Blogs > Cliopatria > Why Should Academics Blog?

Mar 3, 2011 6:16 pm

Why Should Academics Blog?

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Food for Thought

Edward J. Blum

Last summer, I was chatting with a collection of amazingly talented graduate students and newly minted PhDs in American religious history about the role of blogging. They all agreed that blogging was a godsend for those new to the profession, for it let them “be known.” Blogging offered an instant opportunity to present ideas, critique other works, and sound off publicly on any number of issues. Time and again, these brilliant scholars expressed their belief in the blogosphere: that it was the place to gain recognition.

I was worried. I wondered if the perils outweighed the possibilities. Paul Harvey’s American Religious History blog was created after I was finished with graduate school and had two monographs published. I was just at that moment becoming an associate professor and so “making a name for myself” had less immediate importance. I saw his blog and others as a place to promote and to play – not a place to stake a reputation.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the academic turn to the blog, and my gravest concern is for junior scholars – knowing full well that by avoiding blogs, junior scholars may be missing out on many important opportunities. But here are my reservations and lessons....

Blogs often function like the current American media: extreme, partisan, and amnesiac. Jon Stewart recently told Bill O’Reilly that all the messianic love for President Obama in 2008 set Americans up for heartache. Guess who said this in a Religion Dispatches blog essay in 2008? I did. Guess who remembers? Only me. As I see it, the current media is in the business of producing ideas each and every minute and there can be no regard for past claims, words, or interests. Stories and sound bites must be made new constantly. This is not how the scholarly world has functioned or should. We must take the time to think ideas through, to hash them out, to consider alternatives, and to weigh various other texts. Reacting to every new media story is not the path of most scholarly work; it’s the domain of the journalist....

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More Comments:

Timothy Scarlett - 10/11/2010

This is a difficult question on many levels, Dr. Blum. I can comment from my perspective as an archaeologist. I believe that blogging about research finally shares with readers the collaborative nature of archaeology as a method for producing knowledge about the world. In my blog, I try to pull down the curtain and show the magic behind academic rhetoric and authority, illustrating how archaeologists reason and intuit and question; how they rely upon others; how they weigh and sort conflicting perspectives, facts, and data; how they handle the mundane. I also hope that as it grows, my blog will help situate my research within the social networks of the various stakeholder and descent communities, opening communication and collaboration. I show my mistakes and my successes, my aspirations and my fears, because I want to be human to those readers.

Silas Deane - 10/6/2010

Check this out.

A few interesting questions about blogging.

Godfrey C Leggett - 10/2/2010

This rise of the Tea Party really worries me. I attended the local tea party meeting a couple of times. In my opinion, most of these folks are scared of what they call the 'liberal elites'. They are for the most part the very religious end of the religious right wing of the republican party. I have been hoping for a 'new enlightenment' but, this Tea Party movement is taking us in the opposite direction. Wow, these people are so profoundly ignorant but, our legislators have not shown much better thought processes themselves. We have so many profound problems headed our way and, these folks do not have the answers, SCARY!

Maarja Krusten - 10/2/2010

For those who don't follow presidential libraries issues very closely, the libraries are staffed and administered by the U.S. National Archives, an executive branch agency of the U.S. government. Private foundations associated with former presidents play a role in some library activities, however. Tim Naftali is a federal employee, as was I when I worked for the National Archives. I still am a fed, I just work elsewhere within the government. To support Tim effectively requires knowledge of how the private-public partnership works. John Taylor and I both bring that to the table, albeit from differing sides, he the private, I the public sector. One needs access both to official blogs and to unofficial ones at which knowledgeable people engage.

Maarja Krusten - 10/2/2010

A blogging success story, if I may.

We all have different experiences but from where I sit, being yourself and revealing your values through action (walking the talk) works better than anything else. Blogs are a way of doing that--for the blog owner and for the people who post on blogs.

I was very touched and pleased recently when former Nixon Foundation director, John Taylor, who long ago referred to my cohort at the National Archives as "junior prosectors" and “Hardy Boys,” wrote on his blog of the current and past Nixon records staff:

"But at the end of all our journeys, which will come all too soon, the Nixon story will be told not by any of us but by the records that Tim [Naftali] has now brought to Yorba Linda. I care what people think about Nixon today, of course. But I'm considerably more interested in what they think about him in 50 years as a result of the the work that students and scholars do in that bright new reading room, thumbing through Hollinger boxes and listening to tapes.

All along, you and your colleagues have been the true custodians of Nixon's legacy, however it comes out (and I do trust it will come out heavily leaning to the positive side). For that, you deserved thanks rather than brickbats."

Keep in mind, John once served as Richard Nixon's chief of staff after he had left office, and was an executor of his estate. I, on the other hand, helped lead the fight to open Nixon's records, especially the tapes my colleagues and I once screened for acvcess, to the public.

How did John Taylor come to change his mind about the National Archives? In part because social media revealed to him what some of us were all about. And for me, taught me something about where Taylor was coming from. We engaged at his blog.

Blogging, and submitting comments, can teach you a great deal about people. You see them reacting instinctively, based on their core values.

I greatly appreciate John Taylor saying what he did publicly. How many people are willing to put it out there, that their thinking has evolved and they have changed their minds? Especially ones who come from a political culture, where getting into a defensive crouch and attacking critics often seems the norm?

What Taylor writes at his blog, in that comment, as in many of his other postings, sounds brave and mature and focused on what really matters, including the awareness that all our journeys one day will end. (Taylor presently is the vicar of an Episopal church in California.) I see a lot of grace in his recent comments in support of Nixon Presidential Library director Tim Naftali.

Indeed, I see more support for Naftali, a Cold War scholar who has headed the government's Nixon library since 2006, and who currently is trying to get the Archives to approve a Watergate exhibit, in what Taylor has said publicly than among academics. (At his blog, Taylor has supported giving the go-ahead to Naftali's completed Watergate exhibit. However, a representative of the private Nixon Foundation, with which Taylor no longer has any connection, has submitted objections to the exhibit to the National Archives. I believe there are differing views among the factions on the Nixon side. In the past, the Eisenhowers have sided with Taylor, the Cox’s against him and for more family control.) I've yet to see any academics blog about the controversy, despite an article about it in The New York Times in August.)

Had Taylor and I not connected two years ago at his blog, I might never have had to honor of reading words of thanks from someone who once criticized us in public. And I doubt I would have seen him writing at his blog in support of Tim Naftali, whom I greatly respect and whose efforts I support. I never expected that. As far as I can tell, what I’ve written about the struggles to open Nixon’s records over the years has not reached many academics. I think it is because the issues are so arcane and the experience of fighting former presidents and, in some cases, the Department of Justice, are so removed from what academics experience. But it did reach someone “on the other side.” Handled right, blogging certainly can produce surprising results.

Maarja Krusten - 10/2/2010

Exactly. Well said, Dr. Dresner. And it is not just academics who can benefit from blogging. So, too, can governmental institutions such as the National Archives, which employs a high number of individuals with graduate degrees in history.

There is, of course, an art to using social media effectively. U.S. Archivist David Ferrerio recently discussed that at his blog in an essay on "Leading an Open Archives."

Ferrerio quoted an expert who advises that "It isn’t enough to be a good communicator. You must be comfortable with sharing personal perspectives and feelings to develop closer relationships. Negative online comments can’t be avoided or ignored. Instead, you must come to embrace each openness-enabled encounter as an opportunity to learn. And it is not sufficient to just be humble. You need to seek out opportunities to be humbled each and every day – to be touched as much by the people who complain as by those who say 'Thank you.'”

There is an art to online communications which some people instinctively understand and others may take some time to learn(if they ever do). When you only have a blog to speak through, people don't see you "walking the floor." Or "rewarding rather than shooting the messenger" (as Ryan and Oestreich recommend in their book on creating high performance organizations, Driving Fear Out of the Workplace). Or actively listening. Or joking around with staff, even poking fun at oneself. So you have to work a little harder on the web to show you mean it. That Ferriero quotes the passage he does suggests that he gets it.

That's not to say there are not risks to blogging, altough they are a little different in academe and government. But there also are great benefits to blogging. I'll illustrate one below.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/1/2010

Academics should blog for the same reasons that they go to conferences and symposia and lectures and book groups and for the same reasons that they speak to community groups and hang out in faculty lounges and browse through bookstores and skim the book reviews of journals outside their field. Thinking, reading, writing, discussing, disputing, critiquing and sharing is what we do. Why not do it on blogs?

Shawn Graham - 10/1/2010

I blogged about this back in March <a href =""> here</a>

Kathryn Hovis - 9/30/2010

Obviously, those of us who are reading this blog can see at least some value in academic blogging. While it is not the place to publish ideas in the hopes of making them known and respected, for the reasons pointed out by Mr. Blum, but it is an excellent place to brainstorm, for lack of a better word. Blogs create an easy, instant sounding board for new and developing ideas in academics. It also exposes these new ideas to others who may explore them either separately or in conjunction with the original poster. As a teacher, I find the ability to share and receive feedback about new ideas a huge benefit for formulating lessons and research. And while we may not all receive our due credit for an original idea, shouldn't we, as scholars, be more interested in the exposure of information to as many eyes as possible, rather than getting credit for that brain-child?

David Gill - 9/30/2010

I blogged (!) about this in May 2009: