Friday, May 31, 2013

Blogging Like Chaucer

cross-posted from Dagblog

I love academic bloggers. Academic bloggers worry me sick. And the bloggers who keep me up at night are the ones who have adjunct or alt-ac jobs but are trying to move to the tenure track. Some of those people are using blogs and social media to advance their careers in ingenious ways which I would never have foreseen. But others seem, at least from my vantage, to expect or hope that their online work will help their career in specific ways that it will not and cannot. Being online can help an academic career. But it's important to be clear about what it can help and what it can't.

Last week a blogger at Inside Higher Ed, a person who has a prominent and well-established online platform but teaches off the tenure track, wrote a post about her frustrations on the job market and her sense that no amount of professional achievement would be enough to get her a tenure-ladder job. There was a brief kerfuffle, with various unhelpful comments on her original post and one great and insightful response post by John Warner. But the issue I would like to highlight is that what she calls her "rather high-profile blog," a gig writing for Inside Higher Ed two or three times every week, did not tilt the job market in her favor. There, I think is the key lesson. Even blogging from terrific, high-profile platform was not enough.

[A few important caveats here: 1. The IHE blogger's larger point that in this market you can do everything right and still not get a job is absolutely true. There are far more qualified people than there are jobs, and so qualified people go without. Everything else I say should be read with that larger problem in mind. 2. I have no intention of commenting on the IHE blogger's specific case except for the fact that blogging seems not to have served her as a job credential. She's not asking my advice.]

But here's the big takeaway:

You can't blog your way to a tenure-track professorship.You simply can't. Even a gig at IHE or The Chronicle for Higher Education is not enough. That doesn't mean blogging is not professionally useful to you. It means you need to be clear about what it's useful for.

Blogging and other social media serve academics by bringing you to other people's attention and building your professional network. It works largely as publicity for your other work, and it widens your potential audience while strengthening your connections. (I, like many bloggers, mainly do this for non-professional reasons, but this is a fair assessment of blogging's professional benefits. And because academia is a small world, you can get most of those benefits even with a pseudonymous blog.) The most successful academic bloggers I can think of, such as Tenured Radical and Historiann, are productive bloggers who've built up a strong community of readers and commenters on one hand while also maintaining a steady output of strong scholarly writing on the other. Their blogging works as what military types call a "force multiplier" for their other work, making their scholarship more effective by drawing more audience attention to it.

What blogging never does is substitute for other academic writing. It doesn't get counted as scholarship. It does not serve as an employment credential. (If you wish to argue that it should, I can't help you. I'm interested in describing what is, not what ought to be. If you wish to argue that someday your blog will be recognized as cutting-edge scholarship, I would point out that "someday" will be too late.) This distinction doesn't pose a problem to science bloggers, or to most social scientists or historians, where the difference between a journal article and a blog essay is usually self-evident. But it can be tricky for people who work in literature or cultural studies, who can be tempted to blur the distinction between writing scholarship about new media and doing other writing on new media platforms.

Blogging functions for today's academics much the way that poetry functioned for poets like Chaucer or Spenser, which is to say that you can't actually make a living at it but it can help you make connections for other jobs. Chaucer's poetry only served him economically or professionally by building his reputation at court while he looked for various civil-service gigs. Writing The Canterbury Tales was a good way to get a customs or weights-and-measures gig. Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar led him to a career as personal secretary to important noblemen. Making a living off the books themselves was out of the question for both men. Poetry might have been their true vocation, but it wasn't their actual career. It was simply grease for their career. If you are an academic blogger, the same is true of your blog. You write it for personal satisfaction and to express various interests and for the pure joy of making something. The exposure it brings might also help your career. But it won't be the main driver of your career. The exposure only helps if you have other credentials to bring to the table.

Consider, for example, the Chaucer blogger himself, who writes "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog," and tweets as "LeVostreGC." He's an inventive, sophisticated, and hilarious user of social media who also holds down a junior-professor job as a medievalist. He's even published a selection from his blog as a book. But that book isn't going to be his main source of income. It didn't get him his job, and it won't get him tenure. What is has gotten him is attention from other literary scholars, whom he has impressed and made laugh. (He is very, very funny.) And people in our strange little profession know who he is, sooner than they likely would have otherwise. So being Chaucer the blogger is a bit like being Geoffrey Chaucer the Ricardian poet: it's not a living, but it does help you in your day job.

For an academic, blogging is the writing you do to get attention for your other writing. Blogging, even with my open-secret secret-identity, means that I'm more likely to be on some people's minds, and that they're more likely to come to one of my conference papers, glance at one of my articles if they see my byline, or read a review of my book. And I have professional friendships that are largely kept up through the blog and other social media. Blogging helps to get and keep you on people's radar. It's a good thing to do. But it only serves to assist your other work.

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