Academic Blogging

24 07 2005

The philosophy blogosphere has gotten extremely large now (just check out Dave Chalmers’ list of philosophy blogs in the link on the sidebar). There are so many now that there are even relatively well-defined subcommunities, like the collection of logic blogs. But at the same time, it’s become clear that just as philosophy is far ahead of most other academic fields in terms of number of blogs, certain subfields of philosophy seem to be pulling ahead as well. For instance, I often stumble across blogs talking about epistemology or language, but much less often metaphysics.

In other academic disciplines this seems to be repeated. Most of the physics blogs I’ve ever stumbled across have been about string theory. I can’t help but wonder if these concentrations of blogs will reshape the disciplines. (Certainly Brian Leiter and Brian Weatherson are both more well-known than they would be without their online presences, though in both their cases, their target audience is a broad range of philosophers, rather than just epistemologists, or philosophers of language, or logicians, or philosophers of mathematics, or whatever).

Just as prominent females have helped make certain subdisciplines more gender balanced (for instance, Vera Serganova seems to have attracted a large proportion of the female math grad students at Berkeley to her area), I’m sure early-adopting bloggers will have some shape on the way methods of communication develop in certain subfields.

But as academic blogging matures, we’ve got important methodological questions to consider, in addition to these sociological ones. An interesting post I meant to link to a while ago by Anthony Widjaja To suggests some important starting points. Related to those, I’ve often wondered what balance I should have between stating a question most simply and giving enough background information to allow a much larger audience to read. For instance, when I planned my last post, it was going to be two sentences, until I realized that I should probably say what surreal numbers are. But meanwhile, a lot of my posts also react to some book or paper I’ve been reading without much explanation of what the author was actually saying. I’ve been more open to doing that with important papers by figures like Quine and Lewis than recent work in philosophy of mathematics, but I think I’ve also had some discussion of dense papers by Dummett that I can’t assume many people to have read. I think this issue relates quite closely to Anthony’s suggestions for reshaping academic discussions for the blog format.

The more direct inspiration for this post was a suggestion for The Blog as a Sharp Tool for Research by physicist Clifford Johnson at one of those string-theory-ish blogs I mentioned. He suggests an interesting model whereby a blog (or blog-like enterprise) can help focus discussion in a subfield by changing hands periodically, allowing different individuals or groups working on some field to be the host at different intervals. I believe Left2Right and Certain Doubts originally intended to have a function somewhat like this, but based on the natural tendency for some participants in a group blog to post more and some to post less, they’ve ended up being more like much smaller blogs by David Velleman and Don Herzog at L2R, and Jon Kvanvig at Certain Doubts. This new model of giving each person or group a specific period to be in charge seems like it might work better at achieving this end. Also, it will probably encourage more posting about specific breaking research, as each person or group will only have to talk about their own stuff for a small amount of the time, rather than scattering it constantly between posts about smaller thoughts the way it happens on individual blogs. Such a model shouldn’t replace the individual blogs we have, of course, but it would allow for yet another type of discussion. (I should also at least briefly mention the Philosophers’ Carnival started by Richard Chappell, though that serves yet another function, to help more widely circulate the discussions in the large philosophical blogging community, rather than to develop one particular subfield.)

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2 responses

26 07 2005
Peter

I had read Clifford Johnson’s post on “The Blog as a Sharp Tool . . .”, and wondered what is the point of this proposal. It seems to be directed at creating yet another mechanism (in addition to conferences, journal publications, books, web-sites, blogs, and private interactions) for communication between researchers. But why is another such communication mechanism needed?

Perhaps there are differences between those researchers seeking to mould a community — and hence posterity — to their own way of thinking (which I think describes many scientists), and those of us simply seeking to understand something ourselves, for ourselves. I have no need to shape my discipline (computer science) or to have it shaped at all, and I do not seek to so shape it. I communicate with others as much as needed to understand the subjects in which I am interested. Thus, such collaborative community blogging exercises seem entirely unnecessary, and indeed, a waste of effort.

26 07 2005
Kenny Easwaran

I think that the idea described there is less likely to shape a discipline after oneself than a traditional blog is.

The idea seems to be that communication is good for everyone, and having many different forms of communication available allows ideas of different sorts to travel in the most effective way. This idea seems more effective at letting people know what various groups around the world are doing in one subject, whereas a traditional blog just gives you a window into one (or a few) person’s research. Journal publications and books are great for polished work, but very slow. Conferences are a notch less polished and faster. Personal interactions are at the opposite extreme. This idea and blogs seem to fill the space between personal communication and conferences. After all, personal communication is normally restricted geographically. And this way anyone who’s interested can join in, not just the two communicating.

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