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22.4.03

Matt Yglesias has a post about the perils of blogging while seeking tenure at a university. He says that blogging can easily be seen by tenure committees as a distraction from real academic writing. So maintaining a blog puts junior faculty at risk, because people can point to their blog as evidence they're not being as productive academically as they could. I think this sort of thing (which I think is a real concern, especially if blogging continues to grow) is a symptom of academia's bias toward academic writing. One of the best sessions I went to at the AAG conference was on writing for the public. It's a subject near and dear to my heart as a blogger and journalist. The participants in the session agreed that writing for the public gets no respect from your academic peers. This is an especially big problem for research paradigms such as feminism that stress the involvement of the people you're researching in the process. Any writing that you do for them -- such as to communicate your results in a language and format they understand -- has to be in addition to your quota of articles and books for academic audiences. But why should, say, a column in the New York Times -- which reaches thousands of people -- count for nothing compared to a report in the Journal of Arid Lands Management, which reaches a few hundred people? In my mind, academia derives its legitimacy from public support. In some fields, like the hard sciences, it's understandable that researchers would engage in conversation mostly among themselves. Quantum physics isn't something most lay people can understand, and so the public is right to allow a sort of elitist technocratic approach to research. But in the social sciences, the reflexivity of the research -- we're researching ourselves -- and the social and political implications of our findings seem to indicate a good case for public communication. Archaeologists working with Native Americans, and environmental hazard managers, have both found that their work is better on its own merits, more accepted by the public, and more effective in helping the world, when they communicate openly with lay people. So why should the academy give less credit to, say, talking to a community group than to an article in Risk Analysis saying that we should talk to community groups?

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