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Academic Blogging

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For those of you who have never visited the excellent sociological blog Family Inequality, I suggest that you stop reading right now, and head on over there for an hour or two. Don’t worry about me, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed your stay there, I know that I spend quite a bit of time there  (often time I don’t have) digging through the blog’s many, many entries. A while back, the blog’s author, Phillip Cohen, wrote a piece called “Should every sociologist blog?” that I shamelessly linked to my own blog. The thesis of the article was simple, is it in the interests of both sociologists and the public to encourage sociologists to blog about their research? Since I’m already doing that (in my own, rather less articulate way), I of course answered in the affirmative. For Cohen’s part there seems to be a bit more reservation about the whole idea, but I’ll leave it to him to make his own points. He’s better at it than I am.

Cohen’s question got me to thinking though: should blogging at the academic level – in all disciplines – be encouraged as a side-project for scholars? As it stands, blogging means precisely nothing on any academic’s CV, and there is therefore no real incentive for any academic to engage in it, outside of maybe their own passion for writing. But aside from filling a line on a CV, could academic blogging serve a purpose?

Hell yes, and here’s why.

Traditionally, academia has had the (fairly exaggerated) reputation as being the guardian of knowledge; a society’s culture, traditions, and memory are gathered, catalogued, and maintained by armies of scholars and researchers; scientists of all stripes, historians, anthropologists, literary theorists, etc. Of course the reputation is bullshit and much of a civilization’s knowledge is contained in the minds of non-academics everywhere; but while academics might not be the sole holders of knowledge, we do certainly hold a lot of it. It’s our job, and many of us are quite good at it.

Part of the disconnect between academia and the broader population rests in the severing of academic knowledge from other, more ‘everyday’ forms of knowing. How often do we hear the expression “oh sure they’re book-smart, but they’re not really street-smart”, or hear academia being described as an ‘ivory tower’, far removed from the affairs of the proles, toiling away far below? But the distinction between these two forms of knowing is largely artificial and it’s largely maintained by the often arcane semiotics of the various dialects of different academic disciplines. We love to make up new words and hurl them at each other, and each time we do – and each time we fail to explain to everyone else what those words mean – we further distance ourselves from our fellow citizens. Some academics, like the infamous Jacques Derrida, almost seemed to revel in their obtuseness, as though being cryptic was synonymous with being profound. And while the navel-gazing and word-play continued, many of our neighbours and friends began to lose interest in what we were talking about in the first place. Our debates take place in closed conferences and behind the paywalls of peer-reviewed journals, and our discoveries and carefully crafted ideas only ever interface with the public as short sound-bites – and only after they’ve been distorted and abridged by others. In short, academics are often dreadfully isolated from society, and it’s our own fault.

Blogging allows us to begin to change that. Blogs are a handy medium for allowing researchers and scholars to speak to the public in their own way, with their own idiosyncrasies, without having to go through someone else. Blogs allow the public to ask us questions or to challenge us directly, and they can be hopeful that we will respond (well, at least some of us). In other words, blogging can help to facilitate the return of academics into the mainstream of public discourse. Granted people like Neil deGrasse Tyson are already doing this, but he and people like him represent only the tiniest fraction of academics who ever take their research and love of educating public. Other venues, like TED talks can also help to make current research available to others, but they’re not the only way.

I’m not photogenic enough for television, and I don’t know that anyone would want to listen to me talk at them for any length of time, but I’m handy with a keyboard, and I can usually convey the substance of my own research to a broad audience fairly easily. As an academic, I feel that I have a moral obligation to take the knowledge and training I’ve received at public institutions and share it with my fellow citizens. Blogging helps me to do that.

So will blogging or some other form of (usually) non-paying, non-peer reviewed public academics be embraced by researchers any time soon? Well, probably not; as universities become increasingly corporatized and professor’s salaries and advancement are increasingly tied to their ability to churn out papers and books, the demands on individual academics’ time grow as well. Many universities now demand that the lion’s share of a professor’s day be dedicated to research and publication; a minority of time is devoted to the actual practice of educating. At the graduate level, fewer universities are even offering their students courses on how to be a good teacher. Instead, graduate students – MA and PhD alike – are indoctrinated into the world of ‘Publish or Perish‘, and if they happen to pick up some skill at teaching while they’re at it, well that’s just a happy bonus. Many current professors learned to teach only by emulating a past favourite professor and few will ever take a formal class about teaching pedagogy. At some universities, a professor’s teaching ability isn’t even a factor when determining tenure, promotion, or salary adjustment. Think about that for a second: your professors – if you’ve attended university – may likely have received zero attention or accolades for their teaching ability, because to the university, teaching ability is not important. It is a grim picture, if you are of the opinion that university professors ought to be responsible for educating their fellow citizens.

And so I’ll continue to blog. These days it seems that it’s the only way I can meet what I see as my obligation to educate.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for the insightful post.

    One of the struggles I have had with much of the academic writing about Sociology, Semiotics, etc. has been that it is frequently in language that is inaccessible to all but those in academia. While I understand that much of the jargon is adopted so that those who study a topic have words to express ideas that would otherwise necessitate many more words, often the writing seems unnecessarily opaque. (Derrida was an excellent example.) As a college student, I was particularly frustrated by the way so many students and professors discussed issues of elitism and classism in language that was incomprehensible to all but the most elite class.

    In other words, there were good ideas being discussed, but the people whose oppression was being talked about couldn’t understand what the hell was being said. As an activist, it drove me nuts. How can you change anything if no one knows what the hell you are talking about?

    But when someone blogs, if they want people outside of their field to read their ideas, they have to write about those ideas in language that most people can grasp. If they use jargon, they have to explain it.

    Academic blogging could bring academic thought and dialogue into play in the venue of activism. If activists can link from their activist blogs to the academic blogs that inspire them, academia can inform activism — and vice versa. Ultimately it could bring the power of education into the streets and into the halls of power.

    (My independent major — 22 years ago — was titled “Political Activism: Integrating Activism and Academics,” but I haven’t really thought about the topic in a long time. Thanks again.)

  2. says

    Thanks for this; it’s a kick in the pants. I’m one of those blogging grad students you talk about (by which I mean I just started a week ago and have about three posts on the blog that I’m going to shamelessly plug by telling you to click my name above). Often I see no point to writing if I think nobody’s reading, and I’ve been unsure how much “academic” content to include in my posts, but I feel like it’s something I can do with some humor, and I do like being able to share what little I know with others, even if its just one person a month who’s finger slipped while looking for “cunning linguistics” on Google.

  3. jesse says

    I’m someone who had the misfortune of experiencing college in the late 80s/early 90s when post modernism was the rule of the day for undergrads :-)

    Basically, the stuff you are describing turned me way off certain bits of the humanities for years, and made me something of an educational conservative. (I believe that in certain contexts, for instance, rote learning can be useful, and there were certain mental habits I picked up getting a rather old-fashioned education that served me well in college).

    Why? I came to the humanities from the sciences. There’s a rigor in the physical sciences that made it seem trivial to pick apart Derrida, or Gilbert and Gubar and all the rest. Because they would say things that were simply so — ungrounded? — in the empirical facts of the world that I kept face-palming. (The bit I remember about how men and women process language differently because– well, because we say so! — and my other fave was “is the vagina a metaphorical mouth and the penis a metaphorical pen” — stuff like that really used to get my goat. I also found all my humanities classes so damned easy, except for languages, so maybe the problem is that I lacked respect for anything that didn’t make me work, at least as I saw it then. Or I had the world’s worst undergrad humanities education and was the smartest person in the room, but I doubt that very much.

    So I think there’s another cure: a ban on new jargon :-)

    Really. I saw this because part of my job every day is to explain abstruse concepts without it. And you can do it! I just wrote a whole 1,000 words about quantum physics today, and got through it without once using the word “eigenstate.” :-)

    That’s part of the problem. I think there’s a lot of academia that went down the Derrida-rabbit-hole for a couple of decades and is only now starting to crawl out.

    More seriously, I think it telling that the Sokal hoax was pulled by a physical scientist on a humanities journal. Could a humanities person pull the same trick the other way? I think not. That says to me it’s the humanities that have a rigorous-thinking problem. (If person A is always in a position to make person B look foolish, and person B is never in a position to do the reverse, who is smarter, or at least better-armed?)

  4. says

    I think I see where you are coming from – I had my fair share of exposure to the ‘po-mo’ crowd and for the most part I tried to wash my hands of it as well. But there are a couple of things in your comment that I want to address. The first is this:

    Why? I came to the humanities from the sciences. There’s a rigour in the physical sciences that made it seem trivial to pick apart Derrida, or Gilbert and Gubar and all the rest. Because they would say things that were simply so — ungrounded? — in the empirical facts of the world that I kept face-palming.

    What do you mean when you say ‘rigour’, and how would methodologies or scientific ‘rigour’ make picking apart Derrida or Gubar ‘trivial’? Both of the people you’ve mentioned were primarily interested in phenomenological examinations of the human condition, and Gubar particularly was associated with not only women’s studies but also with literary criticism. How does an empirical framework challenge an individual’s interpretation of a piece of text? Derrida – for all the grief his writings give me, and for all the anger I feel at reading his work – never even attempted to make claims about the world ‘as it was’, but was rather concerned with how people come to interpret the world as they perceived it.

    It might also be helpful to point out that those people who were saying ‘women are like X and men are like Y’ were probably not coming from the po-mo camp, because those sorts of assertions aren’t something any post-modernist would actually say; a lot of that false-binary garbage emerged from psychology and biology, not from the humanities. Po-mo’s were all about arguing that while ‘humans’ might be biological, ‘people’ are socially constructed and therefore any notion that men or women ‘are’ a certain way smacks of essentialism – the bane of post-modernity.

    Also, there’s this:

    So I think there’s another cure: a ban on new jargon

    Without ‘new Jargon’, language can never evolve. Academic jargon emerges from scholars running up against the limits of knowledge and realizing that they haven’t the words to describe what they are struggling with. Without Butler and Connell’s “gender performativity” for example, we would not think of gender as a series of performances and value-laden symbols – a perspective that grants us insight into a facet of our condition that might have otherwise eluded us.

    The important thing to remember is that – in the social sciences at least – a more ‘rigorous’ and scientific approach to research had been tried before – and it often failed miserably. Conducting research in the social sciences is fundamentally different that conducting research in the physical sciences – we can hardly demand that social science research be replicated by other researchers in another environment for example, because much of the research that is done is not only situational and temporally-contingent, but it is also relational – the presence of other, often particular, people or types of people are what foster the emergence of the phenomena being examined. The kinds of standards used to denote ‘good science’ simply do not work for us. We’ve tried – for decades – to make social science research fit into the scientific (positivist) model, and while it sometimes provides useful data (in statistics and related fields, for example), it is woefully inadequate in others.

    As for Sokal? Well, Sokal’s hoax pointed out two very important things about the humanities, but not the things you might think of. First, the hoax pointed out a serious lack of oversight in some of the more contemporary academic journals that had emerged as a result of the post-modern ‘moment'; in that sense, Sokal’s hoax simply pointed out a problem with the peer review process. Sokal’s stunt also pointed out that – surprise! – post-modern scholars in the humanities didn’t understand science. This is about as surprising as it would be to find out that most STEM majors couldn’t immanently critique their way out of a health-spa brochure, let alone a piece of neo-Marxian economic analysis. To borrow a phrase from Catholic theology: the humanities and the physical sciences are, in may ways, non-overlapping magisteria. Lastly, Sokal announced his hoax at a conference in the same month that his nonsense paper was published. In other words, he didn’t even give the community he was critiquing a chance to engage with the paper themselves before he pilloried them for it. Publishing a paper is only a part of the peer-review process; Sokal didn’t even give the process a chance to complete before he declared victory. I thought Sokal’s paper was hilarious, and I thought the hoax was amusing, but it doesn’t stop me from realizing that it was also unethical, boorish, elitist, and designed to humiliate, rather than highlight a weakness or flaw.

    The post-modern ‘moment’ has, in many institutions – and in academia in general – come and gone. As a system of analysis, it wasn’t particularly useful or helpful, but it wasn’t discarded because it ‘lacked scientific rigour'; it was discarded because emergent theories and practices blended the good from post-modernity (like recognizing that the social world is, first and foremost, a subjective one), and scrapped the rest.

    Finally, you seem to be implying that the humanities are in a sorry state because they lack ‘scientific-style’ rigour. But this assumes that a ‘scientific-style’ rigour is the gold-standard by which everything else ought to be measured. But what reason do we have to believe that this is the case? Why shouldn’t phenomenological studies in the social sciences and humanities be measured against the standards of other philosophical approaches? Why should the standards used to judge models in quantum mechanics (or similar standards) be given pride of place when examining the merits of a longitudinal study on the effects of ageing in immigrant populations in British Columbia? Why should physicists or chemists be the ones to determine what counts as ‘valid’ literally criticism or ethnographic research? Critical thinking is not the sole domain of the physical sciences or STEM fields in general.

    Sorry for the long rant. I hope I didn’t come off as being rude or insulting.

  5. jesse says

    No. you don’t come off as insulting to me in the slightest. My comment about jargon was a little tongue-in-cheek — I just think the big problem was (as you stated in the post) a lot of obscurantism masking itself as real thinking. And avoidance of jargon is a good exercise for any writer.

    I admit my bias is hopelessly empirical, in some ways. And I would be the first to tell you that you can’t really discuss ethics, for instance, the way you discuss quantum mechanics.

    But my endless struggle and frustration with the humanities is that in the sciences, we have models that predict things. Like, if I want to fly a spaceship to Pluto I don’t have to do it to know that I need X amount of fuel for the trip depending on the route. The theory motion as outlined by Newton allows me to predict that. Marxist theory, feminist theory, none of that can be in my book called a theory in that sense because there’s no predictive power at all, at least not to my real-concrete-smack-you-in-the-head-oriented mind. I can’t use feminist theory to predict the outcome of anything ahead of time, if you see what I mean.

    I always felt like in my humanities classes, I could just make stuff up. I could never get away with that in physics. As much as I like reading literary criticism, I could never accept the idea that Gubar, for instance, was telling me anything concrete the way E&M equations did. And taking apart the logic was just so bloody simple.

    And by the way, the quote was from Gilbert & Gubar, IIRC. There was this whole set of essays I was reading for a class that I still remember because it was talking about language processing and my first question was, “did you once actually study a real live human? Because what you describe bears no resemblance to any human I have ever met.” If you are going to discuss, for instance, whether men and women use language differently, you might count the types of words they use, or examine syntax, or any number of quantitative measures to make sure we define what it is we are talking about.

    That’s a big reason I think certain areas of academia end up getting disconnected from the rest of the population. I mean, to give a more concrete example, I remember in a women’s studies class (lesbian literature, as it happens) I came across the term “phallocentric language process” and I thought “how the hell does that help the women I knew who work for a living? I am engaged in privileged bullsh*t that only underscores how out of touch I am, we all are.”

    I also think there’s something to the fact that I trust a physics student — I wasn’t the only one — to go into a humanities program and ace it more than I trust a humanities student to do the reverse. The former happens a lot more than the latter, I would bet, judging by the change-of-major requests that got processed when I was in school. Since I can’t imagine physics/science people are naturally smarter on the whole than anyone else, I think there must be something else going on. Yes, a lot of scientists don’t understand the humanities. But honestly, could you see a third-year humanities student jumping into first-semester Mechanics with calc and doing well? Now take a third-year physics student and put her in an introductory criticism class. See who does better. I feel like often the sciences people I meet are far better equipped, and I don’t know if it is the material or the teaching people get.

    STEM isn’t immune to this. But the big difference is that if I come up with an E&M experiment or something, ultimately it has to work. Most people understand that — I mean, an iPhone works. You can hold it, touch it, use it. Relativity works — your GPS functions because of it. That doesn’t apply to the humanities.

    Some of this complaining, understand, comes from someone who loves reading, loves literature, enjoys reading Dante or Asimov or Shakespeare. I really dug some of my literature classes. I was transported in all the right ways by Beowulf. I care about words and what they mean, and communicating ideas to lots of people. I feel that understanding the world as it is is vital if human civilization is to survive and if there’s to be any point at all in having children. I want people to know that the Iliad existed, that Faulkner existed, that Audre Lourde existed, so I want civilization to continue, you know?

    So when I see the kinds of things that were getting passed around as humanities scholarship, I felt like there was so little that would make a concrete difference in the world, or cared about making a difference. (Orwell comes to mind in a good way). Much as I love reading Ovid, I never felt like I understood much of anything better after reading Derrida the way I felt like I understood things when for the first time I did the maths and understood the Pauli exclusion principle. Or even Ovid. :-)

    But do you see where my frustration stems from? Am I making sense? Maybe I am just dead to criticism/analysis and too dumb to “get” it, or hopelessly literal.

  6. jesse says

    One more bit: I also freely admit that I may have been scarred by a poor humanities education, rather like people who have bad experiences in STEM fields and leave off it. I’m sure that is where a lot of it comes from.

  7. says

    I definitely get where you’re coming from; going from the sciences into the humanities or the social sciences is like moving from England to China – not only are you being immersed into an entirely different language, but you’re expected to adapt to a completely different culture as well.

    Take your example of the ‘men and women’s languages': sure you could do a word count or an examination of syntax – both valid quantitative tools that are used all the time in sociology, for example, or you could take a more qualitative approach and find out what the person in question means when they use the words they do. Oftentimes a person’s word choice or linguistic idiosyncrasies carry with them deep personal meanings that cannot be adequately understood – or even acknowledged – by a more quantitative approach.

    In many of the social sciences, things like ‘predictability’, ‘generalizability’, ‘falsifiability’ have been replaced (at least in qualitative circles) with words like ‘reliability’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘validity’, and there are whole mountains of argumentation and commentary on why those terms might be more useful or fruitful than other, more positivist terminology. Remember that in dealing with people in a non-lab, non-controlled environment, we can’t use the same tools that the physical sciences might use. How would a physical scientist measure feelings of hope or anticipation in pre-school children; there’s not really a quanta of ‘hope’ or ‘anticipation’ to be plotted, is there? The best we can aim for is ‘some hope’, ‘a lot of hope’, ‘little hope’, ‘no hope’, etc. But how do we quantify or generalize about why children feel the things they do, or what those words mean to them?

    I think that at least a part of the frustration you seem to be facing is that you appear to believe that the sorts of methodological or epistemological tools and the desired outcomes you use and come to expect in the physical sciences ought to be universally applicable. They’re not. Think of the physical sciences and the social sciences as two people involved in repair work; the physical scientist is a mechanic, and the social scientist is a plumber. Each person carries with them a tool kit required to do their jobs effectively. Because of the nature of their work, each person’s toolkit contains a selection of different tools. Some of the tools are similar in form and function, but uniquely adapted to the profession that employs them. Sure, both kits might have a wrench or two, but they’re for different jobs and so serve different functions. As the state of mechanics progresses, the tools in the kit change, just as the tools in the plumber’s kit change to match the changing nature of her job. Many of the tools in their respective kits share a common origin, but time and the needs of the job have changed their form and their function. Now ask yourself the following questions:

    Would a plumber bring a mechanic’s tools to work with her? She might, if she was desperate, but it’d be a frustrating and inefficient day, as the tools she had to play with didn’t match the jobs she needed to do.

    Are the mechanic’s tools ‘better’ tools than the plumber’s? That question is pretty much meaningless, isn’t it? A mechanic’s air-ratchet is an awesome tool, but useless for unclogging a pipe or installing a faucet. It’s a great tool in its own right, powerful and efficient, but it’s hardly ‘better’ than a plumber’s drain-snake; they serve different functions.

    You can’t expect social sciences or humanities to provide you with theories that rest on constants or laws, because no such constants or laws have ever been found to exist in social interactions. In the same token, if you insist on applying the definition of ‘theory’ to the research of the social sciences, or the philosophies or concepts of the humanities, you’re going to have a bad time.

    I can’t speak to your experiences in your undergrad; I wasn’t there, but what I can tell you is that when I was an undergrad, I majored in political science and philosophy, and in my fourth year I found that I had to complete my science requirements in order to graduate. I was disdainful of the ‘science for arts majors’ courses, so I jumped right into the standard science courses offered. I took biology, chemistry, and astronomy and managed to do quite well indeed. I even took a couple of second-year biology courses, and I maintained by high GPA while doing it; the courses were challenging to be sure, but hardly overwhelming. Personal anecdotes might vary.

    Finally, you mention that theories or experiments in the physical sciences ‘just have to work‘. Okay, that’s true; you certainly want to see the desired results when you experiment. But how does that relate to anything in the social sciences? How would an experiment in the social sciences ‘work’? What does ‘work’ mean? What sort of experiment could you (ethically) conduct? Is there a meaningful comparison to be made between, say, the political organization of an advanced industrial nation in the global north and the physical materials being experimented on in a lab? Do they obey similar laws or possess similar properties? Why should the expectations of an experiment in the physical sciences be transferable outside of that discipline?

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