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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Blogging:  an academic question

I know I’m naive and sentimental and a bit slow on the uptake sometimes, but I admit that this piece of news, involving the denial of tenure to Daniel Drezner (and, earlier this year, Sean Carroll) at the University of Chicago, took me by surprise.  How much by surprise?  This much by surprise: I don’t know what to think about it.  Now when’s the last time you heard me say that?

On the one hand: there’s no reason to think that their blogs hurt their tenure cases.  The University of Chicago is one of those places that doesn’t go around tenuring people just because they’re smart and productive, oh no.  So the headline “smart productive person denied tenure at Chicago” is a little like “Cubs Fans Say ‘Wait Til Next Year’” or “Rick Santorum Bites Man.” You know, not news.

But on the other hand: Carroll and Drezner are among the best academic bloggers in the academic blogosphere.  They have Serious Blogs (in Sean’s case, he had a Serious Blog that merged into a Serious Group Blog) on which they actually discuss matters relevant to their areas of scholarly expertise, whereas some academic bloggers I could name have Occasionally Silly Blogs that take extended vacations from matters of scholarly expertise.  So if indeed their blogs hurt their tenure cases, that would mean that at certain elite universities, even the very best kind of academic blogging is to be frowned upon and shunned.

Is that a real possibility?  Yes, it’s a real possibility.  Following the Inside Higher Ed link to Juan Non-Volokh (apparently not his real name), I read the following:

I’ve often heard academics disparage non-academic writing in terms that suggest it could be a negative in the tenure process, irrespective of the quality of academic work under review. This is one of the reasons I’ve blogged under a pseudonym—and will at least until my own tenure vote—as I want my file, and the work therein, judged on the merits. In my view, that I spend some of my free time blogging is no more relevant to the process than a colleagues’ decision to spend his or her time attending theater, performing in dance recitals, or raising children, but there is no guarantee that one’s colleagues will agree.

And you know what?  I’ve often heard academics disparage non-academic writing too.  I’ve heard it from the moment I published an essay in the Village Voice in 1991, and I heard a whole earful of it at a conference held in 1997 at the University of Chicago, where I found myself on a panel with someone who insisted that “public” writing was not sufficiently rigorous to be considered worthy of a scholar’s time or attention.  Fortunately, Laura Kipnis was in the audience that day, and she pointed out in response that some forms of “public” writing involve far more rigorous editing and intellectual exchange than some forms of “scholarly” writing.  My co-panelist denied this.  He was wrong, but that was OK.  He was talking about matters outside his area of expertise.

Kipnis eventually elaborated her remark into a short, spicy essay called “Public Intellectuals Do It With Style” (minnesota review 50/51 [1999]: 193-96).  The essay opens like so:

In academic life you regularly encounter people (these would be professors) with vast storehouses of accumulated knowledge who still manage to be singularly uninteresting about what they know.  Ask an academic what he’s working on and all too often he starts vying with Fidel for the longest monologue on record.  Does he think you’re interested?  No, he’s forgotten you’re even there.

But, as Kipnis makes clear a bit later on, she’s not entirely against academic solipsism: “I write as someone who is extraordinarily grateful that institutions of higher learning exist which are willing to provide us geeks with some semblance of refuge from regimes of the normal and to reward us for what so much of the rest of the world finds offensive and incomprehensible.” What’s valuable about “public” intellectualism, however, is precisely its willingness to try to speak to people who aren’t always already interested in the subject at hand:

What it means to be a “public intellectual,” then, is not only to be interdisciplinary rather than disciplinary and surprising rather than fetishistic, but also to seduce an audience that isn’t compelled by any particular compulsion (be it requirements of a major or “keeping up” with the profession), and that isn’t composed of enablers and co-dependents of the knowledge-fetish (who are non-academics, in other words), into donating its attention.  Thus, being a public intellectual demands modes of mediating one’s private fascinations and the driven aspects of one’s intellectual engagements in order to establish connections and rapport whose terms and publics are not dictated in advance.  I will designate these modes of mediation, style. . . .

It’s pretty obvious why the subject of “public intellectuals” arouses such antipathy in the academy: it poses a request, even a demand, to produce different and enlarged forms of mediation. . . .  Insofar as this demand represents an interruption of business as usual in our small corner of the world, insofar as it constitutes a critique of existing practices, it resonates with other critiques of entrenched privilege and power in the academy.  The demand for style—in the largest sense of the word—interrupts a largely unexamined academic privilege of largely unself-examining academics, that is, the privilege academics have long enjoyed to be boring with impunity.

What is true of “public intellectuals,” in Kipnis’ sense, is true a fortiori of bloggers: the mediating skills that we knowledge-merchants have to learn, in order to write for magazines, newspapers, and general-audience journals, are on even more immediate display in blog format—and, of course, the response from readers is more immediate as well.

That’s certainly one of the reasons I’ve grown so fond of blogging, and I imagine that’s one reason why (so far) I haven’t lost too much academic prestige by indulging in this here medium, either.  Most of the professors and graduate students who know about this humble blog have said very kind things about it, sometimes so emphatically as to threaten its status as a humble blog.  But every so often someone says to me, with just a barely audible sneer, “I suppose you’ll be putting this on your blog” or “is this a real talk, or just something from your blog?” and I’ve even heard one professor playfully insult another (not me this time), “oh, go tell it to your blog . . . and both your readers.” Of course, most people who know me or my work know that I was pretty compromised on this score to begin with.  “Well, no wonder Bérubé has a blog,” they say.  “He was already writing for newspapers, it was only a matter of time before he sank even further into the ‘public’ muck.” The idea, clearly enough, is that blogs lie somewhere on the respectability-spectrum between personal diaries and obsessive basement hobbies, and that while it’s fine that you write about your life or build your model trains on your own time, you should at least be circumspect—if not positively sheepish—about doing it in public.

I think that five or ten years from now, that idea is going to look pretty silly.  While it’s true that the blogosphere is home to any number of Comic Book Guys and Dennis Miller Wannabes and Assorted Cranks (and don’t worry, Blogging Jesus loves every one of you), my guess is that before too long, academics will be slapping their foreheads and saying, “what were we thinking?  All these years we were waiting for the second reader’s report on the essay we submitted to the Journal of the Econometric Analysis of Advanced Eggplant Parmesan, we could have been using blogs for any number of intellectual and pedagogical purposes, from extramural class discussions in individual courses to wide-ranging debates about Constitutional law, the legacy of structuralism, and the impact of intercollegiate athletics on the labor market in professional sports!” At which point I fear I will not be able to refrain from saying yeah, well, told you so.

But right now I still don’t know what to think.  Suggestions welcome.

Posted by Michael on 10/11 at 01:46 PM
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