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At your own "risk"

The kids these days, they're blogging up a storm about the recent piece that came out in Slate, by Robert Boynton, called "Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs."

To be fair, this is a pretty balanced account of the relationship tween blogs and academia, despite the fact that it opens with the pretense of Daniel Drezner's tenure experience, failing to reveal until the very end that Drezner's story hasn't ultimately been a sad one.

Lots of people have blogged this, so I don't know as that I've got anything particularly earth-shattering to add to their thoughts. One thing that I've noticed, and which I haven't seen discussed, though, is a writing habit that typically irks the crap out of me, one which I've always tried to get my students to move away from, the "many people say" verbal tic. To wit,

While few are counting on their Web publications to improve their chances at tenure, many have begun to fear that their blogs might actually harm their prospects. (para 2)

But academics aren't just concerned about the public display of an applicant's personal eccentricities. Many perceive blogs as evidence of a scholar's lack of seriousness. (para 3)

In most disciplines at large research universities, tenure is directly related to the number of peer-reviewed books and articles one publishes. (para 5)

And most people agree that blogs would need to be evaluated through some kind of peer-review mechanism if they are to be taken into account. (para 11)

Yes, well. The problem with "many people" is that their opinions are easy to pin down and report, but exceedingly difficult to verify (or to disprove, if it comes to that). And what emerges from Boynton's essay is a pretty cookie-cutter, he-said-she-said sort of account of a debate that varies considerably from discipline to discipline, and probably from school to school.

Still, it's fair enough. The one thing that I would really take issue with is the 11th paragraph, partly quoted above. Here's the full:

The current antipathy toward blogging may have something to do with the fact that universities have no tools for judging blogs. And most people agree that blogs would need to be evaluated through some kind of peer-review mechanism if they are to be taken into account. "It is utterly absurd to propose giving someone credit for activity with no barriers to entry," Holbo says.

Okay, set aside the "current antipathy" nonsense, a dramatic flourish without any sort of evidence behind it. Normally, I find John Holbo's comments insightful, but here I was thrown a little. Partly, I suppose this is because there are plenty of examples in academia where the "barriers to entry" are neglible if not absent. We receive credit towards service for volunteering to serve on committees, a process not known for its cutthroat competition (if anything, we usually compete to avoid such assignments). There are plenty of conferences I attend where the "review" process is a matter of bothering to send in a registration fee. If you're at all assertive in an academic context, you can receive credit right and left for such activities--I see organizational memberships listed on c.v.'s, listserv subscriptions, etc etc.

The answer that Boynton proposes in light of Holbo's "absurdity," an elaborate peer-review system for academic weblogs, would almost certainly have a chilling effect on blogs, and create a barrier for entry that would sap the energy right out of them. The question shouldn't be "how might a blog be peer-reviewed?" but "how might academia begin to think outside of a peer-review system that is occasionally corrupt, leads to navel-gazingly over-specialized minutiae, and grounds itself in the contradictory values of scarcity and constant growth?" Blogs are a pretty good start at an answer to that latter question, but only if we don't waste our energy trying to figure out how to reterritorialize them on behalf of academia. The energy floating around out here is doing so specifically because academia tends towards the conservative, stolid, and glacial, and the weblogs, they don't.

No academic blogger than I know would suggest that we should start giving ourselves credit for starting blogs. But that's the only place where, recalling Holbo's remarks, there's no barrier for entry. The process of building an audience is itself a barrier--most of us have worked at it for a long time, and succeeded only gradually. The discipline required to maintain a blog is, however, a bigger barrier than almost any other than I've encountered in academia, and that's to say nothing of quality, which is its own barrier.

The idea that we should begin setting up barriers, while academic blogging is still in its infancy, is mind-boggling to me, and my guess is that this isn't what Holbo would suggest. My own suggestion? Leave us alone, stop jumping to conclusions based on anecdotal "evidence" of a single tenure case, and stop trying to turn blogging into a tabloid-style issue.

That is all.