Juan Cole: Interviewed by CHE about his new group blog

Historians in the News

Juan R.I. Cole turned some heads this week when he announced the launch of a new group blog on current events, Informed Comment Global Affairs. We had a number of questions for the University of Michigan historian -- and frequent Review contributor -- that he was kind enough to answer by e-mail.

[CHE] Why did you start the original Informed Comment, your blog on the Middle East, and how important has its growth and popularity been to your career?

[COLE] I began Informed Comment in the spring of 2002 as a direct response to the September 11 attacks, in hopes of explaining what I know about the greater Middle East (where I had lived off and on for almost 10 years) to a public that was thirsty for information and expert interpretation. At that time, I was unknown outside Middle East studies and could not so much as get an op-ed published in a local newspaper.

The Weblog became a phenomenon, generating in some months as many as a million page views -- making me one of the top bloggers in the world, and giving me a second career as a public intellectual. The Weblog became my entrée to opinion pages, radio, television, speaking tours, etc. Without it I would still be known mainly among other specialists (not a bad fate, since I respect specialist research enormously - just a different fate).

[CHE] In your post announcing the launch of Informed Comment Global Affairs, you mention the burdens of solo-blogging, the incessant daily need to post so as not to alienate readers. Is it your hope that the new blog will alleviate the downside of solo-blogging?

I personally don't mind solo-blogging or posting daily, which I maintain is key to a successful blog. But I worked as a journalist in my youth and learned habits of celerity and concision that aren't necessarily common or perhaps even approved of in academe. Most academics specializing in area studies or foreign affairs take some time to write even 800 words, and wouldn't dream of just spontaneously posting thoughts on their field. I am hoping that a group blog can provide a place to publish for colleagues who have something important to say on current events, but who could only make an entry once a week or once every two weeks.

[COLE] It is not an original idea. Crooked Timber is an example of a successful academic group blog. And the History News Network in some ways functions similarly for historians and on a much larger scale than I contemplate. But I think the range of expert comment in the blogosphere is still too limited, and that more interfaces between the public and academics on issues of burning public concern are vital to democratic discourse and rational decision making.

The 24-hour cable-news stations have some excellent talent and do some things well, but their owners clearly are pushing them in the direction of infotainment and sensationalism. The Internet is an opportunity to escape those constraints and get away from what I think of as the clown-pundits, but too few academics take advantage of it. Maybe a proliferation of group blogs is what is needed to help address this problem.....

comments powered by Disqus