by Unknown | 1/27/2008 10:11:00 PM
In a conversation with then-AHA President Barbara Weinstein a few months ago, I brought up the history bloggers' age-old lament: that what we do counts not one whit toward anything in the hiring and tenure process, whether it be research, teaching, or even community service. Her response was that blogging was unlike academic scholarship in that it was not subject to peer review. (She also took a bit of a cheap shot at Ralph Luker for suggesting that she should have "read his blog" before responding in Perspectives to Sam Tanenhaus' obituary for Arthur Schlesinger. I refrained from mentioning that Ralph was not suggesting merely that Weinstein "read his blog" but that she read a fascinating symposium hosted by Cliopatria whose contributors, myself included, parsed the Tanenhaus piece much more closely than did Weinstein, and even elicited a reply from Tanenhaus himself.)

At any rate, I admit my blood boiled a bit at Weinstein's argument; who are our commenters, if not amateur (and sometimes professional) peer reviewers? In a moment of mild rebelliousness, I renamed the "recent comments" box at this site "Peer Review." Ever since, I've been puzzling over the question of just how blog comments are different from peer review in any qualitative sense. I was interested today to see a post at The Valve by Amardeep Singh on the subject:

In the January 22 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young writes about an experiment being conducted by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a Communications professor at UC-San Diego. Wardrip-Fruin is publishing segments of his book, Expressive Processing, on a blog, with the hope that feedback from commenters might be as effective as traditional peer-review. The book is to be formally published by MIT Press, who are encouraging the experiment, though they are also continuing with a traditional peer-review process as well. Wardrip-Fruin is using the CommentPress feature designed by the Institute for the Future of the Book. ...

Wardrip-Fruin is certainly not the first person to blog a book in progress (see Siva Vaidhyanathan, for instance), but he may be the first humanities/social sciences academic to do so. Do people know of other examples?

And of course: one wonders whether and how something like this might work with a book on a specifically literary (or literary theory-ish) topic. Wardrip-Fruin’s experiment seems to be sustainable partly because he is writing about a digital media theme, and is likely to find readers who are already densely involved in the internet; that is not so much the case for scholarly communities in literary studies.

I applaud what Wardrip-Fruin is doing, and I would like to see more academics publishing exclusively online. However, I do recognize as legitimate the questions Singh raises both here and elsewhere in the post. In order to answer them, and Weinstein's arguments too, I think we need to look at the idea of peer review itself, and at what it is designed to accomplish. In the comments thread, Luther Blissett gives us an excellent introduction:

You don’t get respect for publishing with a peer reviewed publisher over a trade publisher simply because a few readers gave you reader reports. The writers of trade books receive editorial feedback.

The point of peer review is really a sort of sanctioning: a great press has great readers in very specialized areas, and if they think a piece of scholarship is important to the field, then it just might be. Peer-reviewed presses still often only offer two readers’ reports. It’s not just about feedback, which is why most scholars thank people outside the press for their feedback: working groups, conference audiences, colleagues, etc.

So sure, I might get excellent feedback from a blog. But that doesn’t mean those blog readers are reliable touchstones for original or interesting work in a field.

Blissett has a fair point here: the field of academia does require a peer-review system to serve as a gatekeeper for original scholarship. The goal, and it's a good one, is to stop bad scholarship before it gets on the shelves, to keep the respectability of the field intact by ensuring a basic quality of product.

I agree with that in large part, and I'm not going to dispute it here. But here's the thing: rarely, if ever, has history blogging been about original research. The exception may be in the cases of digital historians, who do test out their projects on blog readers. But I can't think of many instances in which a blog post has been cited in a scholarly article or book (again, excepting writers on digital history); indeed, I don't think such occurrences will ever be very common, nor should they. The blogosphere simply is not the place for original historical research.

Instead, blogging is about something else: distilling historical knowledge into something juicy, fun, and intelligible and sharing that richness with laypeople and with one another. In some ways, it's like teaching, but the goal is not to impart knowledge to people who are there for the purpose; it is to reach out into the community and begin a discussion on historical issues of importance. Though we utilize our training as academics, we take a very egalitarian role as facilitators of the discussion, not authorities who know the answers to society's problems. Most importantly, we bring historical knowledge to bear on topics of direct importance to ordinary people, which can include historical debates but is more likely to serve questions of interest to the community, whether political, cultural or social. In this kind of work, our "peers" are not merely academics but interested individuals from all walks of life. As such, their comments on our blogging work are every bit as valid as that of the "gatekeepers" who provide more trusted and substantial feedback on our scholarly writing.

What the profession is saying when it refuses to give academic credit to bloggers is that it doesn't value this sort of outreach, that the only thing that matters when evaluating scholars is the quality and quantity of their scholarship. I disagree vehemently with this line of reasoning, because people are dealing with historical questions every day, and it can only help to have those most experienced with these issues facilitate the engagement as much as possible. If we let the Jonah Goldbergs of this world dictate how the people view history, while we academics closet ourselves in our ivory tower of scholarly journals and academic debates, we do no great service to our profession or to our readers. I'm heartened by the good work in this vein I see in the history blogosphere every day, but it would be helpful if the profession would more find a way of more formally recognizing the work we do here.

[Update] Thanks to Ari Kelman for the link. Given the increased interest in this post, I'll pose a related question. One of the things that surprised me at the AHA was how many of the history bloggers I met there really didn’t feel the blogosphere should have an expanded role in academia. I’m curious as to whether that’s a reflection of the specific bloggers I hung out with — most, though not all, of whom are associated with Cliopatria — or is reflected in the history blogosphere in general.




Anonymous Anonymous on 1/28/2008 8:14 AM:

You DO know about the experiment underway pitting the Peer Review process against crowdsourcing, right?


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/28/2008 10:26 AM:

Jeremy, you'll forgive me if I'm a bit dubious of one of your central conceits: that historical blogging has an influence in a broader sphere. Sure, we're getting readers that wouldn't normally be in our classrooms, but I'm not sure of the degree to which our discussions "serve questions of interest to the community, whether political, cultural or social." Of course, measuring influence is always tricky, but I just don't see it for historical bloggers...yet. (examples most welcome, of course).

I'd also argue that blogging does indeed rack up professional points...but only if you're already in a good spot. Edge of the American West seems to be getting Kelman and Rauchway some good press, which will surely influence their peers at UC-Davis, who--if they're smart--will do what's necessary to keep the two of them at UCD. Of course, Kelman and Rauchway already have tenure, so maybe that's the difference. The convoluted point: blogging is (perhaps) becoming another metric by which both our peers and the public judge our scholarship, but only if you're already through the tenure hoops.

Finally, I agree with your general point: it stinks that we basically don't get credit for the blogging that we do. Because sometimes what ends up in these blogs is actually pretty good, and it takes a helluva a lot of work. The joy of writing only makes up for some of that.


Blogger Unknown on 1/28/2008 11:25 AM:

Vertigo, yep, that's the Wardrip-Fruin experiment I mentioned in the post. But thanks for the link -- it's got more information on what Wardrip-Fruin is doing, which was helpful for me.

GG, thanks for your comment. I would offer as counterexamples to what you're saying: the symposia at Cliopatria; Juan Cole's writing at Informed Comment; Michael Kazin's work at HuffPo; or really anything published at HNN or here -- the point of both sites is to encourage just such discussion on questions of interest. Further, though, I think blogging is extremely important to community issues even when it's not specifically focused on them. Sites like Rachel Leow's (to use one I know you're familiar with) are read by a wide variety of people, including non-historians, and the issues she raises become of interest to her lay readers through her raising of them. That's more than most of us will be able to say about our scholarly books, frankly.

As for blogging racking up professional credit, I'd suggest you go ask Juan Cole whether his blog helped him or hurt him in his attempt to get a job at Yale. I bet he'd say the latter. I also happen to know another academic (I'm not at liberty to say who) who was denied tenure just last year despite a strong academic pedigree, excellent teaching skills, and years of time-consuming service to the history blogosphere. The reason? A thin publishing record. The tenure committee didn't even consider whether his blogosphere work, which was more widely read than theirs will ever be, was of any importance in keeping him on. They took the Barbara Weinstein line of argument: if it's not peer reviewed, it's worthless to the profession. I think that's an unfortunate attitude, personally.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/28/2008 7:53 PM:

As much as I admire the work Juan Cole has done in the blogosphere, I do wish people would stop citing him as an example of a blog hurting your career. There's a lot that has to go right for a scholar to get an appointment at someplace like Yale: even if it were unambiguously true that Cole was denied the Yale post due to the blogging, it's an outlier situation due to the political nature of the blogging and the status of the institution. Cole's got tenure: I've not got a lot of time and energy for someone tenured in a good position who can't get a better one.

I want to see more data -- one anecdote repeated over and over isn't the same thing -- on the market experiences of blogging historians. I've heard from people who seemed to think that it helped, from people who are afraid it hurt but have no proof, and people (like myself) who've seen little clear evidence one way or the other (I had a few interviewers who noted my online work, one of which seemed to be positive about it and several which didn't result in any further progress, but who can tell?).


Blogger Unknown on 1/28/2008 8:03 PM:

My point isn't that Cole's blogging necessarily hurt him at Yale, but it would be difficult to argue that it helped him, or indeed that it has helped anybody ever in an academic career. Even if you could produce an instance where it had, I'm going beyond that and arguing that it should be viewed as an institutionalized positive.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/28/2008 11:22 PM:

I'm not arguing with you on that point.


Blogger Unknown on 1/28/2008 11:47 PM:

What would I do without you? I can't believe I missed that thread for four whole days. And I was even over there cross-posting!


Anonymous Anonymous on 1/29/2008 4:26 PM:

Thanks for the examples of historical blogging at work--that's exactly what I was hoping for. I'm not entirely convinced that blogging is as important as we think it is--I don't know how one could ever prove such a point--but you've got me leaning in that direction. Thanks.

I stand by my other point: that blogging can help your career, if you're already pretty well set. It may not help you get tenure, but once you are there, blogging might improve your image and perhaps influence. But it's a different sort of metric from journal articles, books, etc.. I'm hoping that as younger, more tech-savy/hip faculty establish themselves in departments, they will embrace blogging as another aspect of our scholarship. So when hiring committees gather around our CVs, younger faculty will not only mention a candidate's peer-review publications, but also her blogging. They won't be weighed equal, nor should they be; journal articles are different from op-eds are different from blogs. But they will all be weighed. At least in my dream world, they will be.


Blogger mark on 1/30/2008 11:32 PM:

Good post.

There are valid arguments for the value of using a peer review process. However, their validity is greater for fields such as medicine where the results of incompetence include inflicting death or easily quantifiable ones such as physics, than for the humanities. Our stakes are smaller and our answers lack the same degree of finality as, say, gravity.

Given the greater role of subjectivity in history, unless cautiously exercised, peer review standards can easily slide into irrational gatekeeping and quashing of unorthodox opinions.


Blogger Unknown on 1/31/2008 2:10 AM:

Amen to that, brother!