Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | April 30, 2010

Blogging and Peer Review Revisited

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.

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  1. In the professional evaluations to which I’ve been subjected over the years, the Service category has usually been annotated as “service to the department, to the university and to the profession.” I’ve unambigously included blogging in that category on the grounds that it constitutes all three: contributing to professional discourses, connecting academic and non-academic communities, raising the visibility and profile of our institutions. Other forms of outreach are usually classified there as well: my current institution includes professional service to the community as a component of service, and doing things like making public presentations, lectures to community groups, curricular outreach to schools and serving (as an historian) on local boards go in this category. So Service clearly does include outreach activities, at least in some iterations.

    The problem, as Rees noted before, is that service is the least respected category. I’m not going to argue that committee work is worth tenure, but exceptional public outreach is different (it also seems unlikely to me that someone could be really good at public outreach and not be at least competent in research and/or teaching, as they are related).

  2. Jonathan, exactly right, and that’s why I’m advocating separating “outreach” from “service” in tenure reviews and performance evaluations. The problem is that the profession thinks research and teaching are the only “major” activities scholars need to do, and then lumps the rest under “service.” That designation obscures a wide variety of difference among the areas it covers, and consequently a subset of those areas aren’t getting their due.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Theibault and Brett Holman, Jonathan Dresner. Jonathan Dresner said: Jeremy Young, Scourge of AHA Presidents. Also right. […]

  4. Weinstein’s being a bit parochial in the comment that service doesn’t get a lot of attention in tenure decisions. Perhaps that’s true at R1 universities. But out here when the majority of us teach [and research] service is a big deal.

    Within that, blogging is not such a big deal.

  5. Interesting. So how would we go about raising awareness of blogging as a more important part of service? And what are they taking seriously as service? Is it all stuff that’s done to benefit the department?

  6. Service is often split into four components, three of which are considered more or less essential as a minima: service to the department, to the institution, to the profession and, nice, but not necessary, to the community. The first three components of service are usually defined as “active participation in deliberation and decision-making”, i.e. committee memberships. The last involves the application of our academic preparation to matters of public concern: membership on public committees of academic relevance, public lectures, work with primary/secondary teachers or programs, etc.

    Can you tell that I’ve read a lot of tenure/promotion documents?

  7. Very interesting. I actually think blogging should count as service to the profession, since it brings members of the public in where they are more likely to read history books and interact with historians. But it doesn’t look like it’s being defined that way.

    At the very least, outreach should count as one of these four service categories. But I think it should count for more. Serving on an AHA committee certainly shouldn’t count for MORE than writing a well-trafficked blog.

  8. I’ve argued more or less the same thing in my tenure/promotion dossiers: that blogging is a general form of service to the profession, to the community, broadly defined, and as outreach that raises the profile of the institution.

    But publishing and teaching evaluations count for more. Much more.

  9. For us, service is spit into university and community service. Within “university” there is departmental and university service. One is generally expected to serve on hiring committees, departmental committees, etc. University committees are considered a good thing to do. Chairing major committees [Faculty senate, University Curriculum, Genera; Education] is given extra weight in tenure review.

    Faculty are supposed to divide their time into 3 segments: 75 teaching, 15 research, 10 service. So even if someone was a nationally recognized blogger, service is a pretty minor component.

    As an aside, many o us have noted that despite the above time allocation, someone with awful student evaluations, but who also has a book, will get tenure. Someone who has outstanding evaluations but only an article will not get tenure.

  10. […] Young has an excellent post on blogging, peer review, and tenure/promotion decisions in the academy. The post is similar in focus to the presentation I delivered on the Carpenter-Drezner-Walt panel […]

  11. […] profession for making efforts to reach a wider public. Former AHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explained the reason to me last year: popular ephemera such as op-eds, blogs, and the like aren’t really research or […]

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