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Hugh McGuire

Hugh McGuire

Posted: November 25, 2008 04:41 PM

Why Academics Should Blog (Redux)


A few weeks ago, I wrote an article suggesting academics should blog, and it generated some intense debate and discussion, both on Huffington Post, and on my own weblog. I had nine points, which you can read, but the first two points were, er, indelicate critiques of academic writing, born of some recent encounters with the form. I attacked both the quality of prose and the tenuousness of some of the ideas, and my generalizations might have been a wee bit on the sweeping side, though the scalpel-wielding semanticist in me thinks I might have carved out a little escape route. No matter: I got lambasted from several directions, and deserved a good lot of the heckles.

After much back and forth, I retreated somewhat on both counts, though I won't give up the fight entirely. I still think there is a certain strain of flabby academic writing that serves mainly to fill out pages in journal articles, and I believe that strain of writing is pernicious. I also think there is something about the academic method that makes it hard to kill off bad ideas. But this post is not meant to pick more quarrels, but rather to make a more convincing case about why academics should blog.

So, with much thanks to those who called me out (especially academics Alexandre, and Huffpo commenter endoxos), and forced me to realign my positions, let me try that again.

Here are some revised reasons I think that academics should blog.

1. Academia Is Important
Academia should be a vanguard of our understanding of the world. It's a place where people have the time and space to think about the shape of the world, the source of some of the ideas that transform us. If something is important it should be more visible to the world. Blogging is a simple platform to make important ideas more visible to the world.

2. Blogging Releases the Constraints
Academic writing is hamstrung by the conventions of the academia. Caution, references, sources. That all makes sense in the context of academia, where each bit of knowledge must be made to fit snugly within the existing ecosystem of Knowledge. But this kind of writing ties your hands, you can't write on hunches, or outside your area of expertise, without doing your back-up work. Blogging has none of these constraints, and can be used however you wish to use it. You are free to make sweeping generalizations and explore ideas beyond your usual area of study. You are free to write what you like, which is both liberating, and can also help you sketch out and explore ideas in ways you can't in your professional writing. You can also write about your cats if you feel like it.

3. Important Ideas Should Circulate Outside Academia
The work academics do should be made more open and accessible to the world at large. Academics should blog in the same way that academics should give public lectures, write articles in popular press, and give interviews on the radio and television. If you believe your ideas are important, then you should consider more ways of making them accessible (at the very least available) to the world at large.

4. Writing for the Public Will Help Clarify Ideas
In my last article, I was accused of being unfair or naive or wrong about the character of academic writing. Let me rephrase (or change) what I mean: writing for the general public, even for a selected group of the general public, is different than writing for academia. A premium is placed on clarity, where in academic writing the premium is on robustness of argument. So by writing for a public audience, you might be forced to clarify the language of your ideas, which, I would argue, could be a useful way to clarify the ideas themselves.

5. Cross-Pollination of Ideas Is Good
Ideas from academia should circulate more freely in the population at large. When ideas circulate more freely, there is more interaction among them, more challenges, more negotiation among positions. This strengthens the value of ideas. Opening up ideas to a public outside academia will mean that a wider range of ideas from a wider range of disciplines and points-of-view interact, and individual academics, academia, and society as a whole should benefit.

6. Blogging Will Help You Engage with Students
There was a recent article about the web and juries in the UK. Young jurors, the inquiry suggested, were not used to listening to people talk for long periods of time: their first instinct is to check facts on the web. I don't know if that's true or not, but your students (the serious ones, anyway) will appreciate having an online space where they can find you, and read more about your ideas.

7. Public Interest Will Be Helpful for Your Career
Or at least, public interest will be helpful to the public. Again, assuming that your ideas are interesting and valuable, don't you want more people to have access to them? If so, then blogging is a good way to let your thinking spread to the world. Note that you could publish sketches, thoughts, or full articles, depending on what your preference is. And, assuming you have many people from the outside world interested, well, is that going to hurt your career?

8. Do You Want People to Know about Your Ideas?
See above. This is the most fundamental reason I think academics should blog: your ideas are important, and more people should be able to see them, read them, hear about them, criticize them, discuss them, not just within academia, but in the wider world.

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