October 04, 2005

Blogs and the Academy

Henry of Crooked Timber links to an article he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education on blogging and academia. A while ago there was an anonymous piece suggesting that blogging was not a good idea, particularly for those on the tenure track, or the job market. Henry takes the opposite perspective, and does a very nice job laying out the reasons why.

For reasons personal and disciplinary, one resonated with me far more than the others.

Why are so many academics beginning to blog? Academic blogs offer the kind of intellectual excitement and engagement that attracted many scholars to the academic life in the first place, but which often get lost in the hustle to secure positions, grants, and disciplinary recognition.


However, academic blogs also provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison.

I'll take it a step further. Not only is it the hustle that limits the ability of academics to engage debates, it's other academics and their lack of interest. Debate each other over departmental governance? Sure. Over theory? Really? Sometimes it seems as if the research we do is as intellectually stimulating as digging a ditch. It has it's appropriate depth, structure, and length, and there's a sense of satisfaction in completion, but excitement? It's like that old cartoon where the dog and the wolf and the sheep all punch the clock and go in to play their roles as guard, hunter and hunted. Thay all know what they are supposed to do, not that they really care about it.

Has The Academy been transformed into a world populated by some version of these clock-punchers? We go through the motions without the passion to really care? Where not even the wolf really wants to eat the sheep (or the scholar to catch the new idea)?

I'm not sure that is the case at all. Rather, the passion remains, the ideas are still bouncing around, and the scholars still want to snap them up, thrash them around, fight over them in a tug-of-war. The problem is that the academics, mostly junior but some senior, who are drawn to blogging have figured out that the academy - or at least in enough of its institutions - is no longer the environment to pursue the intellectual adventure they seek. The division of the disciplines restricts the environment even further, so that the dog and the wolf don't even get to nod at each other when they punch the clock, much less chase each other around. And so being restless and fickle creatures that we are, we go looking for our version of Lenin's coffee house, where we can air out new ideas, get taken to task for lazy ones, figure out what style of argument resonates better, all in an environment where everyone's playing voluntarily, enthusiastically, and from a whole range of backgrounds and interests.

Henry goes on to talk about why this kind of community is not necessarily well-received:

In this respect, the blogosphere resembles not only the Republic of Letters (where a printer's devil could become an internationally renowned intellectual), but the "little magazines" in their golden age, when established scholars, up-and-comers, and amateurs rubbed shoulders on a more or less equal footing. This openness can be discomfiting to those who are attached to established rankings and rituals -- but it also means that blogospheric conversations, when they're good, have a vigor and a liveliness that most academic discussion lacks.


Most important, the scholarly blogosphere offers academics a place where they can reconnect with the public. The links between academic argument and wider public debates are increasingly tenuous and frayed. It's far harder than it used to be for academics to become public intellectuals (not that it was ever very easy, or very common). This has malign consequences, not only for the quality of debate on both sides of the divide, but also for public perceptions of the academy. It's also a source of considerable frustration to many academics, who either believe that their academic expertise could be valuable to a wider audience, or resent the distorted public perception of what they do. Blogging democratizes the function of public intellectual. It's no longer necessary for an academic to lobby the editors of The Washington Post's op-ed page or The New York Review of Books in order to make his or her voice heard. Instead, he or she can start a blog and (with interesting arguments and a bit of luck and self-promotion) begin to have an impact on the public conversation.

Not only is it more intellectually stimulating (read: fun) to blog about ideas, it also makes academics feel useful to engage in public debate about real issues. In the "hustle" to secure the appropriate quantities of those valuable academic commodities (grants, publications, enrollments) it's all too easy for tasks or symbols to outpace (in value) the original object's meaning. How many academics work on an article and think "well, what real impact is this ever going to have?" It's not because the ideas can't have real impact, but that the accepted format virtually insures that it won't.

And I'll let Henry have the last word, with an "Amen, brother."

Not exactly dignified; a little undisciplined; carnivalesque. Sometimes signal, sometimes noise. But exactly because of this, they provide a kind of space for the exuberant debate of ideas, for connecting scholarship to the outside world, which we haven't had for a long while. We should embrace them wholeheartedly.

Posted by binky at October 4, 2005 11:29 AM | TrackBack | Posted to Blogorama | The Academy

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