Academic blogging

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

More and more academics are taking to blogging. Here is a sampling, in no particular order: Pharyngula (biology and science politics), Cosmic Variance (physics), Panda’s Thumb (biology), Volokh Conspiracy (law), Cliopatria (history), Brad DeLong (economics), Informed Comment (Middle East politics), Geniocity (law), Current Epigraphy (classics). You can see a comprehensive list of academic blogs classified by subject matter here.

Some academics contribute to group blogs, thus relieving themselves of the pressure of being solely responsible for creating new content, while some are individual blogs. As a reader of many blogs, I can testify that they save me an enormous amount of time. Although I never watch TV ‘news’ shows (the ironic quotes because they have hardly any news), I have a good idea of when something truly newsworthy happens because blogs alert me. Furthermore, blogs provide me with immediate knowledgeable and specialized information on topics, written by people who care enough about the issue to take the time to study it in some depth and develop expertise in that area. This is different from most mass media journalists these days who, because of budgetary cutbacks, are forced to be generalists skipping from topic to topic and unable to devote a lot of time to detailed study of policies and issues. By harnessing the energy of engaged and informed volunteers, blogs also enable the kind of close reading of official texts that an older generation of journalists like I. F. Stone did with his newsletter.

One important function that academic blogs may play is as a trail of the evolution of ideas. In the old days, academics used to write letters to colleagues where new ideas were discussed and refined and these letters have been valuable for understanding how ideas evolved. With the advent of telephones, easier travel to conferences and meetings and email, written records of embryonic ideas are harder to obtain. Blogs may well be the source material for a future generation of scholars. have of blogs

Blogs also quickly focus attention on stories that the major media do not highlight (because it contradicts then ruling class narrative) or follow up or simply get wrong. The plans by the US to bomb the offices of the news organization al-Jazeera or the Downing street memos are good examples. Blogs can also immediately correct the record when there are attempts to mislead (example: NSA wiretapping, the war on Christmas,) and can clarify complicated issues like Valerie Plame, Abramoff scandal, NSA wiretapping, etc. Best of all, it enables more people to follow in the steps of I. F. Stone’s Newsletter which at its peak had a weekly circulation was 70,000. Now dailyKos gets a daily hit count of many times that.

The reasons why anyone blogs is probably as varied as the number of bloggers itself but I would like to suggest some reasons why they do:

  1. The discipline of daily or otherwise regular writing helps to both stimulate thought and increase writing output.
  2. The internal dynamic of academia tends to push people into very narrow areas of specialization (i.e., they know more and more about less and less), and thus when it comes to their professional writing output, they tend to stick to their very narrow field of expertise. But most academics are also generalists, having wide interests and interesting opinions on a huge range of topics, which formerly had been restricted to personal conversations. Blogging provides an outlet for such people. I personally enjoy the freedom and opportunity to range far and wide on my blog.
  3. Blogging creates links with others and networks of new communities. Academic conferences serve that role too but are more expensive to attend and limited in the range of people one meets. Blogging can be seen as extensions of conferences.
  4. Writing a blog can be a means for testing out early versions of ideas.
  5. The feedback and comments feature often stimulates new ideas.
  6. It is much easier now to assume the role of a public intellectual. Before one had to publish a book or an article and that took time and there was no guarantee that it would be published at all or be widely read. Blogging has greatly lowered the barrier to becoming a public intellectual, more people are doing it, and the tide is shifting away from disapproval of such a role. Some, like political scientist Juan Cole and biologist P.Z. Myers, have become well-known to the public and the media purely as a result of their blogging.
  7. There is an increasing realization among academics that the general public has no idea what they do, why they do it, and what benefits they provide society. Scientists especially have been surprised at the rise of anti-science movements that oppose the teaching of the theory of evolution and advocate religious alternatives. Blogging is the most efficient way to increase public awareness of science by providing informed commentary on the new scientific advances that emerge each day.
  8. Some academics relish the exchange of ideas but are socially somewhat awkward and inept. It has been suggested that academia maybe has a higher fraction of people with Asperger’s syndrome, people who are high functioning intellectuals but are very poor at picking up the everyday interpersonal cues that are so essential to being able to have cordial relations. Blogging enables such people to navigate that minefield better.

While more and more academics are taking to blogging, there are reasons why some are wary of joining the group.

  1. The early image of bloggers as no-life, under-employed losers, living in their parents’ basement and merely venting, may cause academics to worry about how they might be perceived by their peers. This view is changing slowly. A colleague of mine used to blog under a pseudonym for fear that being known as a blogger would harm his chances of being taken seriously as a scholar and getting tenure and promoted. He now feels that there is enough acceptance of blogging to do so under his own name.
  2. Blogging takes time, which academics always complain that they have very little of.
  3. It requires you to write, which everyone including academics, hate to do, even though it is an important part of our work.
  4. It is not yet part of the traditional reward structure in academia.
  5. Academics who speak directly to the general public (for example, by writing popular books or magazine or newspaper articles) are often viewed by their peers as not being ‘serious’ or merely seeking fame. The more successful you are at doing this, and the more famous you become with the general public, the less seriously you might be taken by your peers.

But despite these disadvantages, I expect blogging to become even more popular among academics.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and the Promised Land


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