Today I was interviewed by a reporter from the Baylor student newspaper (aka the “Baylor Lariat”) about a teaching award that I recently received from the American Risk and Insurance Association. Once we got beyond the particulars of the award itself, much of our conversation focused on the use of so-called Web 2.0 technologies like blogs and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
I started blogging in 2004, and I have had course websites dating as far back as 1994 when I was a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. Lately, I have also begun to experiment with extending the reach of my personal and course blogsites using social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. I became interested in using social media when I realized that a couple of (open source) WordPress “plug ins” exist which automate the publishing of blog content to these various other networks. It remains to be seen whether this is a worthwhile experiment. When I first opened a Twitter account this past spring, I didn’t get it at all. It seemed like a colossal waste of time, since a large share of Twitter’s traffic can be arguably classified as “pointless babble”. However, I have since realized that it may actually be an effective alternative to RSS as a way to publicize one’s blogsite, particularly with students, many of whom prefer using Internet-enabled cellphones over computers. If this experience works (by enhancing “mindshare” with students and other interested parties such as news media and colleagues at other universities), then I’ll continue using it. If not, then I’ll pull the plug on it.
We (the Lariat reporter and me) also discussed how “enlightened” academic institutions are when it comes to faculty use of blogs. I am impressed that my university provides WordPress support, although I am not aware of the extent to which my faculty colleagues use blogs or course websites for that matter. My sense is that blogging is perceived by many academics as an unproductive activity, and it certainly can be to the extent that it distracts one from pursuing research leading to publication in peer-reviewed journals. There are some fairly well known cases where it appears that blogging may have been a factor in tenure denials; e.g., Daniel Drezner’s tenure denial from the University of Chicago Political Science Department in 2005. However, even Dr. Drezner admitted at the time that “Any decent social scientist must allow for multiple causes, so it’s not necessarily an either/or question. At the moment, I simply lack the data to confirm or deny any explanation”. My sense is that there is now much broader acceptance of blogging in academic environments than there was in 2005, although I have no way to prove this conjecture (I can’t help wonder whether anyone has attempted to empirically study this question in a rigorous fashion). For further discussion of this issue, I recommend Dani Rodrik’s blog postings entitled “Does blogging have an academic downside?” and “Scholarship vs. bloggership”.