I’ve just started reading David Weinberger’s newest book, Too Big To Know.* For those who don’t know his work, Weinberger is one of the big thinkers at the Berkman Center. I’m a longtime fan… his first couple books provided an influential push toward my current field of research.
In the prologue, he raises the following question:
“…should a professor who is shaping the discipline’s discussion through her mighty participation in online and social media get tenure even if she hasn’t published sufficiently in peer-reviewed journals?”
This gets talked about a lot in the circles I inhabit. Speaking as a professor-who-blogs, my answer might surprise you:
No. Or at least, Not Yet.
I do believe that more academics should blog. Blogging offers both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards to academic researchers. It pushes us to write clearly for an audience, sharpening our writing and thinking. It provides immediate gratification, sorely absent from the peer-review process. It raises your profile within the field, which can yield additional research opportunities. It lets you speak to wider audiences, which can help allay bouts of existential angst and answer difficult questions during holiday visits with relatives.
My own blogging experience has been positive in all these ways. Most of my peer-reviewed articles have begun as blog posts (“Understanding Blogspace,” “Macaca Moments Revisited,” “Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective,” and “Implications of the Mobile Web for Online/Offline Reputation Management” all got their start at shoutingloudly). I’ve also enjoyed the experience of attending conferences and being told “oh, I read your blog post last week.” As a young scholar in a nascent field, it still comes as a shock to learn that someone other than my mother reads this thing!
I generally try to write out an idea when it is fresh. Sometimes it gets helpful feedback from readers in the comment section. More often it just forces me to clearly explain what my point is. After months of losing myself in the research, this provides a lodestone of sorts. Being able to go back to the initial impetus sharpens the mind and helps you dig an argument out the mess of data.
Perhaps more importantly, blogging helps to shape my research agenda. The process of writing for an audience leads me to flesh out lines of thought that otherwise would stay murky. Those, in turn, drive the course of my research. Being an active blogger makes me a more active scholar.**
That said, we should acknowledge two limitations on academic blogging: it is bite-sized and it is not (yet) a central forum in academia.
1,000 words is long for a blog post. Most posts are more like 500-750 words. An academic article, by contrast, will run between 6,000-10,000 words. Hyperlinks mediate the difference somewhat — instead of devoting column-inches to describing competing arguments, you can link to them online. Still, peer-reviewed research represents a level of detail that blogs don’t reach. A good research article delves into complexity in ways that a good blog post cannot and should not.
I have had plenty of ideas that appeared ironclad in 600 words. It was only when I attempted to write them in 6,000 words that I saw problems crop up. This is a good thing — nothing sharpens the mind like realizing “huh, I guess I was wrong about that.” But for this reason, peer-reviewed articles ought to remain the “coin of the realm,” where tenure and promotion are concerned.
Likewise, academia is a slow-moving professional field. As my friend C.W. Anderson remarked to me, “ours is the only profession that is paid to think slowly.” That is also a good thing, but it means that the discipline is institutionally conservative and tends to adopt new communications media reluctantly. As a result, while there are some great academic blogs out there, none meet Weinberger’s standard of “shaping the discipline’s discussion.”
Peer-reviewed articles enjoy a privileged position in tenure, promotion, and hiring decisions. That’s because peer-reviewed articles are where the various disciplines’ discussions occur. We assign one another’s articles in the classroom. We cite one another’s articles in our research. We attend conferences centered around early versions of these long-form research articles. This may very well change in my lifetime, but it isn’t going to change anytime soon.
So no, I don’t believe an academic who excels through blogging and social media ought to receive tenure on that basis. Academics ought to blog and tweet, and they can benefit from doing so. But those benefits ought to translate into improved long-form research output. If those benefits fail to translate into research articles, I would consider that reason for serious concern. We are supposed to think deeply and rigorously. Blogs and twitter can aid such thinking, but they provide a tricky venue if not augmented by lengthier articles that have gone through the (sometimes brutal) process of anonymous peer-review.
*This is a great season to be an internet politics geek… new books Weinberger, Clay Johnson, Rebecca MacKinnon, and Joseph Turow are all hitting the shelves. I’ll post some reviews to the blog as I make my way through them.
**Within limits. I blog 2-3 times per week at most. If I was blogging 2-3 times per day, I can’t imagine finding time for much else.