Thursday, January 13, 2011

How weblogging affects the academic ecosystem

How weblogging affects the academic ecosystem

The following was written in preparation for WiAOC 2007: Webheads in Action Online Convergence, online conference May 2007. It was accompanied by a chat which can be accessed through WiaOC or Tapped In. This introduction appeared at but was restored here in 2011. -Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale IL USA 62901-4518.


I'm not sure where I first heard the term "ecosystem" associated with the academic world, but it stuck in my mind as a metaphor worth exploring. I use it here not as a reference to a system thrown off balance, endangered by new and unexpected threats, but as a reference to a system constantly making adjustments to adapt to new and unexpected conditions. Blogging and the phenomenon of personal publishing in fact arrived and made it easy for virtually anyone to establish a media outlet, do a reasonably good job at it, and publish opinions on everything, from their profession to their daily routine. The effects of personal publishing on the world of politics are probably most apparent and most commented on, but the phenomenon continues to alter other landscapes as well, including that of academia.

Obviously, academics can use weblogs in many ways, including privately, or, in a way I am more familiar with, using them to draw language (ESL, in my case) or other students into active participation in a community of readers/writers (Leverett 2007). A wide variety of people are attracted to the idea of personal presentation of themselves, their ideas and research in the online media, starting perhaps with those who have the least to lose, but including tenure-track professors, beginning writers, and others for whom truly free speech could be a very risky venture. Here I'm not so much interested in those who slander their employers, or even vent in such a way that, if they had thought about it, they would know they'd be fired; this seems obvious. I'm more interested in the fact that, by setting up a direct relationship with the public, an academic has cut out a middleman in a traditional arrangement by which the academic institution controls the image and the public presentation of professors and their work. It is not surprising, then, that there would be a backlash against blogging and its adherents, and that it would be more complicated than simply a power play driven by protection of the image of the academy itself.

I should state from the start that my own weblog is a sleepy place, about ten visitors a day, mostly unpublicized, and has failed to attract much attention from the administration at my university, who by and large have much bigger problems to deal with. I have restricted it to serious thoughts about language theory, learning theory, and professional activities in TESOL and related to the trade, though I did notice that when I delved into the World Cup at one point, it attracted some notice from a small community of local fans, many of whom knew I was there all along. Nevertheless I'm attracted by its potential, and, from reading, have noticed that other academic bloggers have reflected the same positive feelings about what it has done for them. It expands your faculty conference room; it gives you the benefit of professional commentary from people who are not necessarily living in the same small town. It allows you the benefits of explaining yourself, and the insights that accrue from that process (we often looked forward to national conferences in order to gain the same benefit).

But there is a greater attraction to starting a direct relationship to a public that you are normally shielded from, by the image and the public relations machine of the university. Bloggers have noticed the power of speaking directly to the public:

The ability to speak directly and immediately to the public on matters of one's expertise, and to bring to bear all one's skills to affect the public debate, is new and breathtaking (Cole 2006, par. 4).

It's a power that carries with it a lot of responsibility, since it is the name of your employer in most cases that gives the blogger credibility; yet the blogger by nature is going around the university's image-control machinery.

I want to say, from the start, that I love and respect my host institution; that I have no reason to use blogging or any other method to disrespect them or bring down the power of the administration that has put food on my table for so many years. Every day, as I walk under the clocktower of the bell that serves as a symbol of the university, I am admonished to serve and be useful to my society, and I take this seriously. I have the benefit of having taught language now for over twenty years, in laboratory conditions that are as close to perfect as possible: my students are, for the most part, not distracted by having to make a living, or having to bring up a family while picking up a language at night. They are full-time, well-intentioned, serious students trying to figure out how to learn a language the best. And from this I have learned about not only how to learn a language, but also how languages are made, how we see languages in our minds, how we must alter our perception to see the world in different languages. To me, sharing this experience, directly and with active discussion about the prominent theories of the day (Chomsky, Pinker, Krashen, etc.) is very important- I can't wait for the academic journals, and need a venue to argue out, and iron out, imperfectly stated ideas and hypotheses about what I see. I recognize blogging as informal, lively, crisp and enemy-generating- and, so, I embark on this exploration not so much to expose universities as using their power to destroy attention-getting public intellectual figures, but more, to know what kinds of forces bloggers can face when they talk openly and strongly about their work.

The history of academic backlash against bloggers has two landmark events: the refusal of the Univ. of Chicago to grant tenure to economist Daniel Drezner in 2005, which may or may not have been related to his weblog, which had made him a public figure; and the refusal of Yale University to hire Juan Cole, another public-figure weblogger, this time in the field of Middle East studies, which may or may not have been caused by pressure brought to bear on the appropriate committee by people who had read the fine print in his weblog (Leibovitz, 2006).

Finally, I was affected by the death threats and lewd rants directed at Kathy Sierra, a prominent weblogger, only recently, which forced her to give up weblogging entirely. Kathy Sierra is not associated with a university, or up for tenure, but she used her weblog for much the same purposes as the people I care most about: those who study a subject, care passionately about it, and want to communicate directly to the public about it. Backlash against her also wasn't academic in nature - but more a product of the fact that she was a woman, sharp, well-spoken, prominent, and identified clearly by her weblog. In other words, while the universities may be benevolent, may defend the concept of free speech and the free flow of opinion and information from their professors, the public itself is not necessarily benevolent at all, and in fact, certain members of it may even be looking for victims to harass, and using the internet for those purposes.

My thinking on the subject is still evolving. I'm hoping that the WiAOC Conference presentation will offer some ideas to help in the process. So far I've been working on the following hypotheses:

1. Blogging is part of an international trend toward transparency in general, which has brought pressure not only on academic institutions, but also on governments, businesses, and individuals. This phenomenon in general is guided by several principles: first, that transparency is valued by the public, which tends to reward agents of transparency, if only indirectly; second, that those who are more
transparent put back-pressure on those who aren't, so that institutions or individuals that continue to hide information about their true activities, interests, or purposes eventually come under suspicion;

2. That the academic world can be described as a kind of ecosystem, with a power structure (food chain) of delicate interdependence; that researchers and professors, by establishing a direct line of communication with the public, cut out the middleman in the image and knowledge-delivery mechanism, in a way that will ultimately change that ecosystem, and will cause adjustments, if not outright attempts to control it, by universities and their committees that to some degree are
defenders of the status quo.
The university can be seen as constrained by its need to present itself as defender of academic freedom, and freedom of speech, yet the ambivalence of university administrations to what is seen as publicity-seeking is longstanding and precedes blogging.

3. That the academic blogging community by its nature has become a loose confederacy of experts in different fields, with certain characteristics in common; that, because of their interaction with each other, they have more potential to be influenced by each other, and show the benefits of cross-disciplinary influences.

4. That blogging puts a public face on academics who have to some degree become accustomed to the protection of the university and its public image machine; that, by actually creating one's own interaction with the public, a blogger faces not only the adjustment of the university to the new decentralization caused by the personalization of media, but also the adjustment of the public, which, formerly used to directing criticism to the local newspaper or to the secretary of the Chancellor, now finds another representative of the university to open a dialogue with. This last possibility may be the most difficult for the blogger, and may in fact be the most threatening to the university, which may have gotten used to the fact that professors represent the university wherever they go, and whatever they do; but, in the past, this was not always recorded in print archives, forever.

I welcome your comments. I may tone down mine, if they don't sleep well.

*I reiterate that I have no personal experience with this: if my university has tried to control my weblogging, I'm not aware of it; if they see me as publicity-seeking, my impression is that they have much more serious problems to deal with.


Althouse, A. (2006, July 28). Exposed in the blogosphere. from "Can blogging derail your career?" Chronicle Review, v52, i47, p.B6. Accessed 5-07.

Chronicle Review (2006, July 28). Can blogging derail your career? Volume 52, Issue 47, p. B6, available Accessed 5-07.

Cole, J. (2006, July 28). Juan R. I. Cole responds, from "Can blogging derail your career?" Chronicle Review, v52, i47, p.B6. Accessed 5-07.

Damrosch, D. (2007, Mar. 9). Trading up with Gilgamesh. Chronicle Review, v53, i27, p. B5. Online, Log-in required. Accessed

Drezner, D. (2006, July 28). The trouble with blogs. from "Can blogging derail your career?" Chronicle Review, v52, i47, p.B6. Accessed 5-07.

Drezner, D. (2006, July 24). The case of Juan Cole. Daniel Drezner weblog. Accessed 5-07.

Leibovitz, L. (2006, June 2). Middle East wars flare up at Yale. Jewish Week Online. Accessed

Leverett, T. (2007, Mar.). Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration. Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL Convention, Seattle WA USA.

Leverett, T. (2006). This is your class on weblogs. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication. Accessed 3-07.

Leverett, T. (2006c). Daring to enter the blogosphere. Includes This is your program: This is your program on weblogs; This is your class: This is your class on weblogs; and This is your brain: This is your brain on weblogs. Prog. Admin. IS, Paper, TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL, Mar.

Leverett, T. (2005). One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum, from Leverett & Montgomerie, Teaching teachers to use and teach with weblogs, Internet Fair, CALL-IS, TESOL 2005, San Antonio, March.

Sierra, K. (2007, Mar.). A very sad day. Creating passionate users weblog.

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2006, July 28). The lessons of Juan Cole, from "Can blogging derail your career?" Chronicle Review, v52, i47, p.B6. Accessed 5-07.

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