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Blogging Fast and Slow: Being an Account of the Author’s Misadventures in Guest-Blogging, with Some Musings on the Genre’s Pitfalls and Pathological Forms (and Jonah Lehrer)*

Hi, Tom Medvetz here with my final OrgTheory guest post. I thought I’d bring my discussion full circle in this one by returning to the general theme with which I began—namely, “reflexivity”—albeit now with some reflections on the blogging genre itself. As my earlier posts have illustrated, sometimes with painful clarity, I’m no blogger by training. To be honest, I don’t even read academic blogs very often. So it was with a certain curiosity that I ventured into this arena over the last couple of months—first, by writing a few entries myself, and second by paying attention to some of the top social science blogs. What did I learn from this? If you’re a longtime academic blogger or blog-reader, some of it might seem obvious to you, but hopefully it will also contain a novel twist, like reading an ethnography about your home country.

In the first place, it’s clear that the “rules” of academic blogging are different from—and sometimes even apparently at loggerheads with—the rules of scholarship. Part of a blog’s appeal, in fact, is that its default style is casual, not formal, and its “temporality” is fast, not slow. If you’re a scholar, blogging seems to free you at least momentarily from some of the constraints of academic discourse, and without forcing you to abandon altogether your scholarly authority. As other people have mentioned on this site, blogging can bring certain payoffs that complement the research enterprise nicely. I’ve come to think of the relationship between these payoffs and academic research in terms of a temporal metaphor:

(1) “Pre-scholarly” dividends

On the one hand, blogging offers certain benefits that I’d call “pre-scholarly” because they’re oriented to the goal of generating ideas that can be developed further in research. Here blogging is like “freewriting,” a la 3rd grade English class, wherein the point is to “put some thoughts down on paper” and get them flowing without having to worry too much about whether they’re actually right or wrong. To say something on a blog, after all, isn’t to put it On The Record per se—and in any case it’s very easy to go back the next day and strike it from the record. (In fact, you could even argue that this “zig-zag” style of blogging is very efficient for conveying a sense of thoughtfulness while also doubling your output, which is a real issue if you’re a blogger. My point being: Who has something worthwhile to say every day? Certainly not I.)

(2) “Post-scholarly” dividends

Conversely, blogs can also be a medium for summarizing or disseminating research results in a very authoritative and definitive style. Writing in a quasi-journalistic mode, an academic blogger can report on the scholarly Events of the Day without having been a part of the action itself. To me, the most interesting thing about this payoff is that it appears to be based on a kind of “meta-objectivity,” by which I mean a position of implied distance from the object in which the object is itself a world where authority flows already to those who effectively cultivate a stance of objectivity and distance.

There’s no doubt, then, that blogs have a certain seductive appeal to them, especially in their promise to combine these payoffs. And I should emphasize that I don’t consider either payoff to be “false.” In fact, over the last month I’ve seen some truly virtuoso examples of academic blogging, both on this site and on some related ones. Overall, then, count me as a cautious fan of academic blogging. However, because I’m both an admirer of Durkheim and a confirmed pessimist, my first impulse whenever I see something seemingly innocuous or good is to go looking for its pathological forms. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking and you’re correct: I am great at parties.)

You don’t have to look very far to find academic blogging’s pathological forms. The most obvious would have to be the hubristic style of blogging which, by imagining itself as merging the pre- and post-scholarly stances I just described, also makes a subtle claim to exist in between them—as if being an academic blogger somehow makes you a better scholar. As a blogger, you can post your anecdotal observation-in-need-of-further-investigation one minute and then switch to your Ted Koppel-style Summarizing Voice of Authority the next, the implication being that you also operate quite comfortably in between those bookends. Now I’m sure that an Inveterate Blogger would say that there’s no such message built into the act of blogging. Fair enough, I’d say, but this only brings us back to our original question: Why blog? Given the focus of my earlier posts, it should come as no surprise that I see in the “will to blog” something other than a megalomaniacal impulse or a straightforward result of the growth of new media technologies. Instead, I think the popularity of academic blogging has to be understood in relation to other developments in the intellectual field over the last four decades, including the proliferation of “new cultural intermediaries” and intellectual bridging figures, the development of a space of “organized punditry,” and the rise of think tanks and “policy experts.”

As I mentioned above, there’s no question that bloggers can, in their best moments, act as intellectual bridging figures between disparate worlds, such as those of policy, media, and research. But I think embedded in the larger story is a cautionary tale, especially for younger scholars. For instance, if you’d asked me to name the quintessential intellectual bridging figure in America just four months ago, I would have named Jonah Lehrer, the now-discredited neuroscience journalist who went from research assistant in a Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist’s lab to a Rhodes Scholarship, and then on to the land of Wired magazine and TED talks. Lehrer skipped the part where you actually master “straightforward” scientific research and moved immediately into the role of an intellectual bridging figure.

I find his story very interesting, not just because he’s the latest inductee into the Pantheon of Disgraced Journalists already inhabited by people like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. More interesting, I think, are the striking continuities between Lehrer’s “sins” and the qualities that made him successful in the first place. These continuities in turn reveal the supreme ambiguity of the bridging role he tried to play. The last straw for Lehrer, reputation-wise, was the revelation that he had fabricated quotes in his most recent book. This was an unambiguous ethical breach by any professional code of conduct, be it scholarly, journalistic, or otherwise. However, to focus only on this last stage of his downfall would be to miss its connection to the previous ones. I’m referring, first, to the intermediate stage in which Lehrer was dogged with the awkward charge of “self-plagiarism,” and second, to the earliest critiques of Lehrer, which date roughly to the moment he first stepped into the public eye. Even these critiques, I would argue, contained the seeds of his undoing. In a 2007 review of his first book Proust Was a Neuroscientist (published when Lehrer was just 26), Jonathon Keats presciently charged that Lehrer’s work was governed by “trivial” choices and “reductionist” tendencies; that it “arbitrarily and often inaccurately illustrat[ed] the sciences with works by artists”; and that it “embodie[d] an approach to the humanities and sciences that threaten[ed] the vitality of both.”

Image Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) succumbs to the dark side of the Force, journalistically speaking, in the 2003 movie Shattered Glass.

The common thread across these critiques, in a word, is shortcuts. Jonah Lehrer took too many shortcuts. But how could you avoid taking shortcuts if your public reputation was based on your supposed ability to synthesize and reinterpret work from numerous fields, translate it into an easily digestible style, and engage in rapid, voluminous production—particularly at such a young age? (Lehrer published four books by the age of 30 and wrote columns and/or blog postings for several major outlets, including WiredThe Wall Street JournalThe Boston Globe, and The Guardian.) Despite all the disfavor heaped on him, no one has ever accused Lehrer of being an out-and-out fraud. I find this, along with the fact that much of the offending work was hidden in plain sight for months (or even years) before anyone called him out on it,† to be very telling. Both points speak to a constitutive ambiguity in the intellectual bridging role Lehrer was attempting to play. His loss of public legitimacy wasn’t sudden, but followed a slow, steady progression from “He’s not quite the virtuoso he wants us to believe he is” to the more concrete but still vague, “He recycled his own material, and that’s… not right, is it?” to the final, damning, “Dude, he just made up that Bob Dylan quote.”

In summary, I hope you can see that my view on academic blogging is double-sided and that this is not a critique of the medium itself. As an Inveterate Blogger would point out, any broad slam against blogging would have to rely on sloppy generalizations, fuzzy and impressionistic thinking, and straw men. I’ll leave aside the obvious retort—namely, that generalizations, fuzzy thinking, and straw men are precisely what blogs enable you to get away with so easily—and focus instead on the main point, which is that academic blogging’s attractions seem to come at the cost of ambiguity: ambiguity about the “rules” of a good blog, ambiguity about the ultimate goals and payoffs, and ambiguity about the proper relationship between blogging and research. When viewed in this light, the “constraints” of scholarly research begin to look more like forms of freedom to me.

_________________________________________________

NOTES

* The title of this post refers to two “Daniels”: Kahneman, whose 2012 book you should definitely check out if you haven’t already, and Defoe, whose titles generally had that cool 18th century flair about them and ran roughly the length of a typical blog post.

† And I mean really plain sight, as in New York Times Bestseller List plain sight.

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Written by Tom Medvetz

November 28, 2012 at 9:04 am

12 Responses

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  1. As a long-time and now occasional blogger, I feel somewhat depressed about the idea of having to defend blogging as an academic enterprise. On the one hand, I’ve always been skeptical of any claims that fellow academics make that blogging is a legitimate form of academic productivity. I’ve never included it on my CV and I don’t think young scholars should ever take up blogging as an activity they hope their deans or the field, more generally, will reward. Blogging, like tweeting, is its own reward. You do it because it satisfies some intellectual itch you have.

    On the other hand, I feel that blogging has helped me immensely as a scholar, and so I can’t discount the influence its had on my intellectual or career development. From a purely practical perspective, blogging can be a great way to expand your social network. But for me, the greatest benefit has been that blogging has allowed me to explore new ideas and find creative ways to engage with ideas and colleagues that you can’t do with print publications. I think it’s more than a pre-scholarly activity. I don’t usually blog with the hopes that someday a blog post will turn into a book or journal article. Rather, I write here for the same reason I enjoy discussing ideas with my colleagues over dinner or in the hall after a talk. Blogging allows us as a community to engage in those discussions without having to share office space or to be in the same seminar. That’s the ideal anyway. In its purest form, blogging is just an expression of intellectual community.

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    brayden king

    November 28, 2012 at 11:39 pm

  2. Tom, thanks for the plug-link…..
    I started blogging “Made in America,” because someone told me it was a way to get people to take a look at a new book.
    But I keep blogging in large part because of a long-term commitment to communicating the fruits of social science to the general public. (That’s who I try to address, rather than other social scientists.) I’ve always thought that we, especially those of us feeding from the public trough as teachers and/or researchers, owe the public who support us some inkling about what we find — and, perhaps, what we find is actually of some interest or even use to them.
    The scholarly quality of blogs is a worthy topic of discussion. They are not peer-reviewed before posting and although potentially correctable after posting, such corrections are probably rare. This puts a burden on the social scientist blogger to be accurate and yet, for those trying to reach general readers, to balance scholarly precision with the need to communicate clearly and engagingly.
    It is still early days in this medium and maybe a normative structure will emerge.

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    Claude Fischer

    November 29, 2012 at 6:46 am

  3. As a young opportunistic careerist I have wondered if blogging about one’s research (or having one’s research blogged about) increases citations or, at least, downloads of your articles. Personally, I can say that I have eyeballed some of Fabio’s work because of this blog even though it is far removed from my research program.

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    Silly Wabbit

    November 29, 2012 at 6:48 am

  4. [...] Blogging Fast and Slow: Being an Account of the Author’s Misadventures in Guest-Blogging, with… [...]

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  5. [...] Misadventures in guest blogging at OrgTheory. [...]

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  6. Reblogged this on If I Have To Say . . ..

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    Robert Mahaney

    December 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm

  7. Seems like Suhdir Venkatesh is now experiencing some blowback for his attempts to bring academic insights into the public sphere, as discussed in this blog entry: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/nyregion/sudhir-venkatesh-columbias-gang-scholar-lives-on-the-edge.html?pagewanted=all

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    soft scientist

    December 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm

  8. In terms of blogging-as-an-extension-of-informal-collegial-interaction, it would seem that the general potential for ambiguity would be influenced by the same sort of normative constraints that govern similar interactions that are geographically or otherwise circumstantially unfeasible as face-to-face interactions. Of course, that would suggest that the same aptitude for parties and an inclination towards the pessimistic and pathological range of research is brought to bear across mediums, which seems entirely fair. (In short, I, too, am great at parties.)

    On the emergence of normative structure, I might have just lived on the internet for far too long, but it’s not hard to land flatly on one’s face in negotiating ad hoc generalized and lateral normative expectations of performative evaluation from forums, comment threads, etc etc. representing acquired and cultivated familiarity with implicit rules of style and identity. For example, in this comment so far, I’ve posted very little actual content, directed my response at other comments voicing topically similar accounts, and mushed in a snippet of endearing self-deprecation in a way that creates positive noise. I’m quite rusty, but this can come off as overt manipulation of ostensibly recognized rules to the detriment of actual discourse. It contributes nothing but the appearance of output, which I think is ultimately the most perniciously problematic form of blogging. If you were attempting to calibrate style or approach based on feedback, this would only heighten perceived ambiguity (to the extent that it registers at all as relevant).

    Also, academic blogs as a genre and medium allows comments to come from people like Talcott Parsons, who I patently am not. (I am, in fact, Robo-Talcott Parsons…at ease, citizen.) I bridge to nothing while commenting on the capacity of bloggers and, presumably, bloggers who actively engage in dialogue with other bloggers to serve as various types of bridges in the public sphere. At best, I would characterize myself right now as noodling in glib reflexivity. At worst, I think I’m still doing better than the detached academic commentary on the Event of the Day with which I have no direct involvement, particularly the subgenre of “Hey, look at this headline.”

    Beep boop, whirr whirr,

    Robo-Talcott Parsons, out.

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    Robo Talcott Parsons

    December 2, 2012 at 7:21 am

  9. [...] entertaining series of posts that include the genesis of his research question, cinema trivia, and his thoughts on blogging as part of the academic enterprise. Readers can enjoy his posts here, here, here, here, and [...]

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  10. [...] des Internets kann zu solchen Attacken verleiten. Das führt dann schnell zu den allgemeinen Herausforderungen/Gefahren beim Bloggen in der akademischen Wissenslandschaft, gerade auch für jüngere [...]

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  11. [...] thoroughly enjoyed Tom Medvetz’s last post on blogging – I would just add that being a guest blogger during the end of a semester makes [...]

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  12. [...] contributions, but I want to quickly respond to one part: his direct comments about sociology blogging itself, which I boil down to a succinct question: why should sociologists blog? (my words, not [...]

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