Blogging about blogging

A local reporter contacted the School recently asking about the state of blogging at the university.  I ended up writing a long email in response, which I thought might be interesting to share.  There were three main points I tried to make:

– Blogs can be a great way for university faculty and staff, engaged in both research and teaching, to get ideas “outside the Ivory Tower” — and to get feedback on those ideas from the blog-reading public.  Two main pressures keep us from doing more of this, I think: (1) the time it takes to produce bite-sized but well-reasoned blog pieces on a consistent basis while we’re working on the research, teaching, and service projects that are formally required for retention, promotion, and tenure; (2) an apprehension (“fear” is probably too strong a word) of putting out interesting but not-fully-baked ideas before a public in a way that might invite more hostile criticism than constructive criticism, especially in blogs which allow anonymous commenting.  For better or for worse, in the decade or so since blogging began to spread widely, blogs have taken on a reputation for partisan shouting. Clearly that’s not the sort of image we want to portray when we wade into the blogosphere, so we have to take extra time and care to present an alternate model for that kind of conversation.  That said, I think this is precisely the reason that it’s important that we do so.

– Collaborative blogs, I think, are the best model for the UW to encourage.  I have a blog were I work through some research ideas in cooperation with, at the moment, a whip-smart former graduate student of mine.  Her contributions have helped to energize my own thinking in what would otherwise be one of those mostly-stale blogs out there.  ( Another collaborative blog I know of from my colleague in the Geography department, Kris Olds, has fed directly into some important research on global knowledge production and higher education. (  Finally, my own School of Journalism & Mass Communication has just started its own collaborative blog (at the good suggestion of our alumni Board of Visitors) which I hope can grow over the Spring 2010 semester into a nice forum for discussion and debate. (  (It’s just me talking there right now … it can take some time to roll these things out and build an audience of both readers and writers!)

– The hidden power of blogs at UW, I think, is their use in teaching.  I’ve used public weblogs both in small 12-person graduate seminar courses and in large 400-student undergraduate survey courses. They present students with a public space to voice and wrestle with ideas from our courses, and because they are potentially visible to the whole wide world, I think they help students bring a certain serious and creative voice to their work.  We’ve had authors of course readings respond to students on these blogs — a New York Times reporter once weighed in on our reading of one of his articles, and Joe Trippi, former Howard Dean campaign strategist, commented on our critique of his book “The revolution will not be televised.”  Students were, to say the least, surprised and delighted by these serendipitous public connections to their classroom work.

We should remember, though, that the blog-reading public is not the whole public, nor is it a representative cross-section of the whole public.  (About 25% of the US public is still not “online” even today.)  We still need to work on getting ideas out  to the general public through more traditional means of broadcast (TV and radio), print (books and magazine articles), free and open campus events, and talks where we leave campus and go out into the state.  I think we do a good job reaching folks through TV and radio, largely due to the skilled professionals at Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio who combine their own public service mission with our own.  And many of our faculty publish books and magazine articles written in a serious but accessible voice that earn a wide readership and are available in popular bookstores across the nation (I like to think I’m included in this to a tiny degree, but our faculty member Deborah Blum is a perfect example of this).  So I hope that we don’t ever consider blogs an easy “technological fix” to the more complicated and ongoing responsibility of engaging in a serious two-way conversation with all of our stakeholders in the state, and the world, outside of the campus.  (After all, that’s the venerable Wisconsin Idea.)

Any reactions from our own blog readers and writers?