researchers on blogs. And the research would be better for the collaboration

2. If the community took blogs seriously, scholars would use blogs to critique and comment on the postings on other blogs. Scholars who made important discoveries or who received frequent positive remarks from other scholars would gain credibility, precisely the way the web works.

3. If the community took blogs seriously, it would see that meaningful discussion happens just as often in blogs as in books, and that rude and partisan ideas, even from scholars!, are commonly published in books and journals. And it would decide that since so much discussion is happening online, the reasonable discourse and expertise of academia ought to be going there and seeking out people who are willing to listen and to discuss.

All of your comments parallel comments made when print books replacing manuscript and oral tradition culture. "But how can we believe it if we don't know the lineage of the teaching?" "How will we ever memorize the texts if we have cheap access to them?" "Wait, you mean just anyone can publish thousands of copies of a text?"

patrickmj said...

I appreciate your thoughts and concerns. They are real, though I'm concerned they set up more of a dichotomy between publishing in a blog and publishing in more traditional academic forms. Here's some more specific thoughts.

1) Giving away for free actually has a long history of success in the open source software community, and it is no small coincidence that early academic bloggers are also advocates for open source. The model has a good track record of leading toward solid, professional-quality work. A notable example is the Firefox web browser. Similarly, there are examples of publications available both for free on the web and in print. James Boyle's The Public Domain is a case in point: Free Download, Amazon. The two can coexist nicely.

2 and 3) There is no doubt that peer review matters. The interesting thing with a blog, though, is that it is an additional option for peer review, though not of the same sort that takes place with a printed publication. With increasing pressure and time commitments on junior faculty, publishing on the web to get feedback before committing to the long process of traditional peer review can nip significant problems in the bud, making the material a better chapter as early as possible. One notable difference in online peer review is that the author has the opportunity to directly ask questions of the reviewer in the process -- a significant benefit. So, I see it as a different type of peer review, but one that has its own set of benefits and tradeoffs. Planned Obsolescence offers a good working discussion and example.

4, 5, 6)
I'm grouping these together partly for brevity's sake, and partly because I see these as all expressing at core the same idea: that the medium of online publishing is a sullied version of print publishing. Less polished than (at least some, perhaps most) print publishing? I won't argue. But there is nothing inherent about writing online that makes it less thoughtful, or that authors should not or are not conscious of what effect what they write could have on their reputation. Indeed, I'd argue that good academic writers online are even more conscious of the effect on their professional reputation. That's not too say they might not say something outlandish. Rather, that they will try to set a congenial tone, respond to comments, and revise their thoughts (see 2 and 3 above).

Most importantly, though, the online medium is not necessarily reactionary or amnesiac in the way that other media revel in. Indeed, I think it is exactly the role of academic writers to resist the simplifications of other media by presenting to both other scholars and the public a more balanced and nuanced perspective and analysis. Yes, blogs can function that way. They don't have to. Our place in society as a whole, especially if we are at a publicly funded institution, calls on us to make sure that there is material online that resists the amnesiac, extreme, and partisan found in other media. The fact of writing outside the traditional modes of scholarship does not suddenly make us forget our training or methodology. I believe there can be the same principles at work in both traditional and online publishing.

Thanks,
Patrick

patrickmj said...

I appreciate your thoughts and concerns. They are real, though I'm concerned they set up more of a dichotomy between publishing in a blog and publishing in more traditional academic forms. Here's some more specific thoughts.

1) Giving away for free actually has a long history of success in the open source software community, and it is no small coincidence that early academic bloggers are also advocates for open source. The model has a good track record of leading toward solid, professional-quality work. A notable example is the Firefox web browser. Similarly, there are examples of publications available both for free on the web and in print. James Boyle's The Public Domain is a case in point: Free Download, Amazon. The two can coexist nicely.

2 and 3) There is no doubt that peer review matters. The interesting thing with a blog, though, is that it is an additional option for peer review, though not of the same sort that takes place with a printed publication. With increasing pressure and time commitments on junior faculty, publishing on the web to get feedback before committing to the long process of traditional peer review can nip significant problems in the bud, making the material a better chapter as early as possible. One notable difference in online peer review is that the author has the opportunity to directly ask questions of the reviewer in the process -- a significant benefit. So, I see it as a different type of peer review, but one that has its own set of benefits and tradeoffs. Planned Obsolescence offers a good working discussion and example.

4, 5, 6)
I'm grouping these together partly for brevity's sake, and partly because I see these as all expressing at core the same idea: that the medium of online publishing is a sullied version of print publishing. Less polished than (at least some, perhaps most) print publishing? I won't argue. But there is nothing inherent about writing online that makes it less thoughtful, or that authors should not or are not conscious of what effect what they write could have on their reputation. Indeed, I'd argue that good academic writers online are even more conscious of the effect on their professional reputation. That's not too say they might not say something outlandish. Rather, that they will try to set a congenial tone, respond to comments, and revise their thoughts (see 2 and 3 above).

Most importantly, though, the online medium is not necessarily reactionary or amnesiac in the way that other media revel in. Indeed, I think it is exactly the role of academic writers to resist the simplifications of other media by presenting to both other scholars and the public a more balanced and nuanced perspective and analysis. Yes, blogs can function that way. They don't have to. Our place in society as a whole, especially if we are at a publicly funded institution, calls on us to make sure that there is material online that resists the amnesiac, extreme, and partisan found in other media. The fact of writing outside the traditional modes of scholarship does not suddenly make us forget our training or methodology. I believe there can be the same principles at work in both traditional and online publishing.

Thanks,
Patrick