Beware of the Blog

Rochelle Terman
December 14, 2011
Comic of Shakespeare sitting at a computer asking himself, "To blog or not to blog. That is the question."
In 2005, it seemed like the worst thing an assistant professor could do was start a blog. "Here goes nothing. I shouldn't be doing this. I'll be going up for tenure soon," reads the first post of the political scientist Daniel Drezner’s blog in September 2002. Sure enough, in October 2005, Drezner was denied tenure at the University of Chicago. That same year, blogger physicist Sean Carroll was also denied tenure at Chicago, and shortly thereafter, fellow blogger Juan Cole was rejected from a senior position in Middle East studies at Yale. And although none of these department claimed explicitly that blogging had been a factor in the decision, junior academics across the blogosphere were traumatized.
Drezner’s story became a near-instant cautionary tale that warned junior scholars of the profound dangers of the blog. Indeed, it appeared that just one post could derail an entire career. In a 2005 issue of Chronicle of Higher Education, Ivan Tribble (a pseudonym) described a faculty search committee’s investigation into candidates’ websites and blogs as "every bit as eye-opening as a train wreck."
It is important to remember what blogs were back in 2005 – or, more importantly, what people thought they were. Professor Tribble most likely represented the mainstream position when he described blogs as “an open diary or confessional booth, where inward thoughts are publicly aired.” And if blogs weren’t teenage diaries on the world wide web, then they were hubs of geekdom, written by and for turbo, techno-savvy nerds and that had little relevance to a world un-obssessed with the latest javascript application.
Blogs were not the only social media practice that incited anxiety for the careerist. In 2006, Facebook expanded from its previous domain of college and high school networks and opened up to everyone with a valid email address, prompting a wave of young users to take down billions of Halloween photos. Apparently the public admission that one drinks from a plastic cup while wearing a pirate hat was enough to incite dismissal, and even though Mad Men demonstrated quite clearly that unprofessional behavior was as old as the cubicle, all advice pointed to the same recommendation: set your profile permissions to private, or don’t make an account at all.
While Facebook and Myspace never favored a tenure decision, blogs seemed particularly damaging for the budding academic. For many, blogs were evidence of a scholar’s lack of seriousness. If a scholar is spending so much time on her blog, the reasoning goes, her scholarship must inevitably suffer. While this may read to some as yet another “How dare you have hobbies!” stereotype of the life of the mind, it was a commonplace belief of the academic purist to believe that the only kind of writing that mattered was the traditional peer-reviewed book or journal, and that all else was not only irrelevant but distracting and symptom of a frivolous attitude.
Hence the near-unanimous advice for the tenure-tracked professors Class of 2005: do not publish a blog.
Needless to say, blogs have changed a lot since then. Not only have major news publications embraced the blog in ways that trouble the very distinction between news and blog itself, but universities, too, have entered the blogging business. (Exhibit A: the Townsend Lab Blog.) “Respectable” blogs such as The Immanent Frame and Five Thirty Eight demonstrate that the concern over vitriolic blogs confuses form with content.
More and more professors are starting blogs and integrating new technologies in their teaching and research. Some scholars now include blogs in their tenure dossier as part of "professional development" or other non-scholarship. Advice for would-be scholar-bloggers have morphed from a resounded "No!" to “Here’s how to do it safely.”
But blogs still induce anxiety within academia. It is important to remember than a good proportion of tenured faculty hear blog and still think LOLcats and Place to Vent Petty Gripes, or – even worse – punditry.
Drezner argues that blogs are appealing for the same reasons why they are threatening: “the growth of the blogosphere breaks down – or at least erodes – the barriers erected by a professionalized academy.” Indeed, it is both a sad and exhilarating fact that even a modest political or humanities blog can garner more viewers per day that the total number of readers of a tenured scholar’s corpus. This is not to compare quality. But if the contest is quantity, there is no contest.
In many respects, the blog is merely a millennial version of an age-old problem: the kind of accessible and popular work that brings an academic the kind of recognition needed for "public intellectual" status is the same that brings scorn and suspicion of her colleagues in the Ivory Tower.
Indeed, the value of academia is its autonomy from the marketplace and polity. But, considering this fact, I cannot help but wonder if the blog is, in this sense, really as threatening as private sponsorships of departments or massive funding cuts to public education. In fact, blogging may represent the highest manifestation of academic values, rather than their demise. In an age when scholarship is increasingly seen as elitist or irrelevant, academic engagement with public forms may not be the worst thing in the world.
As David Brooks laments, "People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers."
He wrote that, of course, on his blog.