Wednesday, November 16, 2005

In defense of academic blogs

Rebecca Goetz, a history graduate student with an "academic" blog, has an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (linked from title) rebutting the two articles written there pseudonymously by "Ivan Tribble". And what she says makes perfect sense to anyone in academia with an actively maintained web presence: blogs (and the like) are fun, they are an outlet for thoughts that are either not ready for formal (reviewed) publication or not intended for that kind of venue, and they allow us to network with colleagues who we are unlikely to have met in any other way. I have some additional thoughts about academic blogging, and why it shouldn't be controversial:
  • I guess it never occurred to me that some people would look askance at blogging because computer scientists have had on-line presences for such a long time. Go to any CS department's web site, and you'll almost certainly find links to faculty sites with personal sides (photos of family, discussions of recreational activities, semi-academic hobbies, etc). Even before the web, academics (grad students and faculty) participated widely in both academic and non-academic oriented USENET newsgroups.
  • Blogging is enjoyable, and it's enjoyable writing. Anything that increases the amount of writing we do seems worthwhile to me. The fact that the audience is not as specialized as one's academic peers (to whom one writes in refereed publications) is even better, as it demands a level of clarity and transparency of explanation that might even improve one's "serious" publications.
  • One academic fantasy that many of us have involves something like a little cafe filled with relaxed colleagues with whom we can discuss research or other interesting topics: a society of the mind -- like "Cheers", but with stimulants. There may even be actual physical places like that. But a blog, by virtue of being a bidirectional communication medium, can serve this function, too. Yes, it's not the same thing, but the coffee's cheaper and you can contribute your part of the conversation at midnight while wearing pajamas.

I must confess to a case of blog envy: I wish my own blog had more academic content. Now, I don't blog about my teaching and professional experiences (except as abstractions) because I'm not doing this anonymously -- it would be unprofessional to comment on students and colleagues thus. But what about research? My excuse has been, "You can't handle my research." Seriously, I'm not sure that anyone beyond a circle of a few dozen people or so care about my research (if that many).

On the other hand, I keep feeling that a blog can be useful in helping "real" work. Now, at the time of this writing, you would note on the left hand column of this site a set of 43 things entries that include "Finish research proposal draft" and "Finish journal paper". By making part of my to-do list public, I have this hope that I'll meet these deadlines. But I think this blog can be an even greater help, so I'm going to try to experiment with blogging my grant proposal preparation. After all, once it's funded (note I didn't say "if"), it becomes public information. And it's a continuation of research I've already published: I want to disseminate these ideas. So, I'll give it a try: blogging my grant proposal preparation for a more general audience (more general than the folks who would be reviewing it or reading my publications, that is). Now I've said it, and now I'll either do it (and, by way of prerequisite, actually finish the proposal) or face the embarrassment of the ten people or so who read this blog knowing I'm all hat and no cowboy.

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  1. But what about research? My excuse has been, "You can't handle my research." Seriously, I'm not sure that anyone beyond a circle of a few dozen people or so care about my research (if that many).

    I don't blog about my research per se either. I suspect that if we looked at academic bloggers in CS, Math or Physics, few of them would blog about their research per se. One of the reason is as you write "few people will care"... but I don't think it is the real reason. For me, the real reason is that I can't cut my research into small pieces. A research result can fit into 4 or 8 pages, the reason for this is that you need an introduction and you need to state related work.

    But there are things you can do:

    - announce a new paper or a talk and give a short abstract: don't presume we aren't interested, let us decide. Give us pointers. It could be that what I do has applications in your area and I could find out by accident through your blog. If there are 100 people like me reading your blog, it ain't so unlikely.

    - expose shallow/unfinished teaching/research ideas: I'm sure you have many small ideas, we all have. Maybe you have an intuition for where interesting research lies, maybe you wish someone would have an idea for this technical problem you have. Whatever it is, I think it is worth posting it.

    Your grant proposal is a great idea. Maybe I would not dare doing it myself since my grant proposals are so boring, but I'll be looking at what you do with this process...

  2. These are excellent ideas, and I shall add them to my desktop "stickies". In fact, I'll catch up by blogging about a conference I went to last month.