It's not the blog

By Sean Carroll | October 11, 2005 5:49 pm

Nobody has ever accused me of being shy about talking to journalists. Not that I’m any sort of attention hound, mind you; I just consider it part of my civic duty to explain science blah blah blah. But in the last couple of days I’ve been fielding phone calls about a somewhat stickier topic.

Last week Daniel Drezner found out that he was denied tenure. For those of you who don’t know (and shame on you), Dan is a political scientist who has an informative and entertaining blog about international relations, monetary policy, things like that. He is also at the University of Chicago. The connection is that I have an informative and entertaining blog (yes, I mean this one, although at the time it was my previous one), and I am also at the University of Chicago, and I was also denied tenure. (Indeed, Dan has ruined one of my claims to fame, being the source of the only Google hit for “blogger denied tenure.”) Two points, as you know, determine a line, and there’s been a lot of conclusion-jumping going on: bloggers can’t get tenure, the UofC is biased against bloggers, etc. Stories have appeared in Inside Higher Ed as well as the New York Sun.

Blaming the UofC is just silly; anyone who thinks that there is some philosophical connection between the physics and political science departments doesn’t know how academia works very well. The blogging question is more interesting. I don’t have any real interest in hashing out the details of my own tenure case, but there’s a legitimate question for younger academics about whether or not blogging is a bad idea for your career. (We’ll put aside the obvious point that blogging under your own name and saying insulting things about your senior colleagues, or providing graphic details of your sex life, might be a bad idea, to concentrate on more academically-themed blogging.)

There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is “No, it’s not blogging that prevents you from getting tenure; it’s because some people in your department (or the dean, or whatever) didn’t think that your research was good enough.” The blog was not a hot topic of discussion in my case, and I’m pretty sure that many of my colleagues don’t even know what a blog is, much less have a negative opinion of mine.

The longer answer must deal with the issue of why someone doesn’t think your research was good enough. (You might wonder whether teaching and various other forms of service are also relevant; at a top-tier research university like Chicago, the answer is simply “no,” and if anyone says differently they’re not being honest.) I think my own research was both solid and influential, and Dan’s looks pretty good from the perspective of a complete outsider; certainly neither of us had simply sat around for six years. But these are judgment calls, and a lot goes into that judgment. Like it or not, if you are very visibly spending a great deal of time doing things other than research, people might begin to wonder how devoted you are to the enterprise. To first order it doesn’t really matter whether that time is spent blogging or playing the banjo; some folks will think that you could have been spending that time doing research. (At second order it does matter; some people, smaller in number but undoubtedly there, feel resentful and jealous when one of their colleagues attains a certain public profile on the basis of outreach rather than research.) Of course nobody will ever say that they voted against giving tenure to someone because that person spent too much time on public outreach, or put too much effort into their teaching. But getting a reputation at being really good at that stuff could in principle make it harder to have your research accomplishments recognized — or not. It’s just impossible to tell, without access to powerful mind-reading rays that one can train on the brains of the senior faculty.

Blogging may very well be a contributor to this image of not being perfectly devoted — although, given the lack of familiarity with blogs on the part of most senior faculty, it’s very unlikely to be playing a major role. But even then it’s not blogging per se, it’s the decision to make an effort to communicate with the public. Blogging is just a technology, not a fundamentally new activity. It’s part of connecting to a wider audience, in ways that can be either serious or frivolous. Also, blogging may very well have a positive effect. It gets your name out there, and we can’t completely ignore the fact that some people (even senior faculty) really do appreciate the attempt to bring wider recognition to your academic discipline. It’s probably a wash, overall, although the positive or negative aspects could be important in certain individual cases.

Of course, it goes without saying that I personally think that connecting to a wider audience is an integral part of being a professor, not just a diverting sidelight. I don’t think that each individual academic must spend a lot of time on it (there are certain professors I would just as soon keep away from the public), but the field as a whole needs to take it seriously. Blogging is in an early stage of development, but it’s becoming a powerful tool indeed. As Michael Berube says, eventually the radical newness of blogging will evolve into familiarity. Then having a blog will be exactly as deleterious or advantagous to one’s career prospects as appearing on TV or writing op-eds for the New York Times — no more, no less. Some will embrace it with enthusiasm, and some will look down their noses at it. Hopefully, we embracers will march cheerfully forward, and use the new technology to make some sort of real difference.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Internet
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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