Untenured scholars are in a funny place: that gap between the old world and the new. Ten years ago, yes, blogging would convince many senior scholars that a junior person was not a serious academic because s/he was catering to a popular audience. Since then, the old world of the academy is crumbling, and while many departments have not yet caught up, others are aware they must move into the twenty-first century.
So will blog posts and tweets hurt your career? Maybe. But they can also help your career in very practical ways.
The first has to do with publishing. The gold standard for employment and for tenure remains a published book. When most senior scholars finished their doctorates, it was almost guaranteed that their dissertations would find academic publishers. In those days, university presses had standing contracts with university libraries that guaranteed automatic sales of a few thousand copies of each monograph that came out from a reputable press. Budget cuts over the last twenty years killed this system. No longer can an academic press be certain that libraries will buy their monographs. This means that they can’t accept everything that comes over the transom, making it harder than ever to get a book contract.
But you still need one to get tenure.
One of the ways to improve your chances of landing that contract is for you to make sure you have written a book that is of wider interest than to those in your immediately area of interest, one that a press thinks it will be able to sell. How can you do that? Engage with a wider audience on-line. Listen to questions. See which of your posts get a strong response. Are they written differently than your other work? Are they asking different questions? What does this tell you about your argument and your writing style? How can you speak more clearly to what is, after all, a self-selected audience of interested people?
Contracts also depend increasingly on your own networks. Do you have standing because you contribute to a popular blog? Are there lots of people who like to follow what you have to say? That will help convince a publisher that you’re worth a hearing.
An on-line presence might speak to an employer more directly. Blogging gives you an opportunity to present yourself on your own terms. Any diligent search committee will google you. A series of interesting blogs about teaching, for example, will never hurt your profile.
There are pitfalls to an on-line presence, of course. First of all, and above all, it’s important to remember that the very act of on-line work means your opponents can’t respond, and it’s unsporting, at best, to launch a tirade against someone who can’t answer. For the job market, this means it’s crazy to write intemperately about anyone or anything. This is a very small profession, and even if XYZ’s work infuriates you, there is no reason to call it out. XYZ will certainly have good friends at any institution at which you might interview, and they will not forget you have taken a pot shot (they googled you, remember?).
The exception to this rule, of course, is that if you feel strongly that you must take a stand either for or against something on principle, do it proudly and openly. And be prepared to defend your stand against opponents. Just don’t pick fights gratuitously.
On Twitter, the rules are like Facebook. Don’t be an idiot. Don’t post about how much you hate your students, or your colleagues, or any of the obvious rants that will ruin you with a committee. Don’t post endless self-absorbed pieces about what you’re eating or drinking or saying or thinking. But Twitter and Facebook are not just danger zones; they can also reflect you well. I follow a number of junior scholars on Twitter who are obviously tightly linked to their communities and to new scholarship, and who are struggling with really interesting intellectual issues. If one of them applied to my school, their Twitter presence would make them stand out.
The other major pitfall is that you cannot let your on-line presence keep you from producing more traditional scholarship. Blog and tweet, yes, but make sure those contributions to knowledge reflect and/or point back to your larger body of work. No search committee is going to consider a blog equivalent to a manuscript, but it very well might like to see a blog that augments the rest of what you do. Just don’t let on-line work suck all your time.
Here’s a newsflash: The internet is here to stay. The profession hasn’t yet caught up with its implications, but it must, and soon. Today’s junior scholars are in a vague zone between the past and the present, but that same vagueness offers them a great opportunity to shape the way historians use the world’s revolutionary new technologies.