Professorial blogging: professors use online forum to expand scholarly discussion

Assistant professor Henry Farrell talks about politics to more than 9,000 people every day. But he’s not running for office or teaching a class – he’s a political blogger at GW.

Farrell, who teachers political science and international affairs, is one of several professors who regularly contribute to online Web logs – known as blogs – that reach worldwide audiences. Many professors like Farrell are now taking advantage of blogging technology because it gives them an opportunity to voice their opinions about a variety of current issues to vast online audiences.

Blogs written by professors that focus on academic disciplines such as law, political science and higher education are often called “academic blogs.”

“There were a lot of things I was interested in and wanted to write about that I couldn’t write about in an academic journal,” said Farrell, who co-founded the academic blog Crooked Timbers in 2003. “It’s a different kind of writing and it reaches a different kind of audience.”

Crooked Timbers, which has 15 contributors, highlights recent political issues and nearly 10,000 people read it every day, he said.

“There isn’t any hard-and-fast separation between academic blogging and blogging as a whole,” Farrell said. “I would think that many (professors) are more likely to blog about academic subjects, but not all of them.”

Orin Kerr, an associate professor of law, writes for a law blog called The Volokh Conspiracy, which was rated the 100th most-read blog by Technorati magazine in 2006.

“Blogging broadens the audience for academic ideas,” Kerr wrote in an e-mail. “If I write a scholarly article tucked away in a law journal, maybe 200 people might read it over the course of a year. But if I take the same idea and write it up as a blog post … around 10,000 people will see it in a single day.”

Daniel Solove, creator of the law blog Concurring Opinions, said that blogs are more convenient, but are not a substitute for scholarly journals.

“I don’t think it replaces a journal article because it’s a different audience,” Solove said. “It’s designed to be consumed somewhat like a newspaper article in a way, whereas a journal article or a book can make a lasting impression and really develop an article more robustly.”

Margaret Soltan, an English and human sciences associate professor, created a blog in 2003 called University Diaries that critiques the American university culture.

“I was struck by things at universities that seemed to be operating wrong,” said Soltan, who receives about 700 visitors a day to her blog. “And I wanted to think of ways that I could contribute to make American universities better.”

Since creating her blog, Soltan said she has received increased attention from media outlets such as The Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. Soltan was recently quoted on the front page of The Post in an article about sexuality in U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb’s novels.

“These things would simply not have happened without the blog,” said Soltan, referring to her appearances in the media. “And I think starting a blog was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Assistant Director of Media Relations Matt Lindsay, who is often called by news organizations looking to speak with GW professors, said that blogs sometimes help him isolate professors who are comfortable voicing their opinions with large audiences.

“Faculty members who think they have an opinion that’s worthy and valid that they want to share with the outside world … are more likely to have a blog,” Lindsay said.

Scott Jaschik, editor of the online magazine Inside Higher Ed, said that academic bloggers often receive a lot of attention because they naturally prompt discussion.

“In higher education and politics and law, part of what you’re trying to do is attract attention, shape debate and make a name for yourself,” Jaschik said. “These are fields where debate is part of the action, so (blogs) allow people who might not otherwise be having a national audience to have one.”

Several professors said that students read their blogs, and this promotes insightful discussion outside of class.

“I’ve gotten to know my students much better just by seeing their comments on my blog,” Soltan said.

Farrell said that although students read his blog, he is careful not to bring his political opinions into the classroom.

“I would prefer that (my political opinions) not enter into the classroom,” Farrell said. “So that students who feel uncomfortable with these opinions don’t view them as part of the classroom experience.”

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