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More on Academic Blogging

There is still a slow simmer of resistance to the idea of academic blogging.  Most of it represents a kind of knee-jerk conservatism from individuals who refuse to accept blogging as anything more than a medium for middle-class “kids” to vocalize middle-class angst.  This most common form of this argument is the well-known: “why should I care about what you ate for breakfast?”

Every now and then, a scholar offers a more substantial response to the idea and while I typically find these responses every bit as wrongheaded, I do think that they deserve some careful consideration.  Recently Edward Blum published a short post (on his blog Religion in American History) entitled “Academic Blogging: Some Reservations and Lessons“.  The post is clear and coherent and should be considered carefully.  It stems from his conversations with a group of recent Ph.D.s and graduate students who are excited about blogging as a medium as well as the author’s personal experience as a blogger.

He established six main points:

1. “Why would you give away for free the primary commodity you create?”

I suppose that I must respond to this in the name of being systematic. First, being a blogger doesn’t mean that you have to publish every idea on your blog indiscriminately!  Even today scholars can be reluctant to give a paper or commit to an article a brilliant book-worthy idea.  The bigger issue, however, is one already faced by the recording industry. Some circulation of free music – that is the primary commodity produced by the recording industry – actually benefits record sales. Most band have MySpace pages, websites, blogs with free downloads, or even “leak” new music to fans.  If they’re smart, they do not leak the entire album, but a few select singles.  In some sections of the recording industry mix-tapes and bootlegs are a primary means for unsigned artists to be discovered. Again, if all that musician has to offer is on a 36 minute mix tape, then there are likely to be problems down the line, but if a musician is smart and good, the mix tape works as a teaser that draws attention to their work.

(And it goes without saying that in a business where our rewards for scholarly production are modest, it may be that some day soon, blogging an idea and allowing to enjoy widespread, attributed circulation, could have as much currency as publishing in a very expensive book with limited access.)

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.”

Of course peer review matters!  But let’s not reduce all academic production to a kind of zero sum game.  A blog does not preclude writing for peer review and taking the peer review process seriously. After all, any scholars would be naive to think that all academic production receives the same level and kind of peer review.  Giving a paper at an academic conference, for example, is a different level of peer review than submitting an article to major academic journal.  Blogs fit into the academic ecosystem by allowing ideas to circulate in early forms. Scholars outside the humanities have already embraced the idea of “working papers” that circulate widely prior to formal peer review and publication, but as part of a parallel and less formal (but no less important) peer review process.   While most academic blogs do not reached the level of a “working paper” they nevertheless offer a medium ideal for scholarly conversation and critique.  If scholars are too busy or disengaged to participate in this discussion, then their perspectives will be ignored in the development of new knowledge.

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.”

Again, writing is not a zero sum game. Articles do not (usually) get reviewed in the JAH or JSH, nor do conference papers, but these contributions to the academic, scholarly conversation are nevertheless represent an important place for academic correspondences.  Blog fit into the existing academic ecosystem and expand it. Ironically, blogs are beginning to represent an important venue for post-publication review. A blogger can publish a quick review of a book at a much faster than a traditional journal.  In fact, some venues, like the Bryn Mawr Classical Review have taken on an increasingly blog-like interface and represent the first word on many academic publications in the field of Classics and Ancient history.

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.”

Again, academic writing is not a zero sum game. Writing a blog post does not preclude writing an article, giving a conference paper, writing a book. Circulating ideas on a blog, however, gets them to a wider public. Of course, a hastily composed blog post could hurt an individual’s career, but the same could be said of a hastily composed conference paper or a poorly-considered book review. There is nothing intrinsic to the blog medium that causes an individual to say outlandish things or attack other authors.  Of course, the ease with which a blog post can be circulated (via, for example, social media) and the wide audience that a blog post can have, should encourage bloggers to be sensitive to their academic reputation and the feelings of other scholars.  But I’d suggest that these are good things!  Blogs can accelerate certain aspects of professional development by allowing a junior scholar access to an academic conversation with certain rules of behavior and expectations.

(And I should say that I personally know some scholars whose careers have been helped by their blogs. It showed them to be far more dynamic and engaged than their slow to appear scholarly publications would suggest.)

5. “Blogs often function like the current American media: extreme, partisan, and amnesiac.”

None of these things are intrinsic to the medium of blogging except, perhaps, the seemingly ephemeral nature of most forms of digital communication.  I actually like the ephemeral nature of my blog and have little inclination to make it an enduring venue for scholarly communication.

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.”

This point is a good one, but I think my argument throughout this post should now be clear. Blogs have a context that dictates to some extent the rules in which the blog operates. This context is set at the intersection of a broad and ill-defined public conversation about the topic on the blog and long-standing professional and social traditions of academy. This puts the blogger in a powerful position to communicate academic ideas to an audience that is often unfamiliar with the terms of the debate and the languages and customs of the academic discourse. This position is also fraught with certain risks.

Professor Blum’s post highlights many of the risks associated with blogging (and overlooks, for rhetorical purposes I am sure) many of its benefits. It is useful to have these reminders periodically, if for no other reason than it forces those of us committed to the medium of blogging to articulate the place of the blog and blogger in the academic community.

Categories: The New Media
  1. October 11, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Well said! I had a similar set of responses when I first saw Blum’s post. I was particularly concerned about his resistance to expanding the areas open to different kinds of scholarly products.

  2. November 4, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Thank you for a great post. I just read the post you are referring to, and I am glad someone else did too, and feels the way I do.
    As an academic blogger myself, mostly literature reviewer, going on for 3 years now, it has taken me a while to find my own style and reasons for blogging. The by far biggest reason is the interaction with other scholars.
    Why would I give away for free the primary commodity I create? Why not? Agreed, it is my intellectual property, but knowledge kept to myself isn’t going to help anybody, not even me. That said, I’m quite selective as to what is published on my blog.
    Peer review matters. Yes, it does. And frankly, in line with what I just said, very little of what hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet ever makes it to my blog. But most of what has made it through, will. Besides, leaking a few bits and pieces may attract the attention of other scholars interested in the same topic, and maybe willing to cooperate in a fruitful exchange of ideas. Not everybody is just out to steal my work.
    Conference papers don’t get reviewed. Don’t they? I see them appear often enough in the reference list of journal articles. Conference papers sometimes contain a lot more valuable information than the actual paper that it later turns into, and conference papers are the hardest papers to find, even with the help of my good friend Google. That’s why I want my conference papers known.
    Blog posts could hurt your reputation. Possibly, but I always try to strike a balance between the good, the bad and the ugly in my reviews…and it has to be really bad for me to say something bad. It’s all about constructive criticism.
    The biggest big upside to academic blogging is that I get publicly known to a worldwide audience, to the point that I am on occasion contacted “as an expert in the field” (which I’m not, not always) by other true experts in the field (who I consider to be way more expert than I am). In my opinion that is the biggest compliment an academic blogger can get.

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