Saturday, April 07, 2007

Should Blogs Count for Tenure?

Over on Hastac, my Duke colleague Cathy Davidson provides some answers to the interesting question, "Should Blogs Count for Tenure?". The gist of her response is that they can make an important contribution to academic service, typically one of the three pillars on which tenure stands, the others being teaching and research. She adds that there may be a contribution to teaching too, depending on the nature of the blog and the teaching. Turning to research, she asks:
Is it research? Depends entirely on the nature of what is blogged. And since the whole point of blogging is to avoid refereeing, to be able to get out one’s ideas unmediated, the scholarly definition of research as a peer-reviewed, refereed contribution to knowledge is not fulfilled by blogging. Definitionally these are opposites.
I think there is something in these comments, but I am not sure that I would see "the whole point of blogging" as "to avoid refereeing". In some respects, I think blogging can hold one up to a higher standard of refereeing than published work because there are so many more people who are commenting on one's ideas and thoughts as they are in process. It is an inherently more risky process than the much more sedate and private world of peer review. Of course I agree about the importance of peer review, but I don't think I see blogging as being at the opposite end of the spectrum as this. Rather, it's a different kind of peer review, with its own strengths and weaknesses (Davidson later notes that it is peer reviewed "in a Web 2.0 way" but I think that that short-sells it). Prof. Davidson goes on:
In fact, it makes me suspicious when someone protests that their blog gets so many hits while their scholarly articles receive so many fewer and therefore they don't need to publish in order to get tenure. That fails logically. Tenure is an agreed upon system of accountability and reward, as fallible as any such system and as susceptible to abuse.
If someone is making comments like that, then they need a serious reality check because frankly they are not going to get tenure with an attitude like that. But I know that I would always look favourably on someone who has an intelligent and energetic blog, whether as potential applicants to a graduate programme, or as job applicants, or as applicants for tenure. To me it is likely to suggest several things, a commitment to the dissemination of scholarship outside of the guild, a commitment to collaborative scholarship, and some degree of courage and public risk-taking. So I would be strongly inclined to treat blogging as a plus. I suppose that this is what Davidson means in her reference to blogging as fulfilling the all important "service to the guild" requirement for gaining tenure. But I think that it is potentially much more than that. For one thing, blogs can be continuous with published work, so that the lines between publication and blog are blurred. In those cases, it's not a bolted on extra, but is integral to the research and publication process. One might even be using the blog as a means of developing published materials. There are multiple examples of this kind of thing as when people develop conference papers on-line and then use a blog as a means of doing research, gauging reaction and improving the output.

One of the underlying issues here may be the undue stress placed on peer-review in the American tenure system. I am new to this system, and the word "tenure" is only known in the UK as something American academics talk about, but it may be that it is important for appointments, promotions and tenure committees to think about peer review as only one, albeit important element in reviewing a scholar's output. Why not look more widely to what are called "esteem indicators" in the UK, and think of strong, successful academic blogging as one of those "esteem indicators"?


Judy Redman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Judy Redman said...

Let's try again without the major typos:

I don't think that it is possible to evaluate blogs simply on the basis of hit numbers. One person could have a blog that received large numbers of hits and comments because the material on it was of a similar level of scholarship to The Da Vinci Code - of interest to many people but not making any significant contribution to the academic enterprise. Because you have little control over who finds your blog and posts, it is also possible for several people with particular obsessions to have very unhelpful discussions in the comments section of your blog, which would look impressive if only the number of hits and comments were being counted.

Another person could have a blog that received limited numbers of hits and comments but made a significant contribution to academia in her/his field because it attracted scholars who discussed issues in a scholarly manner.

Unfortunately, monitoring quality of posts is a much more difficult and time-consuming for any tenure committee to do than counting peer reviewed journal articles and conference presentations - assuming that it contained anyone who had the expertise to do so. Peer reviewed journals and conferences mean that the tenure committee does not have to worry about this.

Patrick G. McCullough said...

Dr. Goodacre, Thanks for pushing these ideas forward and forcing members of academia to think outside the box.

But I know that I would always look favourably on someone who has an intelligent and energetic blog, whether as potential applicants to a graduate programme, or as job applicants, or as applicants for tenure.

I'm particularly interested in this comment and began to respond here, but it got too unwieldy for a comments section, so I created a post on my own blog for the response. Based on your comments in this post, I'm wondering whether you think potential graduate students should reveal their academically oriented blogs on doctoral applications.