Wednesday, 12 October 2005

Blogging and academic success

One of the more positive outcomes of the Drezner debacle has been some more serious thought about the role of blogging in the academy, exemplified by this post from Michelle Dion and this contribution from Matthew Shugart. Herewith are a few thoughts from my little corner of the academic universe.

First and foremost, I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have this job if I didn’t have a blog. No blog, no Public Choice panel in New Orleans on blogging in the academy with Dan Drezner and Mike Munger, no after-panel beers with Mike (and Dan and Leslie), and no Duke job for Chris. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t have any job (in the counterfactual universe, I don’t know who would have made me offers—I just know who I had to turn down for interviews when they called me)... but I doubt it would be quite as rewarding as this one has been thus far.

Second (and following from point one), it’s fair to say I wouldn’t have the academic network I have today without the blog. Dozens of political scientists know who I am solely because of Signifying Nothing, and I hope most of them have a positive impression. If academic blogging is going to be a “virtual conference,” a big part of that has to be the informal networking that conferences are at least supposed to encourage… indeed, blogging may do a better job of fostering networking than conferences, where the temptation is to go catch up with one’s grad school cohort rather than meeting new people.

Third, I don’t think the blog has demonstrably hurt my career. I think it’s reasonably common knowledge that I wouldn’t be at Duke (or, for that matter, anywhere else) if I’d been offered the tenure-track Americanist position at Millsaps. The person they hired instead had a blog too—and I am reasonably certain that the search committee was aware of it at the time.

Fourth, I think that the message (intentional or unintentional) that the U of C has sent to denying tenure to Dan is an unhealthy one. Our discipline is—rightly—often criticized for a failure to engage the real world and real political debates. It is very tempting for an academic to avoid those debates, and to either retreat to the world of models that have no bearing on reality or the comparably disengaged world of deconstructing the arcania of political philosophy. The best academic blogs have tried to bring the real and potentially useful knowledge that we have accumulated to bear on contemporary political debates. It is one thing to sit back and opine about politics from a partisan standpoint bereft of the benefits of any particular expertise (and certainly this is a popular tactic for many academic bloggers of all partisan stripes). Dan, to his credit, has rarely—if ever—taken that approach.

Finally, on the question of the academic study of blogging (versus the merits of academics being bloggers), I think there are noteworthy parallels to the beginnings of other research programs. Decades ago, the study of particular social and ethnic groups was considered fundamentally unserious—and certainly there are plenty of observers (mostly outside the academy, but also inside the academy as well) who still see these pursuits as unserious, or at the very least as backdoor mechanisms for hiring scholars who lack intellectual rigor in the “traditional” disciplines. The fact that the people who study blogging are, themselves, bloggers is something not lost on contemporary critics of this research program, and this is likely to be a difficult reputation for people who do want to study the role of weblogs in politics and society to overcome.

Of course, my contribution to this academic study thus far (beyond doing a few favors to colleagues doing research in this area) has been confined to some off-the-cuff comments at Public Choice and my upcoming paper on my use of blogs in my American politics class for SPSA—which manages to combine blogs with another topic “real” scholars refuse to take seriously, pedagogy. Maybe I should quit while I’m still ahead.