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Happy Anniversary, LGM. I Miss You.

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bookMy inaugral post as a full-time LGM blogger explained my book project on neglected global issues; and my final one invoked the need to get cracking on actually writing the book as a key reason for begging off 18 months later. As such, I am delighted to begin this reminiscence by announcing that the book is finally on shelves.

Therein, you can learn all about why some perfectly good issues don’t get on the global agenda and others do. You will also find riveting stories of the killer robot ban campaign, the movement to ban infant male circumcision, and efforts to get states to compensate collateral damage victims. But the main argument is broader and can be applied to all kinds of neglected human security issues I used to blog about here.

I mention all this not (only) to shamelessly self-promote, as we bloggers are wont to do and as academic women in general must learn to do more unabashedly, but also to frame my thoughts on my time at LGM in the context of its 10th anniversary. Since the theory in my book was developed, researched and tested partly through and partly despite my presence as a blogger writing about similar issues / political dynamics simultaneously, it’s a good moment to reflect on what it has meant to me to combine research and academic / political blogging.

And this is especially important I think at a moment in our discipline when the blogosphere’s role in political science as a profession and especially in the life of junior academics and women is very much a subject of debate.

You may like to know that LGM is mentioned a few times in the book. First (obviously) in the preface where I thank the communities at LGM and the Duck of Minerva for intellectual contributions to the project. I would like to expand on that brief thanks here. It was incredibly exciting and validating to be invited to join this community as a relative newcomer to blogging back in 2010. I am grateful for the faith in me by Rob and the LGM crew, as well as the insights and feedback of the commentariat over that year and a half. The depth and regularity of the dialogue is one of the things I miss most. I learned a lot from you, and by engaging with you, and my writing and research is stronger and richer as a result.

Second, in the methods appendix of the book I reflect (as I did after my last project) on the implications of studying agenda-setting at the same time as I was participating in it through blogging, both at the Duck and at LGM. Researchers use blogs as a place to publicly archive research notes, to test, vet and refine concepts and ideas. We rely on the blogosphere and commentariat as an “invisible college” for crowd-sourcing our theories. I did all these things and often blogged about topics with that express purpose in mind. Yet a dilemma I faced as a blogger was to not too-actively influence debates around the subjects I was studying, since to do so might have compromised my access to stakeholder communities on whom I relied as informants. Walking this fine line colored what I could say and how and whether I could write about certain topics, and especially how partisan I could allow myself to be. Now that fieldwork is done, for example, I am now freer than I was to openly take positions in the debate over autonomous weapons, whereas back then I primarily wrote about that debate in a more agnostic fashion. One of the challenges and joys for me in writing in this venue was in finding a voice appropriate for the many different audiences who I knew might access my musings, for figuring out an angle whereby I could usefully and honestly contribute without showing certain cards. Sometimes I did this well; other times, as I discuss in my Appendix, it was/is harder to strike that balance.

But I want to expand on this as well to mention two other things stand out for me when I think about who I was intellectually before LGM, how my orientation to the balance between academic/political/personal blogging changed during my time here, and where I’ve been headed as a scholar / public intellectual / person since I left. I mention these things because I think and write about them a lot, get asked to speak on them, and am often asked for advice by junior faculty, especially women, on the value and tradeoffs of academic blogging. I have two sets of thoughts which I’ve been developing in the context of recent professional debates about academic blogging.

One is about how different strategies of academic blogging affect the way that scholars blend our academic hats with our other other identities / ways of thinking / emoting / deliberating. We vary in how we do this across venues and time. A common strategy for political scientists  – I’ll call this Strategy A – is to blog on politics almost entirely as academics, which is to say we bring academic expertise to bear on political problems – in the way, for example, that SEK brings filmography expertise to bear on my understanding of Game of Thrones. By and large this is what blogs like Political Violence at a Glance and the Monkey Cage do: their authors engage with policy problems and current events by articulating what empirical social science has to say about the causal logics underlying policy problems, proposals or debates rather than primarily expressing political opinions. Of course not all academic expertise is causal: political theory, philosophy or in my case descriptive empirical analysis can also be usefully brought to bear on debate, but you get my point.

But academic bloggers do other things as well. We sometimes blog, as academics, on politics directly – that is, we sometimes blog to take partisan positions in political debates affecting national or foreign policy, using our credentials as academics to lend an air of authority to what are essentially personal opinions. This is what a certaine right-winge bloggere who shall not be namede does almost exclusively, for example. Many academic bloggers on the left as well do it at least some of the time; I certainly have. Academics also blog on the politics of academia. A lot of this goes on at the Duck: we generally think of it as a subset of academic blogging but I actually think it is a subset of political blogging because our positions on things tend to be more openly partisan and prescriptive when dealing with our profession than we often allow them to be when dealing as social scientists with the explanatory relationships underpinning national/foreign policy. (Though my better “politics of academia” posts tried to do both.)

Finally, we political scientists often blog not as academics per se, that is, not on the topics whereby we might be expected to contribute expertise (in my case the origins and impacts of international human security norms), but simply on topics that interest us or catch our attention. In that sense what we are doing as academics, at best, is demonstrating how to bring a critical way of thinking toward topics of public interest. That said, we – even the best of us – vary in our ability to do this well. Sometimes we just ramble. Sometimes a blog post is basically a journal entry in a life that is lived as much as an individual, a hobbyist, a consumer or a family member than as a professional anything.

One of the consistent points about LGM made in others’ ruminations, which I would echo, is that as a community LGM has always had a unique way of blending all these points on the academic/political/personal/civic blogging continuum. So one really nice thing for me about my stint at LGM is that I felt at liberty to experiment with all these ways of hanging out on the academia/real-world divide – more at liberty than at the Duck whose community is more largely academic and where academic debate and expertise is more highly prized as a means and an end. For example I don’t write about my children at the Duck, and I rarely write outside my academic expertise there. LGM was special to me because here I could try out different blogging personalities, seek feedback on different aspects of my social and political thinking, and think aloud about topics where I really was no better informed than anyone (much less informed at times in fact), even learn to write satirically or sarcastically when pushed to it. These were styles I did not generally use in professional settings (though now I sometimes do). So one of the things that I’m most grateful for was the chance to leave my comfort zone and branch out.

It is hard to overstate how intellectually enriching this was for me – those 18 months were probably the peak of my writing career in terms not only of word count but of sheer intellectual horizon-spanning. I occasionally look back nostalgically through my LGM archive fondly remembering the days when anticipation of a deliciously rich engagement with the commentariat would spur me to read something more closely than I had to, staying up later than I should with wine and candles to hash out my thoughts on the political thought of Julian Assange or the racial politics of census categories or the question of how a non-expert might evaluate the severity of an unfolding nuclear crisis. I miss those days. I notice their absence when things outside my research agenda grab my attention – the Elliott Rodger manifesto or narratives of mental illness in Sherlock Holmes or the evolution of exo-planetology as represented in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos – in ways that engage my intellect but not necessarily my expertise, in ways unsuited to the kind of writing valued in the outlets I now access. I notice their absence when, as a result of not having to think carefully enough to articulate a nuanced idea to a diverse and informed community, I find I do not think as deeply or as critically about an event as I might, or consider as carefully so much of what others have to say. I miss the way in which being permitted a space to publicly articulate thoughts beyond my expertise challenged and enriched me as a scholar, a writer and a person.

But here is why, when I’m asked by junior political science faculty whether and how to position themselves in the academic blogosphere, I generally encourage them to adopt Strategy A rather than other strategies: it is simpler and easier. I do not suggest this because it is less risky (though it is). I suggest it because it takes time and effort and intellectual energy to hang out outside one’s comfort zone for extended periods, and manage the cognitive and interpersonal tensions that logically result. And that is time that comes out if not out of one’s research or one’s service commitments (which increase with tenure and promotion and ought to include community service as well), then out of one’s sleep schedule, exercise schedule, pursuit of personal well-being and time spent with children and partners – all of which already sag under that heavy load that is tenure-track academic life. In short, the kind of blogging which LGM wonderfully epitomizes – combining academic weigh-in with political commentary with opinions on sports and culture and cooking and children and the constant desire if not need to avoid missing out on the brilliant and sometimes hilarious and occasionally frustrating interactions happening in the threads, all in a manner hopefully but usually not multi-vocal enough to avoid offending someone and then managing those reactions – all of this is both the best of what blogging has to offer, but also far easier to sustain at certain points of life / career than others.

And what I tell junior faculty who are considering going into blogging is: you have to know when to prioritize. Even today, I am writing this post two days later than I meant to, in a car on the way to two lacrosse games between frosting an array of sportily decorated cupcakes for a soccer barbecue and preparing of a celebratory slide show for a graduating high school student, just back from a trip to help the Ford Foundation figure out how to use its donor influence to increase the prominence of the global south in the human rights network while recovering from a UN conference and preparing for a week of editorial deadlines. There’s just not enough time to make it perfect. So this post will likely have fewer links, wordier sentences and generally be more unpolished than I would generally like by the time I click send, but all in all that’s going to be ok.

This leads me to some ruminations about blogging while female. Not because my male co-bloggers don’t juggle at least as much as I do in terms of work-life issues. In fact as I’m scrambling to get this single post in on time, I am finding myself absolutely in awe of Rob’s ability (to give one example) to balance his work at LGM and day job at Patterson on a daily basis with the feat of raising twins. Twins! But as more research has come out on gender representation in academia, and based on my experience attempting to recruit female bloggers to the Duck of Minerva as well as my own series of Anne Marie Slaughter moments, I am consistently convinced that the opportunity cost for women, especially those raising children, of engaging in the blogosphere to the extent really necessary to reap its greatest intellectual benefits is on average simply higher than for men. Which is one reason so few do it. And this is a real shame and problem since successful academic blogging is also one of the best ways to promote one’s work, create an online calling card, and engage visibly in the discipline as a public intellectual. Therefore if women aren’t doing it, it is not only going to rob the national debate of important voices. It is going to exacerbate women’s already disproportionate visibility in the profession.

So I’ll confess one of my key regrets in leaving LGM, one of the reasons why I stayed past the point when I knew that my work-life balance was out of whack, was thinking that with my absence it would return to an all-male masthead and I worried about what this would signal to other would-be female political bloggers. I was therefore extremely delighted to see Bethany come on board after I left, and I’m excited to see new IR blogs like Relations International popping up. I now spend a fair amount of time and energy encouraging the entry of female colleagues into blogging, and since last year’s turnover at the Duck of Minerva we have been more self-consciously using the Duck as an incubator for junior faculty blogging, especially women, minorities and scholars from the global south. I guess what I’m saying is that another thing I appreciated about my time at LGM was a) simply being included and b) the chance to participant-observe the politics of gender in the political blogosphere. I learned a lot that now informs my role as a senior academic, which now has turned much more toward mentoring in general, and I use anecdotes from my LGM days in talks and workshops I give now on blogging, the profession, and how to make the internet a more welcoming place for female intellectuals.

Especially, though, I talk in workshops about this thing called work-life balance in academia / public intellectualism. Since I’ve left LGM I’ve blogged far less in an effort to restore some of that balance, limiting myself to the relatively easier task of blogging Strategy A at the Duck rather than continuing that wonderful, endless, many-hatted conversation about pretty-much-anything that characterized my days at LGM. This has helped me finish my book, earn a promotion, and transition to a professional service load more focused on mentoring and institution-building than on writing and research. It also enabled me to be fully present with my children through our family’s transition to two households. I’ve been grateful that I was able to take a step back from the national conversation for a time and really focus on them for this important period. (They are great by the way. My oldest is graduating high school this spring and looking to India for careers in human rights activism and digital media; my youngest is combining soccer, cello and paintball with asking pointed, surly questions about social reality – the kind of questions that make me miss Friday Nugget Blogging with a vengeance.)

Along with the nugget blogging, I miss this community dearly. Life with less blogging is ok. There is more time for taoism, yoga, cello, kayaking, scuba-diving, kite-boarding, ultimate frisbee, garlic-growing, and walking. (Yes, I said walking. It’s not sexy but it supposedly it staves off dementia, plus check this out.) I read and think deeply these days without feeling like I have to always publish and defend an instant opinion on the subject. It’s a different kind of intellectualism. But I miss LGM. I wax nostalgic about the old days and I value the opportunity to do so here publicly. It was partly blogging at LGM, where I was allowed to be a whole person intellectually rather than just a political scientist, that encouraged me to lead a more whole life outside the blog. And as I wrap up old research projects I am carving out new ones – like the role of science fiction and fantasy in global policy – shaped mostly by the freedom of thought allowed by the blogosphere, rather than by my socialization into what has often been a stale and stodgy profession.

When I look at how international relations as a discipline is changing to accommodate these kinds of topics and ways of blurring the theory/policy divide, when I look at how journals are changing to look more like blogs, I feel very pleased at the role the blogosphere has played in reconstituting what it means to study politics and to do public intellectualism as political scientists. LGM was among those academic blogs that blazed the trail towards this transformation. It was a privilege to have been allowed to hitch a ride for a time. Now, as a member of the readership rather than the bloggership, I want to express deep thanks not only for the chance to have participated, but for the ongoing efforts of the writers who, largely for free, continue to take time away from their families and other pursuits to serve me and the public a daily helping of their thoughts; and for the commenters who keep the conversation alive.

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