Saturday, September 07, 2002

A few words on why I've stalled so long on returning to this blog.

The scholar-bloggers such as Brad DeLong, the Volokhs, and Glenn Reynolds have much impressed me. But they haven't entirely reassured me about the compatibility between scholarship and blogging. It seems a funny match; it combines the kind of non-fiction writing that is slowest, most research-intensive, most oriented toward the long term, and most deliberate with the kind that is fastest, most repsonsive to the daily paper, amd most likely to be off-the-cuff.

I'm worried about public-intellectualitis-- the well-known tendency for professors with real expertise in one field to pose as experts in many others, the pose of authority that come with academics' comments on issues of the day. At its worst, public-intellectualitis corrupts both scholarship and public discourse. The latter gets skewed by the inappropriate deference shown to (and sought by) academics. The former gets slanted by scholars' attempts to do research that supports their public positions-- or, even worse, by their desire to do research that will be popular and increase their demand on talk shows and the lecture circuit. But if the worst kind of public intellectualism is that which blurs the two roles, the second-worst is that which keeps them wholly distinct-- further encouraging the tendency to hold forth on topics utterly unrelated to the writer's actual expertise. And both kinds pose perils for teaching. Only the smartest and most confident undergraduates (plus a few of the most bullheaded) are unafraid to disagree with their professors' known views.

At its best, of course, a career as a public intellectual can *enrich* both research and teaching. There are fine examples of scholars whose work in the public sphere has exposed them to ideas and complexities they would not have encountered in an ivory tower, and fine examples of teachers whose fluent ability to communicate complex ideas to a variety of audiences serves their students very well. (No, I'm not going to name names, even in these praiseworthy categories, since the omissions could hardly help but be conspicuous. This is of course another difficulty with public-intellectualism by scholars; public interventions may be constrained by the realities of academic politics and power.) But scholar/public-intellectuals seem disproportionately likely to fail at both tasks. I used to think that the sneering by professors at their colleagues who appeared on television or wrote magazine articles or best-selling books was motivated entirely by envy. I now think that this is rarely true.

Since becoming a professor I've tried to follow a rule of not engaging in public commentary except a) in areas in which I had expertise or b) on issues pertaining to academic and intellectual freedom. (The latter proviso allowed me to sign the anti-anti-cloning petition and the anti-boycott-of-Israel petition.) These seem to me good guidelines. But, of course, there's a certain amount of creep in one's own sense of one's expertise. And sometimes one wants to offer views as a well-informed citizen, even if one's not an expert. Political scientists and political theorists and legal scholars aren't any *less* informed on the issues of the day than are many of the people whose full-time job it is to write about them, right? So run the initial rationalizations.

So what constrains scholar-bloggers from going the route of professorial op-ed columnists or the full-time talking heads who continue to draw salaries from universities? I'm not sure. But I've been following the scholar-bloggers with interest, and so far, so good. I can think of at least three potentially-helpful influences.

1) The blogosphere has some of the best aspects of peer-review built into it. Scholar-bloggers write about the issues of the day-- but their writings are instantly monitored and responded to by others as well-informed as they are. The temptation to sloppiness that comes from being an expert speraking to the masses is absent. The much-maligned self-referentialness of blogs is, I think, one of their greatest strengths. The tendency to respond to Sullivan's comment on Postrel's rejoinder to Kaus' (etc) makes blogs less op-ed-like and more seminar-like. Links are more like footnotes than one usually has access to in public commentary-- and indeed are better than footnotes themselves in an important respect. Links make it easy for the reader to read the *entire* text being responded to, rather than only the author's selection. All of this helps to keep scholar-bloggers (and other bloggers) honest.

2) An especially baleful kind of public-intellectualism is the scholarly sound bite-- the public career built on offering quick juicy quotes to the press. The reporter's call is flattering; it's easy for the scholar to believe that he or she has at least a few worthwhile words to offer on 'most any subject; and the reporter has an easy time of getting "expert" opinions either on both sides of an issue or on his or her preferred side. It encourages laziness all around, and allows the scholar to distance him or herself from the results. (" I wanted to give a long and nuanced answer, but the reporter cut me off and only used four words! What could I do? It's a format that demands quick answers!") Bloggers, by contrast, bear obvious and complete responsibility for every word they write; they get to be as thorough or as careless, as serious or as flip, as they choose. They, not reporters' phone calls, set their blogs' agendas. WHile the comments might be quick, they won't be exerpted sound-bites.

3) At least so far, there are no obvious financial returns to blogging. Much bad public-intellectualism seems to come about because of the temptation to (to put it bluntly) sell out. Magazines pay better than journals; best-selling books accessible to the public pay much, much better than do university press monographs; and the lecture circuit increases one's income by a big factor over only lecturing to one's own undergraduates. Public-intellectualism sometimes seems like easy money-- higher returns for less effort than continued scholarship. Blogging, by contrast, is by all reports a lot of effort for trivial-to-negative monetary compensation-- even after the tip-jars and Amazon-partnerships are taken into account. Once opportunity costs are taken into account, blogging is almost certainly costly for anyone who is either a freelance writer or a scholar.

How long will it take before these beneficial tendencies are outweighed by something else? How long before scholar-blogging takes on some of the nastier aspects of public-intellectualism more broadly? I don't know. But for now, things look safe.

I'm going to try to emulate those scholar-bloggers who distinguish between their scholarly-informed views and their well-informed-citizen views. For now, there are good role models to be had. But I welcome correspondents telling me that I've let boundaries blur, that I'm talking through my hat while putting on expert airs.

UPDATE: See this related post

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