Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Public Intellectual Blogging Experts:
Blogs and niche scholarship

A blogger used to be defined as an amateur expressing his opinion rather loudly on an issue.

This definition made blogging an extension of participatory democracy.

Nowadays, arguably, the most truly useful blogs are written by truly informed experts like Juan Cole or Brad DeLong, making blogging an extension of elite educational institutions such as UC Berkeley or University of Michigan .

Apparently, not elite enough though, because Juan Cole was turned down for an academic job at prestigious Yale despite having achieved near household name status throught his blogging.

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education in the US addressed the blogging phenomenon with a series of articles. Brad DeLong quotes twice from them [1,2] in his blog.

The general message of the articles is that blogging is dangerous for your health (the health of your career). If you already have a job in academia or wish to advance into the higher echelons of America's research universities, beware, according to Daniel Drezner.

Maybe blogging needs to be treated like a serious academic subject, a public intellectual breadth requirement, if you will.

As a writing teacher for non-native English speakers, I know that one of the most difficult problems is to get the students to visualize the audience they are writing for and also to provide feedback as a student audience of peers. Blogging software is a step in the right direction towards helping students visualize this audience and seeing a way to get this feedback through comments.

Blogs can be used as a public intellectual tool to disseminate ideas and educate society at large, especially in developing countries far away from ours. This includes debates on controversial topics with western professors, scholars, and graduate students providing expert knowledge.

In the future, hopefully, there will be a public intellectual component necessary to qualify for the PhD degree with blogging being the pillar of this requirement.

Drezner reveals some facts about writing and scholarship in present-day universities:

1. The secret to academic success is: One bad article equals five great ones.

[What about a bad article or book that people respect only because there are no other experts or the experts that exist are too afraid to critically reveal its shortcomings? Blogs can and should critique books that are essentially a waste of paper and rewrite them line-by-line.]

2. The worst thing a scholar can do is to publish too much, as opposed to too little.

[This seems more than a little tragic, not exactly treating the still developing majority of the world to a feast of knowledge. Maybe experts have to be more careful and refine their ideas among their colleagues in restricted peer review blogs first, before going completely public with them. Many niche areas of scholarship, like early modern Burmese history don't even have enough critical mass of activity to really get going, others like Shakespeare, Dickens, or World War II are points of obsessive focus. Blogs can at least help to get ideas moving in the more intellectually stagnant waters.]

3. Any substandard publication creates a black mark that is difficult to erase.

[Again, restricted peer review blogs for experts on training wheels. The real experts, the Napoleon's of the blogosphere, like Brad DeLong or Juan Cole, can strike out on forced march critiques without them, but for us mere mortals they are essential.

What's truly horrible is the substandard scholarship that has been prematurely committed to paper in some fields, scholarship that could have gained from a thorough online blog vetting. When academics commit their ideas to paper and made them indelible and these ideas are simply wrong as they are sometimes in Burmese history, line item criticisms of the paper book can at least be made indelibly ubiquitous online.]

4. 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.

[Maybe Yale will end up studying Juan Cole then, as history, rather than actually becoming part of history by hiring him.]

5. Blogs provoke easy doubts. Blogs are an outlet for unexpurgated, unreviewed, and occasionally unprofessional musings. What makes them worth reading can also make them prone to error.

[Actually published books that haven't been thoroughly vetted by blogs are such an unreviewed outlet in some specialized niches of scholarship. Michael Aung-Thwin's new book The Mists of Ramanna raises questions with almost every sentence and has quite unprofessional musings, claiming that the Mons, a subject people for hundreds of years, were never actually "oppressed" by their overlords, "oppress" being a word easily redefinable to match one's rhetorical purposes]

[Blog entries can be refactored into more refined and polished writing.]

6. Any honest scholar-blogger — myself included — could acknowledge a post or two that they would like to have back. At a place like Yale, one bad blog post can erase a lot of good will very quickly.

[Blogs seem ideally suited to court jester types, Diogenes the Cynic types, hermit scholar types shouting the truth prophetically from mountain tops in the blogosphere.

Blogs allow many to overcome their innate shyness, like the Wizard of Oz projecting his voice through a loudspeaker from behind a curtain. Even if you're an extreme extrovert, a secret hermetic blogging life under a pseudonym might allow one greater independence in certain well-straight-jacketed intellectual spheres. Aren't so many so-called pure ideas really only artifacts of social relationships, obligations, rent-seeking relations of hegemony? When bloggers expose them as such, don't they become the literal embodiment of the late Bourdieu's notion of habitus?]

7. In some ways, this problem is merely the latest manifestation of what happens when professors try to become public intellectuals. Blogging creates new pathways to public recognition beyond the control of traditional academic gatekeepers or even op-ed editors. Any usurpation of scholarly authority is bound to upset those who benefit the most from the status quo.

[Live like a revolutionary. Die like a revolutionary (figuratively speaking, I mean) Like not getting a promotion. What is a martyr anyway? Or a hero? Don't we have them anymore?]

Blogs are the only way to do any worthy scholarship in many niche areas of scholarship, like early modern mainland Southeast Asian history (c 1350-1600), because:

1. To do scholarship in this area you should know how to read and write a foreign language that many consider obscure and useless like Burmese, Mon, Shan, or classical Chinese.

2. When you live in these foreign places, you will not have any money, comparatively speaking.

3. Without money, you will not be able to pay the tuition bills for places like Yale, Stanford, Harvard, or even the cheaper public schools, which would probably consume a lifetime of earnings in the obscure foreign country whose history you've specialized in.

4. Research on the history of the poorer areas of the world moves at a snail's pace.

5. Since there are no resources or funding...

6. Students get distracted and detour into unrelated areas that do have funding and money, like Dickens or Shakespeare, or becoming a lawyer, or some other tiny but heavily valorized plot of land in intellectual space.

7. It is very difficult to maintain research focus or keep your eye on the prize.

8. Which in the final analysis is to: Contribute Knowledge.

9. Which requires: 1. specialized knowledge, related to: 2. the generalist knowledge, that every educated individual has inherited in the west.

10. Blogs are (and increasingly will be) essential to make this contribution to knowledge in niche fields.