Academic Blogs: Purposes and Benefits?

In an article by Andy Guess in Inside Higher Ed titled, “Blogs and Wikis and 3D, Oh My!” (09 May, 2008), there is an interesting section featuring discussions of the nature, purposes and benefits of academic blogging, and some of the lingering suspicions that surround them. I will post a few extracts that I think are worth considering, though one may need to read the complete piece to get a greater sense of the context and a sense of who are the speakers quoted in the article.

Volokh has the characteristics of most successful academic blogs: Its contributors are scholars and experts in a given field, and they use that expertise to provide on-the-spot analysis and running commentary on issues that matter. They interact with readers who comment on posts and build on (or push against) each other’s insights. Not unlike peer review … except on a potentially wider scale, and in public.

Of course, academic bloggers can broaden the scope beyond their field of expertise – or even venture beyond their means. In academe, scholars “tend to be very narrowly focused,” noted Mano Singham, director of Case’s University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE) and an adjunct professor of physics. But talk to a professor, and it’s clear that most of them possess a “wide range of opinion,” he added, and why confine it to the cocktail party circuit?

Besides providing breadth, and an outlet, for scholars’ extracurricular interests, blogs can also quicken the pace at which serious questions get considered.

Yet some (or even most) in academe view blogging commitments as a distraction from scholarly work. “There is some tension between blogging and academia in certain disciplines. Many academics view blogging with suspicion,” Adler said. “It is often assumed … that it is time that one could and should have been spending on one’s scholarship.” He disagrees, arguing that it all comes down to “free time.” Still, before he earned tenure, he blogged under a pseudonym.

Singham, who also has a blog, added that the popular conception of bloggers as “no-life, underemployed losers” explains “why academics would shy away from that kind of association.” He argued that a frequent regimen of writing for a blog could actually improve efficiency and scholarly output in the long run.

Scharf – keeping in mind the varying quality of blogs – said that he made sure to clarify his blog’s intent and high standards by displaying awards that it had won and a prominent list of expert contributors “so that people were getting the sense that this was a very serious [effort], that these experts were well-qualified to be saying these things.”

Personally, I am a bit dismayed by the last paragraph. It relies on an appeal to authority as the basis for evaluating the credibility and validity of statements posted on blogs, which is a poor way to make a logical argument in any context simply because authorities can also be wrong. My larger concern has to do with the importation of standards from the offline realm, and from past academic traditions, in shaping and evaluating a new wave of scholarly practice that, ideally, should be seeking a break with those standards and traditions while questioning them severely. Being cautious is one thing, and the need to be self-critical is never redundant — but choosing to do something new, only to do it defensively and with a chip on one’s shoulder seems to defeat the point of going online. The prejudice against producing websites is not new — indeed, some think it is the activity of graduate students who seek immediate attention and gratification, and will let the sites fade once they get their doctorates and their first teaching positions. How pleasant it is to see such prejudices defeated by actual practice.

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