Monthly Archives: May 2012

Assessment, Knowledge, and Magic in the Humanities

I do not recommend becoming chair of the accreditation team at your college if you value your mental health.  I do, however, recommend it if you want to understand the multitude of cultures that make up your own institution and to think through how they all fit together, or not, in the common educational enterprise.  Like all academics living it seems, we are grappling with various levels of success with the assessment tsunami that has hit higher education in the past decade or so.  One feature that’s very evident is that different parts of campus have different attitudes toward assessment and its virtues or evils.  Among we humanists, there’s still a large contingent that believes that what we do is unassessable, that our value can’t be assessed but that at the same time it should be obvious to everyone.

I think this approach is mostly self-defeating;  it seems to me that it mostly invokes a mystification that, if taken literally, means that we can’t even know ourselves what we mean when we say the humanities have a value that should be recognized by the institutions in which they live and move and have their being.  I do think there is a truth to which this mystification speaks.  Some of the most important moments in learning, perhaps the most crucial moments in learning, in the humanities are unreplicable and so unmeasurable. The fact that reading Soren Kierkegaard changed my life in some fundamental sense and filled me with a love for the life of the mind that has never since been expended is not a fact that means Kierkegaard should be required reading for everyone, as if reading SK were like learning an algebraic equation.

On the other hand, the fact of these transformative experiences, and most academics have such liminal experience or they wouldn’t be academics, shouldn’t lead us to say that no thing is measurable in what we do, or that because the things that we can measure are not the liminal experiences that made us who we are they are therefore not worth assessing at all.  This would be like saying that because the really crucial things in music are things like Verdi’s Othello or Handel’s Messiah, we shouldn’t bother to see if a music teacher’s methods are helping students to learn to play Bach two-part inventions effectively. It’s less sexy, but if students can’t do analogous things reasonably well, they won’t ever be in a position to have the kinds of transformative experiences with humanistic work that we ourselves value and recognize as fundamental to who we are and who we hope our students will become.

Over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has a very good blog on assessment and the humanities  where he points to the need to develop forms of knowledge that help us get at things that will lead to useful change, and points out that doing this well is related to our oft-professed desire to be pursuing work that makes a difference in the world:

This is why, when it comes to assessment, I always ask “What kind of knowledge would we require in order to make a substantive change?” That question asks not only about the specific knowledge statement but the process by which the knowledge is constructed. Anecdotes are not strong enough. And my concern for the humanities is that it doesn’t believe that any knowledge is strong enough to make such decisions. This, of course, does not mean that curriculum doesn’t happen or that changes don’t occur. It simply means that we deny ourselves the opportunity to produce knowledge that is strong enough to inform decision-making. Instead we are left with individual feelings, opinions, and beliefs and whatever they amount to. A skeptic might say that this is all that humanistic knowledge has ever been. 

But I can’t believe that. I can’t afford to believe that. If we believe that as humanists we cannot produce knowledge of real value with the strength to make changes in the world, then what would we be doing as teachers or scholars? We would be engaged in some kind of self-pleasuring activity, perhaps with the idea that our performances might instill in others (through some quasi-magical, sympathetic incantation) a similar practice of finding self-pleasure (or aesthetic appreciation) through a purely subjective/cultural/discursive encounter with the objects we study. No doubt there is a strong strand of such thinking in the humanities, especially in English, that goes back at least to Matthew Arnold (though in his case the self-pleasure was imbuded with a chaste religiosity rather than the psycho-sexual implications one probably sees here). However, no one would imagine self-pleasure as the sole goal of humanistic study. We must be able to produce knowledge that has the strength to make changes. And that requires an understanding of how knowledge is constructed and operates in a world that isn’t divided into natural, social, and discursive realms. And this is as true for our research and teaching as it is for assessment.

via digital digs: constructing academic knowledge.

Reid points out that over and against this, we are usually driven by classroom lore, anecdotes about our students that seems to identify problems and lead to certain forms of common knowledge, but that never actually rise to the level of knowledge that can make a difference.  This is what we ought to be seeking in the humanities.  Knowledge that will make a difference in our students lives.  Because we clearly can’t replicate those magical moments that all of us have had with books and culture, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attending to those more mundane items that are the ground through which that magic happens.  And so we need to figure out basic questions like the following:

  • Have our students established a fundamental level of disciplinary literacy such that they are able to make connections across the discipline and find connections for their work in other disciplines?
  • Do our students understand how to enter in to a disciplinary conversation through effective research, the development of an argument with a point of view and a broad grasp (appropriate to an undergraduate) of the issues that are at stake for the argument in the discipline or in the culture at large.
  • Do our students understand logical fallacies, the appropriate use of evidence, and the nature of different rhetorical situations?
  • Can our students effectively discuss the application of their humanistic knowledge to non-academic areas of life, and can they effectively articulate the relationship of the skills and abilities they’ve developed to the world of work and careers following college?  (An outcome I realize not everyone may embrace, but which I have come to think of as fundamental following the Rethinking Success conference of a few weeks ago).

There are probably others, maybe many others that are more important, but these would be a start, and we ought to be willing to work to find the tools that will effectively measure such things even though none of these speak to the magical moments we and our students have when we are seized anew by an idea.

Barack Obama’s Waste Land; President as First Reader

GalleyCat reported today that the new biography of Barack Obama gives an extensive picture of Obama’s literary interests, including a long excerpt of a letter in which Obama details his engagement with TS Eliot and his signature poem, The Waste Land. Obama’s analysis:

Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.

A Portrait of Barack Obama as a Literary Young Man – GalleyCat.

For a 22 year old, you’d have to say this is pretty good. I’m impressed with the nuance of Obamas empathetic imagination, both in his ability to perceive the differences between the three great conservative poets of that age, and in his ability to identify with Eliot against his own political instincts. This is the kind of reading we’d like to inculcate in our students, and I think it lends credence to the notion that a mind trained in this kind of engagement might be better trained for civic engagement than those that are not. But too often even literature profs are primarily readers of the camp, so to speak, lumping those not of their own political or cultural persuasion into the faceless, and largely unread, camp of the enemy, and appreciating without distinction those who further our pet or current causes.

This is too bad, reducing a richer sense of education for civic engagement into the narrower and counterproductive sense of reading as indoctrination. I think the older notion was a vision of education that motivated the founding fathers. Whatever one thinks of his politics, passages like this suggest to me that Obama could sit unembarrassed with Jefferson and Adams discussing in all seriousness the relationship between poetry and public life. It would be a good thing to expect this of our presidents, rather than stumbling upon it by accident.

Annotating Kierkegaard; an intellectual’s appreciation

I am largely an intellectual because of Soren Kierkegaard.  I mean this primarily in terms of intellectual biography rather than genealogy.  A few days ago I noted briefly my own vocational journey into English at the hands of T.S. Eliot.  That is a true tale. However, at Eliot’s hands and through English alone as an undergraduate I largely wanted to be the next great poet or novelist.  Kierkegaard taught me to think, or at least taught me that thinking was something a Christian could do, ought to do, with whatever capacity God had given him.  Through Kierkegaard I came to Walker Percy, subject of my undergraduate thesis, and then John Updike, subject of my first scholarly essay, and probably too to literary and cultural theory which became a field of my doctoral studies and has remained a passion.   His writerly creativity, his playfulness with language image and authorial personae, never let me believe that critical writing was the inherent inferior to fiction, even if it is often practiced poorly.

In honor of Kierkegaard’s birthday yesterday, I took down some of my old SK from the shelf and blew the dust off.  The old Walter Lowrie paperback editions that were 3.95 back in the day.  The rapturous and pious annotations that fill the margins are now cringe-inducing, but I am reminded of the passions an intellectual engagement deeply felt can arouse.  A lot of the passages are marked over in four or five different colors of highlights and underlining, a way of trying to keep track, I suspect, of the many different readings I gave those book back in the day, a way of tracking the different person I was becoming.  And if I now have moved a long way from those Kierkegaardian roots in to other hipper modes of thinking, I’m also of an age where I’ve started realizing that the newest thing is not necessarily a mark of the best thing, maybe only showing you what you already knew without realizing it rather than what you need to know.

I still think The Great Dane wears well.  His comments on sectarianism, as well as his more general clarity about easy piety, say something to our own age as equally as his.  And, I still wonder sometimes, deep down, whether my first love was not the best.

From Fear and Trembling:

The true knight of faith is always absolute isolation, the false knight is sectarian. This sectarianism is an attempt to leap away from the narrow path of the paradox and become a tragic hero at a cheap price. The tragic hero expresses the universal and sacrifices himself for it. The sectarian punchinello, instead of that, has a private theatre, i.e. several good friends and comrades who represent the universal just about as well as the beadles in The Golden Snuffbox represent justice. The knight of faith, on the contrary, is the paradox, is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections or pretensions. This is the terrible thing which the sectarian manikin cannot endure. For instead of learning from this terror that he is not capable of performing the great deed and then plainly admitting it (an act which I cannot but approve, because it is what I do) the manikin thinks that by uniting with several other manikins he will be able to do it. But that is quite out of the question. In the world of spirit no swindling is tolerated. A dozen sectaries join arms with one another, they know nothing whatever of the lonely temptations which await the knight of faith and which he dares not shun precisely because it would be still more dreadful if he were to press forward presumptuously. The sectaries deafen one another by their noise and racket, hold the dread off by their shrieks, and such a hallooing company of sportsmen think they are storming heaven and think they are on the same path as the knight of faith who in the solitude of the universe never hears any human voice but walks alone with his dreadful responsibility.

The knight of faith is obliged to rely upon himself alone, he feels the pain of not being able to make himself intelligible to others, but he feels no vain desire to guide others. The pain is his assurance that he is in the right way, this vain desire he does not know, he is too serious for that. The false knight of faith readily betrays himself by this proficiency in guiding which he has acquired in an instant. He does not comprehend what it is all about, that if another individual is to take the same path, he must become entirely in the same way the individual and have no need of any man’s guidance, least of all the guidance of a man who would obtrude himself. At this point men leap aside, they cannot bear the martyrdom of being uncomprehended, and instead of this they choose conveniently enough the worldly admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and therein lies his deep humanity, which is worth a good deal more than this silly participation in others’ weal and woe which is honored by the name of sympathy, whereas in fact it is nothing but vanity. He who would only be a witness thereby avows that no man, not even the lowliest, needs another man’s sympathy or should be abased that another may be exalted. But since he did not win what he won at a cheap price, neither does he sell it out at a cheap price, he is not petty enough to take men’s admiration and give them in return his silent contempt, he knows that what is truly great is equally accessible to all.

Either there is an absolute duty toward God, and if so it is the paradox here described, that the individual as the individual is higher than the universal and as the individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute / or else faith never existed, because it has always existed, or, to put it differently, Abraham is lost.

Gifts for the Unemployed Philosophers in Your Life

Given my post of a couple of days ago on the the threat to our culture posed by the inundation of unemployed philosophers,  I’ve been on the lookout for more news of philosophers in need.  Dismally, David Brooks over at the NYTimes uses philosophy to illustrate disciplines that may not be well-equipped to negotiate the changes afoot in higher education.  (Wrongly, I think, has he not bothered to watch Mark Sandel’s iTunes class?).

More happily, I was pleased to find The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, a site devoted to the notion that the unexamined gift is not worth giving.  Among other things you can find Schopenhauer and Buddha finger puppets, gifts cards asking “What Would Nietzsche Do?”, and a wristwatch based on the myth of Sisyphus.  Just the thing for the recently graduated philosophy major to show off in the line at StarBucks to all the Business majors standing there with him.

What are the public responsibilities of private education?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about education for the public good and what that must mean. It’s a sign of an impoverished civic imagination that the most we can come up with is that the purposes of an education is to get a better job so you can raise American competitiveness in the global marketplace. I’ve been using Andrew Delbanco as a part time foil in these reflections. In a new interview over at Inside Higher Ed, Delbanco takes on this general issue yet again.

Interview with author of new book on the past and future of higher education | Inside Higher Ed
http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/05/02/interview-author-new-book-past-and-future-higher-education

If a college functions well, it should break down, or at least diminish, the distinction between private and public good. Genuinely educated persons recognize how much they owe to the society that has furnished them with opportunities, and they feel an obligation to give back. This doesn’t mean that a college should teach its students to be ascetics or try to turn them into saints. Personal ambition will always be part of what a successful education requires and rewards. But a good college fosters an atmosphere of public-spiritedness. It teaches its students that individuals depend for fulfillment on community, and that a true community is constituted by responsible individuals.

(via Instapaper)

I like so much of this, but I think Delbanco is only addressing half the question. That is, it seems to me we have a generally compromised sense of public-spiritedness as such in the United States. Our national purposes reduced drastically to a kind of civic consumerism. Students, we, imagine that we are being public spirited by pursuing what it takes to get a job, no longer conceiving of “the public” in a rich complex fashion that can be activated outside the context of warfare and external threats to abstractly defined freedoms. I agree with Delanco, but I wonder whether he is invoking an older notion of public spiritedness that has itself become impoverished. Education as a private good is reflecting a culture that can only image the public through private metaphors and private actions

[Side note: I met Delbanco in the bathroom at the Rethinking Success conference. He seemed stunned that someone had actually read his book. As opposed, I guess, to just reading the excerpts in the chronicle review]

We are all twitterers now: revisiting John McWhorter on Tweeting

Angus Grieve Smith over at the MLA group on Linked In pointed me toward John McWhorter’s take on Twitter a couple of years back. [I admit to some embarrassment in referencing an article that’s TWO YEARS OLD!! But the presentism of the writing for the web is a story for another time]. McWhorter’s basic case is that Twitter is not really writing at all, but a form of graphic speech. My term, not McWhorter’s. He points out that most people even after knowing how to read and write speak in bursts of 7 to 10 words, and writing at its origins reflected these kinds of patterns. In other words, as speakers we are all twitterers. Of Twitter, McWhorter says:

 

The only other problem we might see in something both democratic and useful is that it will exterminate actual writing. However, there are no signs of this thus far. In 2009, the National Assessment of Education Performance found a third of American eighth graders – the ones texting madly right now — reading at or above basic proficiency, but crucially, this figure has changed little since 1992, except to rise somewhat. Just as humans can function in multiple languages, they can also function in multiple kinds of language. An analogy would be the vibrant foodie culture that has thrived and even flowered despite the spread of fast food.

Who among us really fears that future editions of this newspaper will be written in emoticons? Rather, a space has reopened in public language for the chunky, transparent, WYSIWYG quality of the earliest forms of writing, produced by people who had not yet internalized a sense that the flavor of casual language was best held back from the printed page.

This speech on paper is vibrant, creative and “real” in exactly the way that we celebrate in popular forms of music, art, dance and dress style. Few among us yearn for a world in which the only music is classical, the only dance is ballet and daily clothing requires corsets and waistcoats. As such, we might all embrace a brave new world where we can both write and talk with our fingers.

via Talking With Your Fingers – NYTimes.com.

 

I mostly agree with this idea, that we are all code shifters. I’m less sanguine than, McWhorter, however. His eighth grade sample takes students before they’ve entered a period of schooling where they’d be expected to take on more serious reading and longer and more complex forms of writing. Twitter may not be to blame, but it’s not clear to me the state of writing and reading comprehension at higher levels is doing all that well. There’s some pretty good evidence that it isn’t. So just as a foodie culture may thrive in the midst of a lot of fast food, it’s not clear that we ought to be complacent in the face of an obesity epidemic. In the same way, just because tweeting may not signal the demise of fine writing, it’s not clear that it’s helping the average writer become more facile and sophisticated in language use.

Unemployed Philosophers Abounding; Or, It’s Much Less Fun to Talk About Unemployed Business Majors

Philosophers are in the news these days.  By what I can tell from the media, un-and-underemployed philosophy majors are sprouting from the sidewalks, infesting Occupy America movements, and crowding the lines for openings in the barista business.  I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland where he witnesses the hordes of urbanites crossing London Bridge and imagines them as an original infestation of the walking dead:

Philosophers, so many, I had not realized unemployment had undone so many.

The proliferation is further astonishing since my own Department of Philosophy begs borrows and steals students from other departments to make a living.  From what I can gauge in the news media they are not looking the right places because every news reporter living seems to find them easy pickin’s right at hand at every street corner.

A few days ago I posted on a peculiar opinion piece from Frank Bruni at the New York Times, wherein philosophers and anthropologists were given as examples of what’s wrong with the American educational system, graduating as it does hordes of unemployable thinkers with their heads too far in the clouds to realize the damage they are doing to themselves by reading Immanuel Kant.  This morning in my local newspaper I was treated to Nate Beeler’s editorial cartoon, featuring an unkempt and bewildered looking philosophy major on a street corner begging for food, his sign suggesting that he will “epistemologize for food.”  Finally, my day was topped off by an NPR story on the grim prospects for this year’s college grads.  The story finished with an interview with the ever omnipresent philosophy major, and noted, mockingly, that the student intended to pursue medical school after finishing his philosophy degree.  Good to see at least some philosophy major has some sense. I was actually thinking about how wonderful it was to find a student who was so accomplished in both the sciences and the humanities.  More fool I.

How philosophers came to represent the ills of recent college graduates is beyond reckoning.  Though I did do some reckoning.  According to Stats from the Department of Education    between 2006 and 2011, American colleges and Universities graduated approximately 117,891 philosophy majors.  In the same time period these same colleges and universities graduated 1,687,105 business majors.  Give or Take.

According to a Georgetown University study, recent humanities majors unemployment rate is about 9.4%, which means that we probably have about 11,081 unemployed philosophy majors running around loose and unattended.

By comparison, according to the Georgetown study 7.4% of recent business majors are unemployed.  Which means that 126,532 business majors are running around loose and unattended.  Give or Take.

I think the outcome of this entirely off the cuff analysis is that the average person crowding into line for barista openings at Starbucks is probably not a philosopher.  I’m wondering why there are no interviews with business majors on how they feel about the fact that their educational choices did not prepare them for the job market.

We shouldn’t laugh off the difficulties of these figures in general.  Recent college graduates are desperately hurting, whether they majored in philosophy or business;  they are loaded with debt and many are not finding jobs.  And while philosophers are struggling marginally more than some others, the point is that philosophy majors are not hurting in some extraordinary fashion because they have chosen to major in philosophy.  This is a generational problem visited on this generation of student through political, economic, and cultural decisions that were not of their doing or making.  To trash philosophy students as if they were witless is a snide form of victimizing victims of  a system and culture these students did not create.  It relieves us of responsibility to the many who are struggling and enables us to imagine that it is all their fault because of the poor educational choices they’ve happened to make.  Ironically, it enables us to ignore the plight of 128,000 unemployed business students as well, since they have all come to be represented by unkempt and irresponsible philosophers.

I don’t buy it.  A student thoughtful enough to read and think through Kant is thoughtful enough to be aware of what she might be getting herself in to as a philosophy major.  Such students deserve better than mockery and contempt.  They deserve our gratitude in reminding us that an education is about more than just the bottom line.  That we do not give them this is to our discredit, not to theirs.

Should we have college majors at all?

As I’ve suggested before, One of the more startling pronouncements at the Rethinking Success conference last month came from Stanton Green at Monmouth University, in my memory pounding the table and saying that the college major was the worst thing to happen in higher education in the past 150 years.  I’ve thought for a while that a real negative of our current system is the emphasis we put on students selecting a major even before they get to college–a practice driven largely by the need of large professional programs to get students started on their careers from the first semester.

Jeff Seligo at the Chronicle has an interesting blog post this morning on what exactly students think about all the revolution and transformation talk that’s going on in higher ed.  He picks up on this question of the importance of the major, finding anecdotally at least that students are less convinced of the importance of the major than we are:

Majors don’t matter. Perhaps a better question is why we force students to pick a major at all. The number of majors on campus has proliferated in the last two decades, but some academics, such as Mark Taylor or Roger Schank, think we should abolish our traditional notion of majors and build the undergraduate curriculum around broad ideas or problems we face, like water and food production.

Sure, some of the students I talked with were focused on pursuing a specific profession (marketing, for instance) and wanted a degree that would give them a skill set to secure the right internships that eventually would lead to a full-time job. But most of the students said they were less concerned with picking the right major than they were with choosing the classes that would expose them to new subjects or help them connect ideas across disciplines.

via Did Anyone Ask the Students?, Part I – Next – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of course, getting rid of the college major would require a massive transformation of what it meant to be a college, not just a college student, and moving away from a narrowly defined research or professionally oriented definition of your major.  There’s no sign yet that we would be willing to do that or that prospective students would respond well to a college that did away with majors entirely.

Even Seligo seems inconsistent on this point since just prior to this point about the unimportance of majors, Seligo says we need to have much more intense levels of career preparation in college so that students can not waste time figuring out what they want to do and what they should major in.  How these two assertions get in paragraphs that sit next to each other, I’m not entirely sure, but it may just signal the confusion we have over recognizing that except in some very specific circumstances majors don’t matter as much as we think they do, but we still somehow can only imagine a college education as a preparation for a specific career.

Maybe if we would think of college as preparing students to blaze a trail for their own professional and personal journey instead of following a career path that is predetermined, we’d be able to relieve ourselves of the belief that students need to figure out what they are going to do with their lives when they are 17 and forever after their fates will be determined by a choice made in ignorance by students who cannot possibly know the kinds of people they will be or the opportunities they will have when they are 22, much less 32 or 52.

So I wonder whether readers of this blog think its possible to imagine a world of higher education in which majors don’t exist?

Is hierarchy the problem? Higher Education Governance and Digital Revolutions

In the Digital Campus edition of the Chronicle, Gordon Freeman Makes the now common lament that colleges and universities are not taking the kind of advantage of Cloud technology that would enable superior student learning outcomes and more effective and efficient teaching. In doing so he lays blame at the feet of the hierarchical nature of higher Ed in a horizontal world.

Higher-education leaders, unlike the cloud-based companies of Silicon Valley, do not easily comprehend the social and commercial transformation gripping the world today. Indeed, there was a certain amount of gloating that the centuries-old higher-education sector survived the dot-com era. After all, textbooks are still in place, as are brick and mortar campuses.

The simple fact is that life is becoming more horizontal, while colleges remain hierarchical. We can expect the big shifts in higher education—where the smart use of digitization leads to degrees—to come from other countries.

And that’s sad, because the United States makes most of the new technologies that other parts of the world are more cleverly adapting, especially in education.

(via Instapaper)

I appreciate the metaphor of hierarchy versus horizontality, and I think it’s seductive, but I wonder if it’s accurate. It captures an American view of the world that images the bad guys as authoritarian and hierarchical and the good guys as democratic and dialogical.

Whether or not the horizontal crowd can ever do evil is a post for another day. I’m more interested in whether the slowness of higher Ed to take up new modes of doing business is actually due to hierarchy. Speaking to a colleague at a national liberal arts college that shall not be named, he indicated the president gave strong support for digital innovation in teaching and research, but that the faculty as a whole was slow on the uptake, which meant institution wide change was difficult to achieve.

This rings true to me as an administrator. Change is slow not because we are too hierarchical, but because we take horizontality to be an inviolable virtue. Faculty are largely independent operators with a lot of room to implement change or not as they choose. Institution wide changes in educational programming takes not one big decision, but a thousand small acts of persuasion and cajoling in order to effect change. I mostly think this is as it should be. It is the difficult opposite edge of academic freedom. It means that changing the direction of an institution is like changing the direction of an aircraft carrier, and doing so without an admiral who can indicate direction by fiat. There are problems with that, but I’m not sure that the changes required to make higher Ed as nimble as Gordon Freeman desires will result in an educational system we’d like to have.

How Do Blogging and Traditional Modes of Scholarly Production Relate?

In the latest edition of the Chronicle’s Digital Campus, Martin Weller makes some strong claims about the significance of blogging.  Recognizing the difficulty of measuring the value of a blog in comparison to traditional modes of journalistic publication, Weller believes that blogging is ultimately in the interest of both institutions and scholarship.

It’s a difficult problem, but one that many institutions are beginning to come to terms with. Combining the rich data available online that can reveal a scholar’s impact with forms of peer assessment gives an indication of reputation. Universities know this is a game they need to play—that having a good online reputation is more important in recruiting students than a glossy prospectus. And groups that sponsor research are after good online impact as well as presentations at conferences and journal papers.

Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty’s online identity, and many institutions are now making it a priority to develop, recognize, and encourage practices such as blogging.For institutions and individuals alike, these practices are moving from specialist hobby to the mainstream. This is not without its risks, but as James Boyle, author of the book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008), argues, we tend to overstate the dangers of open approaches and overlook the benefits, while the converse holds true for the closed system.

The Virtues of Blogging as Scholarly Activity – The Digital Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The claim that an Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty’s online identity startled me when I first read it, an index no doubt of my deeply held and inveterate prejudice in favor of libraries.  But I have been trying to pound away with the faculty how utterly important our online presence is, and the internet–in many different modes–gives us the opportunity to create windows on humanities work that are not otherwise easily achieved–at least in comparison to some of the work done by our colleagues in the arts or in the sciences.  Blogging is one way of creating connection, of creating vision, and I think that with a very few exceptions like the ivies and the public ivies, it is very much the case that your online presence matters more than any other thing you can possibly do to establish your reputation in the public eye and in the eye of prospective students and their parents.

That is fairly easy to grasp.  The value of the blogging to scholarship in general, or its relationship to traditional scholarship remains more thorny and difficult to parse.  I’ve had conversations with my colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and we both agree that in some sense scholars still have to have established some claim to speak through traditional modes of publication in order to give their scholarly blogging some sense of authority.  People listen to John about History because he’s published books and articles. [Why people listen to me I have no idea–although I do have books and articles I have nothing like John’s reputation;  it may have something to do with simply holding a position.  Because I am a dean at a college I can lay claim to certain kinds of experience that are relevant to discussing the humanities].

I am not sure it will always be thus.  I think the day is fast approaching when publishing books will become less and less important as the arbiter of scholarly authority.  But I think for now and perhaps for a very good long time to come, blogging exist in an interesting symbiosis with other traditional forms of scholarship. Weller quotes John Naughton to this effect:  “Looking back on the history,” he writes, “one clear trend stands out: Each new technology increased the complexity of the ecosystem.”

I’ve read some things lately that say blogging may be on its way out, replaced in the minds of the general public, I guess, by Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  But for now I think it remains an interesting and somewhat hybrid academic form.  A forum for serious thought and reasonably good writing, but not one that claims to be writing for the ages.  In some respects, I think the best blogging is more like the recovery of the eighteenth century Salon, wherein wit that demonstrated learning and acumen was highly valued, and perhaps a basis of academic life that stood unembarrassed next to the more muscular form of the book. Blogging is one clearly important addition to the scholarly ecosystem, playing off of and extending traditional scholarship rather than simply replacing it.

In my own life right now, as an administrator, I have too little time during the school year to pursue the writing of a 40 page article or a 400 page book–nor, right now, do I have the interest or inclination (however much I want to get back and finish the dang Harlem Renaissance manuscript that sits moldering in my computer).  I do, however, continue to feel the need to contribute to scholarly conversation surrounding the humanities and higher education in general.  Blogging is one good way to do that, and one that, like Weller, I find enjoyable, creative, and stress relieving–even when I am writing my blog at 11:00 at night to make sure I can get something posted.  Ever the Protestant and his work ethic.