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Blogging Like Chaucer

I love academic bloggers. Academic bloggers worry me sick. And the bloggers who keep me up at night are the ones who have adjunct or alt-ac jobs but are trying to move to the tenure track. Some of those people are using blogs and social media to advance their careers in ingenious ways which I would never have foreseen. But others seem, at least from my vantage, to expect or hope that their online work will help their career in specific ways that it will not and cannot. Being online can help an academic career. But it's important to be clear about what it can help and what it can't.

Last week a blogger at Inside Higher Ed, a person who has a prominent and well-established online platform but teaches off the tenure track, wrote a post about her frustrations on the job market and her sense that no amount of professional achievement would be enough to get her a tenure-ladder job. There was a brief kerfuffle, with various unhelpful comments on her original post and one great and insightful response post by John Warner. But the issue I would like to highlight is that what she calls her "rather high-profile blog," a gig writing for Inside Higher Ed two or three times every week, did not tilt the job market in her favor. There, I think is the key lesson. Even blogging from terrific, high-profile platform was not enough.

[A few important caveats here: 1. The IHE blogger's larger point that in this market you can do everything right and still not get a job is absolutely true. There are far more qualified people than there are jobs, and so qualified people go without. Everything else I say should be read with that larger problem in mind. 2. I have no intention of commenting on the IHE blogger's specific case except for the fact that blogging seems not to have served her as a job credential. She's not asking my advice.]

But here's the big takeaway:

You can't blog your way to a tenure-track professorship.You simply can't. Even a gig at IHE or The Chronicle for Higher Education is not enough. That doesn't mean blogging is not professionally useful to you. It means you need to be clear about what it's useful for.

Blogging and other social media serve academics by bringing you to other people's attention and building your professional network. It works largely as publicity for your other work, and it widens your potential audience while strengthening your connections. (I, like many bloggers, mainly do this for non-professional reasons, but this is a fair assessment of blogging's professional benefits. And because academia is a small world, you can get most of those benefits even with a pseudonymous blog.) The most successful academic bloggers I can think of, such as Tenured Radical and Historiann, are productive bloggers who've built up a strong community of readers and commenters on one hand while also maintaining a steady output of strong scholarly writing on the other. Their blogging works as what military types call a "force multiplier" for their other work, making their scholarship more effective by drawing more audience attention to it.

What blogging never does is substitute for other academic writing. It doesn't get counted as scholarship. It does not serve as an employment credential. (If you wish to argue that it should, I can't help you. I'm interested in describing what is, not what ought to be. If you wish to argue that someday your blog will be recognized as cutting-edge scholarship, I would point out that "someday" will be too late.) This distinction doesn't pose a problem to science bloggers, or to most social scientists or historians, where the difference between a journal article and a blog essay is usually self-evident. But it can be tricky for people who work in literature or cultural studies, who can be tempted to blur the distinction between writing scholarship about new media and doing other writing on new media platforms.

Blogging functions for today's academics much the way that poetry functioned for poets like Chaucer or Spenser, which is to say that you can't actually make a living at it but it can help you make connections for other jobs. Chaucer's poetry only served him economically or professionally by building his reputation at court while he looked for various civil-service gigs. Writing The Canterbury Tales was a good way to get a customs or weights-and-measures gig. Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar led him to a career as personal secretary to important noblemen. Making a living off the books themselves was out of the question for both men. Poetry might have been their true vocation, but it wasn't their actual career. It was simply grease for their career. If you are an academic blogger, the same is true of your blog. You write it for personal satisfaction and to express various interests and for the pure joy of making something. The exposure it brings might also help your career. But it won't be the main driver of your career. The exposure only helps if you have other credentials to bring to the table.

Consider, for example, the Chaucer blogger himself, who writes "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog," and tweets as "LeVostreGC." He's an inventive, sophisticated, and hilarious user of social media who also holds down a junior-professor job as a medievalist. He's even published a selection from his blog as a book. But that book isn't going to be his main source of income. It didn't get him his job, and it won't get him tenure. What is has gotten him is attention from other literary scholars, whom he has impressed and made laugh. (He is very, very funny.) And people in our strange little profession know who he is, sooner than they likely would have otherwise. So being Chaucer the blogger is a bit like being Geoffrey Chaucer the Ricardian poet: it's not a living, but it does help you in your day job.

For an academic, blogging is the writing you do to get attention for your other writing. Blogging, even with my open-secret secret-identity, means that I'm more likely to be on some people's minds, and that they're more likely to come to one of my conference papers, glance at one of my articles if they see my byline, or read a review of my book. And I have professional friendships that are largely kept up through the blog and other social media. Blogging helps to get and keep you on people's radar. It's a good thing to do. But it only serves to assist your other work.
 

It's  nit picking  but you might want to edit the penultimate sentence of the penultimate para .Should be than not then.

There goeth his career.

Oh, shytte!

I had to look up penultimate.  I only have conversations with little kids, red necks, home boys and Latinos.  It was a little out of my vocabulary range....LOL  You confused me. Oh well...then and than would have flown right by me too.  I am still working on our and are.  LOL 

Did they mention antepenult?

I had to look that up too.  LOL...

I know what you mean, Momoe.  This place is a real trip, eh?  Like another planet sometimes.  Love it like crazy, though.

Thanks very much, Flavius. Fixed.

I could play the I-blog-at-2 am-card. But I'm going to go with the Chaucer-didn't-need-standardized-spelling excuse.

This seems a lot like blogging and journalism.  You can use a blog to enhance a career already in progress.  A lucky few will be able to use it to launch a career, though you can't count on that.  Among those who I've seen launched by blogs, many of them are right where most journalists their age would be (c.f. Matt Yglesias at Slate as a more likely result than Ezra Klein, public intellectual -- both commendable but there's only room for so much in the world).

What blogging, social media and the rest of the web doesn't do, and in some way makes worse, is solve the problem that the economy exhibits less obvious need for people's interests in wonky topics, art, literature, and humanities while we are creating a whole lot of interesting people who would like to pursue such topics as a vocation.

You have a well-meaning blogger who is by all description qualified for the career she wants, but she exists in an economy where qualified applicants are routinely told that they will have to go work in another (likely unrelated) field.  And many of those people who have been turned away are probably also more than qualified to write the blog.  But there are only so many high profile blogger gigs, too.  Our hero in this story has to realize that not only is she lumped into a group of hopeful professors, but that she's also a step ahead of a group of hopeful professors (and even current tenured professors) who would also love to have her platform!

It's rough to be told that you can't, for the moment and maybe forever, make your living doing what you want to do.  I have a lot of sympathy for people struggling with that.  I feel like I'm struggling with that.

One thing I like to think about, though, is how much harder this dilemma is and has been for workers in other sectors and how unkind our solutions often are to hopeful manufacturing workers, say, who are also competing for too few jobs.  "Retrain them!" we say, as if they are puppies or horses.  Nobody ever suggests retraining humanities workers because 1) they go to law school before it becomes and issue and 2) oh, what a ruckus would result.  Humanities workers, moreso than manufacturing workers, have studied rhetoric.

Great post.

Right on, Michael and thanks Dr. Cleveland for the linkie and the very nice compliments.  (Here's hoping that my work this summer will live up to your expectation of "a steady output of strong scholarly writing" in the service of my <i>day job</i>.)  The difference between the IHE blogger on the one hand and me and TR on the other is that TR and I were tenured proffies with books when we started our blogs. 

The kind of blog triumphalism that was popular a decade ago when blogs were ascendant in left-wing journalism & new media turned out not to be true.  In much the same way as publications with print editions turned out to have the status and reputation to drive web traffic their way when they went online, so people who have already achieved the traditional markers of academic advancement end up getting more attention in the academic blogosphere.  I think you and Michael are right on to see blogging as a force multiplier rather than an effective independent variable in terms of building a career.

I will say this, however:  TR has had jobs at prestigious, selective institutions like Wesleyan and the New School.  I'm just a schmuck teaching at an Aggie in flyover country, so my blog's success is even more surprising.  It has drawn the attention of really important people in history who otherwise would never know me for my scholarship or the relative prestige of my institution.

Thanks for dropping by, Historiann, and thanks for the kind words and the link yourself. I'm sorry about the spam filter; I don't know what gets into it.

I think "blog triumphalism" is an excellent phrase and an excellent point. It used to be the case that blogs were the Next! Big! Thing! and would change all the rules and solve ever problem, yadda yadda yadda. (Compare it to the current wave of MOOC triumphalism.) And sure, it hasn't worked out that way.

But, as with any wave of enthusiasm, the disillusionment sets in by phases, with the savviest and best-connected players, the pool of early adopters, turning into the pool of early abandoners. (Some people will cash their chips out of the MOOC casino for a big hard-cash payoff before Inspector Renault comes in to shut it all down.) There's always a pool of optimistic believers who lag behind the curve. And they come from the very groups who can afford to lose the least.

It's generally not the hotshot PhDs fresh out of the Ivies who are still banking on their blog making them a career. It's young academics from less prestigious schools, with fewer connections and less professional capital. The saddest scenario of all comes when someone with an obscure academic pedigree, who needs to be busting out as much peer-reviewed scholarship as possible to narrow the Ivy gang's built-in lead, put their hopes in their blog instead and count on it to be the great equalizer.

Welcome, Historiann.  I know you have a lot to read but please do stick around.  We're a fun bunch, even if (because of?) a lot of us (well, me) are dilettantes.

You mention being a schmuck teaching at an Aggie school in flyover country.  I got my undergaduate degree (okay, my only degree) from the University of New Mexico.  Not an Aggie (that's New Mexico State) but a big and, from the coverage of it, unremarkable public university in flyover country.  But, the scholars I met.  And, all of my classes were taught by the professors.  What a hard working bunch of teachers.  They had to fight the lack of reputation of the place, for sure.  Their paper had to be twice as good to get published (I know, I know, "blind submissions," but, seriously).  Their books had to be twice as good to get noticed.

I guess what I'm saying, having been educated in the environment where you're teaching is, "Thank you, and head held high, please.  I'm proud of my degree."

 

Great comment, Michael. Thanks.

I think the bigger problem, for journalists, professors, and all kinds of workers, is that we're living in an era tilted heavily toward investors and against workers, so the management class is obsessed with reducing labor costs and employing as few people as possible. White-collar workers thought this kind of thing was only for blue-collar workers, but that's turned out to be a mistake.

So, it's not so much that we're producing too many journalists, PhDs, lawyers, and so on, as that there's been a steady campaign to reduce the number of jobs for them.

I think that the giant efficiencies visited on the "creative class," (I use scare quotes because I both love and loathe the term but do apply it to myself) came as something of a surprise to people.  Partly, it's that people who thought they found some safety working in immeasurable fields have now been measured.  Or, where they can't be adequately measured, in an age of hyper-measurement, that is now considered a sin rather than a virtue.

And then there's just the sheer volume of material out there.  Good material.  Prices for it have been driven down.  Apple's new music streaming service is going to pay labels 16 cents per listen and a smidgen of ad revenue after a certain threshold.  I met a woman at a reading a few weeks ago who is a brilliant singer.  She has done a few albums with an underground, but commercial, label.  She has a bit of a following.  So far this year, her big song has been streamed 2 million times.  She got a check for a few hundred bucks.  After she split it with her band, she cleared $40.  That's .0025 cents a listen.

I'm starting this here, but I plan to piggyback a post on yours this week.

Whan that April with his showres soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veine in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flowr...

All of this 100 years before Guttenberg!

There is a piratey sound to his prose.

The prologue to the Chaucer version I have underlines the old divisions between the rich merchant and the aristocracy.

His daddy was a rich wine merchant and he ended up making friends with members of the aristocracy.

Like you point out his 'gigs' were many and they were eclectic in nature.

But you served at the pleasure of that aristocracy. I guess Edward just loved the poet but after Edward's death, Chaucer mysteriously disappears.

You have discussed this issue of publication on the part of the modern day intelligentsia and it intrigues me as does the subject of tenure.

To a lay person many of these 'professional publications' are little more than trade journals with even less readership.

I just find it funny that artificial goals are so very much treasured.

Although the search for the pension is thousands of years old.

For some reason your short essay just got to me this morning.

Chaucer, next to Malory, is my favorite author. His writings are like songs with no background music although I am sure the music was there when he read his poems to the Court.

I am sure he wrote for the pure enjoyment of it all although a lot of hard research had to be part of his regimen.

Today morons can dictate a couple hundred pages that eventually are purchased by thousands upon thousands of people at great profit.

I am certain that O'Reilly thinks himself the historian.

Rove certainly thinks he is a philosopher.

Folks like rummy and cheney actually think they are giving the public 'inside info'.

Ahhhh, I am just rambling again.

But I sure enjoyed your essay today!

Such interesting thoughts on blogging and academia.  Blogging by its very nature is casual and personal, if only implicitly.  I can't imagine a blog being used as either a literary or academic vehicle.  That's not the function of a blog.

It is useful as an assist for your other work, as you say, and you can't knock that.  It is an attention-getter.  It has a place and a function and it works best when the blogger remembers what that is.

I looked at both Tenured Radical and Historiann.  They're true blogs in the best sense, IMO.  TR directs readers  to her real website for her more scholarly and public works.  As it should be.  Historiann is perfectly comfortable on her pages and she's delightful.  I'll be reading her again.  Which, again, is as it should be.

Thank you for the tip, Historiann.   I checked it out and found myself enjoying it.  Plan to go back often. 

Thanks, Ramona and trkingmomoe!  All are welcome.

Dr. Cleveland, I left another comment that was caught in your spam filter!  I just wanted to thank you for your link & compliments, and agree entirely with your analysis of academic blogging.

Nice to see you here, Historiann.  I'm glad Doc introduced us to you.  Come back and visit any time.

Yes, Ramona, I agree. Blogs are really not good vehicles for academic or professional writing. But what can I say? There are younger PhDs and all-but-PhDs who seem to think differently, and I've been saying endless rosaries for them.

And yes, both Historiann and Tenured Radical are wonderful bloggers. They are my main blogging role models after the great but now retired Hilzoy (a philosophy professor who became a wonderful and well-known political blogger in the ugly, crazy days of Bush II).

I think any time spent reading TR or Historiann is well spent.

 

Agreed.  I would put you right up there, too.  smiley

I take your point here, and broadly, I think the "force multiplier" metaphor is on target.

But there are exceptions. I know of a case where a blog, focused on research in progress, was so substantive and cutting-edge that it did (pretty much by itself) get someone an initial appointment to a tenure-track job. Deservedly.

Perhaps the underlying point is that "blog" is a baggy category. It implies "online," but doesn't tell you much about content or even genre, which can range across a spectrum from "personal reflection" to "journalistic intervention" to "scholarly argument." But, that being said -- in general you're probably right that it's safer to think about these things as force multipliers.

 

 

Yes--Historiann's blog is fun and has a very individual voice.

 

Hi to her!

Blogging by members of the academic community is a way for us all to use our critical thinking skills - a time for reflection on what we do and why.  A form of meta-cognition, if you will, by those most interested in higher learning. This could be, indeed, a place to advertise one's own scholarly publications as you recommend above ... but I suspect that is not something that is a sure-fire compelling use of the blogosphere - unless you're talking about how you experienced the process of scholarly publishing?

If we agree that blogging is a form of community building among academics, then why shouldn't a woman at the edges of academia (an adjunct professor teaching a service course in one of the most rural locations in one of the poorest states in the nation) use her blog on Inside Higher Ed to do the very thing you emphasize in your last paragraph? It seems to me that your focus on one phrase (out of many long and thoughtful narratives in her series) is to give us notice that this particular blogger has done nothing else to further her academic career but use this one blog platform for her academic work. Perhaps you mean to infer (or perhaps I take from your example, despite the caveats you give) that if she had yet one more article, one more essay, one more book published by a scholarly press (instead of spending her time writing for IHE) that she would have been hired in a tenure-track job?

Your emphasis on one short statement in one blog post by this prolific writer/educator strikes me as a form of condescension, and I feel compelled to respond.  I want to remind your readers that there are many forms of work to be done in academia for it to survive in the midst of a culture of anti-intellectualism and "values-based austerity" financing.  More frightening, the uncounted hours of scholarly work done by women in a higher education setting that is not valued or -- when documented -- is seen as less important as the reputed potential of their male colleagues.

Please be sensitive to the very real sexism that is alive and well in our academic worlds - and choose more carefully when you decide to use a single case for your blog's foil.

I'm sorry that Lee Skallerup took offense to my post.

I did not say that blogging had no intellectual value. I said it would not get you a job. I said this because Lee Skallerup, prolific blogger, blogged about how she could not find a job. And I said this because I am genuinely worried about a number of other young academic bloggers who are struggling with tenure-track searches.

And, as I said above:

1. The IHE blogger's larger point that in this market you can do everything right and still not get a job is absolutely true. There are far more qualified people than there are jobs, and so qualified people go without. Everything else I say should be read with that larger problem in mind. 2. I have no intention of commenting on the IHE blogger's specific case except for the fact that blogging seems not to have served her as a job credential. She's not asking my advice.

As for your charge of sexism, I admit it absolutely. That is why I singled out Tenured Radical, Historiann, and (in the comments thread) Hilzoy as ideal blogging role models. Those three women are my own blogging role models.

Highly qualified job candidates work in a low-production industry (corporate outsourced university) with increasing demands of student learners. This is the recipe for increased job creation based on that proverbial sacred cow, the "free market."

MOOCs serve the same role to the university as overnight "cash only" cleaning crews in corporate food service. They are free, attract more workers, fail to pay adequate wages (if at all).

With this all in mind, doesn't the discussion about jobs need to account for more than the fortune's fate dialectic found across this particular blog entry?

I ran across this post (through ScienceBlogs) and it seemed somewhat related:

http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/blogging/north-blogging-current-biolo...

 

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