Academic Blogging

Brad DeLong writes why blogging is important for the academy in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The hope of all of us who blog is that we will become smarter, do more useful work, be happier and more productive, and will also impress our deans so they will raise our salaries. The first three hopes are clearly true: Academics who blog think more profound thoughts, have a bigger influence on the world — both the academic and the broader worlds — and are happier for it. Are we more productive in an academic sense? Maybe. We will see when things settle down.

Are our deans impressed? Not so far, but they should be. A lot of a university’s long-run success depends on attracting good undergraduates. Undergraduates and their parents are profoundly influenced by the public face of the university. And these days, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed Web logger like Juan Cole or Dan Drezner is an important part of a university’s public face. Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty. Yale loses from not having an equivalent.

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.

I had no idea how rewarding blogging would be when I started doing so nearly three years ago, and Brad DeLong’s blog was one of the reasons I started. I thought it would be a fun way to interact with students, and use it to point to interesting articles that I didn’t have time to discuss in class. It worked some, but it isn’t a great pedagogical tool at a small school.

Brad is right that the best feature of a blog is that it connects you to a society of people with similar interests. In a short time, I have come to converse with nearly every scholar doing research in sports economics. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people in the sports world and general economics community, too. This is fantastic not because I get more virtual friends, but because I get good feedback instantly. Here’s how academic research works.

  1. Think of an idea for a paper.
  2. Keep idea in mind for 3-6 months while you clear the decks on other projects.
  3. Gather data and write up the project just in time to present it at a professional meeting. This can take between 1 and 3 months.
  4. Make minor changes from meeting comments then submit to journal that you know is too good for the paper.
  5. Wait 6-12 months for split decision referee report. Editor sides with negative referee who complains about the need to cover topic X. However, the referee failed to notice the 5-page section devoted to topic X during the many months he/she neglected to read the paper.
  6. Resubmit article to journal and repeat step 5 until article is accepted…pending revisions.
  7. Receive request for revisions just after receiving numerous papers to grade and while working on an urgent research project with a coauthor.
  8. Make changes and resubmit article, wait 3 months for acceptance, or possibly more changes (add another 3 months).
  9. Article featuring your research appears in academic journal 18 months after acceptance.

As you can see, by the time the article appears in print, it’s hard to remember what the article was even about. There is no editor or referee at fault, it’s just the way the system works. This is why I love the immediate feedback from blogging. I get the comments right when I’m thinking about the topic. And the comments I get are both bad and good, but the good ones are well worth sorting through.

But there’s another feature about blogging that I think many people overlook: accidentally discovering ideas to study. Blogging allows me to sort through my ideas that would otherwise get lost in my own thoughts. Now, I understand that I blog about a lot of things that will never see a page in an academic journal, but that’s just part of the process. The good ideas stick with me, and I can then use them to start the academic process. Also, sometimes people point out ideas that I didn’t really consider all that interesting. I think a little bit further on them and I see that they deserve further study.

I remember an eclectic chemistry professor of mine from college, who often strayed from the material. He often talked about the national debt, his theory of aliens inhabiting the earth, or how he used to work in a mayonnaise factory. For a while, I thought this guy was just bad, but by the end of the semester I realized that I was thinking more in that class than in any other. And somehow I was learning chemistry, too. The good teachers have a way of doing that. One lesson I remember was about Neils Bohr and some discovery he made serendipitously. I can’t remember what happened or what the discovery was—I think it involved passing out on an airplane—but ever since then I have noticed how many of our best ideas come when we least expect them. For example, Simon Rottenberg discovered the Coase Theorem before Coase while studying free agent movement in baseball. Blogging helps me find things that ought to be studied. I have so many projects in front of me that I will never get to, thanks to blogging—blogging doesn’t prevent the research it generates the wealth of topics.

Furthermore, it can’t hurt just to get practice writing more. If marathon runners run everyday, shouldn’t academics write everyday? I find my writing improves when I’m blogging more. The words comes easier and the text flows better.

Anyway, I know that blogging is something that deans may discourage, but I don’t think they should. I feel that blogging makes me more productive. I don’t think that blogs should ever substitute for publications on a vita, but they shouldn’t be a negative. I’m glad that Brad DeLong agrees.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.

2 Responses “Academic Blogging”

  1. I very much enjoy your blog so I hope your dean does not discourage you.
    My real fear in blogging is that people will remember not one’s insights but one’s errors. I was warned in grad school that it was important to publish, but not at the cost of publishing something really stupid that would be associated with your name forever(one of the commentators in Chronicle makes the same analogy).
    Moreover, as a dean, I don’t feel like I should discourage blogging, but I am also not sure how I would factor it in relative to the traditional categories of teaching, research, and service.
    But keep up the interesting work, and maybe administrators will figure out how to evaluate the contribution of a good blog to academic discourse.

  2. JC says:

    I agree that it’s hard to quantify the value of blogging. Certainly, a scholar who puts out the best blog on the planet, but does no research, should not get promoted/tenured. I suspect bloggers generate a lot of publicity and admissions to schools, which should improve funds coming in. Maybe you could weigh blogging like research grants. I don’t envy your task as a dean, and I’m glad that you see some value in blogging :-). I have found my deans to be quite happy with my blogging, but I think there is a general feeling that it’s not entirely accepted yet.

    I also think that bad ideas have much less impact than good ideas to a reputation. The exceptions are the really bad things that can happen, like plagiarism. I think we are very quick to forgive mistakes, especially when the mistakes are counterbalanced by good ideas. I don’t want to name names, but I can think of at least three top economists at top-5 Econ PhD programs who have survived major boo boos.

    As long as the mistakes are honest and the overall record of performance is strong you can survive. And I think this is a good thing. Most ideas we have are bad and, to be brutally honest, useless. Many academic papers are never cited, and most of those that are cited are mentioned only a few times. I think that we tolerate the bad in order to get the few outstanding ideas that do make a difference.