2. Blogging and academia

The new landscape of the religion blogosphere
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“Academics, especially in the arts and humanities, have taken to blogs like ducks to water.”

– Craig Saper, Blogademia

“Imagine if the great thinkers of the past could have blogged, bouncing ideas off each other in real time, engaging in rapid-fire debates across borders. Would it have led to some kind of intellectual utopia, or total chaos?” This was the question Village Voice reporter Geeta Dayal posed in an April 2005 piece on academic blogging. Although she found ample evidence that academics had taken to the blogosphere in great numbers, this article, like most other discussions about academic blogging, provided more questions than answers. Indeed, four years and countless academic blogs later, as Dayal’s thought experiment increasingly resembles reality, the prospect of an answer to her pressing question has seemingly grown even more remote.

This section attempts to define the sphere of academic blogging and to identify the major issues that have emerged in discussions about blogging in academia, including:

  • What kinds of academics blog, and why?
  • Do blogs represent powerful new forms of collaboration, or not?
  • How do blogs impact the careers of academics who do (or do not) contribute to them?
  • How do blogs impact the development of knowledge within and across academic fields?

There is also a burgeoning literature on the use of blogs as pedagogical tools (see Dahl 2009, Krause 2005, Stutzman 2006), which explores the extent to which blogging has the “potential to be a transformational technology for teaching and learning” (Wiliams and Jacobs 2004). Although this is an important and relevant topic, there is not space to treat it fully here.

2.1 Blogging and academic discourse: hopeful thoughts

Despite the proliferation of questions and anxieties about the implications of academia’s turn to new technologies, most observers cannot help but be intrigued by the possibilities that blogging presents. In a widely read 2005 piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Crooked Timber’s Henry Farrell likens the blogosphere to a “carnival of ideas” and believes it will “transform how we think of ourselves as scholars”:

Why are so many academics beginning to blog? Academic blogs offer the kind of intellectual excitement and engagement that attracted many scholars to the academic life in the first place, but which often get lost in the hustle to secure positions, grants, and disciplinary recognition. Properly considered, the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today. Academic blogs, like their 18th-century equivalent, are rife with feuds, displays of spleen, crotchets, fads, and nonsenses. As in the blogosphere more generally, there is a lot of dross. However, academic blogs also provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison. Over the next 10 years, blogs and bloglike forms of exchange are likely to transform how we think of ourselves as scholars. While blogging won’t replace academic publishing, it builds a space for serious conversation around and between the more considered articles and monographs that we write.

In the Teachers College Record, Frederick Stutzman (2006) has a less lofty assessment of academic blogging, arguing that blogs are not actually so different, fundamentally, from other “communication tools,” although they certainly may be more powerful and far-reaching. At their root, however, blogs are simply a new form of “conversation.” So what, he wonders, is all the fuss about? “Why is it that so many of us are apprehensive about the role blogs play in academia, and particularly, the role blogging may play in our careers?”

Part of the fuss seems to stem from the hope that blogs could foster new and enhanced forms of scholarly collaboration of the kind most researchers strive for, but cannot—because of limits to time, resources, or nearby colleagues—actually bring about. Many also express hope that technological advances, including blogging, could ultimately advance knowledge in unforeseen ways through more rapid publication of research, real-time feedback on new ideas, as well as more engagement across disciplines and with the public. These hopes, however, are tempered by apprehension about the unintended consequences of the information overload that blogs inevitably deliver into already cluttered research agendas, personal lives, and public domains.

Furthermore, many are simply wary of the new norms of conduct that blogs have ushered into a relatively ordered academic environment. As Farrell explains, “Some academics view them as an unbecoming occupation for junior (and senior) scholars; in the words of Alex Halavais of the State University of New York at Buffalo, they seem ‘threatening to those who are established in academia, to financial interests, and to … well, decorum.’ Not exactly dignified; a little undisciplined; carnivalesque. Sometimes signal, sometimes noise.”

Still, Farrell concludes, “exactly because of this, they provide a kind of space for the exuberant debate of ideas, for connecting scholarship to the outside world, which we haven’t had for a long while. We should embrace them wholeheartedly.”

2.2 Questions and anxieties

The orientation

First, it is important to make a distinction between two different types of academic blogger: academics who blog as a scholarly pursuit and academics who happen to have personal blogs. Much of the controversy and concern about academic blogging stems from the conflation of these two orientations, but the potential implications of each for the development of specialized knowledge and for the individual practitioners involved are quite varied.

In fact, the difficulty that some have in distinguishing between the two is itself cause for concern. For example, if students discover a blog penned by a professor at their institution, are they to assume that the information posted at that blog constitutes trustworthy, even citable, scholarship? How does one draw the line between idle speculation and certified knowledge when there are no gatekeepers between author and post? This can be contrasted to more traditional academic practices, in which publication in a journal or book is granted only after passing through a peer review process and other filters, lending legitimacy to the resulting product.

That said, academics have long written for non-peer reviewed publications, including popular magazines and newspapers. These pursuits, however, tend to be reserved for “established” scholars who have already earned the requisite trust of the public and their peers. Such publications do pass through an editorial process, albeit one of a different nature than in academic publishing. Blogs, in contrast, are often not edited by anyone besides the principal author.

Although there are not yet any comprehensive maps of the academic blogosphere and empirical data about academic bloggers is scant, it has become clear that there are multiple types of academic blogging. [Note: For survey research on economics bloggers, see Schiff (2008). For data on the motivations of political scientists and policy bloggers, see Drezner (2006) and McKenna (2007). For data and analysis of gender gaps in academic blogging, see Pedersen and Macafee (2007), “Bitch PhD” (2006), Kaufman (2006), Healy (2004), Arnold and Miller (2001).] At one end are personal blogs—often resembling diaries—that happen to be penned by academics. These might cover topics that are in line with the authors’ professional expertise, but they may also feature the banal and personal ephemera of most diary-style blogs. Geeta Dayal suggests that, for some academics, this orientation to blogging “offers an escape valve, a forum for free expression that’s not bound to the constraints of their fields.” She reports that some such bloggers post anonymously to protect their carefully cultivated professional reputations. Others “blog only in lowercase letters” or refer to this activity as “unofficial blogging” to distinguish it from their “official” work as academics. As important as this diversionary activity might be for enabling these individuals to pursue more serious scholarship when they are on the clock, the products of these blogs themselves should not be considered scholarship in its own right.

At the other end of this spectrum, however, are online forums to which academic authors contribute short-form and timely essays intended for their colleagues or for a general audience. These are occasionally refereed by a formal editorial team, as is the case with The Immanent Frame, but are more often self-regulated by the blogger or bloggers themselves, as is the case with sites like Crooked Timber. Such blogs, which are typically organized around a particular academic discipline or set of themes, can foster collaboration between different types of scholars (i.e., across disciplinary lines and geographical distances), as well as between scholars and the public. Although a number of blogs have emerged that seek to embody this ideal, the reality often falls short of the ambition. In a 2005 piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven D. Krause notes that

even collaborative academic blogs—like the excellent site Crooked Timber, an eclectic mix of writers about academe, politics, science, technology, and more; and Grand Text Auto, which describes itself as being about computer-mediated and computer-generated works of many forms—are interactive only in the sense that they are run by groups of writers who have similar interests and goals. The posts on those blogs are more akin to individual articles in a single issue of a journal than to truly collaborative writings.

Empirical research is needed to answer the questions of whether and how blogging by academics might be opening up new lines of communication between different specialized disciplines within the academy, as well as between scholars and the general public.

The producers

In the meantime, heated debates continue—mostly within the blogosphere itself, although occasionally, it seems, also behind the closed doors of hiring and tenure review committees—over the question of how blogging impacts the careers of academics. To the growing number of graduate students who blog, sometimes attracting a considerable following in the process, the medium can seem to represent a fast track to publication, though the perceived status of such publication remains to be determined. Again, empirical data is limited concerning the likelihood that engaging in certain forms of blogging will impact one’s career trajectory. Certainly, this will vary significantly across academic disciplines, as well as across institutions, but there are a handful of specific cases that have drawn attention to the issue.

Stephen D. Krause—author of Steven D. Krause’s Official Blog and Steve Krause’s Unofficial Blog, and a prolific writer about the phenomenon of academic blogging—has published a series of articles updated over several years that reflect on the relationship between blogging as what he calls “S/scholarship” and the question of where blogs “fit into the all-important document in an academic career, the curriculum vitae.” The decision, it seems, comes down to whether or not it should be listed at all, and if it is, whether it should be counted under “Scholarship” or under “Teaching and Service.” These distinctions can be crucial for faculty members seeking tenure.

Robert Boynton asked a critical question in a 2005 Slate piece: “When academics post online, do they risk their jobs?” That same year, in an oft-cited article in the Chronicle, “Bloggers Need Not Apply,” Ivan Tribble argued forcefully that blogging negatively impacts job prospects. Many bloggers have learned this lesson the hard way, including Tufts political scientist and frequent blogger Daniel Drezner, who was denied tenure at the University of Chicago in 2005. Another high profile case exemplifying the risks of academic blogging involves Juan R.I. Cole, a professor of Middle East and South Asian history who was an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and whose blog, Informed Comment, launched him into national prominence as a political commentator on the region. As Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote:

There has never been a better time to be a public intellectual, and the Web is the big reason why. Juan Cole is exhibit No. 1. Cole is an academic who writes clearly and forcefully about the most trenchant issues of the day (academics are not supposed to know how to do that, remember?). Cole gets quoted by the mainstream news media. He appears regularly in popular publications like Salon. And—love it or hate it—everyone who is anyone reads his blog.

Unfortunately, despite his academic accolades and solid recommendations, he was denied tenure by Yale University, and many suspected the decision was political. The Chronicle of Higher Education played host to an online discussion of the topic, called “Can Blogging Derail Your Career? 7 Bloggers Discuss the Case of Juan Cole.” The conclusions of the authors were mixed.

Some cited the virtues of blogging. Economist and blogger J. Bradford Delong (2006) argued that “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.” Furthermore, Delong argues, blogging might enhance a scholar’s visibility and influence, something most universities support and encourage among their faculty.

Still, most observers focus on the double-edged sword of high exposure. While this might enhance one’s academic star power, it also opens one up to increased criticism (Vaidhyanathan 2006, Althouse 2006, Berube 2006). This fear was echoed in an anonymous 2009 post by “Female Science Professor” at the Chronicle Careers blog. The author laments that “if any academic wants even more evaluation, writing a blog is a good way to get an endless supply of criticism.”

Others reflect on the fragility of academic reputations, in which “one bad blog post can erase a lot of good will very quickly” (Drezner 2006). Still others focus on the information overload that academic blogs produce, making it increasingly difficult to discern trustworthy data from drivel. Kara Dawson (2007) found that her students had grown “blogged down and blogged out.” Finally, many simply see blogging as a waste of time, as a form of procrastination, with high opportunity costs for producing “real” scholarship (Drezner 2006).

The product

How do blogs impact the development of knowledge within and across academic fields? What is their relationship to the production of “real” scholarship?

In September 2006, Brian Leiter wrote an influential piece in The Yale Law Journal blog, Pocket Part, arguing “Why Blogs Are Bad for Legal Scholarship,” which has for years been “the most popular item” on the Pocket Part site (according to a January 2009 post at Leiter’s blog). In this piece, he first argues that blogs ought to be set apart from other forms of online collaboration among scholars, outlining three qualities that are unique to blogs: “they are unmediated (like so much of what is on the Internet), public (like [the Social Science Research Network]), and normative (like much e-mail about scholarly topics). It is this conjunction that makes blogs special, and especially dangerous—at least for legal scholarship.” These three characteristics together pose a challenge to scholarly expertise, making “possible the repeated and systematic broadcast of non-expert opinions, opinions that can then be picked up and amplified by other non-expert blogs.” He notes that this is a form of what Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein have called an “availability cascade,” in which “an opinion that appears to be informed gains credibility by virtue of being repeated and thus becoming current in discourse.”

Although some would argue that the open and democratic nature of blogs might provide more opportunities for inaccurate information to be corrected, Leiter suggests that it is more common to see “amplification and repetition of existing prejudices and ignorance, or, occasionally, feeding frenzies on trivial mistakes in the mainstream media.” He concludes, we must not confuse “buzz” with “real scholarly impact.”

Adam Kotsko, then a doctoral student at Chicago Theological Seminary, published a weary Inside Higher Ed piece on academic blogging in 2007. Though he had used his blog to host some productive discussions in the past, he soured on the quality of conversation that the typical comment thread produces, calling the blog format “hierarchical” as well as “generally cumbersome and difficult to use for in-depth conversation.” Kotsko himself continues to blog regularly, but he believes blogging should have only a very limited role in academic discourse. “Academic blogs,” he writes, “seem to me to be best-suited as a social outlet for academics who would otherwise feel isolated, creating camaraderie and supplementing the social aspects of disciplinary conferences.” They can be an academic grapevine, perhaps, but definitely not places for serious scholarly discussion.

At Crooked Timber, Eszter Hargittai (2004) takes on those who argue that blogging should not count as rigorous scholarship. In a comparison between blog writing and journal publishing, she disagrees with Leiter’s and others’ argument that blogs inherently lack a peer review process. In fact, she argues that the mechanisms for exchange and feedback on some blogs is akin to the formal review process at some journals, and, to the extent these mechanisms differ, one is not necessarily superior to the other:

Blogs that allow comments make it possible for others to discuss the posted material. In many ways this is much more conducive to intellectual exchange and the advancement of knowledge than publishing articles in journals that no one will ever read. Not only is the original post available to all subsequent readers but so are the reactions of others. Sure, there are all sorts of limitations present. It may be that the most appropriate people are not reading the post and so those who would be able to offer the most helpful and relevant critique are not present in the discussion. But this is often likely true in the journal refereeing process as well.

She is careful to explain that she is not proposing that blogs could replace journals, but rather that neither medium offers a perfect review process and that blogging can be pursued more carefully and with more academic seriousness than critics have allowed. Furthermore, although the writing posted at blogs may not in itself constitute scholarly writing, she notes the indirect influence this work may have on one’s eventual scholarly output. She cites the example of articles published in scholarly journals that were refined based on useful feedback received through her blog. Her Crooked Timber colleague Brian Weatherson suggests that blog posts could be understood as “first drafts” for future, more polished and better researched writing on a topic. By posting these less considered musings for public consumption and feedback, a scholar can use blogging “to trial genuinely new ideas” (Hargittai 2004).

The Immanent Frame’s experience offers several instructive examples of how scholarly work can be refined through an interplay between blogging and more traditional scholarly media. A vigorous debate on the question of secular criticism between Saba Mahmood and Stathis Gourgouris was reprinted in the Fall 2008 issue of the interdisciplinary journal Public Culture, showing that an academic journal and a blog can hold some territory in common. And, as a result of The Immanent Frame’s critical discussion of his book A Stillborn God, Mark Lilla was inspired to write an afterword for its paperback edition. Through his engagement with other scholars at The Immanent Frame, as well as with readers participating through comments, Charles Taylor has been working to refine the account presented in A Secular Age, primarily through an extension of his analysis beyond the West. Several contributors to The Immanent Frame have published revised versions of the ideas they originally presented on the blog, demonstrating the potential for such sites to serve not only as forms of publicity for finished scholarly work, but also as part of an ongoing, collective, and public endeavor to advance knowledge. On the other hand, when The Immanent Frame began to offer sample academic citations for citing its posts, it stirred a stern reply at the blog Clavi Non Defixi: “Are blogs ‘legitimate piece[s] of academic writing’? God help us… no” (Kuehn 2008).

Nobody is suggesting that a blog post should be equivalent to a peer-reviewed academic journal article. However, it does seem clear that blogs are finding a place, as in the mainstream media, within academic discourse. Doubtlessly, this process will require adapting the blog medium to the specific needs and expectations of scholars, as is being done with other technologies. The American Academy of Religion, for instance, together with other learned societies and academic publishers, is working to develop a new social-networking platform for collaboration online. There is surely comparable room for innovation in the blogosphere to make it better-suited for supporting scholarship. One would hope that room can be found for innovation in the academy as well.

The new landscape of the religion blogosphere
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