July 18, 2007

Professors, Start Your Blogs...

I read with much interest Dan Cohen's post "Professors, Start Your Blogs" (now a year old, but new to me). I appreciated his discussion of the reasons academics might not only want to blog but also justify blogging. He is particularly clear and persuasive about the merits of bringing specialized knowledge, even obsessions (if "properly channeled and focused on a worthy subject"), to a wider audience. The idea of bloggers in well-defined niches becoming "a nexus for information exchange in their field[s]" makes intuitive sense and seems to be borne out by examples, including those he gives. At the same time, he points to what he calls "altruistic reasons" for blogging, reaching out to "an enormous audience beyond academia. . . . I believe it's part of our duty as teachers, experts, and public servants." I agree, but it strikes me that his two kinds of reasons (call them obsession and outreach) are not wholly compatible. The high degree of specialization in academia is one of the main reasons academic research is not particularly accessible, never mind interesting, to broad audiences. My own interest in blogging is motivated largely by a desire to escape or redefine the limits of specialization, not to reproduce them in an alternative medium. Cohen's account of what makes a blog successful exacerbates my ongoing concern, though, that there's not much point competing with thousands of other blogs for readers' attention unless your own site offers something distinctive, some angle or attitude they can't find anywhere else. To use my own blog as an example, I enjoy writing up my latest reading and I find it useful posting about subjects related to my embryonic project on 'writing for readers,' but if my ultimate goal is to provide something that will, in Cohen's words, "frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value," I'm going to need to narrow, or at least define, my focus--ideally, in a way that still satisfies my desire to get out of the ivory tower and into a wider conversation.

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