U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Blogging Academic Knowledge Part I

Blog partisans and critics have been trading blows the last several years. I am what could be called blog-curious. I have watched blog proponents and opponents with some interest, intrigued by the game but uncertain of my team. Fortunately for me, the contributors to this fine blog have invited me onto their forum to explore some of the intellectual and disciplinary issues that blogs raise. I propose a series of posts to reconsider some of the major issues, assessing the possibilities, the limits, and even the dangers of the medium. I welcome all commentary, friendly or hostile, as I work out my ambivalence before the most interested audience I could imagine, academic bloggers themselves.

I first began thinking through these questions when I posted a comment on the journalist Andrew Keen’s website. In one of his posts he solicited suggestions for a reading list on the nature of authority. I offered several books from my adviser at Rice, Thomas Haskell, whom I consider keenly perceptive on the issue. I signed my name to the post, because it had already struck me that most of the incivility of the internet comes from its anonymity. Then I didn’t think any more of it. A month or two later while googling my name in anticipation of the job market (I’m currently looking for a job), I noticed a strange result on the third page. Google showed a post, with my name, that had me saying to Keen: “You are a wrong [sic], a hypocrite and desperate for money. And an idiot.” I went to the website to discover that the person after me had posted the comment. The Google crawler had connected my name, which followed my post, with the subsequent comment in the search, so that a quick perusal made it seem as if I was calling Keen an idiot. Even worse was that the comments section of the webpage itself was ambiguous, so even if someone went to the page it was not entirely obvious who was responsible for which comment.

Readers might point out that one way around this problem is never to attach your name to a comment on a blog that is not your own. Fair point. But still, something seems wrong with this medium. Concern about academic blogging has until now focused on the professional advantages or perils to the individual bloggers. Put in its simplest (and most crass) form, several writers have warned that blogging poses significant dangers to job seekers and untenured faculty. Ivan Tribble’s July 2005 Chronicle of Higher Ed column, “Bloggers Need Not Apply,” kick started this discussion. Tribble contended that on every search committee upon which he had served, blogging had never helped and often hurt job candidates. His column produced a minor shockwave among bloggers, who responded with predictable vitriol but also a number of thoughtful responses. Matthew G. Kirschbaum, an associate professor of English at University of Maryland, countered that blogging offers professional and intellectual benefits to the junior scholar, including “branding” his ideas early by placing them in the public forum, getting feedback while solidifying those ideas in preparation for publication in the more ordinary scholarly channels, and forming a professional network through the give-and-take of online discussion. Kirschbaum’s response, among others, prompted a second column from Tribble, who acknowledged the overly provocative title of his first column. But he reiterated his warning that the way in which many job seekers have used the blog medium fails to take into account the public personae that they are creating, which search committees would evaluate when screening candidates. Just as the discussion seemed to be winding down, Rebecca Anne Goetz, a Harvard doctoral candidate in history, shot back in another Chronicle column claiming that blogging and scholarship were mutually compatible, so professors need not be afraid of the medium. Her subsequent job at Rice either says something about the peculiarly open-minded culture of the department (I completed an M.A. there) or confirms her dismissal of Tribble’s concerns. In the intervening two years other academics have jumped on board. Blogging has gone semi-mainstream, and bloggers have begun putting together some good arguments for blogging. (Check out Dan Cohen’s post, for example, which I think provides the most concise and persuasive claim for academic blogging so far.)

But behind this argument about the professional advantages or disadvantages of blogging are an important series of questions raised by my early experience with posting a comment. As my small problem showed, the internet is an unruly virtual space. Blogs do have undeniable professional advantages, but is the blog format an appropriate medium to retain academics’ authority as experts? Are blogging professors trading in their status as experts to join a forum that is inherently, even radically, democratic, which recognizes no distinction between the authority of certain people over others? This is different than the dismissive criticism of blogs as a form of narcissistic drivel. I recognize that many blogs do serious work (this one is attempting to do just that) by providing nice clearinghouses for reviews and other academic writing and even offering a platform for experimental and collaborative intellectual labor. Blogs provide a better information management system than an academic listserve such as H-Net. But I worry that the inherent lawlessness of the internet, in which anyone can start up a blog and write whatever they want, trivializes serious intellectual discussion in that form. In other words, does the form itself (yes, this is a McLuhanian argument) inherently erode the authority of academics on whatever subject they choose to write? What kind of institutional mechanisms, disciplinary practices, and professional standards could safeguard academics’ claim to expert knowledge while reaching out to the public through blogs? Is there a way to tap the potential of blogs while mitigating their drawbacks? I don’t have any firm thoughts on these questions, but I hope to begin working through the issues over the next several months. I welcome your feedback as I do.

David Sehat

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “In other words, does the form itself (yes, this is a McLuhanian argument) inherently erode the authority of academics on whatever subject they choose to write?”

    I agree with you that the form of the blog is worth thinking about, but no specific ways in which it erodes academic authority more than other forms leap to mind–could you elaborate on this?

    I guess on the face of it the internet seems to me a sort of enlightenment paradise of pure reasoned discourse. the usual mechanisms of institutional or sociocultural authority are absent; one must rely entirely on one’s ability to argue persuasively. If academics fare poorly for some reason…well, it’s no doubt cause for concern, but not the fault of the form.

  2. Very intriguing first post David. Glad to have you aboard. I agree with the first comment by Eric. Any questioning of our authority as academics should not cause us to question the blog medium. I sort of think of blogging in similar fashion to my teaching. Sure, some of my audience will not be trained in the discipline, and, as such, will not be privy to my specialized way of interpreting knowledge. But this does not diminish them as an audience. It merely puts the onus on me to write in ways that attempt to bridge the gap between disciplinary and general knowledge.

    As an untenured professor, you raised some intriguing questions regarding the ease with which tour names can be associated with ideas not our own. Or, our ideas are more easily taken out of context. This might especially be the case for those of us, like me, who also blog on more explicitly political matters elsewhere. But, despie recognizing these risks, I remain unfrightened. I also believe we should sign our full names to all of our writing to fight the scourge of anonymous incivility. Call me naive or optimistic. But we must have courage.

    Andrew Hartman

  3. It would be difficult for me to disagree more strenuously with Eric Brandom’s characterization of the blogosphere as a haven of reasoned discourse. In my experience, blogs do some things well (in particular, provide real-time commentary), but reasoning is not one of them. “One’s ability to argue persuasively” is exactly the problem, for two main reasons: 1.) what is persuasive is not necessarily what is thoughtful or supported by the best evidence, and 2.) blogs provide no mechanism for determining what has, in fact, been persuasive, so inviduals (if I may generalize based on my own experience) tend to repeat the same ideas in an increasingly insistent tone.

    I would agree, however, that it’s a bit unclear how blogs would make academic knowledge less valuable. Perhaps Andrew’s comment above sheds some light on this. He writes that the fact that many blog readers will not share his specialized knowledge, “does not diminish them as an audience. It merely puts the onus on me to write in ways that attempt to bridge the gap between disciplinary and general knowledge.” On my read of this comment, it tends to presuppose that readers are an audience, while many of them, I think, would be more likely to think of a blog as a participatory community.

    In that sense, perhaps, academics lose some status. In a blog, they are no longer at the front of the room (unless, of course, that blog is their own). This strikes me as more of a problem for the egos of college professors than the academic enterprise as whole, but I could be wrong.

  4. Hi All,

    I wanted to respond to this interesting thread and had envisioned my taking a profound detour around the protection of academic podium space by discussing the use of Latin, 95 Theses, etc., and then ending my detour with the “liberation of humankind” at Walter Benjamin’s idea of duplicated aesthetics. But it dumped me right back into the lap of (or more precisely at the knee of) R.G. Collingwood before I realized that my point was not a point at all but a gut reaction. So I will spare you. But, if only tangentially related to the notion of unnecessary barrier breaking, I wanted to call more attention to an interesting and productive way to spend a Fullbright! Allan Kulikhoff ( at U.GA) just completed (or initiated) a thankless but very important project that will make many of the digitized primary sources of American History more available to more of the world. These are freely-accessible digitized sources. So, independent scholars (and altogether non-academics) can have access to sources without the expensive commercial databases, library privileges, and tainting (a smile and a wink here) by institutional affiliations. Anyone can learn more by pointing a browser here http://www.common-place.org/vol-08/no-01/kulikoff/

    Hope y’all have a great Thanksgiving.

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