Jeremy Young has an excellent post on blogging, peer review, and tenure/promotion decisions in the academy. The post is similar in focus to the presentation I delivered on the Carpenter-Drezner-Walt panel at the International Studies Association. The particularly interesting bits:
[Laurel Thatcher Ulrich suggested that] Blogging could be interpreted as service in the sense of contributing to the success of one’s department, in which case it could be considered for tenure purposes…
Blogging is never going to be scholarship; it’s not designed for that and we wouldn’t enjoy it if it were. That means we need to stop claiming that blog comments constitute peer review (as I did in 2008, and which Jonathan correctly criticized me for). They are some sort of review, but review of what? There’s no scholarly content on most history blogs that needs reviewing.
That leaves the category of service, as Ulrich pointed out in her response. But Weinstein, when I had this conversation with her, noted that service doesn’t actually get a lot of attention in tenure decisions. Good thing, too: you don’t want someone getting tenure who can’t teach or write or publish, just because they served on a number of committees. Blogging isn’t like serving on committees, though — its function is to connect historians with the general public in a way that most scholarly books, and all journal articles, fail to do. A really good history blogger, one who gets hundreds or thousands of hits a day, is like a really good writer of ephemera, or a really good public speaker. Their role in that capacity is to evangelize for the profession, not to serve the department or produce scholarship through their public pronouncements.
And therein lies the problem that I think we have to face if we want blogging taken seriously as a professional activity: none of the other activities I just described are viewed as professional activities either. There is no category in tenure review for “outreach;” there is no way for a mediocre scholar to achieve tenure because of superlative evangelizing for the profession. In a time of economic crisis for the humanities, when history departments are bleeding money because of lack of public interest in what they do, when academic historians are losing the Battle for the Bookshelves to their popular competitors, I think that’s a mistake. A superb blogger or lecturer or editorial writer can be just as valuable as a superb scholar, provided you don’t end up filling departments full of the former.
But this is the argument we have to make, and I think it’s a daunting one: that we want not just blogging, but all public outreach to be considered as a separate and important category for tenure. Realistically, we can’t sell blogging as tenurable without also selling op-eds and columns and talking head appearances and public lecture attendance. It’s either all or none, and the sooner we come to terms with that the better for all of us.
While I have every incentive to be bullish about the idea of blogs as scholarship, I have deep reservations about the possibility of developing any metrics for evaluating blogs as scholarship. The influence of a blog can be measured in three ways; traffic, links, and eyeball. Traffic simply isn’t a good proxy for scholarly value, as scholarly topics almost by nature don’t generate large audiences. A blog like LGM generates considerable traffic and, potentially, some scholarly value; however, it’s not clear that the traffic is at all associated with the scholarly posts. Long, well thought out posts that have scholarly value sometimes generate traffic, but I wouldn’t say that this is usually the case. Links suffer from many of the same problems as traffic, plus some additional issues. On the plus side, links may indicate “elite” approval of a blog more than traffic; this is based on the (almost certainly fallacious) presumption that actual bloggers who link with their actual blogs should somehow count for more than people who simply visit, or comment, or whatever. Even if we granted that assumption, it’s still difficult to derive a useful metric from total links. Older blogs have more links, whether people read them or not. In terms of aggregate data, it’s difficult to filter out the large variety of spam or dead blogs that would results from a search. Finally, stupidity is often rewarded with links; indeed, the relationship between links and stupidity is probably stronger than that between stupidity and traffic. I would feel genuinely terrible if somebody gave Don Douglas a job based on one of SEK’s delightful hack and slash jobs. Finally, there’s the eyeball test. The eyeball test consists of nothing more than evaluating a blog based on content and reception; compare this blog and, say, Crooked Timber, and it’s obvious from a fairly cursory examination that the latter has more scholarly value. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really amount to much of a metric, unless the department/school is just looking for an excuse to hire you.
As you can tell, I find all of these metrics insufficient. The situation is even more difficult at a group blog such as LGM, because of course it’s unclear who exactly is the source of the links and the traffic. To put it as bluntly as possible, I would reject anyone’s claim to have met a scholarly requirement through a blog such as LGM; it’s simply too difficult to develop a useful metric by which the blog can be evaluated as scholarship. Even to the extent that the blog acts as useful popularizers of academic ideas, it’s impossible to measure relevance in a way which could be supportive of tenure candidacy. I should hasten to add that this is not true of all blogs; many blogs that are affiliated with institutions have more rigorous editing and vetting procedures both for hiring and posting than self-regulated blogs such as LGM. When the day comes, for example, I may argue that my blogging at the American Prospect (for which I was hired, and at which my blogging was edited) does have some scholarly value; in this sense the editing and institutional affiliation stand in for or mimic peer review.
Service is a different matter. Blogging has the potential to significantly increase the visibility of a scholar, and consequently of a scholar’s department and school. Not all attention is good attention, but in this context most is; the better a scholar is known, the more students seek her out, the more opportunities open up, and so forth. Moreover, blogging opens up the potential for connection without a variety of individuals and institutions outside the academy. While this is particularly valuable in my position at a policy school, I think that it has some utility even at standard political science programs. As Stephen Walt has oft noted, there is considerable danger in the scholasticization of political science, or of any other discipline. That said, contribution to the public sphere obviously also results in the throwing of sharp elbows.
This is not to say that blogging has had no significant career impact. I have roughly forty articles of various lengths in various publications, and almost all of them can be traced back to the blog in some form. Some of the ideas for these articles were developed out of blog posts; in other cases the blog served as a way of introducing my work to an editor. In yet other cases editors specifically sought me out after reading the blog. Moreover, being a blogger sometimes gets you invited to groovy events like an ISA bloggers panel or a panel on the future of the Air Force at the ACSC. There have been some significant career pluses from entering the blogosphere.
It is unclear as of yet what effect this work will have on my tenure case, but I think it would be hard to argue that the impact will be negative, at least in the sense that the product itself will reflect poorly. Whatever negative effect blogging and its associated product will have will be in the context of opportunity cost; an article for the American Prospect takes some time away from a potential peer review publication, and so forth. But we shall see.
I should add, however, that I’m skeptical about the future of the blogosphere. Laura McKenna wrote a fabulous post last year on the state of the blogosphere as of 2009 that’s worth revisiting. The time at which a small band of loudmouthed graduate students could form a blog and get attention from the “A-Listers” is long gone; nobody clicks the links anymore, there are too many blogs, blogging has gone niche, and so forth. What we did here at LGM would have turned out much differently if we’d started in 2003, just as it would have turned out differently if we’d started in 2005. Mid-level, independent individual and even group blogs are becoming rarer, and less consequential in impact. Any system of evaluation of scholarly and service impact depending on metrics developed during the glowing youth of the blogosphere will be obsolete for the scholars who start blogging tomorrow. It would be mildly ironic but hardly surprising to see the academy adjust to blogosphere 2006 well after the norms that governed that system have died out.