Blogging and Professional Value

Sorry I’ve been away from the blog for a while. It’s the life of a graduate student with dissertation chapters to write. But when I was working on a funding application recently, it made me think about my (fledgling) blog and what role it plays in my academic career. This particular funding application had unusual instructions for what to put at the end of my C.V.

“Other creative, academic and professional contributions in the student’s field, such as performances, exhibits, community and public service.”

Do I include this blog? On the one hand, my blog is intended to make an “academic and professional contribution” by explaining research in my field to a broader audience. On the other hand, this funding organization is mainly concerned about traditional academic benchmarks: time to degree, publishing in top journals, getting a job in a prestigious research university. Would they view my application negatively for including that I am not spending 100% of my time on the dissertation? Could they understand that it may be counterproductive to spend 100% of my waking hours writing and trying to publish the rest of my dissertation, without any other activities to keep my brain sharp?

It’s been a big week for people discussing the role of academics and how much our role should include engagement with a broader audience. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a column last week bemoaning the lack of publicly accessible intellectuals. As someone who writes an academic blog and has friends who write much larger academic blogs, I know Kristof’s column gets a lot of things wrong. I doubt Kristof is following many academics on Twitter either – it’s a vibrant community worth following. But back to my big question for the week…would this funding agency care about a broader engagement with the audience?

Should a funding agency or a hiring committee care about broader engagement? It’s ironic that so many academics’ responses to Kristof’s column have criticized Kristof for his many inaccuracies. Many sociologists and political scientists have written their own version of a “we’ve been here the whole time, you just need to find us Mr. Kristof” column. It’s an important point to make, of course. Academic blogging is growing, but it is hardly a universal practice. Kristof would like to see more academics using technology to connect with a broader audience, and I think most academic bloggers would agree. Kristof is hardly a prefect messenger, but his megaphone has brought attention to the bigger issue. When it comes to broader engagement, Kristof and many of the bloggers attacking him are on the same side: academic blogging has value.

As someone who studies both political communication and social networks, I can see why the debunking columns are popular. Saying “we exist, you just need to find us” is a great way to reinforce group identity and build solidarity. It takes all of the blame Kristof heaps on academics for being “inaccessible” and shifts it to Kristof for being “ignorant.” These responses have limited persuasive power though. In politics, everyone uses this kind of response when they are attacked, regardless of the validity of the attack. People who would strongly agree with Kristof won’t be receptive to the “we exist” response. People who strongly agree with the view that sociology has a liberal bias won’t be persuaded otherwise, since we all interpret new political ideas in a way that conforms to our prior political beliefs. [Protip: It’s about perception here, not reality.]

The attacks on Kristof seem odd to me. If Kristof is as ignorant as everyone says he is, what is the likelihood that he will find any of the blogs calling him out? He may not notice. He may also see all the attention pointed back at him as a positive. Newspaper columnists have used provocation as a way to attract attention well before blogs were developed. Some of my friends count all the hate mail as a trophy!

For all my studies of political communication, it’s actually my training in social networks and looking at my networks of fellow graduate students that show me how limited the “we exist, you just need to find us” argument is. If you are already in the network of academic blogging, it’s easy to find the “we exist” argument. People who spend a lot of time in academic social media may already be bored with this topic and ready to move on. But my department has a lot of sociologists who don’t spend time in the academic blogosphere. They don’t interact much with students from other universities via Twitter. They can still read Kristof’s column, because it’s in the New York Times. For this group, Kristof reinforced their worst fears and frustrations about academia by writing the following:

“A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.”

We don’t need to tell Kristof that we exist. The main group we need to reach out to is the group of fellow academics who see this paragraph from Kristof and accept it as a completely accurate depiction of academia. If you spend most of your time talking to other academics who use social media for professional purposes, it’s easy to assume all academics are aware that social media can serve a professional purpose. That’s our reference category. In my case, I am tied to one network of sociologists through social media and a separate network through my department. Overlap is minimal, because most people in my department don’t use blogs or social media for professional connections with other academics. For some, I assume this is a calculated decision. But a lot of people – particularly graduate students starting their careers – aren’t all that aware of what’s out there.

When I asked my friends whether I should list my blog on my CV at the end under “other academic and professional contributions,” some of them were completely unaware of the Kristof column. I explained how I was leaning no, because even though I think my blog has some value I fear the people who read my application may see any kind of blogging as a distraction. I made sure to ask friends who don’t blog themselves. Like many academics, I doubt they have thought through all of the ambiguities of precisely how to value the professional contribution of a blog relative to peer reviewed publication. 

My friends changed my mind, encouraging to include the blog at the end of my CV for the application I sent off this week. They may not fully know how to evaluate my blog as a part of my credentials. I’m not sure anyone does. But if this week has made one thing clear, it’s that social scientists increasingly realize that professional use of social media has value and should be encouraged. Hopefully people reading my applications are having similar discussions about how to value professional blogging. Structural changes in funding and hiring are the only way to keep up with normative changes among academics about how to be a valuable scholar in a connected world.

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About Noah Grand

PhD in Sociology. I use statistics to predict news coverage. And home runs. View all posts by Noah Grand

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