Category Archives: tenure

now playing: academics in the role of the public intellectual

Last week, in light of Middle East expert and blogger Juan Cole’s recent experience with the hiring process of Yale University, the Chronicle of Higher Education posted commentary on the career risks of academic blogging from several well-known academic bloggers, including:
Siva Vaidhyanathan
Glenn Reynolds
Daniel W. Drezner
Ann Althouse
J. Bradford DeLong
Michael Bérubé
Erin O’Connor
The last comment is from Juan Cole, himself, and he closes with:
“The role of the public intellectual is my career. And it is a hell of a career. I recommend it.”
It appears that Juan Cole has few regrets. Although not getting the position at Yale certainly is disappointing, he can still teach, carry on with his formal scholarly research, and of course blog, at the University of Michigan. His ability to be a public intellectual has not suffered. (Due to the nature of tenure and the university system, his public courting by a potential competing employer will have a much less adverse effect than if he was employed in the private sector.)
By the nature of his area of expertise, he ideas were going to have detractors. Anyone who write on the Middle East is destined to be decried as either too pro-Israel or pro-Arab. Cole could have remained behind the protective walls of the academy that tenure affords. Juan Cole made a decision to blog and seems satisfied the outcomes.
Clearly, he views his role as public intellectual as part of his job. Although, some of his fellow bloggers do not necessarily take the same viewpoint. This discrepancy leads to the question, what is the job description of the higher education professor? More specifically, if outreach to the public is part of the job, how is the role of the academic public intellectual evaluated in the hiring and promotion process?
J. Bradford DeLong provides an good list of the possible activities of academics.
“A great university has faculty members who do a great many things — teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, the many things that are “research,” public education, public service, and the turbocharging of the public sphere of information and debate that is a principal reason that governments finance and donors give to universities. Web logs may well be becoming an important part of that last university mission.”
Of course, academics are involved in these areas in varying degrees. I do not mean to suggest that every professor needs to blog. However, on the whole, university presidents and department heads needs to acknowledge that they do have an obligation to make their scholarship accessible to the public. Scholarship for its own sake or its own isolated community has little or no social value.
Therefore, the public university which receives funding from the state government, has a responsibility to give back the results from the resources that society gives it. Further, we also as a society give private higher ed schools protective benefits (such as special tax status) because there is an implied idea that they provide a service to the overall community. Therefore, one can argue that part of higher education’s duty includes not only teaching and scholarship, but outreach as well. Some professors will have a natural tendency towards outreach and acting as a public intellectual, and universities need to support their activities as part of their reason for being hired in the first place.
The difficulty has arisen because within the academy there is history of a certain distain through those who pursued becoming a public intellectual. Drezner mentions how television was a legacy of being regarded with similar negativity. However, the web is a much more disruptive force than television in this regard. In that, it has dramatically changed how the university public intellectual can access people. Blogging specifically has lower the barrier of entry for academics (and anyone for that matter) to interact with the public. Now, they no longer need to rely on traditional media outlets to reach a mass audience. The biggest resource, then, is considerable time on the part of the professor.
Siva Vaidhyanathan states, “There has never been a better time to be a public intellectual, and the Web is the big reason why…
“I’m thrilled to see the membrane between the academy and the public more permeable and transparent than ever.”
If direct outreach is an essential part of the professional duty of the academic (which I argue it is,) then the academy needs to understand how to evaluate the medium. Blogging is not scholarly publishing, and needs to be interpreted with an understanding of the form. Because the hiring and tenure process is often closed, it is not clear how and if they are evaluating academic blogging as Ann Althouse notes:
“Those who are making a judgment about whether to offer a blogger a new career opportunity ought to have the sense to recognize satire and hyperbole and to understand that blog writing is done quickly, instinctively, and without an editor. But surely they are entitled to look at it as evidence of the quality of the blogger’s mind.”
In the short term, Yale is free to hire whomever they chose, as Erin O’Connor correctly asserts. However, there are long term effects to their decisions. The academy needs to be careful to insure that they are remain relevant to society. Cole’s blog get 200,000 viewers a month, and people are obviously interested in what he has to say. Playing it safe is a precarious position, because they may isolate themselves into obsolescence — particularly because (for better or worse) our society is increasingly business/ results/ ROI oriented.
Daniel W. Drezner states:
“Blogs and prestigious university appointments do not mix terribly well. That is because top departments are profoundly risk-averse when it comes to senior hires. In some ways, that caution is sensible — hiring a senior professor is the equivalent of signing a baseball player to a lifetime contract without any ability to release or trade him. In such a situation, even small doubts about an individual become magnified.”
In general, innovation tends to occur on the fringe. Being on the fringe often means organizations or individuals are unencumbered, and more free to take risks. Therefore, its not surprising that Drezner says that the top-tier institutes tend to be more conservative. At some point, what was once fringe gains acceptance and becomes mainstream. Therefore, the acceptance of academic blogging as part of a professor’s job will start at the fringes and move towards the mainstream and at some point top tier universities. However, if they are too slow to adapt, they will ironically risk losing the reputations they are seeking to protect.
The spectrum of reactions given by the commentators shows that the academy does not know yet how to handle blogging. ls it a personal activity, a professional pursuit, or something in between the two? Not all of them would agree that their blogging is formal part of the job as academics. Their opinions to Juan Cole’s blogging and experience with Yale, shows where they fall in that range. An interesting follow-up question to pose to them, is “Why Blog?” As well, there range of reactions and opinions point out the overall lack of guidelines on how to treat blogging for both academics and hiring committees. This is very different from the usual “rules” for promotion and hiring that are very well defined.
As stated previously, a university can create their own criteria for who they hire. The situations of tenure and promotion are quite different, because the faculty member is already employed by the organization when dealing with promotion. Even within a field, departments within an individual school will have specific guidelines on their expectations for teaching, research, grants and publishing.
With promotion, the importance of guidelines is even more crucial because junior faculty’s energy under the current system is so focused on progressing through the tenure track. If this ambiguity continues, we are bound to hear about new additions to the list of faculty being denied jobs and promotions. This could lead to academics abandoning blogging which would be a great loss for the public and the academy.

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.