U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On the ISA’s Proposed Blogging Policy

Last week, the Executive Committee of the Governing Council of the International Studies Association circulated a proposed policy that would ban editors of its journals from blogging.  The proposal reads:

No editor of any ISA journal or member of any editorial team of an ISA journal can create or actively manage a blog unless it is an official blog of the editor’s journal or the editorial team’s journal. This policy requires that all editors and members of editorial teams to apply this aspect of the Code of Conduct to their ISA journal commitments. All editorial members, both the Editor in Chief(s) and the board of editors/editorial teams, should maintain a complete separation of their journal responsibilities and their blog associations. Adoption of this policy requires either stepping down from any such editorial responsibilities, or removal of affiliation with, and any participation in, external blogs for the duration of ISA editorial duties.

The entire ISA Governing Council planned to vote on this proposed rule next month.

Pretty predictably, this proposal provoked an enormous backlash among political scientists online.  And within a few days, Harvey Starr, the current President of the ISA, announced that the proposal was being withdrawn and the issue was being referred to the ISA’s Committee on Professional Rights and Responsibilities, which will be charged with coming up with “any appropriate recommendations or options.”

While it’s anybody’s guess where the ISA ends up on this issue, I wanted to make a few observations about the proposed policy and what it suggests about the current place of academic blogging.  Follow me below the fold….

A number of observers have compared the ISA’s proposed policy to the anti-blogging views of many traditional journalists in the early days of blogging.  For example, The Guardian’s  Digital Being columnist Dan Gillmore begins his op-ed on the ISA kerfluffle with the comparison:

A decade or so ago, journalism went through a mini-spasm of angst about one of the changes then roiling the trade. Many worried about a practice they considered weird and, they concluded, at best semi-professional: blogging. But what became known as the “bloggers v journalists” affair ultimately faded into obscurity as just about every major news organization added blogs to its website.

There’s certainly a family resemblance between these two stories. Both traditional journalism and academia are, in many ways, beleaguered industries. And the anti-blogging sentiments of traditional journalists a decade ago and the ISA today are both related to a kind of digital Luddism.[1]

But in other ways, this case seems very different to me from the reaction of journalists to bloggers. Bloggers and online news outlets directly threatened print journalism’s business model.  Railing against bloggers made little sense; eventually print outlets had to embrace online content and start searching for ways to monetize it.  But the economic threat from the blogosphere was at least real.

Blogging in no way threatens academia. It doesn’t even really threaten academic journals, which don’t make much (if any) money and don’t have the reliance on advertising revenues that has made going digital so complicated for newspapers.  So what’s going on here?

Some clues can be found by looking at the “Background” section that the ISA’s Executive Committee attached to their proposal:

The Preface to the ISA Code of Conduct states: “The purpose of this document is to provide an authoritative statement regarding the expectations for professional conduct for all who participate in ISA meetings and conventions, and it will be especially useful for those who are new to the profession and/or the ISA. It is borne out of the ISA’s commitment to maintaining and promoting a professional environment at its meetings and other organized activities, and it is guided by the conviction that the advancement of knowledge flourishes most readily in an atmosphere of constructive debate in which all members treat one another with dignity and respect.”

The issue of “maintaining and promoting a professional environment” is particularly pertinent to the material that is made public through the use of blogs. It is the sense of the ISA executive committee that ISA’s Code of Conduct applies not only to individual members but also to ISA publications. The committee believes that any connection between blogs and ISA journals should be severed or separated. There should be no connection between independent/personal blogs and ISA journals.

As an actual justification of the proposed rule, this statement is, to say the least a failure.  Luckily, I don’t have to point out all that’s wrong with it; Steve Saideman, the Paterson Chair of International Affairs at Carleton University, has already done so on his blog.

But the above-quoted explanation suggests to me that motivating factor behind this proposed rule is less a fear of a new (or, at this point, not-so-new) technology, and more a very long-standing suspicion of scholarly speech that falls outside a very narrow range of academic genres.[2]  At one time or another, I’m sure we’ve all encountered colleagues who express positive hostility to historians who, say, write op-eds that appear in major newspapers or articles for general interest magazines.  That, at any rate, is how I read the handwringing about preserving the “professionalism” of meetings and journals by policing speech that takes place elsewhere.

The concerns raised, however incoherently, in the proposed rule also encompass another very old, related worry:  that academics affiliated with particular institutions (in this case ISA sponsored journals) will somehow be seen as speaking for those institutions whenever they express themselves in public. While this is a reasonable concern in a broad sense, in practice it’s one that academics are used to dealing with.  For example, if you look on the right margin of this page, you’ll see the following disclaimer:  “The opinions expressed on the blog are strictly those of the individual writers and do not represent those of the Society or of the writers’ employers.”  Anyone who thinks that, in writing this post, I am speaking for either the University of Oklahoma or the Society for U.S. Intellectual History needs to read more carefully.

There’s at least one other lesson that I think we can learn from this: humanities and social science fields are still not entirely sure how to think about blogging.  In fact, blogging itself encompasses so many different sorts of writing that there is no single way that the profession ought to think about it. But some excellent academic work is appearing on blogs. And the quality and quantity of this work may well increase as scholars who blog work on creating the kinds of technological and human structures that will encourage such work.  Our professional organizations ought to be thinking along with academic bloggers about how such work should be recognized, rewarded, and even incentivized.  In a perfect world, the ISA’s Committee on Professional Rights and Responsibilities would emerge from their year of exploration with a policy that does just that. But the ISA’s Executive Committee’s proposal suggests they have a very long way to go. Perhaps naively, I think things are at least a little better in history. But maybe I’ve been hanging out with too many bloggers to tell.

[1] I say this with apologies to the actual, historical Luddites, who had a more sophisticated understanding of what was happening to their way of life than popular culture often gives them credit for.

[2] There’s been some speculation online that the proximate cause for this proposed rule was a single statement that appeared on the prominent IR blog The Duck of Minerva: a contributor to that site wrote that his experiences networking made him feel like “an ugly slut who no one even wanted to sleep with.”  I’m certainly happy that that statement didn’t appear on this blog. But that kind of sexist and, yes, unprofessional talk is hardly new and hardly limited to the blogosphere.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Re your footnote 2: I think it’s somewhat more likely, though I’m just guessing, that the ‘proximate cause’ for the proposal was a new(ish) personal blog by the current editor of one of the ISA’s journals. That blog now carries a disclaimer (of the these-are-my-views-alone sort), though I’m not sure it had a disclaimer when it was launched. Anyway, the proposal was unfortunate, whatever its cause. (I am an ISA member, f.t.r.)

    • Thanks, LFC! The Duck of Minerva-post theory was the only one I ran across in my brief survey of posts about this. And it sounded fairly implausible to me (especially since the person who actually made the comment in question is not, so far as I can tell, on any ISA editorial boards). Hence its relegation to a footnote. Your story sounds much more plausible. Either way, as you say, the proposal was unfortunate.

  2. Thanks for bringing this discussion here, Ben.

    It appears to me as if the ISA is living in 1996-97. They need to get with the times. As you noted, “blogging” is a diverse array of writing covering slices of scholarship, news, humor, opinion pieces, and autobiographical musings. No ban on “blogging” would ever work.

    As your second “background” excerpt implies, this seems more about professionalism than blogging, per se. Looking historically at “blogging,” that has been the issue that has required disclaimers and caveats. One person’s breach of professionalism is another person’s free speech editorial. So it goes. – TL

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