Is Blogging Scholarship? Reflections on the OAH Panel

On Sunday, at the 2014 OAH Annual Meeting, I was part of a roundtable discussion entitled “Is Blogging Scholarship?” Several other participants have posted their thoughts on the subject; there was also a great deal of live-tweeting, and our own Joe Adelman has also joined (and developed!) the conversation. The discussion itself was fantastic, and was videotaped for later broadcasting. But in reflecting on the panel, I’ve found there are some points I wish to re-emphasize, and some problems I have with the way the entire roundtable was framed.

1)  What is Blogging?

The five bloggers on the panel all blog in different ways. John Fea pointed out that his model was that of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily DishHistoriann’s type of personal commentary is different and more regular than Mike O’Malley’s The Aporetic. USIH and The Junto, both group blogs, take different approaches to generating content, with USIH assigning their bloggers more specific assignments.

When categorizing content, we should note that blogging is not one thing. Fea’s style engages a different audience from The Junto’s fare, yet both clearly fit under the broadest category of ‘historical blogging’. The real innovation of blogging lies in the ease with which people can access the means of publishing, and the hope of generating an audience.

That is necessarily disruptive of a process of recognizing “scholarship” through very narrow channels indeed. And really, the amount of scholarly activity we all do as historians that doesn’t fit neatly into a dissertation/article/review/monograph model should be accounted for in a review process.

2)  What Sort of Blogging is Scholarship?

In my contributions to the roundtable, I tried to advance some examples of how blogging produced new forms of scholarship. I offered two areas that seemed particularly obvious from The Junto’s output: firstly, commentary on journal articles; secondly, more interactive engagement with books or an author’s body of work. We’ve already done this with our roundtable on James Merrell’s recent article in Early American Studies and other group discussions–clearly, this is productive and reflective scholarship on academic subjects.

That’s without mentioning many other potential ideas. I floated the idea of reflections on primary sources that were interesting but didn’t quite fit into bigger projects as another potential area where blogging could be scholarship. Not every primary source deserves a “Sources and Interpretations” piece in The William and Mary Quarterly. And if it was simply a single, interesting source–why would it need the rigmarole of peer review?

3)  Peer Review

Ann Little’s introductory comments essentially argued that because blogging is not peer-reviewed, it does not fit the profession’s current definition of scholarship (Ernest Boyer’s model notwithstanding). Thus, while blogging brings significant benefits if used to generate momentum towards peer-reviewed research, it isn’t, in and of itself, scholarship.

I respectfully disagree. Work on The Junto is peer-reviewed. Not in the formal, traditional sense. But we all write here under our own names, in a very public forum, that is well-known in our field. If we write something ill-considered or slapdash, we get called out for it. Sometimes, we are called out for crimes we didn’t even commit. But the idea that we are not trying to fulfil high standards of scholarly work is simply not true. There’s a reputational gamble in historical blogging under your own name; that is incentive enough to keep scholarly standards high.

Likewise, the idea that peer-review should be the start and end point of discussing “scholarship” is a poor starting point for debate on new forms of scholarly production. That’s a debate for another place, but a profession that values a system of anonymous peer-review to the absolute exclusion of publicly engaging and actively discussed writing is a flawed system.

4)  Academic Gatekeepers

There were two big takeaways from the discussion. One, blogging is not scholarship–or that if it is scholarship, it is only under very limited conditions and not really applicable to the job market and promotion decisions. It’s useful only insofar as it builds good scholarly habits and a scholarly identity. The other, expressed mostly by Mike O’Malley, was that if professional standards of evaluating blogging as scholarship would develop, then it would ruin the creativity of blogging.

Yet later, some on the panel expressed surprise that graduate students didn’t, as a whole, seem to have much interest in blogging. O’Malley in particular said that he had to egg them on.

Why should this be remotely surprising, given the tenor of the preceding discussion? Academia is a profession that socializes its new recruits through graduate school. The job market is really tough, they say. You need to have a scholarly platform of research to be hired. Unless you’re rigorously focused on your teaching and writing and service, tenure will be a struggle. And even the positive panelists reinforced the drawbacks or cons of considering blogging as scholarship. That, from a panel of active bloggers!

With friends and supporters like that, why would any graduate student take up blogging?

That is what lies at the core of my misgivings about the panel. I was very conscious, participating, that I was the only junior/untenured scholar speaking. Academics who have reached tenure are considerably more likely to place investment in the standards they were forced to meet, even if they recognize some of the faults and the flaws in the system they worked their way through.

Much of the interesting innovation in blogging, though, comes from the rank of the untenured, the alt-ac, and the amateur enthusiasts. Discussions of whether blogging is scholarship shouldn’t make it seem like blogging is a scholarly indulgence.

Blogging may be more informal and have different structural demands and pressures to the peer-review model. But it’s providing some of the most interesting historical commentary out there right now, and with the right encouragement, it might start leading to some of the most original research, too. Taking that outside of peer review, though, threatens the gatekeepers. And if a discussion on engagement on blogging, by bloggers, attended by bloggers and blog enthusiasts, is going to be dominated by the tenured, that’s a real problem.

I can’t help but feel that the structure of the roundtable–as interesting and as informative as the discussion was–didn’t adequately convey the ways in which blogging actively enhances the quality of scholarship. And if a medium that enhances the quality of scholarship isn’t reflected in personnel processes? Quite frankly, that means the personnel processes are redundant and inadequate to the goals of academia.

5)  Positive Advice

Point four turned out rather combative. And I try to live up to the panel’s maxim of not being a jerk. So I want to conclude by offering some thoughts on how blogging can be more easily integrated into scholarship, and how junior historians should approach blogging.

First, to junior historians:

a) Start a blog. As Little pointed out, writing begets writing, and blogging helps you generate a sense of community that is different from your immediate circle of peers. More than that, it makes your work accessible to those who may have an interest in what you’re doing, and it is a much more detailed way of establishing a scholarly identity than other digital media such as Twitter or a personal webpage.

b) If possible, start or join a group blog. The process of conversation, and establishing a blog identity, will be one of the most invigorating experiences you have in graduate school–especially because it helps break down other barriers that exist within the academy, be they strict definition of field, or geography, or whatever.

It also has other benefits–you won’t feel under pressure to produce as much content; individual blogging, while fun and free of some of the constraints and obligations of a group blog, also tends increasingly towards personal and political commentary, and that does carry greater risks than occasional, more in-depth pieces.

c) Don’t stress out about bleak warnings about blogging. The chances are, that if someone rates your work less highly because of your blogging, they were probably not that sold on your work in the first place. (I’m trying to imagine a world in which the production of thought-provoking writing would make someone less attractive to a potential employer). It will open more doors, and more conversations, than keeping the thoughts bottled up solely in your head or in early dissertation drafts.

To personnel committees:

a) Don’t go overboard. Regular blogging output isn’t the same as a monograph or a journal article. But the evaluation of only two types of production as scholarship stifles innovation and prevents the development of better historical work. In the same way that outside experts write letters to evaluate tenure applicants’ scholarship to non-experts, so letter writers could be asked to address the quality of scholarship displayed in a blog.

b) Recognize blogging as an avenue of scholarship. It clearly is. And with the right encouragement, it will become increasingly valuable to the profession.

18 comments on “Is Blogging Scholarship? Reflections on the OAH Panel

  1. Rick Subber says:

    “Unless you’re rigorously focused on your teaching and writing and service, tenure will be a struggle.”
    Ken, with great respect for my tenured friends, I want to say that I think it will become increasingly risky for an aspiring academic to bet her career development on getting tenure.
    I think trustees of, say, small private liberal arts colleges, are going to start to figure out that granting tenure to that young associate professor in the (e.g.) history department isn’t a good long-term, strategic move for the college.
    Show me all the small private liberal arts colleges who might not be in business in 10 or 15 years….
    More on my blogs:
    History: Bottom Lines
    Barley Literate

  2. ebharlowe says:

    As a faculty member who has been through the tenure process multiple times and who has sat on personnel committees a private liberal arts colleges and regional state universities, I have a different view of the tenure thing…

    Let me say that there are, and should be, different standards for tenure at R1’s than for Liberal Arts and regional universities. The publishing bar is far lower at *most* non-R1’s and the committee is more likely to value the Ernest Boyer types of scholarship more.

    This is not to say that you can get tenure without *any* refereed publications or university press books (though I’ve seen it happen). My experience is that a blog that focusses on disciplinary issues, like “the Junto”, would be well-received by tenure committees as an aspect of scholarship. Blogging is not a substitute for traditional scholarship, but at universities where continuous faculty engagement is valued over production, it will count. Bottom line to tenure aspirants….local conditions may vary.

    The other two pillars of tenure are teaching and service. Blogs like “Historiann”, “Tenured Radical” and “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” are invaluable as commentary on the profession. Through their blogs each of these authors have become public mentors to young scholars. Blog posts generate on-line discussion of important professional issues. They also generate discussions at the academy’s equivalent of the water cooler, the Xerox machine.

    Bloggers also offer ways to explore and discuss new pedagogies. “The Junto” has published on using particular assignments or sources in teaching, for example. Blogging demonstrates a commitment to improving one’s teaching and is more useful in thinking about teaching than a dozen teaching development workshops.

    Another aspect of service is getting your university’s name out to a wider audience. Blogs generate publicity for the department in ways that the publicity brochure and website cannot. I’m wondering if Messiah College’s Admissions office is keeping track of applicants who consider coming to Messiah because of John Fea’s blog? Are more students considering graduate work at Colorado State after reading Ann Little or Jonathan Rees? University PR folk love publicity. Shouldn’t bloggers get credit for this in their tenure/promotion file?

    As with scholarship, maintaining a blog does not replace service on your department’s outcomes assessment committee or exonerate your poor teaching record but it *is* service to the department/profession and should be counted as such.

  3. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    Thanks, Ken, for your comments at the session and now in the blog.

    But as a member of the audience at the OAH panel, I am surprised at Ken’s rather pessimistic take-aways. What I heard was that there are many forms of blogging, some of which can be considered academic scholarship and some of which are not. The Boyer categories allow for this consideration in some institutions and can be “counted.”. Institutions which do not use the Boyer categories should reexamine their understanding of what “scholarship” is. Several members discussed how writing on a blog improved their academic writing, just by getting in the regular habit of writing and by getting feedback from other readers. And finally, members emphasized how you can create a scholarly “identity” through the use of a blog.

    It seems to me the fact that this session has had a further life on various blogs indicates the potential of the medium to extend scholarly conversations beyond those in attendance.

    • Ken Owen says:

      Rosemarie, thanks a lot for your reply. I may have been a bit pessimistic here, but if so, it was as an overcorrection for feeling a little too optimistic after the panel. Certainly, we highlighted many of the ways in which blogging is a boon for scholarly engagement. And I don’t think there was even anyone in the room who doubted the benefits that bloggers gained from their blogging activity.

      In terms of concrete suggestions for how the profession might view history blogging, though, there seemed a tendency either to be hands off or to be skeptical of how it might be done. Ben Alpers did make a suggestion about how to run a peer-reviewed blog, but that seems to me to be applying a rigid system of review to a process which showcases and prizes different skills.

      I guess my overriding concern was this: if blogging – if publishing the fruits of scholarly activity in a digital medium – is not recognized in some form as ‘scholarship’ in a way that will actively assist careers, then the inference is that the benefits gained are incidental to real scholarship.

      Now, I wholeheartedly agree that there are all kinds of benefits gained from blogging (hence my advice to junior scholars at the end of my post). But I think that history blogs also contribute something different to the profession, that is still scholarship (and, using the Boyer model, often the scholarship of discovery, too), but that isn’t recognized in any concrete way. In a competitive profession that values very particular yardsticks as measuring tools, I think that’s a problem, and one we as historians would do well to address.

  4. This might be a bit off topic but if one does contribute to a group blog is it advisable to note this on one’s CV and if so how would one cite it?

  5. John says:

    What’s the purpose of the blog? To bulk up your cv in the quest for the Holy Grail of the TT position, or to “share history” with those in and out of the Academy? I’m sure you’ll answer both, but blogs like this really do neither. To the first point, the reality, as ALittle demonstrates regularly on her blog (which I only occasionally read) is the output is mostly opinion-piece {a great way to toss grenades and not be held accountable} quality. On the other side, you are talking at each other, which is a small group of fellow travelers to begin with. The March Madness of 2013 and 2014 are great examples of this. The first year was an exercise in Edmund Morgan worship (ASAF is indeed a brilliant book, but I wonder how much the Yale grad student crowd hoped to get some Morgan stink on them by name dropping; take a look at the word cloud and you’ll see a small set of topics, really) and the second year the brackets were pretty much focused on books that few outside the Academy would ever consider reading. In the end the winner was a very good book (read it last week thanks to J-MM), but I think it says more about bracketology of J-MM than anything else. I occasionally find something on this blog that I can send to my friends outside the Academy, or those who don’t study EAH, but on the whole, reading this blog (and the other ones I look in on) is just a fun way to burn some time when I’m bored with the daily grind of work and engaging with scholarship. Don’t expect too many kudos or benefits to come from your “work” here, especially if you’re chasing the TT ghost. That’s a whole different opinion piece, however.

    • Roy Rogers says:

      John, thank you so much for the comment. You’ve given me a lot to think about and made several good points. Speaking only for myself, however, I believe your criticism might be a bit misguided at few points.

      You are right that the Junto often speaks largely itself. But that is the nature of writing on the internet. We all dream of the internet allowing ideas to reach anyone and everyone, but in reality most internet content only reaches a narrow group of interested readers. What makes the internet so special, in my opinion, is that groups of interested readers can be geographically dispersed and people can easily find ideas and content that interest them. Speaking from my own experience, writing on the Junto has put me into contact with many up and coming scholars in my subfield – this has allowed us to share ideas, put conference presentations together, and other nit-grity business of academic networking.

      More broadly than that, again speaking from my experience, the Junto has introduced me to a whole variety of scholars and work outside of my field that I would have missed or only had a marginal chance of encountering otherwise. Like you I hadn’t encountered Michael Jarvis’s book before it is was nominated in (and won!) the Junto March Madness. Thanks to that “competition” the book is now in my reading queue. The same goes for the work of our contributors and guest posters here. I’ve encountered the really interesting projects of Rachel Herrmann and Glenda Goodman thanks to their participation here. (Rachel’s work on Jamestown has given me some great material to for my lecture on Jamestown. My students love cannibalism.) Those are just a couple of examples.

      You are right that our “work” on the Junto is (at best) marginal to our ability to succeed (or fail) at the multi-dimensional chess game that is the academic job market. I don’t anyone here believes that somehow this blog is a “golden ticket” on the market. All of us are researching and writing to make ourselves as competitive as possible. We’re publishing and winning fellowships – take a look the CVs of Ben and both of our Michaels (these are only a trio of examples!). This does not even mention the Juntoists (Juntoers?) who have recently won TT jobs, VAPs, and lectureships. The Junto is just one piece among many on the gameboard (to kill a metaphor) for our contributors.

      Speaking (again) only for myself, I certainly contribute here because I dream a little dream of it helping my career in the margins. I also write here, however, because it is fun. Sharing my ideas in semi-casual setting on the internet is really enjoyable. The ideas, debates, and push-back I’ve received from my posts has been really rewarding. I like my fellow contributors here and enjoy working with them (this is especially true of the roundtables and the podcasts!). This is, really, what gets me to take the time to write here – not the fact that it may, possibly (someday), help me get a position as Assistant Professor at Awesome University Which Wants To Hire Me.

      Bottom line: the Junto cannot be everything to everyone. This is the fundamental truth of this project. We are “a group blog on early American history,” emphasis should be placed *a*. Despite our best intentions we cannot cover all fields, themes, and subjects.[1] I believe, speaking only for myself, that it is best that our contributors focus on their primary areas of interest and specialization instead of trying otherwise. That produces is what produces the most compelling content. This, however, is only my opinion.

      We at the Junto try to reach the largest audience of academics and interested Muggles with the best content our contributors can produce. From my (totally biased) point of view, I think we’ve been pretty successful at this over the last 15+ months. Like with any endeavor we can, of course, do better with more than a few things. You are right that one of those things is producing content that is more accessible to non-academics. It is something that (figuratively) keeps us at night and we’re trying to improve. We always welcome and appreciate feedback from the community about how we can go about shoring up the blog’s rough edges. Your comment is a key part of that important discussion.

      Thank you, again, for commenting! I hope you keep reading and participating because we always need critical voices.

      [1] If you’re looking at military history check out Tom Cutterham’s post “Was the American Revolution a Civil War?” from a few months ago. There’s a lot of good discussion there on military history and related subjects. See: https://earlyamericanists.com/2014/02/18/was-the-american-revolution-a-civil-war/

      • John says:

        I agree that the blog can’t be all things to all people. My point wasn’t that it should be. I was just trying to offer a friendly suggestion to try to broaden your appeal. Keep up the good work.

  6. jegrenier says:

    So i just clicked over to another blog (I tend to read it more than this one) at http://jostwald.wordpress.com. If y’all are interested in broadening your intellectual horizons (that is moving beyond talking at the same group of people), there’s a lot of really good stuff there for the EAH types who like to keep an eye on EM European history, especially military history, which is something this blog is not very good at discussing although war defined much of the colonial experience. Here’s another opportunity to spread the good word, and a way to eat up the time while sitting in the shop waiting for the brakes to be fixed on the VW.

  7. Reblogged this on Knitting Clio and commented:
    My answer is a hearty “yes”. Wish I could have been there.

  8. […] I was making my way home from Atlanta on Sunday, a whole bunch of my virtual and actual friends were still at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting discussing […]

  9. RovingLibrarian says:

    As I read through this post and the comments, a few thoughts occur. The first is that a blog, like an article or a book, is *evidence* of scholarship, not the scholarship itself. Peer review is supposed to certify that the evidence indicates that this scholarship is excellent or otherwise useful to the academy, and therefore deserves to be presented (in publication) for members of the academy to see. Blogging is publication that bypasses this filter and speaks without first asking permission. The question of whether or not it “counts” is really a question of whether or not a department or institution is willing to assess the evidence post-publication.That’s a task they are accustomed to leaving to others.

    Graduate students and junior faculty have already chosen to be scholars. That’s a pursuit and an identity, not a certification. The tenure process decides whether the academy will allow them to continue as paid scholars within an institution.

    This all reminds me of French art academies and the Salon which exerted a great deal of control for a long time, but not any more.

    • Ken Owen says:

      Thanks for your comments, RovingLibrarian. I don’t disagree with your assessment of the historical profession as it stands, but I’m making an argument for change here. Because I think the idea of ‘asking permission to publish’ is not something I’m willing to wholeheartedly endorse. You won’t have to look too far on academic blogs to find strident criticisms of the peer review process (eg, reviewers outraged about not consulting archives that didn’t exist; not talking to living figures who refused interviews). The profession clings to peer review, which has its benefits and drawbacks, as if it is a gold standard, and that anything that doesn’t meet that standard must be flawed. What about the nonsense papers that make it into scientific journals?

      As for your point about personnel committees – that’s why I suggested getting letter writers to assess the scholarly value of a blog’s content as part of the tenure application process. There are ways of evaluating contributions to scholarship beyond whether a university press or a peer reviewer has given them a rubber stamp. ‘Asking permission to publish’ seem to me indicative of the conservatism of the academy I was critiquing in my post.

      • RovingLibrarian says:

        “‘Asking permission to publish’ seem to me indicative of the conservatism of the academy I was critiquing in my post.” Exactly my point and what made me think of the Salon controlling which artists could exhibit their works. That system is no longer standing, and to my mind serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks that higher ed will continue in its present incarnation forever.

        I agree wholeheartedly. We need change, and not just in the historical profession. It’s difficult both because there are people who fail to distinguish between scholarship and evidence of scholarship, and because others don’t want to take on the additional work of evaluating content. Getting a respected person to write a letter attesting to the evidence of sound scholarship in a blog is an entirely reasonable, workable suggestion.

  10. […] Owen at the Junto reflected on the ‘Blogging as Scholarship” panel at #OAH2014. His post included links to several pre- and post-panel thoughts on the question and offered a nice […]

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