Should I blog?

28 Sep

Over at Religion in American History Edward Blum writes about his reservations when folks exactly like me blog under their own names. The risks, he believes, should make young professionals think twice about their digital publishing. His point are entirely reasonable and I’ve heard them before from my father, a professor of environmental science, other graduate students, and even academic advisers. Unfortunately, his piece offers no advice for young professionals hoping to get blogging “right” and identifies few of blogging’s benefits in this increasingly digital age. I want to take the time today to explain why I’m here under my own name and why despite Blum’s reservations I think it’s okay and even beneficial for me to be writing here.

First, I should note that I’ve blogged for some time, nearly a decade. I’ve blogged in the form of private friend-only diaries; I’ve blogged using e-mail when I’ve traveled abroad; I’ve blogged in an intellectual but non-academic mode under a pseudonym; and I’ve blogged in an intellectual and academic mode under a pseudonym. To be sure, I’m not just beginning my journey this month or even this year. I am, however, finally letting my own name stand beside my work.

I made the decision to begin blogging under my own name for several reasons, some of which directly confront Blum’s objections. So let’s be clear about what he thinks about the obstacles or dangers I could be creating with my site here. Thanks to John Fea’s helpful summary, we might look at Blum’s objections as the following:

1. Bloggers give away their ideas for free when they can get paid for them.
2. By publishing their views on the web, bloggers may neglect the benefits associated with submitting their work for peer review.
3. The ideas on blogs do not get reviewed in scholarly journals.
4.  Blog posts can hurt your reputation. This could have implications for the job market and/or tenure and promotion.
5.  “Reacting to every new media story is not the path of most scholarly work; it’s the domain of the journalist.”
6.  Bloggers face the temptation of writing “flippantly” about the deeply held beliefs and values of others.

Am I giving my ideas away for free?

Blum suggests that I could get paid for the work I do here. He’s right. It is possible that I could either give away a great lead for an article or that some publication might pay me for the same writing I do here. It’s a misleading claim, however, because it assumes far too much about what, how, and why I blog. My posts here are extensions of my professional work, and while they are posted for free in public they are not my fully developed professional ideas. Others could scoop my work, but they too would have to do the legwork necessary to bring these scholarly extensions into some marketable, publishable form. The posts themselves are not substitutes for jobs that pay cold hard cash, nor are they for sale for others. They are entry points for a conversation in the marketplace of ideas between myself and other scholars–not a product I must hawk in the market.

Am I missing important critical evaluations of my work?

No. In fact, I hope to generate more outlets for conversations about my work (or at the very least the issues I’m thinking about). An extended metaphor might go like this: My blog contains things I might say to my colleagues over coffee in a cafe. There’s a fluidity to the style of the writing that favors connectivity and spontaneity. It lacks, and I believe it should lack, precisely what Blum seems to want for it–rigid boundaries about acceptable styles (professional), audiences (elite), and the location of conversations (private). My writing here is moderately casual, democratic, and public, and those modes seem to offer the promise of sustaining and enhancing what I will eventually give to Blum’s reviewers. They are complementary projects even if they are not directly in conversation. (Or perhaps that the conversation crosses the boundary between my efforts here on the blog and my efforts in the academic market.)

My ideas are not refereed by my peers.

Too true. I am not submitting them to others and waiting for their approval to say what I want to say. This carries the risk of being called out for what I may have gotten wrong. Moreover, if I do say something wrong I will surely have to apologize and fix the mistake. Nevertheless, the promise of entering into a legitimate dialogue (through comments) with one’s referees makes this risk worthwhile. If Blum’s suggestion (as in the previous point) is that I can’t fix what I don’t know I’ve gotten wrong, then I think blogs can be an even good format for these adjustments. The comments come from a broader section of readers and they come more quickly and they are available for further clarification and discussion. (See the benefits and pitfalls of this at the Shakespeare Quarterly.) Yet even when the blog is not receiving such help, to worry that I might always be saying the wrong thing seems to fatalistically dwell on political correctness and the possibility of failure. Why not instead take advantage of that risk as an opportunity to reap unexpected rewards? In short, I want to answer Blum, Yes, I looked carefully before I leaped. I leaped with purpose.

[And I might add: Do we all really believe that “Real debates and real problems” are addressed in reviews? I am dubious of this claim given the politics and innuendo that we see in reviews, and I can’t help but wonder whether Blum is trying to convince himself of this point, too. We all may be engaged in a project of wishful thinking on this issue.]

Am I endangering my future employment?

This is the biggest danger of blogging for me and my professional situation, and I do worry that I could be endangering future employment opportunities. There’s no denying that I cannot predict how a future reader will react to this blog in the context of a job application. There are too many variables for me to be that prescient. I could step on someone’s toes without meaning to and never realize where my error came from. Isn’t this the danger of anything we publish?

All our work defines us, and perhaps Blum is not yet fully comfortable with the expansion of the location of the academic conversation or the possibility that we may need to adopt more casual modes of presenting our interests to increase our audiences. I think that the growing number of religion blogs suggests that I am cultivating a skill that will be desirable in the future. Blum underestimates the benefits of showing that one is able to manage a CMS or blog and how to cultivate an audience that is engaged with your field of study and interests.

Let me be very clear on one final point: I don’t write here to add a line to my resume. If notoriety arrives then perhaps I will have earned a line on my resume or it will lead to lines on my resume, but it most emphatically does not replace any of my scholarly work at conferences or for journals.

Will my scholarship live and die moment-to-moment like a passing fad?

I am not a journalist and my posts are not organized to follow the latest major news story. I may find an occasion to say something about a current event, but to pretend it will be the bulk of what I do is just fanciful. I follow many blogs that analyze current events, but that’s not my project here. So while these may be words of warning for others they seem off the mark for me. My work should probably be judged by its analysis and insight rather than its timeliness. It is probably just as easy to fail in this regard, but that seems more in line with the expectations in my academic work.

Will I be unprofessional and insensitive to others because of the blog format?

Stephen Prothero tweeted today that the “Pew study tomorrow will confirm as I wrote in “Religious Literacy” (2007) that the US is a nation of religious illiterates.” Blum worries it is easy to be flippant and rashly publish an article about our delicate field of study. I think the bigger danger is that scholars, those best positioned to speak with clarity and reason (note I do not say authority) about religion and religious issues, will instead continue to say little or nothing to non-academic public audiences. We risk much more in our silence than in our speech. Blum turned to Orsi on this issue and I think it is worth quoting the original:

To stand in an attitude of open, disciplined, and engaged attentiveness to an other means to put one’s own world in dialogue; to be open is to be vulnerable—to be vulnerable to the disorientation of seriously meeting a different reality, the challenge of being with people who love differently than oneself, whose family lives are not familiar, who inhabit their bodies differently, who have had to contend with political realities perhaps unknown to many of us.

The risk that Orsi identifies is not for those folks that we speak about, but rather to ourselves in the way that we are open to radical otherness. In this sense, I think Blum has misread Orsi’s message for us. The danger and value of my open dialogue is that I may have to reveal and be responsible for my own vulnerabilities. These could easily jeopardize future employment, but they seem just as likely to enhance me as a scholar and professional.

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