In the name of the blogger

 

BLOGGING:Some Irish academics have followed their US peers and become enthusiastic and influential bloggers, testing their ideas and engaging with the public outside the rarefied walls of academia, writes DAVIN O'DWYER

WHERE DID all the intellectuals go? In an era when heated arguments on current affairs TV shows pass for reasoned debate and condensed newspaper opinion pieces try to convey complex theories, the era of the prominent public intellectual seems a mirage.

Yet back in the 17th and 18th centuries there was such a vibrant tradition of engagement with ideas across Europe that the scene even had a catchy nickname, the Republic of Letters. The role of public intellectual was seen as a critical one in terms of shaping society’s sense of self and adding rigour to public debate. Now, we’re more likely to find society’s sense of self being shaped by Simon Cowell.

Of course, it’s wise to remember that those intellectuals and writers of the Republic of Letters disproportionately influence our perception of that time – they wrote a lot about themselves, for a start – but it’s true that pure intellectualism, in all fields, exists now mostly in academia, which in some ways functions like a protected nature reserve for ideas. But it’s also true that the discussion of these ideas has been transformed, like so much else in life, by the internet, and in particular the blogosphere.

In the decade or so since the blogosphere began to take shape, a huge number of academics started blogging, starting conversations and swapping ideas and developing a platform where the currency of ideas is readily accessible to everybody. And in the past few years, the phenomenon has taken off in Ireland.

In 2005, when the blogging scene was still somewhat nascent, Henry Farrell, a political scientist at George Washington University and a well-known blogger, wrote a seminal article in the Chronicle of Higher Educationoutlining the potential for academic blogs, which, he wrote, “provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison”.

That piece was written in response to a sceptical article that encapsulated a certain institutional snobbery towards the new form, suggesting that blogging academics would be seen as “unserious” and struggle to get tenure. How did Farrell come to articulate the case for the defence?

"I started blogging back in 2003, at a stage when the blogosphere was a fairly small thing," Farrell says on the phone from Washington. "Partly it was because I was bored. I was in Canada and my wife was in DC, and I came across a blog by Kieran Healy, who is a sociologist from Cork based in the US. I thought if he can do it, why can't I give it a try, so I started."
Along with Healy, Farrell became a core member of the Crooked Timber group blog, described by The New York Timesrecently as an "intellectual global powerhouse", in the process becoming one of the most prominent Irish academics in the US. "It became a way of building a community of people who had similar interests, albeit not in the same discipline. Then over time blogging began to become a much bigger thing, and I just rode the wave of that."

The blogosphere was quickly embraced by academics of all stripes, particularly in the US, where all sorts of law professors, philosophers, scientists, sociologists and others were enthusiastically blogging about their subjects and about their careers. That sceptical Chroniclearticle suggested that blogging would impede careers, but Farrell found just the opposite.

"I think it has had a bearing on my career - one direct way was that it helped me get my job," he says. "I was in the University of Toronto at that stage, and I wanted to get to DC because my wife is a lawyer employed here, and so somebody who read the blog invited me to apply for a position down here, which was very definitely a good thing. I can remember having a conversation with my wife, who wasn't particularly impressed with the blogging thing and thought it a waste of time, but she promised that if it helped me get a job in the same city as her, she'd never complain about it again. And she's managed mostly to keep to that promise."

The advantage of the blog, an unfiltered platform without the constraints of space or commerce or deadlines, is exactly what so many academics find so appealing. Prof Mary Beard, a professor in classics at Cambridge and classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement,has developed a huge readership for her lively blog, A Don's Life, which mixes the personal with the professional and whose comments section was memorably described by the Guardianas "a heady mix of Horace and Heat magazine".

"I have found that I have used [the blog] to share stuff (things I've seen, ideas and so on) that I never seriously intend to publish, but would like to get out there for other people to pick up but with my name still a bit attached," she says via email. "My blog is read by more people than my scholarly articles and even than my more popular books."

One of the first bloggers in the Irish academic scene to attract a large readership was former DCU president Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski, whose University Diary gave a highly personal take on his job, his interests and frequently the challenges facing third-level education. It confirmed that von Prondzynski was not your usual university head.

"I started blogging just over three years ago, and initially was using it as an internal communications device in DCU, but then in fact it was picked up by the media," he says. "To cut a long story short, the readership grew, and I became aware of its power as a tool of communication."

Now principal and vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, von Prondzynski is passionate about the potential for blogs and technology to transform academic engagement with students.

"It would be fair to say that academic institutions have been slow to pick up on social media. But my view is that we have to take it seriously because students do. Students have moved away from email, they do their communications via Facebook, they're increasingly reading and writing blogs. It seems to me that if universities are serious about being at the cutting edge of media, we have to be serious about engaging with these forms of communication."

If von Prondzynski was among the first academics to gain a wide blog audience here, he has been joined by numerous others, particularly in the field of economics - a sign, perhaps, of a population desperate to gain fresh perspective on some pressing issues.

Prof Karl Whelan, the UCD economist who is one of the academics involved in the influential Irish Economy blog, began blogging for exactly this reason. "I wasn't particularly attracted to it at first, I was contacted by Philip Lane [TCD economics professor and Irish Economy founder] in late 2008. I thought I'd probably be too busy to contribute. I'd read a lot of US academic blogs, and I could see they had a role, but I wasn't sure I had particularly interesting things to say. But through that period, you started to see mad things start to happen, and this is a format that allows you to say what you want, how you want, when you want. If you wanted to make a comment on something in public, I could email The Irish Times and maybe get an opinion piece. But what you want to say might not be of op-ed length, and it might not be aimed at the general public - it's generally assumed that the median reader of this blog has a decent understanding of economics. You can add your two cents to the debate."

The spur to getting involved in the debate echoes Henry Farrell's experience of blogging in the US, particularly among liberal intellectuals.

"It started from an impulse that wasn't entirely dissimilar from yelling at the television," he says. "Which was to say that there were a lot of people on the left in the States who began blogging during the run-up to the Iraq War, effectively, where they felt that this was obviously a deeply insane thing to do, that this was going to end in disaster, but they felt that because the more traditional media was all gung-ho about it, because there weren't any politicians who were prepared to take a stance against it, because nearly all of the commentariat were lined up for it, they started looking for alternative ways to express their frustration. I think from that they built up a community and an alternative view of things, and began to link into the few mainstream people who had similar ideas."

The parallels with the rise of Irish economic blogs are clear. "I wonder whether something similar happened in the Irish economics blogosphere in particular, because you see a lot of people who genuinely believed that the country was descending into lunacy around 2007 and 2008, you saw people like Morgan Kelly enunciating the view that this consensus that politics and indeed the Irish media had perpetrated, was completely false, based on bogus assumptions, ridiculous on the face of it, and we're all facing into disaster," says Farrell. "And so while I look at the Irish Economy blog, and a couple of others who I check occasionally, I get a similar sense, which is to say that they were trying to figure out a way in which they could speak and get across their professional knowledge, but also to articulate points of view which were just not getting much traction among politicians or among the more traditional media either."

Of course, Ireland has a relatively small pool of academics in the first place, and while many have regular mainstream media appearances in the form of newspaper columns, Morning Irelandinterviews or Frontlinedebates - the two modes are not mutually exclusive by any means. Prof Brian Lucey of Trinity's business studies department is an enthusiastic user of social media, and also maintains a high profile in traditional media.

"Mostly what I use [my blog] for is expanding on any journalism I do. I have a fortnightly column with the Examiner but I find that the blog gives me an opportunity to take a longer perspective, include hyperlinks and so on," he says. "The journalism side is absolutely essential to being a professor of the social sciences, spreading your ideas to the public - who pay a chunk of your wages, remember. If you think back to the late 19th century, it was expected that senior academics would engage as public intellectuals. But even if we weren't being paid out of the public purse, we should do that. If you become a professor of something, you should 'profess' it. Irish universities have been slow to recognise the power of public intellectualism of their staff. They should encourage their staff to go out more and engage more outside the academy."

For Prof Whelan, the blog acts as a conduit for getting his perspective into traditional media: "It gives a route into the broadcast media in a way that wasn't so clear before - the various producers read the Irish Economy, so they're introduced to a variety of names that they wouldn't know about before. That's one element. Another element is that you can write something on a blog and somebody can ring you up from Drivetime and they ask you to make the point [ON AIR]."

This illustrates a big strength of the academic blogosphere - providing a relatively easy way for academics to engage with the general public and test their ideas outside the academy, especially in an environment where academic debate risked becoming too insular.

"Most academics are trained to talk only to other people in their own specific niche," says Farrell. "They're not trained to talk to the broader public, they find themselves uncomfortable in doing that, and very often aren't very good at doing that."

Dan Drezner, a professor of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts, echoed this point in a paper, Public Intellectual 2.0, in which he pointed out that "as academics have focused more on writing for other academics, many have lost the ability and/or the interest to write for a more general audience". Blogs, he suggested, were capable of rectifying that imbalance.

Unfortunately, Drezner suspects he fell foul of his high-profile blogging when the University of Chicago denied him tenure in 2006 - Drezner and many others wondered whether his blogging had played a part in the decision, a kind of intellectual and institutional snobbery in action.

In a forthcoming book examining just this issue, The Ivory Tower and the Open Web, Dan Cohen of George Mason University points out the "subtle and widespread biases that hinder the academy's adoption of new media".

"The web and the academy are not doomed to an inevitable clash of cultures," he writes. "Viewed properly, the open web is perfectly in line with the fundamental academic goals of research, sharing of knowledge and meritocracy."

The academy, then, is only gradually adjusting to the notion of blogs complementing traditional forms of academic publishing, rather than threatening to supplant them. As Prof Beard puts it, "Blogs are good for blogging, it's fun, it spreads some useful words, it can make a bit of a difference occasionally. Let's not confuse that with writing academic articles. It would be an awful world in which blogs got 'above themselves'."

The applications of academic blogs aren't confined to engaging with the general public - Lucey has used the format for some of his classes.

For one of his third-year undergraduate classes, he asks that they set up a blog and write a series of properly researched posts on a series of topics, adhering to the same standards as a conventional essay but taking advantage of the form by including links to relevant articles and papers. In the lecture theatre, you can see why Lucey is such a natural media personality, across blogs and Twitter and TV - he's an effortlessly enthusiastic and intuitive communicator. But, asking the students afterwards about their blogging habits, it's clear that Twitter and Facebook have superseded the blog for the younger generation. What makes the blog such a suitable platform for engaging with complex ideas - the lack of a fixed length, a comments system for instant "peer review", and so on - are antithetical to the inherent brevity of the tweet and Facebook status update, which make a virtue of their very evanescence.

What about Farrell's 2005 "State of the Blogosphere" address in the Chronicle of Higher Education - has his optimism been borne out in the intervening years?

Considering it now, Farrell tempers his initial enthusiasm. "I gave a very optimistic portrayal of it, and I think some of this optimism has turned out to be justified, I think that it still is a fabulous way to swap ideas and arguments and all of these things," he says. "But I think also the idea that I had that this was going to become a more generalised phenomenon hasn't happened and probably isn't going to happen."

To a degree, that generalised phenomenon is happening on Twitter and Facebook instead, and yet there's a reason Twitter is described as a micro-blogging site - new forms of social media are rising on the foundations built by the blogosphere. And it is precisely the foundational characteristics of blogging - the flexibility, the accessibility, the inclusivity - that means it will continue to act as a critical forum for fresh thinking and the exchange of ideas for a long time to come.