Thu 5 Jan 2012
Earlier this week, Linda Raftree pointed me to this article, which references another article that calls blogging without tenure “an extreme sport” because of the risks involved. It is a little hard for me to comment on this specifically, as I did not start blogging until after I had tenure – not because I was afraid of blogging, but because it never occurred to me to blog before then (basically, my agent and my publisher pushed me to blog to promote my book). I did plenty of “public sphere” writing, such as op-eds in The State (Columbia, SC). Hell, right before I went up for tenure I published one titled “Governor’s energy report has no clothes.” I walked into my chair’s office the day it was published, and he shook his head and said “not exactly keeping your head down, are you?” The op-ed had no impact on my tenure at all. In most cases, neither will blogging.
I think most academics are far too timid when it comes to public expression. They fear reprisals against their careers, but rarely seem to be able to articulate where such reprisals might come from or how they might actually create harm. I am sure there are indeed cases of highly dysfunctional situations where individual’s careers might be harmed by the public expression of their views on a given subject within their expertise, but such situations are volatile for many reasons and blogging is unlikely to ever be the cause of career problems. In fact, I am convinced that there is far more upside to blogging than there might ever be a downside. On the upside:
1) As I recently noted, my blog and twitter accounts appear to have done a great deal to spread my work around, and to get that work used (at least by other writers). Find me a department that will complain about your rapidly rising citation counts.
2) You will develop a whole new community of colleagues, and they will bring new ideas and perspectives that you simply cannot get talking to people in your department, or even in your discipline. These ideas and perspectives can be challenging, but if you can harness them, they can carry your thinking to new and innovative places.
3) When you develop a public persona, you can build a degree of freedom from problematic situations in your home institution. You can cultivate a community in which there might be several people interested in giving you a job. Further, universities love publicly-visible faculty, because they are easy to point to when someone asks what the faculty contribute to the larger society (and yes, this does get asked often).
4) You practice speaking in multiple registers: we all write academic articles, and if you are on the tenure track I hope you’ve figured that process out. But do you know how to engage the person on the street? Taxpayers fund a lot of research, and explaining to them why they should be happy they are funding yours is a worthwhile skill. You can’t do that through a journal article, or in the language of your discipline.
On the downside:
1) Bill Easterly said it best: the blog is a hungry mouth. It can be hard to keep up with posting, especially when you have a bunch of other stuff going on during the semester.
2) You will be exposed to griefers – the internet is a harsh place. People will say nasty things about you and your ideas. If you are fragile, do not try this at home.
Anyway, these are just my quick thoughts on blogging and academia, and I am sure my thoughts are incomplete and others will have something to add. Indeed, you should check out Marc Bellemare’s recent post on things he has learned as an untenured blogger. Speaking for myself, though, I have not regretted blogging at all, and aside from sometimes being exhausted after finishing a post, I have yet to see a serious drawback from doing so – but the benefits have been remarkable.