This morning, sitting in on a guest lecture in a digital history course, I had the opportunity to ask immediate AHA Past President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich a question about blogging. I asked her about the concerns bloggers in tenure-track history professorships had with the lack of recognition their blogging gets come tenure and review time. In 2007, I asked a similar question of then-AHA President Barbara Weinstein. I blogged about her response, and my thoughts on it, here.
Ulrich’s response was a lot kinder than Weinstein’s was. Though she admitted she hates reading blogs herself, Ulrich’s a big booster of digital history in general and has used technology effectively in both her teaching and her scholarship; she’s virtually the first digitally-inflected historian to helm the AHA, in fact. (We’ll have to wait until next year before we get the first AHA President who comments regularly on history blogs — Tony Grafton.) And Ulrich was very positive about the idea of getting some sort of professional credit for blogging. Nevetheless, her response was similar to Weinstein’s in its basic import. Blogging can’t serve as scholarship because it lacks peer review and footnotes, though she was encouraged about introducing those things into the blogging experience, perhaps having blogs reviewed in the American Historical Review. Blogging could be interpreted as service in the sense of contributing to the success of one’s department, in which case it could be considered for tenure purposes.
The problem with this analysis is twofold. First — as I wrote when the AHA actually considered a policy introducing professional standards for history blogging — any attempt to exercise a gatekeeping function with regard to history blogs is a terrible idea. These blogs get their readership through their freewheeling, extemporaneous style; if you impose standards and requirements on them, their audiences will simply evaporate. I don’t blame Ulrich or William H. Chafe for thinking of this idea; they’re trying to help bloggers get what we say we want, which is professional recognition for the work we do online. But as the AHA recognized when they (as far as I can tell) canned the proposed regulations on blogging after the public comment period, it’s just not an idea that’s going to work.
As Jonathan Rees noted in his response to my original post, and as I failed to recognize then, the consequence of rejecting blogging standards is that we have to acknowledge blogging isn’t scholarship (with some obvious exceptions, such as the blogs of digital historians). For the rest of us, blogging is never going to be scholarship; it’s not designed for that and we wouldn’t enjoy it if it were. That means we need to stop claiming that blog comments constitute peer review (as I did in 2008, and which Jonathan correctly criticized me for). They are some sort of review, but review of what? There’s no scholarly content on most history blogs that needs reviewing.
That leaves the category of service, as Ulrich pointed out in her response. But Weinstein, when I had this conversation with her, noted that service doesn’t actually get a lot of attention in tenure decisions. Good thing, too: you don’t want someone getting tenure who can’t teach or write or publish, just because they served on a number of committees. Blogging isn’t like serving on committees, though — its function is to connect historians with the general public in a way that most scholarly books, and all journal articles, fail to do. A really good history blogger, one who gets hundreds or thousands of hits a day, is like a really good writer of ephemera, or a really good public speaker. Their role in that capacity is to evangelize for the profession, not to serve the department or produce scholarship through their public pronouncements.
And therein lies the problem that I think we have to face if we want blogging taken seriously as a professional activity: none of the other activities I just described are viewed as professional activities either. There is no category in tenure review for “outreach;” there is no way for a mediocre scholar to achieve tenure because of superlative evangelizing for the profession. In a time of economic crisis for the humanities, when history departments are bleeding money because of lack of public interest in what they do, when academic historians are losing the Battle for the Bookshelves to their popular competitors, I think that’s a mistake. A superb blogger or lecturer or editorial writer can be just as valuable as a superb scholar, provided you don’t end up filling departments full of the former.
But this is the argument we have to make, and I think it’s a daunting one: that we want not just blogging, but all public outreach to be considered as a separate and important category for tenure. Realistically, we can’t sell blogging as tenurable without also selling op-eds and columns and talking head appearances and public lecture attendance. It’s either all or none, and the sooner we come to terms with that the better for all of us.