Why I blog, and why I'm not about to stop

Dan Drezner, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and one of the best-known of the current crop of academic bloggers, was denied tenure last week. His very dignified and professional reporting of the fact has apparently touched off a minor panic in the blogosphere, and even made it into the mainstream print media. Suddenly many academic bloggers seem to be wondering whether they should keep doing what they're doing -- whether blogging is, in effect, a bad career move.

The debate is perennial, and it isn't just about blogging. Academia is an odd profession in that there are few if any clear expectations about how one should allot one's time on the job; there are also very few clear signals about whether one is doing a good job or not. Tenure decisions are cloaked in mystery, and pre-tenure reviews are most often written in language that is suggestive but not binding (perhaps so as to prevent lawsuits if someone expected tenure and didn't get it). I have no idea what things are like on the other side of tenure -- I am myself in the same boat as Dan Drezner was until last week, anxiously awaiting a judgment on the massive tenure file that my graduate assistant and I assembled and submitted for review back in September -- but speaking from the Assistant Professor position I can certainly say that I think I've been doing a good job but I have less confidence in that assessment of my performance than some of my friends in non-academic jobs do in theirs.

So the question "should I blog?" is in that way little different than "should I consult?" or "should I protest?" or "should I make a lot of media appearances?" The answer is: I don't know, nobody knows, and it all depends. Depends on what? Well, to be blunt, it depends on your research productivity in the first instance, and on your not pissing people off too much in the second instance. Publishing books and articles in highly-rated places is the central factor in just about every tenure decision at every research university (teaching colleges are different, by definition -- teaching matters much, much more than it does in research universities, even relatively teaching-centric ones like mine). So the basic decision rule for a tenure-track Assistant Professor goes something like this: does doing X take away time from my getting another article or book out there? If yes, then don't do it.

[Obviously, that rule isn't always absolutely followed, since taken to an extreme it means that one shouldn't eat or sleep or go to a baseball game…but the categorical character of the basic rule probably helps to explain why Assistant Professors as a group walk around with very high anxiety levels and nagging feelings of guilt when they're doing almost anything but publishing. It's like being a graduate student, but you get paid more and you get/have to teach classes too. I never maintained that going into academia was a rational decision.]

As for the second decision-rule, well, let's just say that Assistant Professors have to be kind of careful not to really annoy senior colleagues. It's no different than any other profession in that respect; what is different is that there are so many more opportunities to do something that confounds someone's expectations, because those expectations are often idiosyncratic and almost invariably tacit rather than explicitly articulated.

How does blogging stack up in terms of these two criteria? I think that Dan Nexon got it right when he pointed out that blogging doesn't take away from research-and-writing time, but constitutes a part of recreation-and-relaxation time. And lately my wife and I have been sitting down after the kids are in bed to watch the Yankees play, computers on laps, surfing the 'Net, trading observations, and blogging; that time wouldn't be spent in research-and-writing anyway. In addition, there is the fact that the things that I post to my blogs [yes, plural -- this one, Duck of Minerva, and more rarely on Progressive Commons; still trying to figure out exactly what kinds of posts belong where] are both extensions of and elaborations on my scholarly research and my pedagogical practice. Ideas that inform my scholarly writing get floated and debated (for example here and here), so at least some of my blogging is directly related to my research productivity. And I often blog here about science fiction, which is directly related to the "Social/Science/Fiction" seminar I offer once every couple of years.

So blogging doesn't detract from my output as a teacher and a scholar, and might actually enhance it. How about the other criterion? Obviously a blog gives one more of an opportunity to say something publicly that annoys someone else; the blunt nature of the blogging genre, combined with the lack of editorial screening, makes such an occurrence perhaps pretty likely. But it's possible to annoy someone in a faculty meeting, or a public lecture, or while chatting in the hallway, to say nothing of the potential for annoyance involved in allowing oneself to be publicly identified with a political program or agenda. Once again, blogging is no different.

So why are people so concerned about it? Might it be the generally technophobic character of academic practice? As we can see from the resistance to the use of digital projectors, e-mail, IM, and even computers in general by many many members of many many university faculties around the country, academics are a pretty conservative bunch when it comes to their research and teaching practices. (The politics of academics themselves are a wholly separate issue.) Blogging might be getting caught up in a general skepticism about information technology. I can't tell you how many times I've been told that I should cut out the flashy tech and just make presentations the standard way, me alone in front of the room speaking from notes…no, literally, I can't tell you that, because I've only ever heard those comments from senior colleagues and as I said before, rule #2 of getting tenure is Don't Piss Anyone Off Too Much. [I will only say that "colleague" is an expression that refers to any academic, not just to those at one's own institution. And my university is big on teaching with technology, so I face few if any obstacles around here. You do the math.]

So I'm going to keep on blogging. And I'm even going to try to blog in this space more regularly, so keep a watch -- or, better yet, subscribe to the rss feed.

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