Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Professors and blogging

The best sentence I have read so far today:

... professors are the true masters of the "long tail" of knowledge.

It appears in Dan Cohen's post urging professors to start blogging. Here's the full quote that has the above sentence in it:

professors are hired and promoted because they are specialists who discover and explain things that few others understand. For these theorists and researchers, blogging can be a powerful way to provide "notes from the field" and glosses on topics that perhaps a handful of others worldwide know a lot about. While I tend to avoid the hot term of the moment, professors are the true masters of the "long tail" of knowledge.

When I was in graduate school, the Russian historian Paul Bushkovitch once told me that the key to being a successful scholar was to become completely obsessed with a historical topic, to feel the urge to read and learn everything about an event, an era, or a person. In short, to become so knowledgeable and energetic about your subject matter that you become what others immediately recognize as a trusted, valuable expert.

As it turns out, blogs are perfect outlets for obsession. Now, there's good and bad obsession. What the critics of blogs are worried about is the bad kind—the obsession that drives people to write about their breakfast in excruciating detail.

Yet, as Bushkovitch's comment entailed, obsession—properly channeled and focused on a worthy subject—has its power. It forges experts. It stimulates a lifelong interest in learning (think, for a moment, about the countless examples of "retired" professors still writing influential books). The most stimulating, influential professors, even those with more traditional outlets for their work (like books and journals) overflow with views and thoughts. Shaped correctly, a blog can be a perfect place for that extra production of words and ideas.

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While on professorial blogging, I must link to this excellent piece by Jack Balkin:

Blogging, in fact, is sui generis. It blurs the traditional boundaries between scholarship, teaching, and service because it transcends the normal audiences and expectations of legal scholarship. Over the years, legal scholarship has become an increasingly self-contained community where scholars write only for each other. Bloggers have burst out of that model: they talk to many different audiences, they teach the world about law, and they perform a public service by drawing attention to the legal and policy issues of the day.

Blogging may give scholars publicity that gets their work a look. But it will not by itself generate a scholarly reputation or make a scholarly career—at least, that is, until social and technological change thoroughly reconstitute our standards of merit. In the short run, blogging won’t get you a job in the legal academy by itself any more than teaching or public service ever did. That is because the current generation of law professors made their reputations by traditional means, not by blogging. At most, blogging may give you public prominence, but in the world of the legal academy, being well-known often leads people to conclude that you are not entirely serious.

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Update (13 September 2006): Arunn offers his views on professorial blogging here.

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Thanks to Subrahmanya for the link to Dan Cohen's post. [In the comments section, he points to Arunn's post, which I have included in the updated post]


  1. gammagal said...

    really liked this post...quite a fresh thought there too.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Arunn has a related post