J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

The Perils of the Blogging Academic?

Posted by chanders on June 8, 2006

Leaving aside the hoopla surrounding the death of Salafi Jihadiist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for the moment (a quick perusal of some of the links I mentioned in this earlier post will give you far more information on what it all means than I ever possibly could) I wanted to talk about another Middle East related event: the decision by Yale University not to hire well-known academic and University of Michigan professor Juan Cole for its open academic position on the modern middle east.

There’s a lot that could be said about the royally screwed up right-wing political attacks in Middle Eastern studies departments right now, indeed, I have had my own brush with this two years ago as the MEALAC controversy bubbled over at Columbia. But for the time being, I’m going to try to leave the larger philosophical questions about the appointment behind and focus on one specific aspect of it: the role Cole’s blog, Informed Comment may have played in the decision surrounding whether or not to grant Cole the job.

Leibovitz quotes a Yale "university insider" who provides three reasons why senior Yale faculty on the "tenure committee" might have blocked Cole’s appointment after it was approved by the Sociology and History departments. The first was that his specialty is 18th and 19th century Baha’i faith; the second had to do with  concerns over Cole’s collegiality "as his penchant for combative blog entries and personal spats with detractors might make him an unnerving fixture on Yale"; the third factor might have been his politics.

In other words, two out of the three reasons given by this "university insider" (and its important to note that Leibovitz discusses a lot of the macinations behind the Cole appointment in his article that go beyond these stated reasons) as to why Cole’s appointment was blocked revolve around his blog. Most likely, Cole would have remained a fairly unknown specialist academic had he never started blogging (a search fole Cole’s name in Amazon reveals a publication list that is largely scholarly; certainly, there’s nothing in the printed record that documents the career of a dissident public intellectual like Edward Said, for example), and his politics (reason three) would be unknown. And the second reason, "his penchant for combative blog entries," seems to imply that the  character, rather than simply the content of his online postings played a role, too.

There’s been a fair degree of discussion about the relationship between blogging and getting a job in the mainstream press; one of the most recent articles was "Interns? No Bloggers Need Apply." in the New York Times (behind a firewall, sorry, but here’s a good blog dissection of the article at LexBlog Blog). But getting an internship, though, or even getting kicked out of a PR firm, is substantially different from not getting a prestigious academic appointment at Yale. Or at least it used to be.

This all comes in the wake of two recent blog posts by Susan Crawford which discuss the relationship between academia and the blogosphere. Crawford a law professor, asks if "a blogger who is a law professor [is[ always a law professor, even when he/she is blogging?  What’s the relationship between blogging and scholarship?  Should tenure committees consider blog posts?" Providing her own take on the question, she notes that "I see scholarship and blogging as separate endeavors, and I enjoy getting the chance to speak here without footnotes.  I feel as if I’m part of an enormous collaborative and creative endeavor online.  I don’t expect for a moment that my colleagues will consider my posts when I’m up for tenure." Jarvis argues that maybe the academy should start taking blogging more seriously; while not calling for the elimination of traditional tenure questions, Jarvis rhetorically asks: "isn’t the link the new and improved footnote? Doesn’t Technorati provide a new and open form of peer review? And isn’t it wonderful to get a professorial perspective in a timely manner?" He adds that, as a soon to be blogging professor, "I will be aware that they may see what I say here [in my blog] and if they do, I hope they challenge me on it. I’ll also be aware that fellow faculty may read it and may have cause to argue with it. I’d relish that, and I’d bet the students would … if that were a discussion via links among mutual blogs."

In theory, I agree with Jeff. But what about the Juan Cole’s of the world? And what about those of us with unpopular opinions who really are the equivalent of academic interns? (What about me, for instance?***) Juan Cole certainly did exactly what Jeff argued for, didn’t: took his knowledge, added his strong opinions, and shared it with the world. It turns out that that a large part of the (Western) world (and apparently at least a few bigwigs at Yale) didn’t like what he had to say, and it cost him his job. And it had little, it seems, to do with his scholarly credentials. So what about it, academic bloggers? Should we all shut up?

*** I’ll be teaching Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University next year, and have been told that one of the first things students do with their CC profs. is google them. Fortunately, Chris Anderson is a pretty common name. But assuming that they google smart, say, and look for "Chris Anderson" and "Columbia University," what will they uncover? Assuming they realize I’m not the Chris Anderson at Wired, they’ll find:

This blog
My NORG report-back (from this blog)
My bio from the IAPE conference at Ohio
My Columbia Bio
My Spectator op-ed

Not very incriminating, I know. But I’m sure anyone who ever wanted to dig up "controversial" dirt on me could do so easily.

(Full disclosure: Liel Leibovitz, author of The Jewish Week article, is a colleague and friend of mine.)

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