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why I blog/tweet

25 April 2011

I usually blog in the dark (taken with my field-worn MacBook Pro)

Just yesterday, a student of mine wrote a blog post in which he reviewed a book: The New Harvest by Calestous Juma. If you follow the link to the post, you’ll see that Calestous Juma engaged in the conversation with my student, John Travis — and it’s a very thoughtful exchange.

John’s interaction with Calestous did not happen by accident. You see, John is taking a “directed studies” course with me this semester. We agreed before the semester on a set of books he would read and review. I asked that he start a blog and post his book reviews there. (He’s gone further than that, blogging about the project he’s working on in the DRC, some insights about international development at the micro level, and how he just got malaria.) When I saw that he had posted his review of Juma’s book, I tweeted to Juma about it:

Juma retweeted my tweet and then posted a few of his own about the review, saying it was the first student review of the book (to his knowledge):

It was then that Juma began to comment on the blog and start a conversation with John.

Sure, much of this is a testament to a gracious scholar who took the time to consider a student’s review of his book. But what if John didn’t have a blog? And what if I didn’t have a Twitter account (and followed Juma since he joined Twitter with the launch of his book)?

I’ve met three great colleagues via Twitter — meaning, I don’t know that I would have met them otherwise. Or, if I waited for some other facilitation of our meeting, it might have taken years (during which time I would have lost out on the many things that came to fruition only because of our meeting — e.g., my invited post on Africa is a Country about Madonna and Malawi).

There was a recent post in The New York Times about the “academic blogger.” Precisely because I wouldn’t put haba na haba anywhere in the same universe as The Volokh Conspiracy in terms of its productivity/reach/following, I think the NYT post missed an opportunity to talk about the academic blogger upstarts. There are many of us assistant professors out there who are blogging about our work (and sometimes our lives) to get a greater reach than the other academics that read the papers we have written for peer-reviewed journals. Maybe we thought at least our moms would read what we had to say (and then stop nagging us to call more) — even Chris Blattman didn’t expect at the end of his second year blogging how many would be following. Sharing why he blogs, he made a good case for the academic blogger:

First and most important, I like blogging. That is probably reason enough. I like sharing ideas, hearing opposing views, inspiring students and, maybe if I’m lucky, shifting the views of a policymaker or two. I don’t have the time to advise all the students I’d like, or harangue policymakers one by one. The blog is a technology, one that makes me orders of magnitude more productive.

Some almost-bloggers worry for their academic careers. I think the days are over when a blog imperils the junior faculty member. On the contrary, if you can keep it professional, I think the opposite is now true.

In response, Owen Barder posted:

I started to blog because I wanted to stand up and be counted on the things I think are important. Because I work at home on my own most of the time, blogging lets me get things off my chest without bothering my long-suffering partner about every issue.

These are all good reasons for academics to blog. And, with these, I add that we should encourage our students to blog as well. There are some great student bloggers out there (i.e., Rachel Strohm — and Texas in Africa started blogging while a student), and students have fresh perspectives and new ideas. Sometimes these ideas need some kicking around — and that is precisely the reason they should be broadcasted, so that feedback can reshape and strengthen those ideas.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 April 2011 8:03 am

    There was more to this exchange than just the review. I found that John and I shared another interest: how to leverage African militaries to contribute to Africa’s development. This is a senstive topic that often invokes more emotion and less reason. I have been looking out for people willing to put history and prejudice aside and look at the subject from a pragmatic perspective. John happens to be working on the topic and so can offer informed views. He is now in contact with a former student of mine who wrote a final year paper on the topic looking at the example of Senegal.

    But more importantly, I consider it an honor for a student to review my books. Equally important is the fact that John wasn’t writing from a library in Texas. He was on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He might have something to say about this claim in a recent review of “The New Harvest”: “The book’s sense of optimism appears to be driven less by the changes taking place in rural Africa than by the conversations taking place around Boston, Massachusetts, where the author is based.”

    • 25 April 2011 9:27 am

      I don’t know what John might say, but I can say that most of the Afro-optimism I’ve ever seen comes from folks who have spent a good chunk of time on the continent. On the other hand, much of the Afro-pessimism I’ve heard usually comes from folks who have their conversations in corridors of power — whether in Cambridge, MA, or the Cambridge across the pond.

    • 25 April 2011 9:29 am

      and P.S.: it’s great to be in conversation! I’m glad you connected to John. Folks here at A&M are looking at multiple avenues for development, trying to be objective about what works and putting aside politics where possible.

  2. 28 April 2011 1:22 am

    I am always surprised by how much pessimism can be discounted by accurate fact-keeping and real-world experience. A silly but relevant example: people often make sweeping assumptions about the capabilities of student athletes in the American collegiate system. This group is frequently labeled as lazy, ill-prepared, and/or incompetent. However, real-world experience yields contradictory assessments. Student athletes, like any other segment of the student body, cannot really be summarized into such absurd categories. Thus athlete-pessimism, like Afro-pessimism, is rarely in-touch with reality.

    Interesting to see how blogging is becoming a new-frontier for academics. Perhaps the merit of student blogging is that it inspires/allows us to externalize the discussions that happen behind closed doors (and by that I mean behind the closed doors of student lounges).


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