Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why blog? A professor responds

A colleague responds to my earlier post Blogging professors, on how universities might encourage more faculty blogging.

What I had in mind was a university-wide platform that would aggregate the output of participating faculty. This kind of branded expert channel might have a place amid the economic collapse in journalism we are currently experiencing. If Huffington Post is worth $315 million (OK, not really, just another dumb move by AOL), what might a platform showcasing 100 clever faculty from a major research university be worth? 100 bloggers (say, each posting once every 10 days or so = 10 new posts per day) out of 2000 MSU faculty doesn't sound too crazy, does it?
Hi Steve,

I liked reading your "Blogging Professors" post, since I've thought several times, "Should I write a blog?" But I've also thought, "Why does anyone bother to write a blog?" The reasons to write are, as you note, to propagate one's "fabulous ideas and opinions worthy of wider attention and discussion" and to create dialogs and conversations. My own reasons not to write have been (1) that it would take time, and I have too little time as it is, and (2) that I doubt I'd be likely to make even the slightest ripple in the vast pool of the internet.

Reason (1) is, I'm sure, obvious. It's hard to find "work time" between experiments, meetings, classes, seminars, journal clubs, staring at data, writing analysis code, talking to students, planning classes, teachings classes, reading papers, reading books, and probably several other things I'm forgetting. And "free time" has its own constraints, and any new activities would have to compete with things I'm very fond of, like wandering the public library with the kids, or playing games with them in random taquerias, or painting pictures myself (which, sadly, has been steadily dwindling in frequency).

Of course, I'm sure most commenters will point out that it's all a matter of incentives: I have no incentive, as a faculty member, to blog. This is true, but not very explanatory in itself. We all do plenty of things that don't have concrete incentives. This past week, I've spent about two hours reviewing a paper. Next week I'll spend at least half an hour with a postdoc (not from my lab) starting a faculty position (elsewhere) giving advice on grants. Later this term, I'll probably put a lot of work into a talk on [ geeky science topic involving microscopy; unspecified to preserve anonymity ] for a journal club I don't usually attend -- it's a fascinating topic I've gotten increasingly involved with. I certainly don't get any reward from the University (or even the department) for doing these sorts of things. So why do them? In all these cases, there's some combination of reciprocity (I publish articles in journal X, so I should review papers for journal X), or personal interactions (I like to have conversations with colleagues), or both. Is any of this the case for blogging?

I'd guess -- though I have no data on this -- that most blogs, especially new ones, have very little readership. Certainly one often stumbles on blogs with a total absence of comments. (Not that blog comments in general are often worth reading…) And even if posts are read, is there likely to be much interaction or dialog, compared to the other activities noted above?

As you note, one way out of this would be group blogs, which might expand readership and reduce writing effort. Another would be if the university actively promoted blogs. (I'm constantly amazed at how little work the university puts into describing to the public what faculty do, and how ineptly what little they do is done.)

And, of course, another solution is to simply look at blogging as a way of recording and refining one's thoughts -- regardless of whether they're read or not. I've toyed with this; maybe I'll take it up…
I certainly view blogging as a means of recording and organizing my thoughts. Sometimes I get really thoughtful and insightful feedback in the comments (although sometimes not). There's also the pleasure of self-expression! As James Salter wrote
There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.

13 comments:

Niels Rademaker said...

"In all these cases, there's some combination of reciprocity (I publish articles in journal X, so I should review papers for journal X), or personal interactions (I like to have conversations with colleagues), or both. Is any of this the case for blogging?"

I would argue there is a lot of reciprocity in the form of comments to posts, but also reactions in the form of blog posts from other bloggers. Once you've got a blog with a strong readership going, it is a means of getting feedback and input on your thoughts in a way that is more frictionless, quick and easy than any communication medium I can think of.

I should say though, that I can't speak from experience yet on that front. It is probably to a large extent a matter of getting over the initial hump. But if many faculty members with knowledge of each other's work start blogging together, there is a major head start to be made.

LondonYoung said...

As the prof says, a blog is a way of recording and refining one's thoughts ... but then, so is a private diary that is not posted. The diary has the advantage that you can write what you think without fear of consequences. Imagine what would happen if a university professor blogged that he had not voted for Obama! If you wanna be truly honest, and really refine your thoughts, I don't think blogs work for professors ... nor, indeed, for most people what are interested in real honesty ... There is something to be said for "private blogs" akin to Ezra Klein's Journo-List, but eventually someone leaks in and blows your cover.

David Coughlin said...

For most technical subjects, what is the difference between blogging and Gowers' polymath project?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Yes, it's a way of recording and organizing thoughts. It's also plainly a way of communicating. I don't blame people if they don't like to write blogs. But I wish that more would try just to find out if it works for them!

alqpr said...

If you ever go to university you will find that professors are rarely shy about expressing their opinions - even (or perhaps especially) when those are expected to be unwelcome.

alqpr said...

As LondonYoung notes, a personal blog is often little more than a private diary. The cost of making it public may be slight but so is the expected payoff as only a few have the luck or quality to attract a useful audience.
But I have long felt that an institutional faculty blogging network would provide a cheap and effective PR tool that might complement the various public lectures and alumni relations magazines that universities and colleges use to assist their fundraising and lobbying activities.

Iamexpert said...

Actually most professors are terrified to express politically incorrect opinions. I've had a professor who was so scared of even grading politically incorrect essays that he required help from other professors to co-grade them. There's no free speech at all in academia.

alqpr said...

It's not unreasonable to seek a second opinion when grading the work of a potentially litigious student - or to help ensure unbiased assessment of a student whose views one finds offensive.

Vince Tullow said...

Actually, it seems to me that the physics blogosphere is in rapid decline ...

Cosmic Variance seems dead, Jacques Distler has stopped posting, Lubos Motl and John Baez post mostly about global warming (from opposite sides), Clifford posts about his drawings and Chad about blogging - and only a small number of good blogs seem to be really alive (your blog and resonaances comes to mind) .

LondonYoung said...

mmmm, makes me think - students are just as exposed to their professors as professors to their students ... might be that this steers the righties into the sciences where they can be objectively graded ... but I think most of the threat to professors is still their fellow faculty - look what Larry Summers said that got him fired

LondonYoung said...

personally, I like crookedtimber on the left, and I think more could be done along these lines ... such a model might make it easier for righty professors to be heard as the risk/ reward might be tilted a bit more towards reward ...

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