by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"In Washington it's dog eat dog. In academia it's exactly the opposite."... ...Robert Reich.
Commentary of the Day - January 8, 2008: The World According to Professor Blog. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
Comedian Stephen Colbert regards bloggers as people with acne, too much time on their hands, and little to no sexual experience. Unfair? Sure! Funny? You betcha! After all, not every blogger is a teenager or a person so glued to a computer screen that life completely passes him or her by. Some bloggers spend a portion of their time as academics, and it is some of these folks who surely will want to have their blogs "counted" as part of the publication portion of their tenure evaluation.
Writing in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 7, 2005), Henry Farrell points out that Duncan Black, an assistant professor of economics at Bryn Mawr College, called himself "Atrios" in his left-wing blog, Eschaton. Why so? Because he feared that his academic career would suffer either from those who disagreed with his point of view (not bloody likely at Bryn Mawr) or from those who might rightly wonder why he wasn't working on his scholarship. Eventually, Farrell tells us, Black left academia altogether and joined Media Matters, where he could blog away to his heart's content, and under his own name.
Henry Farrell insists -- remember that his piece was written in 2005 -- that "... few if any academics would want to describe their blogging as part of their publishing record (although they might reasonably count it toward public service requirements)." I wish I could have Farrell's confidence about the "few if any" academics who would not care to argue that blogging was "publication" because from the time when "publish-or-perish" became a widespread concern -- not only at research institutions at academe's top tier but also at every point down the food chain to some community colleges -- the untenured have worried and wanted everything, absolutely everything, they ever wrote about virtually anything to count. At my college there was always the desperate sad sack who would include a letter to the local newspaper on his annual report form. He was gently told to hold back until such time as one of his letters appeared in the New York Times.
That was long ago, when people pecked out their paragraphs on manual typewriters and students did their research by consulting large tomes in the library. By contrast, we live in the brave new age of technology which, all things considered, has been good but which also includes the annoying reality of students often beginning and ending their research by looking up a topic on Wikipedia, the "free" -- and often unreliable -- encyclopedia, or who find ever-more elaborate ways to footnote something they stumbled across in a chat room.
The push to count blogs will not come from tenured professors, who can write blogs or grow roses as they please, but from those under the tenure gun. The push to make blogs academically respectable will come from those who will rightly point out that there are blogs and blogs, and that some are quite good. True enough, just as it is true that, in America, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but not all opinions are true. Many blogs are simply so much self-indulgence, written by people who spent far too much of their time in front of a computer screen. In that sense, Colbert's curmudgeonly remark is on the mark.
How, then, to judge which blogs have merit and which don’t? Blogs generally are commentaries that try to persuade. The rub here is very much the same as the rub about giving students academic credit for off-campus internships. In my lifetime I have heard impassioned arguments for giving such credit to students who "got clean" for presidential candidate Gene (McCarthy) or for those who spent a semester riding the protest waves with Greenpeace. And if anybody at the faculty meeting dared to object, they were told that the students in questions would write a term paper outlining their experiences and how how they had changed their lives.
I'm all for "life-changing experiences" (on course evaluations our students were asked how many of them they had had in the four courses they took that semester), but when I asked if students would get academic credit for internships with the National Rifle Association or Pro-Life groups, the suggestion was met with howls of protest -- even when I made it clear that these students would write term papers outlining their experiences and how they changed their lives.
The point is that what is good for the goose should certainly be good for the gander. One's partisan politics should not play a part in the arithmetic of academic credit. Better yet, if internships are so wonderful, so "life changing," then academic credit should be beside the point. Not everything under the sun is an academic experience nor does it warrant academic credit. The same rationale applies to blogs, which may be insightful or lead-footed, but they don't belong in a tenure or promotion application.
Ask me if I know ten cases of academics making a case for blogs and the answer is that I don't. But the year is 2008. Give cyberspace another decade and I can (nearly) guarantee you that the bloggers-for-tenure crowd will be up and running. Try to stop them, just try.
© 2008 Sanford PinskerThe IP comments: While there is no shortage of academic blogs, the IP doubts that many academic bloggers will be awarded tenure on the basis of what they write in their blogs -- certainly no more than are awarded tenure for writing letters to the editor or op-ed pieces. There is a difference between opinion and scholarship; and, most tenure committees should have sense enough to know the difference although in some disciplines one wonders these days. For the record, The Irascible Professor is not a "blog", it's an online journal.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.