Too Much Information?

Are bloggers without tenure destined to stay that way? Not necessarily, but debate rages as Chicago rejects a prominent commentator.
October 11, 2005

"I shouldn't be doing this. I'll be going up for tenure soon," wrote Daniel Drezner on September 10, 2002, in introducing his blog, which quickly built a large audience of academics and others with its observations on politics, international relations and economics.

On Saturday, Drezner recalled those words -- the first on his blog -- when he wrote that he had been rejected for tenure by the political science department at the University of Chicago. The university's decision surprised not only Drezner, but many of his readers, who rushed to their own Web sites to denounce Chicago. Several noted that another academic blogger had come up for tenure at Chicago this year -- and also been rejected. And these rejections have renewed a debate about whether blogging without tenure is too risky.

The discussion illustrates the danger of anecdotal evidence. Drezner, with a stellar publication record (in traditional venues for scholarship, like Cambridge University Press), makes a great example to show the dangers of blogging. But as the discussion has shifted from blog to blog, many have cited examples of bloggers who recently have won tenure from top universities -- even while revealing more about themselves on their blogs than many a junior faculty member would have in the past.

In all of these cases, of course, it's impossible to know if a blog cost someone tenure, nearly did so, or helped. It's the rare tenure decision that can be pinpointed to any single factor with the majority of a department. (Chicago officials declined to comment on the cases except to say that tenure decisions are made based on "scholarship, teaching and citizenship.) But the Drezner case has worried many. And it follows much online criticism of (and praise for) a July essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, called "Bloggers Need Not Apply," in which an anonymous professor said that blogging rarely helps and frequently hurts job candidates.

As soon as Drezner's report on his denial was posted, speculation started to appear from others that there was a relationship between the Chicago decision and his blog (even though Drezner himself goes out of his way not to make this assertion).

One of the regular contributors to The Volokh Conspiracy, a legal issues blog, writes under the pseudonym Juan Non-Volokh and has taken considerable criticism on other blogs for not writing under his real name. He said that the "obvious question" was whether Drezner was hurt by his blog.

"I've often heard academics disparage non-academic writing in terms that suggest it could be a negative in the tenure process, irrespective of the quality of academic work under review," Non-Volokh wrote. "This is one of the reasons I've blogged under a pseudonym -- and will at least until my own tenure vote -- as I want my file, and the work therein, judged on the merits. In my view, that I spend some of my free time blogging is no more relevant to the process than a colleague's decision to spend his or her time attending theater, performing in dance recitals, or raising children, but there is no guarantee that one's colleagues will agree."

One reason that many online have speculated that the blog hurt Drezner is that he is the second junior professor/blogger at Chicago to be denied tenure this year. Sean Carroll, a physicist, was denied tenure by his department this year. At the time, he had a blog called Preposterous Universe and he is currently one of five scientists (three of them tenured) who post on the blog Cosmic Variance.

Asked if their blogs hurt their tenure bids, Carroll and Drezner answer in nearly identical ways: They are certain that their tenure chances weren't improved by having a blog, and while their chances might have been hurt, they don't have any certainty about that. Drezner said it would be "very dangerous to make the assumption" that he was denied tenure because of the blog. And if the two professors were hurt, they said, it wouldn't have been in the way some imagine -- with some senior professor seeking revenge for some political stance taken.

"A blog raises your profile, but it raises your profile for something other than research," Carroll said. And even if you are extremely productive as a scholar, he said, some professors may view a blog as sign that you could be spending more time in the laboratory or library, engaged in traditional research.

Obviously, there are other ways blogs can get a scholar in trouble, Carroll said, "if you write embarrassing things." But while there are plenty of (usually anonymous) blogs offering tales of senior professors who are inept, lecherous or both, Carroll's and Drezner's blogs were not like that. Both reflected their personalities and some non-academic interests. In announcing his tenure denial, for example, Drezner noted that Friday was a "pretty bad day" for that reason and because the Boston Red Sox are out of the playoffs. But the topics covered on most days -- while not written strictly for academics -- were serious and related to the two professors' academic fields.

Gina J. Hiatt, who works as a "tenure coach" for academics, said that she advises caution when non-tenured professors want to blog. Even assuming someone doesn't spend all day on his or her blog, there may be an impression that the blogger is doing so, she said.

Attitudes may well change, she said, but it's important to remember who has influence in tenure decisions. "Perhaps in 10-15 years, people will be looked up to for the scholarly dialogue on their blogs. But when you think about who is going to be on a tenure committee, they are going to be older and may not understand or respect it," she said.

As for anonymous blogging, Hiatt said junior professors who think they can be frank about their departments and stay secret are fooling themselves. "I don't think there's any such thing as anonymous blogging," she said. "It's not that difficult to think about who this is. If you do any amount of blogging at all, you are going to give yourself away."

There's another problem with anonymous blogging: It may run directly counter to a blogger's goals. Carroll of the University of Chicago said that he believes in the idea that professors should be public intellectuals, engaging the public and not just students and colleagues. And from the readers' point of view, he added, it matters who is writing a blog. Referring to one of his research areas, he said that 'if I'm talking about dark energy, it makes a difference that I'm talking about it and not someone else."

Despite the fears of some that blogging is a death sentence for academic advancement, there are bloggers advancing along the tenure track all over the place. Many of them say that their blogs had little impact on their hiring or tenure bids, and that the blogs' impact is more subtle than some believe.

Brian Weatherson started Thoughts, Arguments and Rants when he was an assistant professor of philosophy at Brown University and thinks it played little if any role in his being offered the tenured position he now holds at Cornell University. While he comments on philosophy generally, much of his blog consists of early versions of papers or of ideas he's thinking about or reacting to. So the main impact of having a blog, he said, is that he receives "more feedback than I would otherwise have had on ideas at the early stage of gestation," something he considers a help to his work.

While some believe tenure allows more freedom for a blogger, Weatherson said that if your audience grows, that -- not tenure status -- may be the factor that leads to restraint online. "The more widely the blog gets read the more cautious I am about saying something critical of anyone without quite a lot to back up the criticisms," he said. "Basically these days I can assume that anything I say critical of anyone in philosophy will get back to them, and I write as if the target of the criticism will be reading. So I probably hold back a little more than I did pre-tenure, when sometimes I would assume that the blog would just remain among friends."

Jeremy Freese, who received tenure in sociology this year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said that he worried that his blog might hurt his chances, but that he doesn't think it had an impact.

"If any senior faculty had ever expressed disapproval about my blog, I would have stopped blogging immediately, as wimpy as that might sound. I'm not addicted to my blog and the benefits I get from it are not as unique as the benefits of a wonderful job, which is what I have," he said.

But Freese isn't at all certain that senior faculty members even know about his blog. "I attended at least two dinner parties with senior colleagues in which the topic of blogs was raised and it was clear nobody else in attendance read blogs, and I certainly didn't volunteer that I had one," he said.

He said that his worry, pre-tenure, was that his department might think he was spending too much time on his blog, a concern he said would have been unfair. Freese noted that he doesn't have children or a television and he's sure he spends less time blogging than the average sociologist spends with children or watching TV. As for the content of what he writes, Freese said that he censored himself on some things before getting tenure and continues to do so now.

"It's just the same kind of prudence that guides other kinds of interactions that could have professional consequences," he said. "My rule is that I won't say anything on my blog if there is anyone in the world that I would really regret if they saw it. But that hasn't really been specifically motivated by tenure and hasn't stopped with getting tenure."

Drezner said it was important to view blogging beyond tenure decisions alone. "Anyone who thinks that they are going to get any benefit within the academy from blogging needs to re-evaluate," he said. "But to be fair, I'm not sure anyone starts a blog thinking that it will help in the academic world."

In the non-academic world, he said, the blog has been a tremendous help, bringing him into contact with many more readers, and leading to exposure that has helped him publish widely. He said he'll wonder if the blog hurt him, but that he's proud of what he's said online and the loyal readers who visit his site.

Since the tenure denial, a number of those readers have offered tips on jobs in academe, some of them offering feelers about good positions, Drezner said. While a blog may not help you get tenure, he said, it's great to have one when you are denied tenure and you need to job hunt. "One of the advantages of the blog is that I knew that a lot of people in my field read it and this was the best way to advertise that I'm on the market."


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