Category Archives: higher_education

blogging and the true spirit of peer review

Slate goes to college this week with a series of articles on higher education in America, among them a good piece by Robert S. Boynton that makes the case for academic blogging:

“…academic blogging represents the fruition, not a betrayal, of the university’s ideals. One might argue that blogging is in fact the very embodiment of what the political philosopher Michael Oakshott once called “The Conversation of Mankind”–an endless, thoroughly democratic dialogue about the best ideas and artifacts of our culture.
…might blogging be subversive precisely because it makes real the very vision of intellectual life that the university has never managed to achieve?”

The idea of blogging as a kind of service or outreach is just beginning (maybe) to gain traction. But what about blogging as scholarship? Most professor-bloggers I’ve spoken with consider blogging an invaluable tool for working through ideas, for facilitating exchange within and across disciplines. Some go so far as to say that it’s redefined their lives as academics. But don’t count on tenure committees to feel the same. Blogging is vaporous, they’ll inevitably point out. Not edited, mixing the personal and the professional. How can you maintain standards and the appropriate barriers to entry? Traditionally, peer review has served this gatekeeping function, but can there be a peer review system for blogs? And if so, would we want one?
Boynton has a few ideas about how something like this could work (we’re also wrestling with these questions on our back porch blog, Sidebar, with the eventual aim of making some sort of formal proposal). Whatever the technicalities, the approach should be to establish a middle path, something like peer review, but not a literal transposition. Some way to gauge and recognize the intellectual rigor of academic blogs without compromising their refreshing immediacy and individuality — without crashing the party as it were.
There’s already a sort of peer review going on among blog carnivals, the periodicals of the blogosphere. Carnivals are rotating showcases of exemplary blog writing in specific disciplines — history, philosophy, science, education, and many, many more, some quite eccentric. Like blogs, carnivals suffer from an unfortunate coinage. But even with a snootier name — blog symposiums maybe — you would never in a million years confuse them with an official-looking peer review journal. Yet the carnivals practice peer review in its most essential form: the gathering of one’s fellows (in this case academics and non-scholar enthusiasts alike) to collectively evaluate (ok, perhaps “savor” is more appropriate) a range of intellectual labors in a given area. Boynton:

In the end, peer review is just that: review by one’s peers. Any particular system should be judged by its efficiency and efficacy, and not by the perceived prestige of the publication in which the work appears.
If anything, blog-influenced practices like these might reclaim for intellectuals the true spirit of peer review, which, as Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters has argued, has been all but outsourced to prestigious university presses and journals. Experimenting with open-source methods of judgment–whether of straight scholarship or academic blogs–might actually revitalize academic writing.

It’s unfortunate that the accepted avenues of academic publishing — peer-reviewed journals and monographs — purchase prestige and job security usually at the expense of readership. It suggests an institutional bias in the academy against public intellectualism and in favor of kind of monastic seclusion (no doubt part of the legacy of this last great medieval institution). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the language of academic writing: opaque, convoluted, studded with jargon, its remoteness from ordinary human speech the surest sign of the author’s membership in the academic elite.
This crisis of clarity is paired with a crisis of opportunity, as severe financial pressures on university presses are reducing the number of options for professors to get published in the approved ways. What’s needed is an alternative outlet alongside traditional scholarly publishing, something between a casual, off-the-cuff web diary and a polished academic journal. Carnivals probably aren’t the solution, but something descended from them might well be.
It will be to the benefit of society if blogging can be claimed, sharpened and leveraged as a recognized scholarly practice, a way to merge the academy with the traffic of the real world. The university shouldn’t keep its talents locked up within a faltering publishing system that narrows rather than expands their scope. That’s not to say professors shouldn’t keep writing papers, books and monographs, shouldn’t continue to deepen the well of knowledge. On the contrary, blogging should be viewed only as a complement to research and teaching, not a replacement. But as such, it has the potential to breathe new life into the scholarly enterprise as a whole, just as Boynton describes.
Things move quickly — too quickly — in the media-saturated society. To remain vital, the academy needs to stick its neck out into the current, with the confidence that it won’t be swept away. What’s theory, after all, without practice? It’s always been publish or perish inside the academy, but these days on the outside, it’s more about self-publish. A small but growing group of academics have grasped this and are now in the process of inventing the future of their profession.