Logan Lounge

A Collective Blog for Current and Former Members (and Friends!) of the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Paper Turn?

I just finished reading David Kaiser's new book, Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics. Like other recent books in what one might call "the paper turn" in the history of science--Andrew Warwick's Masters of Theory, or Ursula Klein's Experiments, Models, Paper Tools, for example--Kaiser urges us to look at theoretical work on paper with the same practice-minded, analytical scrutiny as laboratory experiments or field work. These historians taking the paper turn, in my opinion, have found a good way to engage their interest in theoretical science with wider concerns in the field, and for that they should be commended.

It is interesting that all three of the books I just mentioned examine the physical sciences. Can we see similar things happening the the life sciences, earth sciences, or human sciences? (Or in medicine and technology?) Perhaps there haven't been such long-term productive paper tool systems comparable to Feynman diagrams or Berzelian chemical formulas in these fields. On the other hand, one thinks of phylogenetic trees in biology, perhaps, or kinship diagrams in social anthropology. (One might even put Rob Kohler's drosophila biologists, from Lords of the Fly, with their gene "mapping" diagrams in this category...) Any other ideas?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Professional blogging-- why do it?

To continue the question of why academics-- or knowledge workers of any kind-- should blog....*

One of the key developments in blogging in the last year or two has been their evolution into tools for crafting and projecting professional identity. In a way, this just continues the vanity Web site phenomenon (remember 1998?). But it's also different in some significant ways.

For one thing, it's a lot broader: while Web sites weren't really that hard to set up, blogs have dramatically lowered the bar. The continued growth in computer ownership, and the diffusion of high-speed Internet access, meanwhile, have raised the floor. Obviously fast connections make things like photoblogging and podcasting possible; but we shouldn't discount how much easier a jump in connectivity can improve the experience of just writing words.

Another important difference is that professional blogs aren't just about being, but doing. It's not enough to describe your competence; you have to talk about your work. My favorite example in this category is English Cut, a blog written by Thomas Mahon, a bespoke Saville Row tailor. (Don't know what "bespoke" is? Find out!) I'll probably never be able to afford one of his jackets, but I find his description of the world of Saville Row, his explanations of the differences between various tailors and manufacturing methods, and the various complicated judgments tailors have to make when creating something for a client, absolutely fascinating.

It's also a great example of how many professionals have nothing to lose by talking at length about their work: as strangely compelling as I find reading about drafting patterns and worsted numbers, knowing about them will never make me a world-class tailor. Most professional work is like this: the formal stuff that you can describe is but the tip of the iceberg of your knowledge, and as often as not, the important stuff remains submerged even to you.

Mahon's blog also raises another question. For most professionals, blogs don't bring in new business. Saville Row clients aren't likely to choose bespoke over store-bought because of English Cut. Nobel laureate Gary Becker and legal scholar Richard Posner aren't going to get better jobs because they blog together; CERN physicist John Ellis isn't going to get a new atom-smasher. So why do it?

So what do professionals or knowledge workers-- scientists, academics, writers, tailors (it requires too much knowledge to be considered mere manual labor) and the like-- get out of blogs? Once you get outside the world of the A-list bloggers who attend the Berkman and O'Reilly conferences on blogging, what's motivating people to blog? How are they using the medium? I see four major patterns.

The virtual subway. For journalists and writers, blogs are a place to practice and refine their craft. As Rainer Maria Rilke put it, writers don't write because they want to; they write because they can't imagine doing anything else. For writers, blogs are to publishing as speed chess is to a formal tournament: the same basic game, but faster, edgier, and rougher in an interesting way. To invoke another metaphor, for many writers blogs are less like op-ed columns than virtual subways, a place to play for a couple hours and maybe pick up a little extra money.

Credibility = transparency. Some professionals who blog have realized that the very fact that they're blogging will impress readers. If you're willing to be so open about what you do, the logic goes, you must be good. And it's not bad reasoning. We all know that jargon and obscurity are crutches for marginal performers, and that professional poses can obscure as much as they assure. Transparency, on the other hand, is easy to understand, and easy to trust.

New court, old game. Then there are professionals-- academics and scientists, most notably-- for whom blogging is a natural extension of what they already do: network, cite each other, and argue. There are a number of high-energy physicists, string theorists, and cosmologists who are bloggers; they all seem to post extensively on each other's blogs, taking online arguments they've been having for years, or that start at a conference or colloquium and just jump to cyberspace. Charles Darwin called his Origin of Species "one long argument;" the same phrase could apply to most science. Blogs turn out to be hot-houses for disputation. If e-mail encouraged flame wars, blogs encourage intellectual feuds-- which figure prominently in academic life.

The brand of me. Finally, some use blogs to build their personal brand: to widen the reach of their ideas, to increase name familiarity, whatever you want to call it. (I almost hate to admit it, but Tom Peters' Fast Company piece, "The Brand Called You," changed me life.)

What's interesting is that in none of these cases does a blogger's online activities necessarily collide with their day job. This is a bit of a surprise, given how many bloggers are addicted to apocalyptic, disruptive innovations-saturated rhetoric: in this world-view, Rathergate, Gannongate, and Whatever-else-gate epitomize the power of blogging. (As Anil Dash and danah boyd argued, making blogging into something that gets people fired doesn't do the medium any good.) But as any smart observer of technologies will tell you, the technologies that are the biggest successes are often the ones that insinuate themselves into the workplace, recycle habits, and put old practices to new uses. Blogging is successful among professionals not because it's radically new, but because it's slightly new.

The challenge for any ambitious academic blogger, I think, it is figure out how to craft a blog that is recognizably academic in interest and content, but at the same time is satisifying to the author. Of course, that's exactly the same challenge you have when you're crafting a dissertation, or an article, or any big project: one must satisfy the dual, and sometimes conflicting, demands of professional and personal satisfaction. Perhaps learning how to balance those demands is the best reason to blog.

*This is an update of a piece I wrote for Red Herring a while ago. Since it was subscriber-only, I'm reposting it here.

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Blogging, academic careers, and self-fashioning

Thank you, thank you. It's great to be here. I've always wanted to play the lounge....

Let's start off with a question (and a slightly reworked repost from my own blog): should any of you be here? Shouldn't you be studying for your orals, or working on that paper to send to the Schuman Prize committee, or looking at the Chronicle Jobs section?

What prompts the question is an article by NYU professor Robert Boynton in Slate about the contradictory responses to blogging in the academy. It's a very interesting piece, because it manages to capture some of the cross-currents and contradictions that are bound up in academic responses to blogging. I'll highlight two.

Boynton writes:
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of academics keep blogs these days, posting everything from family pictures to scholarly works-in-progress. While few are counting on their Web publications to improve their chances at tenure, many have begun to fear that their blogs might actually harm their prospects....
Who knows about the "many." But Boynton does hit on an oft-repeated truth about academic hiring: that knowing too much about a candidate, particularly a tenure-track job candidate, can work against the candidate.

Committees, I've been told many times, agree more easily about a candidate who looks good-- who has the right credentials, a couple publications, that sort of thing-- but whose early work can be used as the foundation for any number of pleasing career trajectories is more likely to win approval from the majority than someone whose track record points in very clear directions. This is one reason the C.W. states that adjuncts are at a disadvantage in job searches at the school where they're teaching.

For a profession that puts so much weight on collegiality, you'd think that you'd want to know everything possible about a candidate. Within a couple years we're going to see people going on the job market who've had blogs for their entire graduate school careers, and whose intellectual development is laid out. Of course, completely unrestrained blogging is no smarter than acting out at a conference, or saying bad things about an advisor. Yet ironically, even though we all know how fundamentally human the experience of graduate school is-- how much of it involves making and learning from mistakes, how much of it is fraught with uncertainty, and shot through with big and petty challenges-- the fact that committees seem more comfortable with less transparency about what candidates really are like may turn acknowledging that humanity into a problem.

At the same time, while one might classify blogging as the moral equivalent of publishing your book with a vanity press, Boynton notes,
in another sense, academic blogging represents the fruition, not a betrayal, of the university's ideals. One might argue that blogging is in fact the very embodiment of what the political philosopher Michael Oakshott once called "The Conversation of Mankind"—an endless, thoroughly democratic dialogue about the best ideas and artifacts of our culture....

[M]ight blogging be subversive precisely because it makes real the very vision of intellectual life that the university has never managed to achieve?

The academic purist's response is a resounding "no." He represents one extreme of the spectrum, in which the only writing that "counts" in academic life (in the category of "publications," at least) is peer-reviewed in the traditional manner.
Boynton hits at a basic problem here. Are blogs publications, or are they conversations? If they're like peer-reviewed articles, then they're far inferior. But if they're a channel for that stream of commentary and discourse around scholarly questions and publications-- the stuff that we all swim in, whether we're presenting comments at conferences or talking shop in the hallway, or arguing in the bar-- then they should be judged using entirely different standards, and should be looked upon much more favorably. Of course, the "blogs as conversations" model doesn't win you much in the tenure race-- no one whose publications sucked ever got promoted for being good in around-the-water-cooler talk-- but it also doesn't count against you.

Further, as I've argued before, there's benefit to professional blogging when it records otherwise-ephemeral events like conferences and talks.

It certainly will be interesting to see how academic blogging evolves, and in particular whether it takes on properties or develops norms different from, say, corporate blogging or personal blogging. As a vehicle for self-fashioning and building the Brand Called You-- two things that successful academics are really good at, all protestations to the contrary-- blogs are extremely useful. The question will be, how to use the medium in ways that will satisfy both the loose conventions of good blogging, and the conventions of good academic self-presentation.

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Alex Pang Has a Blog

I've recently discovered that Penn grad Alex Pang has a blog. It's called "Relevant History" (see the new link I just added on the right-hand side of the page!) His latest posting, "Blogging, Academic Careers, and Self-Fashioning" might be of particular interest to members of this community.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Penn Party at SHOT/HSS

Pat in the HSS Dept. office asked me to post the following reminder for all Penn attendees (and alums!) who will be at the SHOT/HSS meeting coming up this week:

"YES, there will be a Penn Party at the SHOT/HSS meeting in Minneapolis.>> AND, with the help of Jennifer Gunn, we have found a terrific place to > hold it.>> TRIPLE ESPRESSO Bistro and Bar, 1410 Nicollet Avenue, South. Just one > block from the Hyatt and the Millenium Hotels.>> 9-12PM, Friday night, November 4th.>> WE WILL HAVE a private room, with piano(!) and a full service bar and > bistro.>> PENN will subsidize all tabs.>> LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU THERE!> Ruth Schwartz Cowan> History and Sociology of Science> University of Pennsylvania"

Also, Dominique has informed me that her session has been MOVED from Friday morning to Saturday morning. I will try to change the previous message (below) to reflect the change if possible. (Any other corrections, feel free to post a comment directly on the message, since I may not have good on-line access for the next few days...)