Thursday, September 9, 2010

Is there a risk to academic bloggers?

I attended a wonderful APSA panel (not an oxymoron!) called "What Political Scientists Can Offer Journalists."  (Nice writeups here from John Sides and Robert Farley.)  This spilled over into a fun discussion afterwards at a pub.  Generally, the panelists encouraged political scientists to be more forthcoming about our findings, explaining to journalists what we know and why it matters.  Blogging is generally seen as a good tool for this endeavor.  However, one thing that the political blogger/journalists seemed to have a hard time appreciating was the concept that academics might face some risk when blogging.  Yglesias sums this up nicely:
As I heard it explained to me, it’s not merely that taking time to help inform a non-specialist audience about political science findings isn’t specifically rewarded, it’s positively punished. And not simply in the sense that doing less research and more publicizing is punished; I was told that holding research output constant, getting more publicity for your output would be harmful to a junior scholar’s career because it would feed an assumption of non-seriousness....  That’s pretty nuts.
I agree.  From my perspective, academics who blog -- who take the time to explain academic research in a way that non-academics can understand and care about -- are providing a real service, both to academia and to the intellectual world at large.  But, as Nanny McPhee says, "It's rather sad, really, but there it is."  Or, as Hyman Roth says, "This is the business we've chosen."

Still, it's difficult to say whether an academic would be punished today for blogging.  We act under the belief that such activities killed Dan Drezner's tenure bid in 2005, but of course we can't get definitive proof of that, and we don't know whether norms have changed in the past few years such that this behavior is no longer stigmatized.  No senior faculty member ever goes on record saying that blogging in itself is a strike against a promotion or hiring candidate.  I don't think it hurt my tenure bid, but I don't think it helped, either.  I suppose the only way we can know is by testing it further.  As more academic bloggers come up for tenure, perhaps we'll get some real data, hopefully all on the side of refuting the hypothesis.


marc said...

Speaking as someone who writes about events abroad, the US academics I find most useful to doing journalism are cross-disciplinary. It's really hard to find an American political scientist who will talk confidently about the politics of, for example, East Asia. Perhaps it's not part of the field. But it's pretty easy to find a political economist who'll have that discussion. On one hand it's great you guys don't generalize: "parties are like this, whether in Singapore or Sacramento." Well, no. But on the other hand, having access to the kind of commentary we see about US elections, applied to European ones, from a polisci angle rather than a historian or an ex diplomat -- something quantitative, for example -- would certainly make my articles less speculative and my job easier.

Seth Masket said...

During the panel, Ezra Klein said some very similar things, noting that economists seem all too eager to describe their work. He thought that political scientists should shed some of their inhibitions and start popping off like economists. He and other suggested that political scientists seem particularly shy about aspects of our research that are controversial, while economists seem to like talking about the controversy. I'm really not sure why our academic cultures are so different.

Jarv said...

I think it depends a bit on the institution. Here at CSUF, with our relatively low weight on scholarship and a relatively high weight on both teaching and service, it wouldn't hurt. But, at an R1? It simply serves as an indicator that you're NOT publishing. Even if you are, people will look at it as time that you could be doing MORE publishing.