The role of (semi-) academic blogs during physical isolation

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 29, 2020

One of the most wonderful aspects of academia is to be able to discuss with colleagues and (graduate) students the analyses and thoughts one is developing. We critically discuss each other’s ideas, give feedback, are able to test embryonic ideas we have, debate issues and come up with joint ideas or projects. Now that we are locked up in our own homes, we are not only missing out on the purely human interaction with our colleagues and students (chatting about music, food, politics and so on), but also missing out on the intellectual stimulation that academia as a physical space to meet offers us.

Is there any role that blogs that are hosted by academics (whether or not mixed with non-academics, such as ours), can play to compensate for the loss of interaction that is caused by physical isolation due to the pandemic?

Of course, there are the time-constraints: these days, many academics struggle with transforming, almost overnight, their courses from in-classroom courses to courses they now have to teach online. In addition, many academics also struggle with full-time childcare or homeschooling, in addition to trying get their academic work done. So this is a (sometimes severe) constraint to take into account.

Yet, if we put this time constraint aside for a second, do you think (semi-)academic blogs could step up to fill the “academic intellectual interaction gap” that is caused by the physical distancing? If so, what would you like those blogs (including CT) to do? Write more blogposts on the books we read, so that you can join the discussion? Discuss particular new papers that are out? Pretend that CT is the common room in our department, and raise an academic idea we have, just like we would do with our colleagues over tea or lunch?

In my next post, I’ll give that last one a shot, and will post some thoughts on a method in political philosophy. One worry I have is that this idea has been developed by someone else before in an article of book that I am not aware of it; this would be a good example of what I would normally gain from chatting with colleagues over coffee or lunch. It has happened in the past that I discarded an idea after a colleague mentioned a paper that, upon reading, made it clear that there was no need for me to write another paper on the very same idea.

Still, I thought it’d be good to ask explicitly whether readers of (semi-)academic blogs think we have a specific role we could play in this pandemic to counteract the weakening of academic intellectual interactions, due to the physical distancing. And what would be on your wish-list for (semi-)academic blogs to do in this period of physical isolation?



Dogen 03.29.20 at 3:15 pm

These days I’m constantly looking for good books. I’d love an ongoing discussion of books people are reading. Here’s a start, the last two books I read:

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem

Not recommended. One of my all time favorite books is Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, and I enjoy detective stories, so I was primed to love this book. It’s got great moments, but overall fails so badly it made me question my judgement of him as a writer. The big flaw (to me) is he writes in the first person as a woman, and does a super unconvincing job of it. Ugh.

Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman

Recommended. A detective story set in rural Pennsylvania. We moved to rural Pennsylvania about 5 years ago, after a lifetime in Berkeley, so I was happy to come across this book. We don’t live in fracking territory (thankfully) but the depiction of the area rings very true to our experience. I’m planning to read more by this author.

What are the last two books you read?


ravedubin 03.29.20 at 7:30 pm

At a time like this as someone outside the academy, my hope is that more scholars (esp. now that courses may become Pass/Fail, they may have a few hours freed up for a few weeks, etc.) would engage more with ad-hoc ongoing struggles against the very aggressive propaganda of Right-Wing Authoritarians (both leaders and followers as explained by this public-minded scholar: ) in its hydra-headed forms in online public fora.

Almost exactly one year ago (March 30), I was at an unusual 1 day academic conference (
) where some folks were willing to spend time fighting the forces of what Isaac Asimov used to call “Armies of the Night”. This is especially relevant, given the alarmingly high belief in absurd notions among their fellow Americans ( ).

It shouldn’t be impossible to spend a few hours per week–even for grad students–to engage with the wider community (e.g. on reddit threads, youtube channels, deconstructing the modus operandi and rhetorical tricks of “Intellectual Dark Web” creeps and charlatans on former, etc.) if only to inculcate a more “reality-based” worldview that might end up saving the lives of loved ones. Besides, it would be a psychological shot in the arm for anyone feeling the blues of self-isolation.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.29.20 at 9:28 pm

It might also well be that academics don’t miss academia’s ‘common room’, because they have no time to think these days, anyway. That was how it was the last two weeks for me. But anticipating that we might stay in this situation of physical distancing, and the closing of academic buildings for a perhaps 2 or 3 more months (or goodness knows for how long), I wonder whether we still won’t feel any need.


Gareth Wilson 03.30.20 at 2:05 am

Almost exactly one year ago (March 30), I was at an unusual 1 day academic conference (
) where some folks were willing to spend time fighting the forces of what Isaac Asimov used to call “Armies of the Night”.

Sounds great, I’ll start devoting my time to arguing for one of the things Isaac Asimov strongly supported, nuclear power.


ravedubin 03.30.20 at 8:23 am

Gareth Wilson @4, Isaac Asimov was also a very arrogant man. I ran into someone last year who used to regularly meet him at SciFi conventions in the 80’s and while he enjoyed the fiction, Isaac the person wasn’t necessarily someone he’d want to have coffee with (just read through any of his interviews and the intransigence of his views will come across within a couple of pages).

Here’s something complimentary said about him and it’s a good indicator of why you wouldn’t want to be in a hospital that was using equipment based on the design philosophy of, say, a famous writer or artist (instead of a whole gamut of anonymous engineers, doctors, technicians, etc.):

…[T]he true value of Asimov’s insight is his reflections on his life — and, in his mind, Asimov was first a genius, second a prolific writer, and only thirdly a sci-fi writer.
Asimov tells the reader repeatedly that his life would have been easier if he had learned to submerge his ego and get along with others.


notGoodenough 03.30.20 at 9:09 am

Gareth Wilson @4

“Sounds great, I’ll start devoting my time to arguing for one of the things Isaac Asimov strongly supported, nuclear power.”

Excellent news! As someone who has had the privilege of listening to experts from a wide range of disciplines talking about the best ways to manage energy, I certainly am interested in seeing more discussion backed up by peer reviewed data.

I assume of course that you will take, or have taken, the time to study engineering and physics as it relates to nuclear power (as well as other relevant topics, such as grid integration, storage vs. generation, etc.) so as to make your surely well considered contributions to the topic.

That being the case, I would certainly welcome your SRA of thorium vs. conventional, and be interested to see your calculations related to load smoothing, and of course the comparative cost and time analyses broken down for each potential energy generation source. Just to get the ball rolling, out of interest which particular design do you think is the most realistic (e.g. accounting for the time/demand and potential output), and what is your assessment of the feasibility and ECS of waste re-processing?

I assume you’ll be happy to provide relevant, peer reviewable documentation for all your thoughts on this important topic.


notGoodenough 03.30.20 at 9:44 am

Ingrid Robeyns @ OP

As a purely personal opinion, one of the things I value most when interacting with my colleagues is being able to explore a wide range of topics, often resulting in my learning new things. One of the things I value the most in reading CT is pretty much the same – the contributions from the headliners on economics, sociology, etc. are generally thought-provoking, and the discussions in the threads (apart from the few occasions when out-right trolls derail) are generally pretty good (if sometimes a little lively!).

So, this is probably just a long-winded way of saying “what is already on offer, but more please!”…


John Quiggin 03.30.20 at 10:40 am

Ingrid, do you still have a common room? In Australia, they have all been cut out, and we just go to cafes. My own faculty has a nice one on a rooftop in the building, which serves good coffee, so I don’t mind too much. But you go there with your friends/close colleagues, so there is no general interaction.


Adam Roberts 03.30.20 at 11:44 am

I’m an academic at the Univ of London and still blog. Indeed, I have held true to that faith as the rest of the world has moved on to other and I don’t doubt better online platforms (for instance here on Coleridge, or here on SF and Fantasy). But the thing I like about blogging is its Poe-like Purloined Letter hidden-in-plain-sight quality: the stuff I post is public, which forces me to bootstrap it up into an approximation of finished text (unlike, say, a scatty, merely private notebook), but my blogs attract very few readers, which means I’m not inhibited from bunging stuff up that might make me look like a fool: daft-speculative, wheel-reinventing and so on. Or, indeed, from posting work-in-progress that I’ll later reuse in some other form. That’s been my process for a while now, and it seems to work for me. If any of my blogs became hugely popular it would force me to reconsider.


Anonanon 03.30.20 at 1:23 pm

“I’ll start devoting my time to arguing for one of the things Isaac Asimov strongly supported” – hovercrafts?


Gareth Wilson 03.30.20 at 11:08 pm

notGoodenough @6: Just using the phrase “peer reviewed” means you’re not part of the audience in most need of accurate information about nuclear power. So I’ll be taking ravedubin’s advice and engaging with the wider community instead.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.31.20 at 9:09 am

Hi John! We actually don’t have a proper common room – instead, we have a small pantry without chairs, and next to one of the printers, yet people do stand there and chat while the printer works or the water boils. We also have (semi-illegally) taken a room in the attic that is not in use for our lunches, despite that we according to hygiene rules not supposes to eat there (but everyone knows that in non-pandemic times, it happens on a daily basis).
Our university will be selling some buildings (and presumably buying some cheaper ones), and it’s possible that my department will also have to move in a couple of years from now. So our head of department send out a survey to all employees, and asked what we wanted/needed most from that building: and the #1thing that we indicated we want/need but currently do not have, is a common room. Café’s are not a substitute, since you don’t spontaneously meet people there, since you have to arrange for a coffee meeting (at least, that’s how it is in our case, when the closest café is half a block away). So managers who try to cut expenses by cutting out common rooms, fail to understand their importance not only for the wellbeing of the employees, but also for their contribution to the generation of new ideas, and for intellectual exchange in general.


J-D 03.31.20 at 9:18 am

I’ll start devoting my time to arguing for one of the things Isaac Asimov strongly supported, nuclear power.

“I’ll start devoting my time to arguing for one of the things Isaac Asimov strongly supported” – hovercrafts?

Or sexual harassment and indecent assault? although the description ‘supporter’ may be less precise than ‘practitioner’.

Isaac Asimov was also a very arrogant man. I ran into someone last year who used to regularly meet him at SciFi conventions in the 80’s and while he enjoyed the fiction, Isaac the person wasn’t necessarily someone he’d want to have coffee with

Female participants at those conventions had stronger motives for avoiding him.

People, including the man himself, joked about it. But it wasn’t funny.


notGoodenough 03.31.20 at 10:17 am

Gareth Wilson @ 11

Peer review isn’t “a phrase”, it is a process by which you put forth your information and data in front of other people who have relevant expertise in the area (e.g. engineers, physicists, economists, etc.) and ensure that any errors or mistakes which may have crept in are resolved before you disseminate information to people who may lack the expertise to ensure you are correct. Personally, I would hope that people devoting their time to something would undergo some level of this – after all, don’t you want to carry out your approach in the most robust possible way?

With respect, the impression is that you don’t seem to think it is important to ensure you have a reasonable confidence level in your positions before you start trying to convince other people…which is slightly concerning. Do you not have any concerns that you might end up spreading misinformation or suggesting something with unintended consequences? I mean, if people who literally do this for a living tend to double check with their colleagues, why are you so sure you are going to get it correct without engaging with the relevant experts? Perhaps I am being a little unfair and you actually already have a great deal of experience and knowledge in this area – maybe you could give an idea of your credentials and why you don’t feel the need to double check your information before spending considerable amounts of your time discussing with a more general audience?

You are correct to an extent that I am not in need of accurate information in this area – I deal with storage rather than generation, where the parameters set by our commercial partners in grid storage are already in keeping with energy production. However, I am always interested in learning more about the energy production-storage-distribution approaches, as it does help me see where my own work should be best aligned.

I was hoping that, as you are planning on devoting your time to discussing these topics, you would be amenable to offering your thoughts and views with any interested people (not in this thread, of course, but when the topic comes up) – it is disappointing that you don’t seem to want to consider it, as I would be keen to see what someone who is devoting their time to this topic will come up with.

Energy policy is both complex and critical, where the entire system needs to be considered at both the individual and holistic levels. I certainly hope that the time you are planning to devote includes ensuring you are promulgating the most accurate information possible, otherwise you could do considerable harm.

Anyway, as I don’t wish to derail Ingrid’s thread, I will refrain from pushing the point. Since you are planning on tackling a very sensitive and complicated area, I certainly wish you luck in your endeavours.


notGoodenough 03.31.20 at 10:41 am

Ingrid Robeyns @ 12

If I may be slightly presumptuous, I would like to second your comments regarding the importance of having a space where you can discuss ideas – not only with direct colleagues, but also just other researchers in general.

While I was working at a university, I found that I typically ended up only talking to people from my group – and though they were a talented and hardworking bunch, it meant that our discussions rarely varied from the area our group focussed on (well, apart from the small-talk, which is of course also important in fostering camaraderie and general well being as you point out).

Since I’ve moved to my current institute, I now tend to mix a lot with people from a farm more diverse range of fields – many of which are very far removed from my own. This has resulted in a lot of discussions and ideas, some of which have been very fruitful. Indeed, being able to offer my own perspective on certain issues, and having that support returned, has been very rewarding – not only in terms of just enjoyable science, but also I now have had two high-impact ideas which wouldn’t have come about otherwise.

In short, I think the sort of cross-pollination of ideas which results from simply having a space and an opportunity to discuss cannot be underestimated. I hope your department agrees!


hix 03.31.20 at 3:48 pm

Somewhat off topic: Suggestions for interesting online courses might be helpfull for many right now.


William S Berry 03.31.20 at 10:00 pm

I’ll start devoting my time to arguing for one of the things Isaac Asimov strongly supported, nuclear power.

Spare us. We’ve already been overwhelmed by the text walls of Will Boisvert on numerous joyless occasions.

No offense intended, but I don’t see you adding anything he hasn’t already covered and that we haven’t already heard ad nauseam et ad infinitum.

As to Asimov’s support: What is the likelihood that he would support it now as opposed to supporting it in the age of widespread nuclear power optimism, when the problems of weapons proliferation and waste storage didn’t yet loom as irresolvable problems? Close to zero, I’d think.

On second thought, maybe never mind.


M 04.01.20 at 10:26 am

Ingrid – just in case it is suggested when managers are trying to cut/modify staff space, do not, under any circumstances, even let people suggest an “open office” plan. Such a thing has been foisted on us at my work, and it’s dreadful in every way. It’s extremely difficult to work “in the office”, and so because of this, very few people come to the office. It was said that it would increase interaction among the staff. No one believed this, but of course it’s done the opposite, because people come in only when it’s absolutely necessary and leave as soon as possible. Because it’s also not possible to hold office hours with students in such settings, people are not around for that reason, either. Of course, now that people are rarely around, this, too, has been used to justify getting rid of offices – if people are not around, why would they need them anyway? It has seriously hurt staff morale and fellow-feeling, and probably productivity, too. So – whatever else is suggested, do not, under any circumstances, give up offices.


Michael Cain 04.01.20 at 4:05 pm

One of the few regrets I have from my technical career is thinking that I could have somehow done more to be sure IP multicast was available in the commercial version of the internet. When I was doing research on multi-party multi-media real-time communication over IP inside a giant telecom company 25+ years ago, it seemed clear that multicast was critical. Or at least, it made it much easier to implement classrooms and meeting places (formal and less so) because servers weren’t necessary for things other than address allocation and (if necessary) encryption keys.


Stephen 04.01.20 at 9:40 pm

Re requests for books and a variety of viewpoints.

The site of Tim Worstall, who sporadically posts here on economics, is offering a great deal of free reading matter.

I’ve not looked into it myself, and am not soon likely to, being busier than ever with the current inconvenience, but some of you might like to. Fas est ab hoste diceri, and all that, you know.


Neville Morley 04.03.20 at 10:20 am

After a couple of years in which the viewing statistics on my blog headed steadily downwards for no obvious reason, and I started exploring podcasts and videos as a possible alternative, there’s been a major upturn in the last couple of months. What hasn’t changed is the reluctance of all but a few of these people to engage, which I find disappointing. Yes, the blog continues to be a great place to explore random ideas, post gratuitous snark and pursue various at best academic-adjacent projects, exactly as Adam Roberts says above (and if you don’t already know it, his blog is brilliant), but the idea was always to start discussions, not make pronouncements to awed silence. Twitter remains the place for that sort of interaction, but it rapidly becomes headache-inducing if more than a couple of people try to discuss an issue…


Ingrid Robeyns 04.03.20 at 1:57 pm

M @18 – thanks for the advice! Luckily I think there is an increasing awareness, not just in academic but also in businesses, that open offices are leading to productivity losses; there have been several pieces in the newspapers documenting/arguing this. I don’t think there is a danger in us being convinced that this would be good for us, but there is a danger in contemporary academia that decisions are taken without academics being able to veto them. And given durable underfunding of the universities in the Netherlands, costs must be cut somewhere (or we should convince the governement to pay our institutions properly for the work we do, but so far we haven’t succeeded, I am afraid).


Patrick S. O'Donnell 04.03.20 at 2:21 pm

Although I am not the blogger hosting our blog (I was once a very part-time philosophy instructor at a community college and am now an independent researcher and writer retired from the labor market), Religious Left Law (that is the work of one, occasionally two law professors), I try to post material I think academics and intellectuals, among others, would find helpful or even inspiring. At present, there is only two of us doing the bulk of the posts: Steven Shiffrin and yours truly (my posts are also cross-posted at the Ratio Juris blog). Here is a link to my posts some of you might find of interest:


Zamfir 04.03.20 at 2:48 pm

Neville, I have been in internet communities that resemble a “common room” atmosphere, but those were noticably different than a blog. They were mostly bulletin-board in style, where all members can start discussions.

That creates a very different dynamic. On a blog, the first post has all the authority, the rest are comments. On a bulletin board, you often have the opposite. The first post is a question by a junior member, and respected members weigh in in the replies.

The blog-format discourages discussion in two directions – on the one hand, the most interesting people might not want to respond in a mere comment. On the other side, the front pagers are encouraged to put up (relatively) polished content. While good discussions often start from throw-away remarks and half-baked ideas.

Bloggs are really more teacher-students discussions, than common-room discussions.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.03.20 at 6:01 pm

So Zamfir, we could also change the blog, and simply post many more throw-away remarks and half-baked ideas…? Right now it is absolutely true that the pressure on those of us who write the OPs is to deliver something that is decent and sufficiently polished – it might be a mistake, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many bloggers have a constant worry/anxiety that what they post must be sufficiently ‘weighty’.
PS: my next post, which is almost ready (I only still need to language-check it) will be boring/polished. But I’ll try to post something silly/half-baked another time :)


Matt 04.04.20 at 9:36 am

I’m glad you’re staved off open office so far Ingrid, and hope you will completely. When it was being “pitched” to us (i.e., when we were being told we’d get it whether we liked it or not, but the bosses were acting like they cared what we thought) some consultant types met with us, and we responded with all the studies saying it’s awful (for just the reasons we would think), but it didn’t make a dent. The people at the top had decided that that’s what we’d get, and there was no going back. (That it’s worse for health is perhaps relevant now, too, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d mentioned that, either.) (The comment by “M” was by me, just somehow my whole name didn’t get posted.) I hope you can avoid too many cuts!


Neville Morley 04.04.20 at 9:46 am

Thanks, Zamfir. Yes, in the abstract I see exactly what you mean – though I haven’t ever had the sense on CT that commentators feel intimidated by the OPs, and CT was my original model for setting up an academic blog… In practice, I’m not aware of anything that works like this in my discipline; the experience of bulletin board equivalents – mostly developed by grad students and ECRs – is basically rather toxic.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.04.20 at 4:51 pm

Thanks Matt – yes, that very much sounds like how many 21st century universities operate – top-down, and driven by (business) managers, not by academics. There are struggles in universities all over the world to have universities turn back into the model of a democratic community run by peers (I know, this is the ideal-type), rather than run by managers who might have learnt their trade in commercial businesses. But I’m sad that I do not know of any country, or any university, that has succeeded in turning that neoliberal tide.


J-D 04.04.20 at 10:36 pm

There are struggles in universities all over the world to have universities turn back into the model of a democratic community run by peers …

Turn back into? When was this golden age? I’ve never heard of any such time in the history of the university at which I work.

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