on the value of academic blogging

I've run across some discussion of blowback from academics regarding blogging, for example, here on Tim's blog and here on Scu's.  The criticism, or often just more an attack, on blogging seems to focus on the idea that blogs can't possibly have intellectual value because the posts are too short or written too quickly or aren't peer-reviewed. (As if taking a long time to write a lengthy text that gets peer-reviewed ensures quality.) The second argument seems to be that blogs are self-aggrandizing, which is oddly contradictory to the first claim: if the blog has no intellectual value, how am I aggrandizing myself? Of course, the most familiar arguments are about the dangers of blogging: if you spend all your time blogging you'll never get published, get tenure. You might even ruin your reputation.

As I have written here and in, you know, "real" publications, I view these concerns in relation to exposure. The research suggests that 93% of all humanities articles go uncited. Though it is likely impossible to measure, this statistic leads me to wonder how often the typical humanities article is even read. Obviously all articles are read by someone: editors, reviewers, etc. Does the typical humanities article have a readership in the dozens? the hundreds? Certainly not more than that. This article indicates that average monograph sales are now under 400 copies. Many of these will be for libraries, which could indicate more readers but could also indicate zero readers. Regardless, the readership is still in the hundreds at best. In my experience, the average audience for a conference presentation is <20. In short, to get tenure at a research university, perhaps you have published ten articles, a book, and presented at 20 conferences. This would be a pretty solid vita, in my experience. How large an audience do you think this is in total? Less than the number of monthly visitors to this very modest blog.

It would seem to me that the average academic (or academic journal) seeks to avoid exposure. Publishing an article in the "Journal of narrowly-focused humanities studies" is a good way to hide. Those who do manage to find you will probably be sympathetic. Plus you always have the shield of peer-review: clearly someone thought what you said was ok. Even if someone disagrees with you, the differences will likely be on details that very few people will know or care about. Besides, by the time that person manages to write and publish a response, your article is in the distant past. In any case, this almost never happens. Since 93% of humanities articles are never cited you can safely publish with the assumption that no one will ever mention your article again. Phew!

The same cannot be said of blogging. You might note there is a comment box below. Sometimes people will write about you on their own blog, or go after you on Twitter. Books and articles are too long for most of our colleagues to read off-hand. But colleagues in other departments on your campus will come up to you and mention reading your blog. You are exposed. People will read your blog, and they will respond. I would never suggest blogging as a replacement for other forms of scholarship any more than the conference presentation replaces the article or the monograph replaces the presentation. I do think that blogging and/or other means of digital-networked communication can be an important mechanism for sharing academic work, for connecting to a new, and likely larger, audience.

To think about such matters from the perspective of assemblage theory, we should be able to see that the material and expressive segments of a journal serve a strong, territorializing function, reaffirming the boundaries of discipline and the identities of participants. Sitting behind a paywall, available primarily through academic libraries, one can be fairly certain that no one will even accidentally encounter the text (and even if they did, the discourse would likely turn them away). There are good reasons for doing this kind of writing, but I would suggest that it is not the only kind of writing humanists should do. On the other hand, the functionality of the blog has a strong, deterritorializing function. It is designed to carry the media away via RSS feeds, to go viral via Twitter and Facebook, and so on. It is public and available via Google. And while it's discourse can be variable, and potentially as esoteric as any journal article, the culture of blogging in general invites participation and sharing.

I agree with Scu's suggestion that part of the kneejerk response to blogging on the part of established academics might be the concern that the field and its practices are getting away from them. I can sympathize with that concern but for a different reason: it is not a good scene if academics start feeling obligated to blog. We already know what obligatory academic writing looks like in all those well-hidden journal articles. What we require is a different kind of academic ethos where exposure is desirable. Not for self-aggrandizement. Not for tenure points. We should/must desire exposure because it is only through exposure to others that we develop relations and create agency. Otherwise it's just "the tree falls in the forest" business.


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