Academic Blogging: Some Reservations and Lessons



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Academic Blogging: Some Reservations and Lessons
by Edward J. Blum

Last summer, I was chatting with a collection of amazingly talented graduate students and newly minted PhDs in American religious history about the role of blogging. They all agreed that blogging was a godsend for those new to the profession, for it let them “be known.” Blogging offered an instant opportunity to present ideas, critique other works, and sound off publicly on any number of issues. Time and again, these brilliant scholars expressed their belief in the blogosphere: that it was the place to gain recognition.

I was worried. I wondered if the perils outweighed the possibilities. Paul Harvey’s American Religious History blog was created after I was finished with graduate school and had two monographs published. I was just at that moment becoming an associate professor and so “making a name for myself” had less immediate importance. I saw his blog and others as a place to promote and to play – not a place to stake a reputation.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the academic turn to the blog, and my gravest concern is for junior scholars – knowing full well that by avoiding blogs, junior scholars may be missing out on many important opportunities. But here are my reservations and lessons:

1) Why would you give away for free the primary commodity you create? Your ideas are your intellectual property; when you publish them in a book, you and the press own them. You can make money off of them (sure, not a lot, but sometimes a nice chunk of change). You can receive credentials from them that include a job, promotion, and tenure. Just as much as publishers may benefit from a blog-inspired recognition, they may also not want to print concepts that can be found already on websites. I haven’t asked, but I wonder.

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. When the five or ten or twenty reviewers (I can’t remember) for the Journal of American History sounded off on one of my dissertation chapters, I was shell-shocked. I could never have imagined there were so many problems with my essay. But those criticisms made it a better chapter, and my dissertation a stronger book. The JAH didn’t publish my essay, but the reviews transformed my approach to the topic. After graduate school, the number of people available to read your work may shrink. My experience is that there are fewer and fewer people who have the time to read my ramblings. Peer review allows the geniuses in our fields to challenge us, push us to new sources, and help with our prose. I’m grateful to have friends like Katie Lofton, who will read my essays and tell me what’s wrong with them – but it’s hard to make friends that brilliant and as the years pass on, we all seem to have less time for it. Blogs do not, as of yet, offer such a system of peer review and hence do not aid in that capacity in our development as scholars.

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. They are reviewed there and in other journals as another stage of peer review. It’s where we sound off – not just to say that this or that book “makes a significant contribution to” … whatever topic the book is on. It’s a place where real debates and real problems can be addressed. Comment sections in blogs aren’t the same, and they probably can’t go in your tenure file. Professional book reviews can and do.

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. Blog posts are far more likely to hurt you in any number of ways: perhaps you write something that is too outlandish; perhaps you come off as too political (guess what, not all academics vote Democrat – some are more leftist, some are to the right – I learned this when one colleague of mine explained to me that even though I study and teach African American history, he hoped I didn’t vote as “they” did – an odd thing to say to a new colleague, but whatever). I’ve written a number of posts that I wish I could take back (usually the ones praising Matt Sutton’s work – and this, right here, is a joke, that could backfire if I didn’t point out it was a joke. And by this point, the joke is dead because I had to explain it so no one is even grinning). More honestly, I have in blog posts been rough and curt with some essential and important works (namely Barbara Dianne Savage’s very interesting Your Spirits Walk Beside Us), and I was wrong. I should have been more careful and thoughtful. Could that hurt me professionally – you betcha!

5) Blogs often function like the current American media: extreme, partisan, and amnesiac. Jon Stewart recently told Bill O’Reilly that all the messianic love for President Obama in 2008 set Americans up for heartache. Guess who said this in a Religion Dispatches blog essay in 2008? I did. Guess who remembers? Only me. As I see it, the current media is in the business of producing ideas each and every minute and there can be no regard for past claims, words, or interests. Stories and sound bites must be made new constantly. This is not how the scholarly world has functioned or should. We must take the time to think ideas through, to hash them out, to consider alternatives, and to weigh various other texts. Reacting to every new media story is not the path of most scholarly work; it’s the domain of the journalist.

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. I have done my fair share of rough handling with religion in these blogs, and I wonder at what cost. More and more, I think Robert Orsi is right when he calls us to be worry about our presentations of religion, especially of how those presentations get into the mass media. We’re observant to religious damages of the past, and certainly do not want to perpetuate them in the present and future (at least I do not).

So those are my concerns. I recognize the incredible work that blogs have done in American religious history. The Juvenile Instructor gang is amazing. The essays here are fantastic. Religion Dispatches is entertaining, insightful, and provocative. It’s not that we shouldn’t keep taking blog and technological leaps: it’s that, I think, we should look first.

16 comments:

Randall at: September 27, 2010 at 7:21 AM said...

Ed: Thanks for this thoughtful post. Probably even more relevant now, considering how competitive the market has become and how publication-driven things are.

A new essay in the Chronicle picks up the theme of blogging as PR: "How to Use Blogging as a Marketing Tool" http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Use-Blogging-as-a/124530/

Janine Giordano at: September 27, 2010 at 8:15 AM said...

I agree this is a great post, and something I've also been thinking about a lot lately. For an advanced graduate student like myself, the blog (and non-peer reviewed magazine Religion Dispatches) has been a wonderful space to share ideas when so many other scholarly spaces maintain such such rigid hierarchies of knowledge. The peer-review process can be wonderful, but it depends on the gate keepers really understanding the proposing writer as a peer. Does this always happen?

I don't know if it was always the case that advanced grad students were not permitted to review books for so many journals, or if rejection rates from conferences were always so high. I do feel like I'm treated more like a student, and an undergraduate, in the present university system than graduate students have in the past. A journal editor recently wrote me that graduate students are not permitted to review books for this journal because they "may have an axe to grind." I was fascinated by the word choice. Who gets to decide when my axe will turn a scholarly opinion? Strangely, everyone BUT the people who are training me as a scholar.

In some ways of course I support "the guild" of historians and see the reason to draw the boundary in peer reviewed publications between student and faculty member, junior scholar and senior scholar, and to peer-review what is said by other peers of the field. However, so often these days the difference between an advanced student and a junior scholar is not just the completion of coursework, exams, dissertation and the faculty OK. It's the happenstance, totally beyond the control of the aspiring scholar, that a university made available a tenure track line. The blog, at least for the moment you are writing, tells you to forget about the very real hierarchies that design our profession, and tells you, I agree deceptively and entirely at your own risk, to pretend we are all scholars, junior and senior, and just share.

The funny thing is that so many of us, myself included, are willing to take that risk knowing all the potential pitfalls. I wish I didn't feel this way, but it seems like we have so little to lose.

Janine Giordano at: September 27, 2010 at 8:15 AM said...
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Janine Giordano at: September 27, 2010 at 8:15 AM said...
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Janine Giordano at: September 27, 2010 at 8:16 AM said...
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Kathryn Lofton at: September 27, 2010 at 8:32 AM said...

Ed, you know I agree with everything you say so well here. I think it should be required reading for every academic considering entry into the blogosphere. As you know, too, I would probably be even more bleak (as is my general want) about the consequences of posting intellectual work without referee. Now, isn't it a comic thing for me to post this in a comment on a blog as a some-time blogger? Irony abounds in the formats of new media.

Edward J Blum at: September 27, 2010 at 8:37 AM said...

Really good points Janine Giordano! The gate keepers have a lot of power, you are right. And book reviews can be tricky - because oftentimes a graduate student may be the best person for it, but also has usually not published a monograph themselves (some, of course, have). In retrospect, I wish I had not published book reviews until after I had published a book because I didn't fully understand all that went into it. But that's just me.

Ben Park at: September 27, 2010 at 8:54 AM said...

Thanks for this, Ed. This is most helpful.

matt b at: September 27, 2010 at 9:18 AM said...

Ed - This is important and useful, like most things you say. Anyhow, as you may remember, I have some of the same thoughts as Janine; we've all been burned by peer review and conference selection committees. Sometimes, at least for me, this happened simply because we were naive graduate students: a number of those early proposals (and even, actually, my first article or two) I would do differently now if I could. Blogging is tempting precisely because it can be a sort of trial run at peer review, a place to get informal before formal feedback.

Blogging, as you point out, is both weirdly permanent and weirdly ephemeral; even though it's sort of like publishing, and even though the internet never forgets, our posts vanish into the aether pretty reliably. And because of that, I think the best analogue is not actually academic publishing but the hallways of the AHA or ASCH, the lunch tables at Calvin, or whatnot. They're a place to network, to talk out loud, to play with your sources and get feedback. Your point about the possibility of setting yourself up to be scooped is important to think about, but I've never - and would probably never - put anything like a paper draft up as a post. I have, and would probably again, extracted a particular twist in a paper from its context and trotted it around the electronic horsetrack to see how it runs. And who hasn't done that in conversation?

Finally, I think that scholars _should not_ restrict our discussions to our own circles; there's a little Arthur Schlesinger in my head that says an important aspect of the profession is explaining why normal people should care about what we do. And to the extent that writing for RD or the History News Network is slowly becoming the new op-ed in the New York Times, we should follow.

Steven P. Miller at: September 27, 2010 at 9:20 AM said...

Thanks for this post, Ed. Essential reading.

Michael J. Altman at: September 27, 2010 at 11:33 AM said...

Ed, great post. Really great. Janine and Matt have already covered most of what I wanted to say. But I'll add this one point. For me, as a graduate student I look at my writing online here and at RD as part of an overall project of professionalization. Above all, I think that it must be a balanced project. The research--dissertation, articles, etc.--hs to be there, the teaching experience has to be there, and the networking/professionalization side has to be there. Writing for blogs, RD, other such things functions as an important part of networking and practicing how to serve as a public intellectual.

Now, when a grad student's online presence takes precedence over their research and their teaching, when it's not the colorful icing on the top of the graduate cupcake, then there's a problem. We can't rely on the internet to make us good job candidates, but the internet will be part of what makes us good job candidates.

Kevin Levin at: September 27, 2010 at 1:11 PM said...

Thanks for this post, Ed. You make a number of important points. As you know I've been blogging at Civil War Memory for close to five years and although I am a high school history teacher perhaps I can offer a slightly different perspective. Here is a link to an essay I did on blogging for Common-Place: http://www.common-place.org/vol-11/no-01/school/

Phil Sinitiere at: September 27, 2010 at 2:13 PM said...

Thoughtful post, Ed.

You, along with many others in the comments, offer useful and helpful perspectives on the promise and (possible) peril of blogging and the academic profession. I do think—as Michael and others suggest—blogging provides a way to make our work intelligible to a wider audience, and can bring needed historical perspective to analysis of contemporary issues.

For my own part, I’ve come to really enjoy the blog interview format. It can allow for extended discussion about selected topics, or provide a forum for authors to make their work perhaps more relevant by responding to “what’s happening now.”

Yet as Matt B insightfully writes, what we post and blog about sometimes becomes “both weirdly permanent and weirdly ephemeral; even though it's sort of like publishing, and even though the internet never forgets, our posts vanish into the aether pretty reliably.” Sometimes, oddly, as the saying goes, perspectives are hidden in plain sight.

I think Kevin identifies something really important as well—blogging as to work as a sort of bridge between multiple audiences. And I think Kevin’s work as a high school history teacher is critical in this regard. Plus, as Kevin’s blog attests, blogging can be useful as a pedagogical tool as well. I was also fortunate to employ this strategy when teaching high school history. While time intensive, I found it enjoyable, and students seemed to respond to it. We tend to think of blogging about scholarly topics and the latest project, but its use as a teaching tool can also be an important way to think about blogging as an academic exercise.

mcconeghy at: September 28, 2010 at 2:11 AM said...

What a delightfully timely and thoughtful piece!

I think you've captured precisely the spirit of my father, who admonished me for blogging under a pseudonym because my ideas would be stolen and I'd have trouble recovering them but also that if I used my real name I could risk future employment.

Nevertheless, I have recently begun blogging under my own name. Your perspective is invaluable, but it seems limited in its application because of how narrowly it views the products found on the blogs of young professionals. I also worry that it doesn't adequately identify how to avoid pitfalls nor does it suggest the potential rewards of blogging. (I'd cite >An und für sich as a place where the intellectual conversations are intensely rewarding for the authors.)

I've written a longer response to your points, if anyone is interested in my fledgling efforts:

A Lively Experiment

Phil Sinitiere at: September 28, 2010 at 11:08 AM said...

Thoughtful post, Ed. You, along with many others in the comments, offer useful and helpful perspectives on the possibilities and potential pitfalls of blogging and the academic profession. I do think—as Michael and others suggest—blogging provides a way to make our work intelligible to a wider audience, and can bring needed historical perspective to analysis of contemporary issues. For my own part, I’ve come to really enjoy the blog interview format. It can allow for extended discussion about selected topics, or provide a forum for authors to make their work perhaps more relevant by responding to “what’s happening now.” And as Matt B insightfully writes, what we post and blog about sometimes becomes “both weirdly permanent and weirdly ephemeral; even though it's sort of like publishing, and even though the internet never forgets, our posts vanish into the aether pretty reliably.” Sometimes, oddly, as the saying goes, perspectives are hidden in plain sight.

I think Kevin identifies something really important as well—blogging as to work as a sort of bridge between multiple audiences. And I think Kevin’s work as a high school history teacher is critical in this regard. Plus, as Kevin’s blog attests, blogging can be useful as a pedagogical tool as well. I was also fortunate to employ this strategy when teaching high school history. While time intensive, I found it enjoyable, and students seemed to respond to it. We tend to think of blogging about scholarly topics and the latest project, but its use as a teaching tool can also be a way to think about blogging as an academic exercise.

Jeremy Young at: September 30, 2010 at 10:25 PM said...

Excellent post, Ed. I agree with most of what you say here, though I'm less concerned about the essential gatekeeping function of peer review -- I see that more as a pretension of the field than as a real feature of scholarship, but you're right that it's a pretension that matters in our profession.

One point you didn't mention is the time-consuming nature of blogging. Admittedly mine took more than most because I ran a multi-author blog rather than just writing on my own site, but I ended up putting in at least 2-3 hours a day on my blog. That was time that couldn't go to scholarship, service, teaching, or letting off steam with friends. There's a concern, too, about the limited amount of creative energy we have: should we be spending any of that in a medium that doesn't advance our careers?

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