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On Blogging as an Academic

January 28, 2013

[This is Part 1 of this semester’s series of response posts from the History and New Media course I’m attending at American University. That said, the subject matter of this week is of particular concern to me and my audience, so listen up!]
As an academic, my experience is that blogging has often been a dirty word. I usually do not mention that I post online various pieces of commentary and academic writing to my professors. When I have, particularly in recent memory, I have been chastised for daring to share my work for free on the internet. The common argument (including from said chastiser who will remain nameless) is that no journal or academic publisher will consider my work if parts of it are already available online. “You have to feed yourself, after all,” I was told.

Is this really a dollar-and-cents industry? Of course we have to feed ourselves. But that’s not necessarily our mission as academics, or more to the point in my case, as historians. Regardless of my ability to navigate an asininely structured academic profession often based on piles of debt, in-group cliques, arcane affinity group structures, there isn’t much money in what we do. Academic publications seldom pay, historical consulting work is great if you can get it but nowhere near the norm, and advances for monographs and the royalties they might glean are often not sustainable income streams. Income for adjunct positions are notoriously low. In the interest of full disclosure, adjuncting, consulting, and fellowships all are keeping me fed. But these are not usually big paychecks.

This has led me to the conclusion that what I do is an essentially altruistic. The rewards of historical research and teaching are the benefits to the public. Keeping the historical record as accurate as we imperfect humans can make it and sharing that information as widely as possible would seem to be, at least to me, my main mission as a historian. So why not take my own initiative in this process?

In 2009, when I entered grad school at Boston College, I started this blog to share some of my work with the wider world. Despite receiving less than 10,000 hits almost four years later in 2013, I’ve had central individuals in my field comment here, and have picked up consulting work as a result of these efforts. My first footnote, in a text published late last year, is a link to this blog. It would appear that times are changing.

The topic of blogging and academia is not new, of course. William J. Turkel writes in his piece, “Going Digital” that it is imperative that historians of the future be tech savvy and know how to navigate search engines. Indeed, information is growing at an exponential rate. Being able to pinpoint useful information is becoming just as important as the ability analyze and synthesize it. Meanwhile, Dan Cohen writes in the cleverly titled article, “Professors Start Your Blogs,” that many of the arguments coming from academia against blogging are red herrings. Cohen only briefly covers the criticisms that I’ve brought up on guarding information as a source of livelihood, noting that copyright covers your work in the digital world just as it does on the written page (click on my creative commons notice at the bottom of my page, for example). That said, Cohen states that many other arguments on the nature of blogs, such as they being a forum only for anonymous, casual writing, ring hollow.

There is no doubt that this is an important subject currently being debated in the academy. Scott Eric Kaufman writes in his piece, “An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogs,” that blogging is a critical way that transitory academics can continue correspondence with each other. For anyone who has been a college student, they know that people come from many different parts of the world, and often scatter far and wide once they have completed their studies. The same goes for professors, who must go wherever they can find steady work. Meanwhile, historians know that historiographical debates require continued interaction among specialists. As Kaufman argues, blogging only increases the ease of this process.

It is worth noting that there are counterpoints to academic blogging beyond those mentioned thus far. Adam Kotsko contends in “A Skeptic’s Take on Academic Blogs” that the hierarchical nature of blogging tends to create an echo chamber that fosters group-think, rather than vigorous debate. Indeed, I have seen this many times myself in political battles I’ve engaged in online. However, Kotsko doesn’t argue for academics to shy away from this venue; instead he suggests that they create decentralized blog communities that foster cross-communication between various disciplines. My own take is that this quite likely to occur in the future, based on the already existing multi-disciplinary impulses in current historical research.

In a sense, the verdict on blogging and the academy has already been written. Historians are moving online. More and of all kinds of information is migrating to the digital world. While this group will, by virtue of its very nature, move carefully and deliberately, I have no doubt that historians will continue to embrace blogging as a way to create new communities and foster dialog well into the future.

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