Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What is scholarship

Yesterday, I sent a link to my faculty of the "Top 100 Liberal Arts Bloggers." I recognized quite a few of the names and thought that it might make interesting summer reading. I, in fact, billed it as such--like beach reading. I got a response pretty quickly from someone saying that he/she was disappointed that the blogs weren't scholarship and that the list just confirmed that blogs are worthless.

Sigh.

Where do I begin? First of all, I would say that most academic blogs are not written with "traditional" scholarship in mind. If academic bloggers do address their field, they often do so with a lay audience in mind. As Michael Wesch said of his YouTube work, he's reaching millions of people, different kinds of people than he would reach with his work published in an academic journal. In fact, that's why I appreciate certain blogs, like the blogs at Scienceblogs. I get a sense of fields there's no way I would understand if I read the journal articles. Another way that these blogs come at scholarship is by addressing issues in the news. Stories about science or economics can be expanded upon (or corrected) by experts. Is that or isn't that scholarship?

Secondly, there's more to life than scholarship, at least of the detailed kind I think my correspondent meant. Many of the academic blogs I read discuss work-life balance issues, problems within higher education more broadly, issues in their fields of study, politics, and yes, sometimes just plain old stuff. Is there anything wrong with that? Isn't that somewhat interesting and something we should take time to think about? Shouldn't we wrestle with the problems that an antiquated system brings to bear on current faculty? Shouldn't we talk about what education means, what being an academic means, how to have a life and a life of the mind? But that's not scholarship . . .

And so what if it's not. So what if we can definitively say that in no way are blogs ever to be called scholarship? Do faculty not ever read the New York Times, the New Yorker, Harper's, Time, Newsweek, watch the evening news, a movie or two? Are those bad things? Not intellectual enough? Are faculty not allowed entertainment?

I personally think we need to expand what we mean by scholarship anyway. I think we can still say that a certain kind of scholarship needs to be done (maybe), the kind written for the narrow group of people interested in a topic and published in journals reviewed and read by those same people. But I think there's room for much more--critiques of the industry of higher education, discussions of teaching and grading practices, discussions of news or of peer-reviewed articles. I think blogs bring academics out of the ivory tower and I think that's a good thing for both the academics and for the people who read their blogs. It ups the level of public discourse. I feel sorry for those who feel they should remain ensconced in the ivory tower and don't engage with the world. Their work may become increasingly unknown and irrelevant.