Blogging and academia, yet again

by Henry on April 4, 2005

Diana Rhoten writes in Inside Higher Ed about the brain drain from academia.

With the rise of the knowledge economy and the spread of decentralizing technology, the academy is ceding authority and attention to businesses, nonprofits, foundations, media outlets, and Internet communities. Even more significant, in my mind, the academy may be losing something else: its hold over many of its most promising young academics, who appear more and more willing to take their services elsewhere — and who may comprise an embryonic cohort of new “postacademic intellectuals” in the making.

Rhoten argues that these can’t serve as substitutes for traditional public intellectuals, but they share some of the same motivations:

On many levels, the new generation I’m describing shares little with Trilling, Wilson, and other old-school public intellectuals. Yet by choosing to leave the academy, they demonstrate at least one thing in common: They need, want, perhaps even crave a larger public.

Rhoten identifies blogging as one of the possible paths that intellectuals can take out of the academy; I’m not sure that she’s right. More precisely, blogging offers academics a means of connecting with that wider public without having to leave the academy. My personal motivation for taking up blogging was to get into arguments about all of the things that I can’t really write about as a political scientist – science fiction, modern literature, curious historical facts – and to express strong and non-scientific opinions on politics. I used to joke that I wanted to be Susan Sontag when I grew up; someone who wrote fiercely argued and dense essays for the New York Review of Books. Blogging isn’t that, but it does give license to write in a freewheeling way, to speculate, to polemicize and to give a bit of free rein to your hobby-horses. All of which is to say that blogging isn’t ever going to be a substitute for academia, but it is a valuable ancillary activity. It allows you to write pieces that may or may not connect to your scholarship, but that never could see the light of day in an academic journal. At the same time, this can feed back in valuable and unexpected ways into your academic work. I suspect that over the longer term blogging will become increasingly attractive to scholars who want to connect with that wider audience, but who don’t want to give up their scholarship. You can become a low-rent public intellectual, without having to give up your day job. I don’t know if there are any people who’ve been lured away from academics by blogging, but I do see quite a number of academics who use blogging as a means of blowing off steam, and of writing about things that they couldn’t otherwise write about. Not substitute, complement.

{ 17 comments }

1

John 04.04.05 at 9:18 pm

I found the article a little mystifying, actually. She’s explicitly concerned primarily with scientists, and the main non-anecdotal data point is that 58% of science and engineering Ph.D’s work outside the academy, and that that represents a recent rise of 11%. This is not terribly surprising to me, and I’m skeptical that their motivation is largely wanting to engage a broader public. I’m also suspicious of the idea that science jobs in industry or public policy give one freer rein over the questions one investigates, though I’m willing to be convinced.

2

Gorkle Gollyback 04.04.05 at 9:30 pm

Public intellectuals died with the rise of wage-labor which is why what passes for intellectuals are sitting on paychecks and positions in academia. Bloggers ain’t intellectuals – they’re overpaid, underworked dullards with a fetish for personalized technology. Shit…just because people keyboard on blogs doesn’t mean a whole new world is opened up – its simply another orifice for the emission of bullshit.

3

Skippy McGee 04.04.05 at 9:36 pm

[aeiou] Susan Sontag would have to be one of the biggest frauds in American history. A person of no consequence who wrote no books of consequence and said nothing of any consequence. She sounded like Camille Paglia on acid most days except less coherent – assuming such a thing is possible.

4

zxc 04.04.05 at 10:03 pm

Having read the previous comment to this one, you do have to wonder if Republicans and conservatives do anything else besides dissing their political opponents.

5

eb 04.04.05 at 10:42 pm

This doesn’t really address the focus of the article, which is really about the production of scholarship outside of the university context, but:

1. Suppose that you’re still in grad school and not sure whether or not you want to dedicate your career to your chosen field or simply keep it as a hobby and do something else in your working life.

2.Suppose blogs didn’t exist.

In order to “do” an academic field as a hobby under these circumstances – especially in the humanities – you could do little more than read on your own, maybe keep in touch with a few like-minded individuals, audit classes every now and then. If you’re really dedicated you could write on your own as an amateur – meaning, in this case, a non-academic rather than someone without pay – and if you’re good you might be able to get book contracts that would allow you to do deeper research.

But since blogs do exist now, and since many people find that they enjoy writing even if they don’t attract a wide readership, and since there are plenty of good reasons to not want to deal with the job market or the sometimes/often frustrating professional culture of academia, blogging is actually a viable alternative to academics. It can be a way of making a hobby more fulfilling.

Another way of putting it:

From an institutional perspective, blogging will never replace academia. But from a personal perspective, many individuals certainly could choose to keep a blog rather than go through the long process of becoming an academic. I suspect a number of people have already done so.

Perhaps these people would have become “marginal scholars” – as the saying goes – or perhaps they would have made significant impacts on their fields. The point is that they chose another job, along with a blog, over academia.

6

joel turnipseed 04.04.05 at 11:41 pm

Henry –

Quite apart from your pejorative aside on the “low-rent” nature of public intellectuals (I’d take Edmund Wilson and Louis Mumford any day over the vastest majority of academic writers), I think essays (prose attempts) like this — your entry and Diana Rhoten’s article — are an indulgent fantasy (or is it: a fantasy of indulgence?).

A widely-published, award-winning author can, at best, make a hundred grand a year (or so–mostly less) as an writer of pieces for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New Republic, etc., including the books that come out of their more distinguished articles every few years–at the top end of the scale. The number of such authors in America right now cannot number more than a hundred. After this small number, there are perhaps a thousand or so who can expect to make twenty or thirty thousand a year doing journalism, reviews, and a mid-list book every few years. By comparison to the number of professors in the various fields that might overlap the concerns of the Public Intellectual (extending this title to serious journalism/novelists/etc), there are tens of thousands of professors of philosophy, literature, political science, history, economics–easily numbering a thousand to one the number who can make a similar living within the Academy to those the outsiders can make talking to the public (and, I note, there is no tenure, health insurance, pension, or sabbatical outside).

What is not an indulgence, is the state in the sciences, where there is both a lot of money to be made and the tremendous satisfaction of seeing one’s intellect made manifest in both invention and in the organism of business. (Though again, here, I should say that there’s a naive pejorative–and it’s old, I think of Henry Adams’ remarks in his Education–that business is somehow “simple,” when the fact of the matter is that running a company–or even a small part of one as a manager–commands a tremendous amount of both intellectual and emotional intelligence, rapid decision-making skills under exceptional uncertainty, etc., and is under-rated by orders of magnitude by those who’ve never shouldered such responsibility).

But, in the humanities, there is a feed-trough now larger than there has ever been in human history and it is only in a moment of deep unreflectiveness that anyone feeding there could think that they were better off elsewhere.

Separately, I think the thing most-missed in discussions of Public Intellectuals, when talked about by academics, is the risk taken in talking to a general audience, with the notion that you will tell them some truth that you think it important for them to hear. Namely, that you must do so on your own terms, from the stuff of your experience and imagination, in their language. I was just talking the other day to an aspiring writer who complained that he “did not come in contact with the right books at the right time.” Well, Homer hadn’t come in contact with any books, Wittgenstein was famous for his lack of reading (and what he did read: Tagore?), and how large do you suppose Shakespeare’s library was? Which is to say, the footnoted mental universe has corrupted the perception (and courage) of many who would have been better off in the first place learning a) how to use their own language and b) how to look at the world with their own trusting eyes: and this would scare the shit out of most academics (though, I would add not the CT crew, whom I admire with all my heart).

Finally, yes: I think blogging is a fantastic way to bridge the security and obscurity of Academy (though, I should add: I don’t mean to trash academy–just those who think they are injured there) with the hurly-burly of the blogosphere and the commenting hoi-polloi (though, on this last, why use the definite article from the Greek–shouldn’t we just say the polloi? Reminds me of a hilarious faux paus from Sullivan’s days at TNR when he wrote, not kidding, “there is a certain malicious schadenfruede pleasure…”).

7

Jon Garfunkel 04.05.05 at 12:27 am

Henry, good post. I mostly read CT for your blogging commentary. It’s been interesting how the popular myth of blogging is that it is conducted contra media when it could just as well have developed contra academia.

On a related note, I pulled together a list of luminaries and less-than-luminaries from the world of social media, judged by technorati and other rankings, and was curious to see how academic affiliation had any bearing on how well-regarded the commentator was. Check out the Social Media Scorecard.

8

Henry 04.05.05 at 7:17 am

Hi Joel

I obviously didn’t make myself as clear as I would have liked to in my post. When I said “low-rent public intellectuals” I was referring to blogging. I was writing in a slightly self-deprecatory, but also rather literal fashion. What I meant to convey was that blogging was a form of public intellectualizing that didn’t take itself as seriously as Sontagizing, but that was also, literally “low-rent”: you didn’t have to pay much to blog in relative terms, or devote the years of blood sweat and relentless networking that you need to if you want to publish in the NYRB. The point about the economic conditions of production is well taken, and something that I’d meant to address more explicitly in my post, and never gotten around to. All very well for a scientist going to Google, but if you leave your academic job to become a Critic, unless you’re very lucky and very gifted, you’ll likely starve. Scott McLemee (who didn’t bother going the academic route) has done it and made it work; can’t think of anyone else of my acquaintance who has pulled it off. So blogging allows you to continue to put a crust on the table through your day job, but to have a second secret identity; you spot the need for a bit of public intellectualizing, dash into a public phone-box, and re-emerge in your mask and pajamas, ready to blog.

9

Doug 04.05.05 at 8:53 am

I think Joel also overestimates the amount of money to be made from magazine and newspaper writing, at least for people not named Malcolm Gladwell. For example, two years ago a full-page feature article for the Washington Post would have brought in about $300. Given the internal competition for that real estate, the chances of a non-staff writer placing more than one or two features annually rapidly approach zero. Do a little math with the mortgage payment and the number of hours required for the story, and it’s clear why the people trying to do it full time are always struggling.

The other approach is to cross-subsidize: anything technical, corporate or trade-specific pays heaps better than the general interest magazines that build an image as a Public Intellectual.

Plus, at certain points in the media ecology, blogs are having a serious impact. I’m remembering a picture of Atrios and Kos from last summer, and I think the caption ran something like: “Bloggers of Eschaton and DailyKos. Together they have a greater daily circulation than the Philadelphia Inquirer.” There may be low barriers to entry, but that big a public ain’t just whistlin Dixie.

10

joel turnipseed 04.05.05 at 9:34 am

Doug,

Trust me: I’m not overestimating (it’s how I make my living). I think you’re agreeing with me that there are a very small number who make upwards of six figures, but disagreeing on my “one thousand” who make twenty or thirty thousand with a combination of freelance journalism and books. I honestly don’t know what the number of such people is (any NWU folks here?), and a thousand may be a touch high–especially since, on reflection, most of my friends doing such writing are… also in academia. But, for the serious writer/journalist not named Gladwell, there is a fair amount of grant money to be had in most states, and if you’re able to get a book done every couple/few years, and doing the library readings/foundation panels/visiting writerships in addition to the occasional piece for NYT, GQ, Salon.com, Nerve, etc. (or even the one quasi-serious piece that runs in your local NPR glossy or lifestyle magazine every month) you can certainly make a go of it as a non-famous writer–if you can make a go of it on twenty grand a year (everyone shout: “I love you, sweetie!”). Which is to say what I said rather sloppily in my post-game drunkenness (Big[11]Ten goes down again… sigh) last night: there’s no danger that the allure of the marketplace is going to drive tens of thousands of academics off the farm when the alternative is to bust-ass to make twenty grand a year–and the number of slots available for people who can do that is 1 in a 100 by comparison to posts in academe.

Henry,

In the morning light, I now see that you also share some disagreement with Rhoten’s piece — and I especially like your re-statement. For some reason (more likely: unreason, courtesy of Maker’s Mark and Roy Williams) I had thought you agreed that there was a brain-drain from Academe…

11

A. Cephalous 04.05.05 at 12:17 pm

As someone who’s currently in graduate school but teaching in a literary journalism department (and interacting with working journalists), I can attest that the journalists believe freelancing is potentially more profitable that a staff position at a newspaper or an academic career. However, these journalists–intellectually more flexible than most of the people next to me in my seminars–often say have long discussions about how to land bylines in Bride’s (“Bride’s loves women who are about to be married or remarried. It’s published bimonthly and circulates to 480,000
readers. Pay is at least $1.25 per word. If you’re able to write about sex and can find the fine line between boring and salacious”) or Boy’s Life.

In other words, an academic is prevented from becoming a public intellectual in the Trilling, Mumford, or Baldwin tradition because the venues simply don’t exist. (That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the possibilites offered by the Valve.) An academic won’t be published in, say, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly or the NYRB without credentials that are difficult to acquire juggling academic work with stories about Boy Scouts all over the world doing exciting, meaningful things.

12

John Quiggin 04.05.05 at 7:47 pm

The claimed pay disparity between Brides at #11 and the WP at #9 is pretty startling. $300 for a two-page feature is pitiful , about $0.15/word assuming 2000 words. Oz newspapers pay about $US0.50/word, in my experience, though the process is entirely non-transparent.

From my experience, I think a good Australian freelance could make $A50 000 (about $US 35 000) from journalism and have a fair bit of time left over for books or other ventures.

13

Michael Blowhard 04.06.05 at 12:27 am

I once asked the head of the Authors Guild how many writers in America make a living from writing books, and he put the figure at fewer than 200. We were, for no good reason, excluding people who write computer-instruction books or who do other kinds of technical writing. And we were excluding the writers who put together a life consisting of book-writing supported by grant-chasing, doing freelance journalism, speaking, etc. We were talking about people who made a living strictly from writing books. FWIW, of course.

I work in the media (where I enjoy a nice longterm staff job, thankyouveddymuch) and Joel Turnipseed’s guesstimates and evaluations strike me as spot-on. One thing he doesn’t mention which I will is the question of doing it over time. How long can you keep up the freelance-writing thing? As far as I can tell, there aren’t many who can keep it up for long. I’ve known people who’ve done well for two years, or ten years. But it’s exhausting, and most of them eventually grab a regular job, working for an academic quarterly as an editor, working on the staff of a grants organization or prize organization, teaching, whatever. It’s tough because you’re always starting from zero: more than half the work is the conceiving/pitching/billing thing. The writing itself sometimes looks pretty minor in the midst of it.

I think the “steady-fulltime-job crossed with blogging” is a very nice recipe myself.

14

Doug 04.06.05 at 8:00 am

Don’t know about the Oz papers. If they want features from Germany, send me some editors’ names, because the pay sounds decent.

The W. Post story was a pitch to an editor in 2002 for something on new diplomats in the post-9/11 world. Pre-Iraq, being a US diplomat was statistically more likely to get you killed than a career in the US armed forces. I knew a number of people starting in that line of work, and I thought it would be an interesting perspective, particularly amidst all the stories at the time on “first responders” and such. I also thought that “has also written for the Washington Post” might be semi-valuable in marketing terms.

But the price offered wasn’t enough to spend the time on. Life in a market economy.

If the prices at TNR, where I think I can get something in, are better than they were at the Post, it’s time to pitch. (I did a tasty little for Salon back during the boom, but even then it was only $400 including expenses, which, since they were travel to Berlin, ate at least half of it.)

And M. Blowhard is exactly right: way more than half is in networking, conceiving, pitching, accounting, billing, badgering, etc etc etc.

Even on my regular beat (biotech for a trade publication), the non-writing time is an enormous investment. In fact, the only reason I can write those stories in an hour or two is because of the time previously spent.

A buck and a quarter per word from Bride’s would be nice, particularly because it’s a fat book and could probably become steady. Fifty cents from Oz papers would not be bad either, depending on expenses involved and how steadily they would want things.

Anyway, from year five of freelancing, it looks like this to me: the biotech beat is continuous and reasonably lucrative; editing for English versions of corporate magazines is lucrative but sporadic; translating is also lucrative but sporadic (you don’t want to go near the commodity translating market); political writing and/or public speaking get my passionate interest but have to be cross-subsidized; and blogging & commenting are a good place to warm up, to try out new ideas, and possibly as a promotional.

But twenty grand a year, like we say back home, don’t get it.

So unless the legendary right-wing gravy train gets reinvented on the other side of the aisle, the political stuff will continue to share its slice of the portfolio with the other pro bono (or mostly pro bono) clients.

I can see — as eb points out above — people adding blogs as a means of communicating about things important to them. (An analog might be the very knowledgeable community of US Civil War historians outside the academy.) But what I can’t see, and here I think I’m agreeing with Henry against Rhoten, are people leaving even a non-tenured academic position on the hope that BlogAds will pay the mortgage.

15

Doug 04.06.05 at 10:15 am

Re-reading, I find the Rhoten piece strange. It moves around a lot, but I can’t tell where it ends. Are the people putatively leaving universities mostly stars, or mostly people who weren’t headed to the top of their departments? Are they mostly science and engineering people, or mostly social scientists? Are they finding more freedom outside the groves, or less?

Clearly something is happening; the article just doesn’t make clear what.

16

Jonathan M 04.06.05 at 4:11 pm

Good article. I’ve added a few more good reasons why prof-blogs are beneficial to profs.

17

troll 04.07.05 at 2:15 am

[aeiou] This website is a clearinghouse for flaming queers.

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