In the wake of what Mark Bauerlein has called “The Riley Affair,” the academic blogosphere has gotten a little testy. That was evident during the affair itself, as a number of commenters on both sides of the debate showed themselves to be something less than civil. And the bad vibes continued for days afterward, affecting even those of us who were writing about other things entirely.
Consider, for example, a couple of responses to my blog post entitled “The Lump,” which went up on this site more than a week after Riley’s now-infamous first post on the value of black-studies programs. I was writing about a type of administrator well-known to most of us–the type that tries to get by without making decisions, whether out of sheer laziness or fear that any decision will be the wrong one. This administrator doesn’t do much, either for good or ill; he or she is simply there. Hence the term, “the Lump.”
The majority of readers who responded said that, yes, they certainly recognized this type. A few accused me of administrator-bashing. But two responses in particular caught my attention, because their level of vitriol seemed totally out of proportion to anything I said, as if I had attacked them personally. (And who knows? Maybe I did.)
One began by stating, “This is the most asinine piece I have read in the CHE in quite some time” and concluded by calling me “a fool.” The second described the post as “misguided, puerile, and unnecessary,” then posed the following question: “What kind of contribution do you imagine yourself to be making to academe, in general, or to your readers?”
That last response got me thinking once again about a question I’ve been pondering off and on for some time, at least since I started blogging on this site over a year ago: As a blogger, what am I contributing? Or to put it another way, what exactly is a blog post?
From numerous comments on my posts and others, it’s apparent that some readers wish to hold blogs to the same scholarly standards as peer-reviewed journals. But that’s a ridiculous expectation. Blog posts are clearly not scholarly articles. For one thing, they’re not peer reviewed (except after the fact, in the comments section, which is an important point). Authors don’t spend nearly as much time on blog posts as they do on articles, nor do posts have the same payoff or earn the same degree of respect in the academic world. Most bloggers don’t even list their posts on their CV’s, because they know their colleagues won’t consider them to be of any value when making decisions about hiring, promotion, or tenure.
Why then would we insist on holding posts to journal standards, in terms of depth and breadth of scholarship? It seems to me that we’re trying to have it both ways.
A blog post is typically much shorter and much less formal than an article. It’s likely to be subjective rather than objective, more opinionated than empirical. For many bloggers, it’s a form of thinking out loud, of trying out ideas that may later develop into more thoroughly researched columns or articles. Blogging represents a unique opportunity to put one’s thoughts out there, even if–maybe especially if–they’re not fully developed, in order to see what kind of response they get and uncover glaring weaknesses. A fellow blogger once described one of my posts as a “riff,” which I think is an apt metaphor because it gets at what I see as the true nature of blogging: popular rather than classical, improvisational rather than meticulously planned, spontaneous rather than deeply considered.
That doesn’t mean the blogger can just say anything he or she wants, utterly without regard for truth, evidence, or decency. A blog post is still (usually) an argument, and every argument ultimately stands or falls based on the quality of the evidence presented.
But more than anything else, a blog post is intended to be a conversation starter. Whatever you may think about Riley’s position, or the way that she expressed it, she did stimulate an important conversation about the nature of, and the role of, black-studies programs in the contemporary academy. Thoughtful proponents and opponents alike were forced to consider their own positions and hone their arguments. Is there not significant value in that?
My purpose here is not to defend Riley, what she said, or how she said it. Rather, the contribution I imagine myself to be making is to encourage readers of blog posts, in The Chronicle and elsewhere, to eschew personal attacks in favor of joining the conversation, even entering the fray, in the intellectual sense. Because another important characteristic of blog posts is that they are a uniquely interactive literary (or quasi-literary) form, which can only be considered together with the responses they elicit.