Hawks in Slate on blogging and tenure

4 minute read

If you've found the weblog from this Slate article by Robert Boynton, welcome! Take a look around!

The article launches from the recent tenure denial Daniel Drezner at the University of Chicago to a more general discussion of whether blogging is helpful or harmful to an academic career.

Here's the basic question:

But academics aren't just concerned about the public display of an applicant's personal eccentricities. Many perceive blogs as evidence of a scholar's lack of seriousness. Shouldn't he be putting more time into scholarship, they wonder, and less into his blog? And if a blogger does have something serious to say, why is he presenting it in a superficial medium, rather than a peer-reviewed journal?

In the article, that paragraph links to this Drezner post that among other things, calls blogging about one's own research "an unalloyed good". Good, yes; wise, maybe --- although advocating one's own research necessarily may involve candid opinions of others' research, which many people take less-than-kindly to.

The article says some nice things about me:

To take only one other example, John Hawks, an assistant anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, posts three to five essays a week on subjects like evolutionary theory. He writes about science with the breadth of the late Stephen Jay Gould and doesn't see a big difference between most of his online and offline output. "Much of what I write online is scholarly. When I review an issue in human evolution, it is a genuine review. If I criticize something, I back it up," he says. Indeed, his essays are festooned with citations.

Reading only this week's posts, you might well doubt how "festooned" I am, but please forgive a bit of craziness as my big class gets underway. In the meantime, some more scholarly entries are the Flores file, or this post on mtDNA selection, or the early hominid diet file for some examples.

Not exactly review papers -- they fill a different purpose. First, I write for myself -- I don't want to forget things before writing them down! That includes reviewing new research, giving additional perspectives, and floating ideas. But from my server stats, the posts are addressing a much larger, while still overlapping, readership from traditional journals. So far this month, I've been visited 25,000 times from over 10,000 different users. I think that's wonderful, and I hope you all keep coming back!

Hopefully, I'm asymptotically approaching something useful. I do so by keeping things honest, readable, and referenced.

As far as where blogging is going in academia, there are obviously a wide range of styles. Some academic bloggers touch only lightly on their research interests, some tilt heavily toward advocacy, and a few like mine are adjuncts to traditional research programs.

Should blogging count in some way? I don't know. I think my blogging makes me a better researcher. If I'm right, it has its own rewards. And I don't think that any blog post approximates a review article in any way -- if they did, they would be a lot less interesting!

But the cumulative whole is greater than any single review article. And I would say that a sizable number of my posts are "worth" more than a book review, which would get counted in a minor way. It would be nice if the choice between different forms of productivity did not involve such a stark difference.

Here's Ann Althouse's suggestion:

If various academic departments are looking for a way to judge writing published in places that are not peer reviewed, I have some advice: Look to the way law schools do their tenure process, because most of what law professors publish is not peer-reviewed. Here at the UW Law School, our tenure process goes through the Social Sciences Divisional Committee and is judged by committee members who serve in departments like Political Science, Economics, and Sociology. You can image how these folks look at the student-edited law reviews where lawprofs publish. But we've developed ways to interact with them. Adapt these techniques for blog-writing that deserves to be treated as research.

I guess I don't think anything here qualifies as "research" -- I send my research elsewhere, even if I publish pieces of it here first. The question is how to recognize "scholarly" production that is not "research". Some kind of recognition of cumulative authorship is necessary -- just as we currently recognize cumulative (and episodic) editorships, of journals and edited volumes.

Meanwhile, please enjoy the site, and welcome!

UPDATE (11/18/05): Daniel Drezner links back with his own reaction to the story. Agreeing with my premise that if blogging adds to research output, it will get counted by traditional means, he suggests:

So I'm pretty sure that the contribution of blogs to academic output can be measured using pre-existing standards -- with one exception and one caveat. The exception is that maybe the whole of an academic blog is greater than the sum of its parts. Precisely because a blog can contribute to public discourse, scholarly research, and teaching pedagogy at the same time, it encourages a greater mix of ideas and information than would otherwise be possible. Whether this is true I will leave for the commenters.

I think that's right, and it's what makes blogging much more satisfying than other kinds of non-research scholarship. I'll have more thoughts on it later.

UPDATE (11/18/05): Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy also has thoughts.