Sunday, October 16, 2005

Academic Blogs: Bullshit Detectors?

Charles Norman Todd had an interesting blog entry last week, "When Academics Blog," in which he discusses U of C's denial of tenure to a poli sci professor. I don't know the details of this case, and sadly, I don't really have the time to research it further. But, I found the end of Todd's piece though provoking:

The question then, is precisely what role should an academic's blog play in evaluating their quality of scholarship and determining their value as a faculty member?

Although it is certainly too soon to tell, universities like Chicago need to realize that blogging will not go away (which is not to say that this was the actual reason Drezner did not get tenure - on that I will remain agnostic). So what should they do? If I were on a tenure committee, I would recognize that an enormous amount of time and effort goes into creating and maintaining a blog for whatever purpose and thus is bound to occupy a certain percentage of a junior faculty member's time. I would then begin to develop some kind of academic criteria by which to incorporate that individual's blog into the tenure review process.

I won't pretend that this is an easy thing to do, but I do think it is necessary. A faculty member cannot simply distribute written work in the public domain that pertains to her or his field of expertise and expect it to go unnoticed and unconsidered when their department and tenure committee evaluates her or his performance. I wouldn't get the opportunity to say "Oh, don't read such-and-such article in that journal because it wasn't one of my best." Sorry. Its there now and as such has just as much of a place in the review process as your best. As I already said, this does not mean that a blog should be weighted equally with work submitted for editorial review, but it must play some role. What departments and tenure committee's need to begin to develop are criteria for evaluating such work that does justice to the median it is and the purpose for which it was used.

It might not be much, but it would be a start.

The idea of incorporating individual's blogs into the tenure process is intriguing. I would add that only blogs wherein the author identifies him or herself are fair game. If untenured junior faculty maintain blogs anonymously or pseudonymously, then it seems wrong to consider this as academic work distributed to the public domain (even if someone else "outed" the prof).

But, if a blogger identifies him or herself, then it might be really interesting and worthwhile to consider the blog as part of the tenure dossier.

I think that blogs have a great deal of value for academics and the academy. Given how long we are likely to labor on publications, with little to no feedback before submitting it to a peer review journal, being able to put your inchoate ideas in the public via blogs is really helpful. In my own case, I have can honestly say that I have come to enjoy writing and working ideas out when I know that I might attract some thoughtful responses (or even unthoughtful responses).

Blogs also seem to be an excellent medium for combatting the ivory tower image of academia. When professors begin to blog, and they know their audience is wider than specialists, their writing is bound to be more comprehensible to the general public. As I understand it, if you want to be a tenured Harvard professor, you need to publish a "popular" work in addition to your scholary work in order to influence a community wider than fellow academics.

Academic bloggers have the opportunity to learn better how to translate the often abstruse and specialized vocabulary of micro-disciplines into "plain english." A successful academic blogger, who has attracted a wide audience, has done more than write a good blog. He/she has also demonstrated his/her mastery of subject matter.

All too often academic jargon allows the lesser minds of the academy appear to be saying something more profound than they actually are. Blogs can be bullshit detectors.