What Scholars Should Do

Scholar-type people and academics often frustrate me. There’s a picture I love that hangs in the law library where I used to work; I’d push book trucks by it most everyday. In the picture a wizened old African-American man is outfitted in well-used work gear and he’s got his hand out offering something to the viewer: a small white pillar shaped object. The caption is “Ivory Tower.” The way that I interpret the watercolor is that those who “make it” into academia never get there on their own. Yes, it takes tremendous sacrifice from family (that’s a whole series of posts by itself…) but there are hundreds of thousands of others who make it possible as well from the great philanthropists down to the share-croppers.

As a result, we have an obligation. We’re not sitting around thinking great thoughts for our own sake even though that’s how so many of us seem to act. We study and think in order to advance human understanding in all realms for and on behalf of all. Even if our work is arcane and abstract, I have a conviction that we have to share what of it we can for wider consumption, for the benefit of those who have enabled us to do what we do.

Many of us don’t take this seriously. Furthermore, many of us can barely string together a sentence about our work coherent to those outside of our discipline—and that’s just wrong… As I see it, that’s one of the reasons why academics should be blogging. People like Mark Goodacre and Richard Nokes (among others) have the right idea; blog about academic topics and subjects in ways that are accessible and meaningful to the rest of life on the planet that doesn’t care—or perhaps doesn’t know why they should care—about the minutia of our fields.

Here’s another thing scholars should be doing: Wikipedia edits. What sparked this post was the discovery of a well-done entry on Latin Psalters. As more and more people start relying on things like Wikipedia for information, scholars of various fields need to step up and make sure that the data is right. (And yes, you can debate about whether people should rely on these sources of information but that debate is secondary to the fact that they do.)

Of course, now that I’ve said all of this, I realize that I have my own civic duty to do… The page currently states that Jerome’s Roman Psalter was used in “Britain ” until the Conquest. While it is true that editions of the Roman Psalter were in use and were copied until the Conquest, the majority of Anglo-Saxon era psalters were Gallican…

14 thoughts on “What Scholars Should Do

  1. Anastasia

    I agree. At the same time, I have to admit I almost never read blogs like the ones you note here. blogs about academic topics, accessible or not, just don’t interest me. If I don’t read them, i can’t imagine writing one. but then I supposed I’m not the intended audience. and i don’t harbor any illusions that the general public is particularly interested in my dissertation topic.

    I do really agree about wikipedia. there’s a woman at church who keeps telling me there’s a certain article I should fix. she’s right. I should.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    I’m not pretending that most people will be interested in most dissertation topics. By definition they’re *supposed* to be obscure. The point is less about regular reading and more about googlability. If a regular person wants more information on a topic, the more general comments there are from reputable scholars the more likely a person is to find them.

  3. Michelle of Heavenfield

    Actually, you are more likely to find people interested in your dissertation online than in daily life. Virtually everyone I know who shares my medieval interests I’ve met online and virtually no one I see daily gives a hoot.

    Well, Derek, you know you have given yourself a call for us to hear much more about Aelfric or as I like to think of him, Elf King… :-)

  4. mother m

    I agree with your post on what scholars should do. I know I would be more likely to read blogs if they wrote academic stuff in an acessible and meaningful way. Are you up to the challenge? While some of your stuff is written that way, a majority of it is not. I would definately read the blog more and actually add real comments if you did that. Good luck!

  5. Richard Scott Nokes

    Thanks for your kind words, Derek. In defense of non-blogging academics (and, more broadly, academics who do nothing to make their research accessible, such as fixing wiki articles), there are dangers for blogging scholars, but little in the way of benefits.

    Consider this — if someone goes on the academic job market, or up for tenure or promotion at their current job, how much will blogging help them? Not at all, though that rather-boring-yet-well-placed-article-that-no-one-will-ever-read WILL help them. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that blogging can hurt a job search, by offering the impression that the academic has a frivolous approach to his material, or that he’s wasting time better spent doing other kinds of scholarship, etc.

    If you look through the archives of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, you’ll find many articles about the dangers of blogging (ANY kind of blogging, even about your hobbies) for the academic, but no articles I can think of about the benefits of blogging.

    The upshot is this: The system and culture in place for evaluating academic performace treats blogging as at best irrelevant, and at worst a sign of lack of scholarly gravitas. I do my own work DESPITE these pressures, but I’m not sure I would have done so if I didn’t have a few books and articles already on my CV.

    I’m not defending the academic culture that has created this atmosphere, but individual academics sometimes are not in a position to take such risks. After all, when’s the last time the US News college rankings cited a school’s blogging or wiki-editing professors as a reason for high rank?

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Hi Dr. Nokes,

    I seen the articles. And I’m on the job market. Blogging and wiki-work and collaborative sites don’t count for hiring or tenure. Yet.

    Peer-reviewed materials are essential for scholarship to move forward, but but there’s no reason why we can expand where that happens.

  7. Michelle of Heavenfield

    Well, some of the same things were said about electronic journals 10 years ago when we started the Heroic Age. We are still not there but progress is being made. Someone has to be a trailblazer. From what I recall of the early days of the Heroic Age, it tended to be a combination of tenured professors and grad students who were the most involved. Those grad students who published on the HA in the early days did find jobs.

    I would think that blogging would fit in with the study of popular medievalism. ;-)

  8. Jonathan Jarrett

    Firstly I wanted to say that I agree entirely with Derek’s initial idea, about how academics should be paying back. I’ve always felt that this is what we have to do to excuse the fact that someone, often the taxpayer, is funding us to effectively do what we want, at least some of the time. Also, it does the egoheart good to be able to interest someone in what you study, and that’s much more likely if you can communicate it in digestible chunks.

    As for blogging, I too have heard the warnings. I took up the blogosphere mainly because I wasn’t meeting with any success in conventional fields at the time and I was becoming aware of a growing tendency not just in the professional world at large, but in `auxiliary’ parts of the humanities, especially in heritage and conservation, to take blogs as serious evidence of intent to outreach. I was hoping vaguely to demonstrate to enquirers that I was a viable academic despite lack of conventional evidence as yet: I put up my first webpages at the same time for the same reason. Blogs seem to have become professionally acceptable outside academia, though, and I guess I’m hoping, as Derek and Michelle also suggest, that they will break their way inside. By that token, I keep mine very academic, and leave my life out of it. So far I’ve had no reason to suppose that it’s hurt me or hindered me; academics at the hiring level in the UK don’t really use the Internet that way.

    My students, on the other hand, have found me very quickly and been highly impressed that I’ve even heard of Web 2.0… Clearly I look older than I feel :-)

  9. Michelle of Heavenfield

    I’m a little surprised that universities haven’t embraced blogs as ways for students to see their professors and instructors as ‘real people’ with real varied interests. Of course, as Jonathan points out is a way for professors to explain thier research in an easily understandable way. I bet Dr. Nokes students think he is quite cool.

    My university did set up 4-6 blogs on student life by students as a recruiting tool for future students. I bet schools with biggers sports programs also have offical blogs (formerly known as columnists) on their sports program. For that matter, how long before this is another duty for coaches. So why should actual academic pursuits not be part of the trend?

  10. Anastasia

    I don’t much care for scholarly gravitas.

    If all we’re looking for is a google accessible source of general information, you’ve got a much better argument for wikis than for blogs.

  11. Jonathan Jarrett

    The place where I work recently found it was getting hits on its website from a blog that turned out to be where students were required to submit their reports on one particular course on one particular Western US university. That was a course on information science, so only by the broadest stretch a humanity, but it was still a grasp of the sphere I’ve yet to see in the UK in `proper academia’. I blog in hope.

    By the way, when I said `hurt or hindered’ above, I meant `helped or hindered’; I’m pretty sure no high-level academics are aware of my blog to be affected one way or the other.

  12. Derek the Ænglican

    Someday, Jonathan…

    Anastasia, the way Dr. Goodacre talks about it makes sense to me–the blog is for talking out nascent research ideas; the gateway is for directing people to credible resources. I’d thing a healthy blog-wiki combo might function the same way.

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