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Tuesday, July 25, 2006


One more thing while I’m working away on my Beckett post (which I will begin writing real soon, I promise).

In the wake of the smear campaign that may or may not have cost Juan Cole a position at Yale, the Chronicle of Higher Education asks:

Can Blogging Derail Your Career?

(They’ve generously made the forum free to nonsubscribers.  You can click on it right there.)

Seven bloggers respond, including the humble and almost preternaturally shy owner of this here blog.  I am curious, I admit, about whether blogging might derail other people’s careers, because—after all—people sometimes say the strangest things on blogs, and when they. . . .

Oh, wait a second.  The Chronicle was asking me whether blogging could derail my career.  Dang, I completely missed that part.  Funny—it just never occurred to me.

Gulp!  Well, on the off chance that any of my colleages in academe are reading this (and if you are, why are you wasting your precious time?  get back to work!), I hope you’ll note that despite yesterday’s horrible gaffe, this blog is usually quite free of typographical errors.  And that I hardly ever use cuss words, like The Big Lebowski does.  And that this blog is heartily endorsed by Krusty the Clown.

Anyway, some of the forum contributions are quite wonderful.  Daniel Drezner sounds a properly cautionary note:

Blogs and prestigious university appointments do not mix terribly well. That is because top departments are profoundly risk-averse when it comes to senior hires. In some ways, that caution is sensible—hiring a senior professor is the equivalent of signing a baseball player to a lifetime contract without any ability to release or trade him. In such a situation, even small doubts about an individual become magnified.

The trouble with blogs is that they seem designed to provoke easy doubts. Blogs are an outlet for unexpurgated, unreviewed, and occasionally unprofessional musings. What makes them worth reading can also make them prone to error. Any honest scholar-blogger—myself included—could acknowledge a post or two that they would like to have back. At a place like Yale, one bad blog post can erase a lot of good will very quickly.

There are other risks. At Chicago, I found that some of my colleagues overestimated the time and effort I put into my blog—which led them to overestimate lost opportunities for scholarship. Other colleagues maintained that they never read blogs—and yet, without fail, they come into my office once every two weeks to talk about a post of mine. Today’s senior faculty members look at blogs the way a previous generation of academics looked at television—as a guilty, tawdry pleasure that should not be talked about in respectable circles.

Brad DeLong counters with a different calibration of risks and rewards:

The hope of all of us who blog is that we will become smarter, do more useful work, be happier and more productive, and will also impress our deans so they will raise our salaries. The first three hopes are clearly true: Academics who blog think more profound thoughts, have a bigger influence on the world—both the academic and the broader worlds—and are happier for it. Are we more productive in an academic sense? Maybe. We will see when things settle down.

Are our deans impressed? Not so far, but they should be. A lot of a university’s long-run success depends on attracting good undergraduates. Undergraduates and their parents are profoundly influenced by the public face of the university. And these days, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed Web logger like Juan Cole or Dan Drezner is an important part of a university’s public face. Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty. Yale loses from not having an equivalent.

A great university has faculty members who do a great many things—teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, the many things that are “research,” public education, public service, and the turbocharging of the public sphere of information and debate that is a principal reason that governments finance and donors give to universities. Web logs may well be becoming an important part of that last university mission.

I do worry sometimes about being part of the Internets face of my fine university, even though (just for the record) this skittish blog has no infrastructural relation to Penn State, not even a hyperlink from my official faculty web page.  It’s just one of the things I do in my spare time, like freelance writing and ice hockey and softball and golf and polo and amateur Very Large Array radio astronomy.  But it hadn’t even occurred to me to try to impress my dean!  I guess when you have Krusty’s endorsement (as I do, see above), you’re basically freed from all such distractions.

Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s contribution reminds us that the immediacy of blogs can be a very good thing:

The blogosphere is an excellent vehicle for the kind of intellectual ascendancy [Cole] has achieved. Dozens of important intellectual and academic blogs are being written for a wide public—and they are clearly being read, influencing the agenda, if not the content, of debate in the mainstream news media. In his informed discussions of the Middle East and Islam, Cole has shown us how to use blogs effectively and authoritatively, and how to use them as outlets for issues that are changing too quickly to leave to academic publication. In his defense of his own record and reputation against right-wing attacks, he has shown us how to protect ourselves against cheap shots and low blows.

And Erin O’Connor says that we shouldn’t deplore energetic debate:

Much ink and many pixels have been expended deploring the energy with which Cole’s candidacy was debated. But we should welcome such debate, and we should meet it with more. There is no threat to academic freedom in vigorous public discussion. There is only freedom itself.

For as Kris Kristofferson once wrote, “freedom’s just another word for a nationally-coordinated right-wing smear campaign against a prominent scholar of the Middle East.”

Best of all, Juan Cole responds.  He opens with

The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic’s career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about “careers,” the tenured among us least of all.

and closes with

Powerful economic and political forces in American society would like to monopolize the discourse on these matters for the sake of their own interests, which may not be the same as the interests of those of us in the general public. Obviously, such forces will attempt to smear and marginalize those with whom they disagree. Before the Internet, they might have had an easier time of it. Being in the middle of all this, trying to help mutual understanding, is what I trained for. Should I have been silent, published only years later in stolid academic prose in journals locked up in a handful of research libraries? And this for the sake of a “career”? The role of the public intellectual is my career. And it is a hell of a career. I recommend it.

Ahhh.  To the weary among us, that’s better than a double espresso.  Thanks, Professor Cole, for the reminder—and for all you do.

As they say on blogs (and only on blogs), read the whole thing (Althouse and Instapundit are there too).

Oh, and while we’re blogging about the Chronicle of Higher Education and blogging, this bit from the Little Professor is hilarious.

Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 11:01 AM
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