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

Thursday, November 17, 2005

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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  • At 1:57 PM, Blogger Jeremy said…

    I'm taking a short break from revising a paper I am preparing to submit to an academic journal (REALLY!) I wonder if this new Logan Lounge blog isn't an attempt to "fashion" a new, safer type of blogging for aspiring academics. After all, no one yet has shown any interest in posting long, self-revealing confessions on this particular blog. (To be sure, no one besides me--until now--has posted anything at all here!) Mostly, I've used this blog to post such innocuous material as congratulations, book announcements, lists of upcoming speakers, etc.

    As I pointed out in my initial "welcome to the blog" posting, the main difference between this virtual Logan Lounge and the physical Logan Lounge is that comments could theoretically be read by anyone with an internet connection. Posters will be well aware of this, I hereby argue, and I think it is unlikely that anyone would post anything career-harming. The most I've done, for example, is make a few opinionated comments about scholarly trends, but in a very restrained way not unlike one would make in public comments at a conference.

    Interestingly, some of us (I won't "out" anyone by name here) do post under very deliberately self-fashioned pseudonyms elsewhere in the (in my case, more explicitly political part of) the blogosphere. I use a different name both for the effect of self-fashioning itself--that is to indicate my identity with common words or labels to potential readers--and, I will admit, to avoid leaving a strongly visible (ha ha! not yet...) on-line presence that might interfere with my academic on-line presence.

  • At 6:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Two links.

    I think this notion of "corridor talk" that Henry borrows from Rabinow. gets at both the promise and peril of academic blogging. The danger is that scholarship -- continuing a trend since the 60s -- is represented as picayune, as mean, as a bundle of biases wrapped in high-falutin language. So,me of that is true, but not al of it -- although it's often presented that way (See Horowitz, David) and because blogging is shoot-from-the-hip "corridor talk" it risks making a discipline's dirty laundry public.

    Which is also it's promise -- bringing out into the light of day hidden assumptions can force everyone to think differently and, perhaps, more robustly about what they're doing.

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