When the International Studies Association attempted to regulate the blogging activities of some of its members, the reaction was unsurprisingly hostile. The row has prompted coverage in academic outlets and mainstream publications, and reignited the debate about why academics blog.
Specifically, the leadership of the ISA, its executive committee, had proposed that the various individuals responsible for editing the ISA’s publications would have to cut ties with any and all blogs. The language attached to this proposal contained a very negative and mostly outdated view of blogging. The idea was that blogging is somehow contrary to professionalism.
Why all the noise? A few reasons stand out. First, universities, grant agencies and even governments increasingly expect scholars to reach out beyond the academic community and translate their jargon-filled work into shorter, clearer messages to the public and relevant communities, such as policy makers.
Blogging is ideal for this. Indeed, there has been much progress made in this effort. The Monkey Cage is a group of political scientists who have become so adept in this act of translation that they are now attached to the Washington Post.
Second, those that edit the ISA’s journals are already making a considerable sacrifice of their time that would otherwise go to teaching, research, and service. Giving up blogging might be a sacrifice too far, as many scholars now rely on blogging not just to share their research, but to stake claims, think aloud and to help with their teaching.
Third, the ISA’s proposal contained a very confused idea of blogging. The possibility of a controversy tainting the ISA is always possible whenever any scholar related to it appears on television or radio, is interviewed by magazines or newspapers, tweets, posts on Facebook, or blogs. The singling out of blogging seemed most strange.
Fourth, blogging, twitter and other social media are particularly useful for those who are not at the commanding heights of academia. Those who have fewer resources or who have been marginalised can use the free resource that is the internet (most major blogging outlets, such as wordpress and blogger are free and easy to learn) to overcome these challenges.
When I started the processes of fighting this proposal, the first individuals that came to my side were those that represent women in the profession as well as those representing the lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer community, those that study the less powerful parts of the world, as well as others who have seen blogging to be a key means by which they can confront the absence of their work from more mainstream debate.
Finally, scholars get very feisty whenever academic freedom seems threatened.
There was much negative feedback via blogs, twitter, email and probably phone calls. As a result, the president of the ISA, Harvey Starr, has asked for the matter to be sent to a committee for consideration.
This is not necessarily the end of the matter, as the proposal will still be discussed by both the executive committee and its Governing Council, a larger group that includes both the executive committee and representatives of the many sections and regions that help to organise the ISA and its annual meeting. It will also be discussed throughout the upcoming ISA conference, taking place in Toronto at the end of March.
Blocking constructive debate
The good news is that this controversy can serve as an opportunity for bloggers, tweeters, and podcasters to educate those who are concerned about the rambunctious nature of internet communications.
The entire episode is laden with irony. The concern that blogging might somehow be contrary to constructive debate has produced a policy that did not reflect a constructive debate. But the ISA’s proposed policy did produce a very constructive discussion in the blogosphere about attitudes to blogging, and about the increased expectations that scholars should be blogging.
The proposed policy has unintentionally helped to foster a community of people who rely on social media in the multiple dimensions of their jobs as professors. That is, teaching, research and service. This newly energised community will be more vigilant in its efforts to fight outdated views about the place of the internet in academia.
To be clear, a small group of people had some legitimate concerns but also some unfortunate misconceptions and little experience. With so much push-back, they realised how much social media has become essential to the business of researching and teaching international affairs. They had to back down and now propose sending the issue to a committee where it might not ever escape. The next steps must to be encourage and promote greater, not less, engagement of scholars beyond the academy.