In the age-old debate over who is the greatest 19th-century American novelist, Herman Melville or Mark Twain, my vote is for Twain. (And if you’re wondering what this has to do with blog posts, please bear with me.)
Here’s my reasoning: Even if we stipulate that Melville was an A-plus intellect and Twain was only an A-minus, the fact remains that hardly anybody ever reads Melville, whereas nearly everyone has read Twain. (I know this because I ask my literature students every semester, “How many of you have read Moby-Dick?” One hand goes up. “How many of you have read Huck Finn?” Three-fourths of the hands go up.)
That being the case, I would argue that even if Melville was the better writer, no one reads him, so what’s the point? Comparatively, how much practical good has he done for humanity? Twain, by contrast, wrote in such an accessible way that he still influences millions.
No doubt my learned colleagues will regard that as a very pedestrian point of view, but it’s the way I tend to look at things. And that brings me back to blog posts and other online “publications.” However widely read or disseminated they may be, what are they truly worth in the academic universe?
Before I go on, I should point out that I don’t really have any skin in this game. As a community-college professor, I don’t have to “publish or perish.” I am tenured and, under my college’s current rules, have received my last promotion. I have zero pressure to publish at all, much less to seek out “more prestigious” outlets for my work. I write about issues that interest me, for an audience that I believe might share those interests, and blogs like this one constitute the perfect venue.
At the same time, I don’t list these posts on my CV or my annual report because I understand that the answer to the question posed above—what are blog posts worth in the academic universe?—is “not much.” Ironically, the same powers-that-be that are trying to force online education down our throats, telling us “it’s just as good as face-to-face,” seem to balk at the idea of recognizing online publishing as “just as good.”
But is that fair? Again, it doesn’t matter to me personally. But there are a lot of professors out there who are very well known bloggers, and who as such have a great deal of influence within their specific fields or even throughout higher education—and, in some cases, beyond it. And I bet most of them don’t include blog posts on their CVs either, for the same reasons I mentioned above.
But let’s pause for a moment to consider a rhetorical question: Which ultimately does more good—an article or monograph that is read by 20 or 30 people in a very narrow field, or a blog post on a topic of interest to many (such as grading standards or tenure requirements) that is read by 200,000? What if the post spurs hundreds of comments, is debated publicly in faculty lounges and classrooms, and gets picked up by newspapers and Web sites across the country—in other words, it helps to shape the national debate over some hot-button issue? What is it worth then?
My argument is not that learned monographs have no value (of course they do, whether widely read or not), or that blog posts are somehow superior as “scholarship” (of course they’re not), but simply that we might be selling online publications short if we assume they’re worthless purely because they’re online.
I hope the day will come when academic bloggers feel free to list their more influential posts on their CVs, and when promotion-and-tenure committees evaluate those entries on their merits instead of dismissing them out of hand.