Why every academic under 60 must have a blog

As I have mentioned before, there is an enormous over-production of scholarly writing, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Some of it is driven by mandates imposed by governments, and lots by universities’ apparent craving for self-harm. Still, quite a lot is also caused academics themselves (i.e. ourselves). We are competitive, self-deceptive, and rarely good at much apart from academic writing—teaching not excepted.

What to do? One possibility is strive for  self-control and to resist writing—and certainly publishing—unless one knows something that at least twelve other people need to know and will never otherwise find out.

Two considerations argue against this approach. The first is that we seem to be very poor judges of what others need to know. The second is that we tend to over-rate the significance of own work. A good friend, X (an enormously distinguished academic) once told me—in a moment of ethanolic honesty—that he had now resolved to publish nothing more unless it was a true ‘X-gem’. Of course this came to nothing, as you will have guessed by the very fact that he presupposed that some non-trivial amount of his work would turn out to be not only of lapidary, but even gemological, beauty. Scores of papers appeared anyway, many of them repeating the repeated lines that had made him influential, in his own scintillating way.

But now consider the obvious alternative: external editors. Won’t that work? Sadly, no. And I say this, in all humility, as an editor of an annual, of a book series, and as a member of the editorial boards of what are regarded as top journals in my fields.

Undeniably, in the outlets for which I am part-responsible, it has never once been the case that we published because: we needed to fill a number, we needed to replace an author who didn’t produce, we thought there could be a market for a ludicrous argument, we liked someone, or we needed to keep up the pace in order to remain on the radar. Still—all of these are true of every other academic outlet in the English-speaking world. In particular, US law reviews (of which there are thousands) are filled (up) with material that, absent such considerations, would never find a home anywhere. They are products of ‘internal’ necessities only—and of the institutional necessity to publish the writings of their own faculty while buffing the CVs of their student ‘editors’.

So here is my suggestion. Every university teacher under, say, 60, should be contractually required to have a blog. (Oldsters will be forgiven their tech-phobias.) The blogs will be hosted and maintained by their own universities, and the universities will not claim intellectual property in the blog-publications, and will never attempt to impose any regulations on faculty blogs apart from those required by general law. But no blog entry will be citable, or mentionable, in any internal context, including deliberations about tenure, promotion, salary, etc. And no one will be allowed to complain in any such context that Professor X is a sourpuss on his blog, or that he published something that their students found offensive, micro-aggressive, or dumb.

The idea is that compulsory blogs could in time become safety valves, relieving pressure from journals and book publishers. Professors will thus be nudged—not compelled—towards writing in places where the marginal cost, and harm,  of another publication is about zero. No longer will someone wake up, realize there is a tiny non-sequitur in some argument, and then start his article-generator grinding away at the literature review, the three alternate interpretations, his own ‘better view’, his reply to all possible objections, and his final, predictable, agonizing, Summary of My Argument—which gets fed into a paper-submission-app, inevitably to be accepted by, shall we say, the Southern-Canadian-Columbian-State-Journal-of-Transystemic-Legal-Studies.  Instead, he will  just have a double espresso, practice three minutes of mindfulness, and then take to his blog. After the scholarly ejaculation has subsided, he will take a nap and prepare for class.

How can I be sure? Actually, I’m not. But what alternative do we have? Everything I can think of seems much worse.

12 thoughts on “Why every academic under 60 must have a blog

  1. X writes something on a blog. Then Z comments, disagreeing with the post. X thinks “Oh no, people don’t understand my argument. There are probably lots of other people who do not read my blog but who, if they were aware of my argument, would also misunderstand it. I had better publish a paper with additional explanations in it, in order to clear up the confusion that would have arisen if I had published a paper which merely reproduced this blog entry”.

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  2. Would it be OK if we were simply required to COMMENT on other people’s blogs? The lust to comment has certainly decreased my research productivity, so much so that I am trying to kick the habit in order to churn out more papers (which would obviously be a Bad Thing).. Many others might be tempted into an appropriate degree of research inactivity by encouraging them to indulge their propensity to snark, pontificate and make feeble jokes on the webpages of people slightly more original than they are themselves. Indeed the policy of encouraging comments would be both kinder and easier to enforce. To write a blog you must have SOME thoughts of your own no matter how uninteresting. If your are posting a comment you are feeding off the creativity of others which is obviously less demanding. A policy of ‘A comment a day keeps redundancy at bay’ could be expected to meet a high level of compliance thus staunching the flow of unwanted papers.

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    • “To write a blog you must have SOME thoughts of your own no matter how uninteresting”.

      I’m not so sure about that. But in any case, having one’s own thoughts strikes me as a weak reason to inflict them on other people. What I like about blogs is they reduce the collateral damage of thinking, and writing. If any reads this, for instance, they have only themselves to blame.

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  3. Les, If you will tell me what the phrase “a true ‘X-gem’” means, I will promise never to publish anything else (except on my blog).

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    • A gem written by X, where X takes as its value the family name of a famous legal philosopher. So ‘Are there any natural rights’ is Hart-gem. (Though completely misguided.)

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  4. This is an excellent suggestion, and one I have thought about myself. I have taken it a bit further by suggesting that editing Wikipedia should also be compulsory. If we did this we can begin to imagine a research environment where there is no requirement of writing books or even journal articles. Not that such things wouldn’t get written: it’s just that they’d be full of gems.

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  5. A very good suggestion. I think that’s what I’m trying to do at my blog – just writing down anything that comes to mind. Personally, I prefer this to academic publishing. I don’t have to deal with arrogant editors, tardy referees, vanishing papers etc. I have my own press, and I am am my own editor. If people want to read me, they can. If not, well at least I got that brain-fart out of the way.

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  6. Great idea!

    One question though, you say “But no blog entry will be citable, or mentionable, in any internal context, including deliberations about tenure, promotion, salary, etc.”

    Why not? Why not have blogging count toward tenure or promotion if the blog is successful in generating thoughtful discussion on research a scholar is getting paid to do?

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