16 December 2011

Blogging as Academic Tenure's Medusa: Kate Clancy Tells It Like It Is!

Caravaggio's Medusa (1597?)

It is stupid that we call blogging, blogging. It is dumb that Twitter is called Twitter. And, let's be frank, Facebook and Google sounds like something a 13 year-old would care about. Academics could re-purpose those words, a la Orwell, with a kind of "Newspeak" for these activities. I suppose we could call Blogging = Inquisitive-ing; Twittering = Tweeding: you get the idea. But no matter what we call it, we find that these activities have great advantages and are meaningful. 

Most of us who do these things don't aspire to become public intellectuals; we aspire to have conversations with our peers. We don't believe we will become Paul Krugman or Andrew Sullivan, but we may aspire to model their activities, because they do so well what most of us love about these activities. Krugman and Sullivan show us curiosity in action. And that's what most of us are doing, when we do these activities. And that's what many of us feel the need to defend when our colleagues ask: do you really have time for that? It is in that spirit that Kate Clancy takes up the issue, and there are many of us who can relate to her excellent points:

I submitted the first round of my materials for my third year review recently. The third year review is the half-way point between one’s hire as a tenure-track professor and going up for tenure. You can be fired at this point. But the most common outcome is that you get a strongly worded letter from the college detailing what you’ve done and what will be necessary from here on out if you want tenure. If you then don’t do as they say (get a grant, increase the number of publications, improve your teaching) then they have the grounds to deny you tenure.

If you’re in a supportive department as I am, then your third year committee’s job is to make the best possible case for you for when your case goes before the college. They pore over your curriculum vitae (academic resume), your papers, your teaching evaluations and research program. They observe your teaching, read your grants, and try to figure out how to articulate just how important you are to the department.

However, the job of an academic, and our expectations, are largely increasing. More papers are expected, more grants, even while teaching and service loads are increasing. And what it means to be an academic is changing. More online instruction actually means that teaching is more time-intensive – it takes a lot longer to build a week of good online material than it does to write a few lectures. Students no longer wait to talk to you after class, they email you at all hours – and will resend their email repeatedly if you don’t answer within 8-12 hours. Being slightly removed from our students but supposedly available 24 hours a day makes for a demoralizing, full inbox each and every morning.

But there are many wonderful things about how our jobs are changing, too. As depressed as end of semester emails make me, I am thrilled the other fourteen weeks of the semester because I can identify the ways in which my students have grasped basic skills and concepts better in my current blended teaching style, compared to the passive lectures they once received. For some academics, blogs and social media serve as both public outreach and scholarly work; for others they are an important place to give and receive mentorship. And the shrinking of many PhD programs mean undergraduate research experiences are on the rise as some of us look for other students to mentor, and I find these experiences especially rewarding.

So that third year review committee has a tough job ahead of itself in a case like mine. I don’t look like most of the people who have gotten tenure before me, at least in terms of how I allocate my time. They can figure out how to talk about my educational activities, because they can recognize components even if the medium or students look different. The research part should be a breeze too. But what they really want to know is, how do they talk about my blog?

It doesn’t help that “blog” doesn’t sound very academic (oh, if only I had thought to call this the Context and Variation Monograph). And it doesn’t help that this writing isn’t just for scholars, but for everybody. That’s not because non-blogging academics don’t see the point of interacting with the public, but because this particular way of doing it is so strange to them. This isn’t a radio interview, or a book, or a talk at the local library, but a style of writing where the jargon is not academic but from the internet. We talk in ALL CAPS, we use emoticons and use extra exclamation points!!1!!1 We use the word “fail” in a way totally different from its traditional meaning, which led to members of the American Anthropological Association getting angry and hurt when online anthropologists referred to the removal of science from its mission statement last year as #aaafail.

Then there are the takedowns. Blog posts can be a number of things, but within science blogging two of the more common are explainers and takedowns. Explainers are when you provide background information or context for a particular topic – this may be timely, as when there is a new primate fossil discovery and several anthropologists then explain its meaning in the context of the fossil record or modern primates, depending on their expertise. Or it may just be interesting or timely to them, as with my piece on inducing labor last month.

Takedowns, though, are critical and controversial. They are intentionally provocative. They do not write behind a veil of careful academic prose that weighs and measures each sentence. They take the criticisms that many academics privately share at the nearest coffee shop (because we so rarely have a watercooler) into the public sphere. And so these are particularly unsettling to read and categorize, if you are trying to understand a blog’s place in academia.

At Science Online last year, John Hawks said that “blogging is at best a tertiary activity.” And I would agree. But that still puts it on the radar for those of us blogging pre-tenure today. I have no desire to alter my writing style or choice of topics on my blog to help me get tenure. At the same time, I would like to be able to articulate the ways in which the process of blogging, the networking from blogging, and scholarly blog posts are a meaningful part of my identity and production as a tenure-track professor.


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