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Monday, July 24, 2006

Blogging and Academics

This is not the first time this question has been addressed in blog land, but there are some interesting views on the topic collected in one palce, so I thought it was worth bringing up again. It's about blogging and academic careers (via Daniel Drezner):

Can Blogging Derail Your Career?, 7 Bloggers Discuss the Case of Juan Cole, The Chronicle Review: With the debut of his Web log, Informed Comment, four years ago, Juan R.I. Cole became arguably the most visible commentator writing on the Middle East today. A professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and president of the Middle East Studies Association, Cole has voiced strong opposition to the war in Iraq and to the treatment of the Palestinians, garnering him plaudits from the left and condemnation from supporters of Israel and President Bush's foreign policy. In the words of a colleague, Cole has done something no other scholar of the region has done since Bernard Lewis: "become a household word."

In the spring, Informed Comment took center stage in another arena — Cole's own career. After two departments recommended him for a tenured position at Yale University, a senior committee decided last month not to offer him the job after all. Although Yale has declined to explain its decision, numerous accounts in the news media have speculated that Cole's appointment was shot down because of views he expressed on his blog. We asked seven academic bloggers to weigh in on Cole's case and on the hazards of academic blogging.

Here's Brad's contribution followed by my comments. I may follow with some of the other contributions later [Update: Brad DeLong just posted summaries of a few other contributions as well as his own, which is repeated below]:

The Invisible College by J. Bradford DeLong, The Chronicle Review Volume 52, Issue 47, Page B8: Right now I'm looking out my office window, perched above the large, grassy, Frisbee-playing, picnicking, and sunbathing area that stretches through Berkeley's campus. I'm looking straight out at the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a view that I marvel at every dayI wonder why the chancellor hasn't confiscated such offices and rented them out to hedge funds to improve the university's finances.

I walk out my door and look around: at the offices of professors who know more about topics like the history of the international monetary system or the evolution of income distribution than any other human beings alive, and at graduate students hanging out in the lounge. It's a brilliant intellectual community, this little slice of the world that is our visible college. You run into people in the hall and the lounge, and you learn interesting things. Paradise. For an academic, at least.

But I am greedy. I want more. I would like a larger college, an invisible college, of more people to talk to, pointing me to more interesting things. People whose views and opinions I can react to, and who will react to my reasoned and well-thought-out opinions, and to my unreasoned and off-the-cuff ones as well. It would be really nice to have Paul Krugman three doors down, so I could bump into him occasionally and ask, "Hey, Paul, what do you think of .. ." Aggressive younger people interested in public policy and public finance would be excellent. Berkeley is deficient in not having enough right-wingers; a healthy college has a well-diversified intellectual portfolio. The political scientists are too far away to run into by accident — somebody like Dan Drezner would be nice to have around (even if he does get incidence wrong sometimes).

Over the past three years, with the arrival of Web logging, I have been able to add such people to those I bump into — in a virtual sense — every week. My invisible college is paradise squared, for an academic at least.

Plus, Web logging is an excellent procrastination tool. Don't feel like grading? Don't feel like writing that ad hoc committee report or completing the revisions demanded by clueless referee X? Write on your Web log and get the warm glow of having accomplished something.

Plus, every legitimate economist who has worked in government has left swearing to do everything possible to raise the level of debate and to communicate with a mass audience rather than merely an ivory-tower audience. That is true of those on the right as well as the left. Web logging is a promising way to do that.

Plus, there is the hope that someday, somehow, all of this will develop in a way to provide useful tools for teaching or marketing one's books, or something — that Web logging is a lottery ticket to something in the future, unknown but good.

Plus — and this is the biggest plus — it is a play in the intellectual influence game. My blog got about 20,000 page-views a day last month.

The hope of all of us who blog is that we will become smarter, do more useful work, be happier and more productive, and will also impress our deans so they will raise our salaries. The first three hopes are clearly true: Academics who blog think more profound thoughts, have a bigger influence on the world — both the academic and the broader worlds — and are happier for it. Are we more productive in an academic sense? Maybe. We will see when things settle down.

Are our deans impressed? Not so far, but they should be. A lot of a university's long-run success depends on attracting good undergraduates. Undergraduates and their parents are profoundly influenced by the public face of the university. And these days, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed Web logger like Juan Cole or Dan Drezner is an important part of a university's public face. Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty. Yale loses from not having an equivalent.

A great university has faculty members who do a great many things — teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, the many things that are "research," public education, public service, and the turbocharging of the public sphere of information and debate that is a principal reason that governments finance and donors give to universities. Web logs may well be becoming an important part of that last university mission.

I don't think my University or my Department gets the whole blogging thing yet. The perception of those who have never read blogs, and even some who have, is far from the reality. Personally, I'm not doing this for them so I don't care all that much, and tenure let's me do what I think is best. This is, quoting Brad, an attempt to "do everything possible to raise the level of debate and to communicate with a mass audience rather than merely an ivory-tower audience." I don't have Brad's audience (before I started blogging I wrote him an email - I'm sure he had no idea who I was - and told him I was jealous of his public voice and his ability to communicate directly with the public), I'm approaching a "quarter Brad" presently, I don't know exactly where traffic stands because I got the feeling I was writing to please the Sitemeter, so I stopped checking totals a couple of months ago. But I plan to do my best to add to the public dialogue and I'm amazed at the growth of this thing, astounded actually (when I started, I put all pictures, graphs, etc. on my desktop server - it allows no more than 10 simultaneous connections - I couldn't ever imagine needing more than that, and this all still surprises me. I'm grateful to all the wonderful people who leave comments and make this work, it's a part of the value of blogs that is hidden until you participate in the comments. It's a bit intimidating at first to have so many people so much smarter than you are contesting every word you write, but if you listen, you can learn).

But I hope it's more too. It's also a way to try and get professional communication going on the web. For those of us off the mainstream seminar circuit who want to keep up with the very latest research, communication with people at top universities is essential. We make a concerted effort to bring visitors here for that purpose - e.g. we give junior faculty first shot at brining people in for seminars or short stays in the Department so that they can become acquainted with other people in their area and talk to them about their own work. They have generous travel funds to get out and present their work at conferences or other universities. I see web logs as a way to help those of us outside the 30 schools in the top 20 stay in the ballgame, and it's also a way to level the playing field and take away some of the advantage gained merely from being at a good place (it is very valuable, more so than many realize, to be able to walk down the hall and ask a question of someone who is a leader in the field - compare that to digging the answer out of the library, if you can).

On this score it's scary too. If you make a mistake in a post, your colleagues will let you know about it, and when I first started, I used to worry to the point of having butterflies in my stomach with every single post. 'Why Oh Why Can't We Have Better Economists' I imagined hearing. I still worry, and this takes me a lot longer than it should because I try to check things out before posting when they are outside my main research area (though I still make dumb mistakes, all you can do is bury them with new posts - so when you see a flurry of posts, I'm probably trying to bury a silly post by topping it with new ones). Sometimes I just stay silent when I'm unsure and simply introduce a post, no more.

I can safely say that I have learned more than I ever would have imagined doing this. I can actually talk somewhat intelligently on a wide array of topics, more so than ever, and it's been great participating in and presenting debates on issues such as income distribution, skill premia, fixed exchange rates, immigration, free trade, and so many other topics outside of my main research area. And I also have a much better sense of how the public views what we do. Every economist should have to sell ideas to the public once in awhile and listen to what they say. There's a lot to learn. It's not just broad popular topics that blogging has helped with either, this has also, surprisingly to me, helped me keep up with very narrow issues within my area of research. I feel I have a better sense of what the important questions are, though I'm not sure exactly how that happened.

I am also using web logs to communicate with my classes and I think the classes are better because of it. Whenever there is a (non-political) issue that comes up, I drop it on the class blog. I have been surprised that they actually read the extra things I post, and they learn! Now that I've learned how to post such a variety of material from blogging, and more importantly where to find people writing intelligently about economics for non-professional audiences, I am able to present a much wider array of interesting material to my classes than ever before, and I can answer more questions than ever.

It's all from keeping up with the economic news while blogging. Two years ago, I could not have summarized the academic papers on immigration like I can now - not my area - I couldn't have talked about China like I can now, about Social Security, health insurance, the minimum wage, outsourcing, and so many other things. Also, the categories let me organize all old material usefully (click on finals on the sidebar and every final I ever gave comes up, click on homework and all homeworks come up, etc.) and students like that too. Comments allow them to ask questions anonymously (or use their names), and many take advantage of that, and RSS lets them be notified whenever I post new homework, etc. It's working much better, I think, than a standard class web page (plus, they can search every comment, post, etc. from previous classes using Google site search so it archives lots of useful info). It hasn't fully developed yet into a place for conversation among students, but I'm working on figuring out how to get that to progress further.

I'm trying something new as well. I started teaching a summer class today on Monetary Theory and Policy and I'm pre-filming and posting every lecture for use in this class, for when I teach it again in fall, and thereafter. Without blogging, I would not have known how to do it, or even thought to do it. Now it's easy (except for actually giving the lectures to an empty room with just a camera, that's a weird experience, but I think I'm finally getting used to it, but I will need to retape some later).  I can use them over and over until the edition of the Mishkin text changes again (so far I have 8 of 17 lectures done for the 20 classes - T/Th for 10 weeks - three extra days for exams and catch-up, I'll film number 9 later today). I'm hesitant to link them because I'm embarrassed as hell about them - it's my first time and I don't think they are very good. But if you go here (link), you can find them. They are lecture only, I do current events each day to start class, i.e. the stuff I learn while blogging. The first four have both Windows Media and Google video formats, I'm still waiting for Google to approve the videos for the other four so they just have Windows Media. I will convert to rm and MP3 formats soon as I want it available across platforms. If you go there, please promise not to laugh too much ... really, I'm better in person ... or at least, that's what I tell myself.

Finally, I don't have any interest at all in using this blog to promote commercial interests, to sell books or anything like that. I'd start a second blog if I wanted to do that. One reason is that I wouldn't want anyone worried that I'm afraid to say something because it might hurt book sales, or whatever else is being peddled. But I don't mean in any way, shape, or form to look askance at anyone using their web log in that way, that's their choice not mine, it's just not for me. I don't want the constraints on my own ability to comment nor the questions from readers about how the commercial intent of the web log interacts with its primary academic mission. And I don't want the public face I present for myself and as a representative of my Department, the University, and more general academic community to be subject to criticisms along these lines. The views I present are my own, not the views that will sell the most stuff.

Well, that was a whole lot more than I had planned to write. I guess I'm more passionate about this topic than I realized. I don't have any time to edit now - so like the videos, this will have to stand as it is...

    Posted by on Monday, July 24, 2006 at 01:56 PM in Economics, Universities, Weblogs | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (9)


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    » Brad Delong, Daniel Drezner and Mark Thoma on blogging from New Economist

    Another blogging academic has failed to get tenure, this time Juan Cole at Yale University. Seven bloggers discuss the case in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education: Can Blogging Derail Your Career? I enclose excerpts below from two. Brad DeLong (UC... [Read More]

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