Attack of the career-killing blogs.

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 16 2005 6:52 AM

Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs

When academics post online, do they risk their jobs?

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Click on image to enlarge. Illustration by Charlie Powell.

"Here goes nothing. I shouldn't be doing this. I'll be going up for tenure soon,"reads the first post of the blog that University of Chicago political scientist Daniel Drezner started in September 2002. Sure enough, this past October, Drezner was denied tenure. And although his department claimed that blogging hadn't been a factor in the decision, junior academics across the blogosphere were traumatized. Drezner had seemed a top candidate. He has impeccable credentials (two masters degrees and a Ph.D. from Stanford); his essays appear in the top journals of his profession; and his next book will be published by Princeton University Press.

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Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of academics keep blogs these days, posting everything from family pictures to scholarly works-in-progress. While few are counting on their Web publications to improve their chances at tenure, many have begun to fear that their blogs might actually harm their prospects. Last July, "Bloggers Need Not Apply," an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education about an anonymous Midwestern college's attempt to fill a position, laid out the perils for academic job-seekers who blog. "Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know 'the real them'—better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn't want to know more," wrote the pseudonymous columnist.

But academics aren't just concerned about the public display of an applicant's personal eccentricities. Many perceive blogs as evidence of a scholar's lack of seriousness. Shouldn't he be putting more time into scholarship, they wonder, and less into his blog? And if a blogger does have something serious to say, why is he presenting it in a superficial medium, rather than a peer-reviewed journal?

At the same time, it is hardly a secret that lots of peer-reviewed material and articles in prestigious academic reviews are neither very good nor widely read, while some of what appears on academic blogs is of high quality and has a large readership (some of it, obviously, isn't and doesn't). So, it's worth taking a closer look at the question: How can a system that ostensibly cares only about the quality of one's arguments and research automatically include the former and exclude the latter?

In many respects, Drezner's predicament was merely a cyber-version of an age-old dilemma. Whether online or off, the kind of accessible and widely read work that brings an academic public recognition is likely to draw the scorn and suspicion of his colleagues. Furthermore, so-called public-intellectual work won't count for much when it comes time to decide whether one gets tenure. In most disciplines at large research universities, tenure is directly related to the number of peer-reviewed books and articles one publishes. Teaching and community service are factored in but are usually far less important than one's publishing record. "For the time being," says John Holbo, an assistant professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore and the founder of a group blog called The Valve, the most academic bloggers will receive is "a bit of 'service' credit, for raising the department's profile."

On the one hand, some resistance to the proliferation of blogs is understandable. The value of academic culture is that it stands apart from the ephemeral marketplace. Universities are by their very nature culturally conservative and slow to change. The odd situation would actually have been if universities had automatically embraced blogging. Holbo suggests that from one perspective, blogging is an affront to the traditional idea of the university. "You want to graft this onto the last living medieval guild system?" he imagines a senior scholar protesting.

But 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 Oakshott 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.

To take only one other example, John Hawks, an assistant anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, posts three to five essays a week on subjects like evolutionary theory. He writes about science with the breadth of the late Stephen Jay Gould and doesn't see a big difference between most of his online and offline output. "Much of what I write online is scholarly. When I review an issue in human evolution, it is a genuine review. If I criticize something, I back it up," he says. Indeed, his essays are festooned with citations.

So, might blogging be subversive precisely because it makes real the very vision of intellectual life that the university has never managed to achieve?

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