Blogging and Academia

It’s been nearly four months since I blogged here last. Sorry about that. Partly it’s because I’ve been busy; such is the nature of grad school. But I’ve also been questioning whether I should blog at all. Is blogging incompatible with my academic endeavors? Do I sacrifice a piece of my academic reputation for every blog post I write? Often I feel like I’m torn between the culture of the internet and that of academia.

Privacy and Credibility

Perhaps the most obvious concern is for my credibility. In undergrad, I didn’t have to worry about this; I could proclaim my opinions as loudly as I wanted without having to fear any consequences. That’s because I didn’t have to interact with anyone in a professional setting. If I talked loudly about my political opinions, say, and someone disagreed, then I could choose not to interact with that person, or he could choose not to interact with me. We could retreat to our filter bubbles, and never have to confront the fact that we didn’t get along. But in a professional setting, one has to interact with all sorts of people from cultures all around the world. So I ask myself, why create opportunities for unnecessary tension by posting my opinions online? Why not save the politics and religion for private gatherings of trusted friends?

But it’s more than just wanting to avoid conflict. I also need to consider my academic reputation. If I write about spiritual experiences online, will that hurt my credibility as a scientist? What if I confess that I view science as a religious endeavor, a spiritual quest that brings us closer to the cosmic forces that guide our lives?

I am fortunate, though. For the most part, I don’t think my spiritual beliefs will harm my scientific reputation, because I belong to an empirical discipline. In an empirical field, it doesn’t matter where my ideas come from, or what they share space with in my brain. The only thing that matters is how well they predict the data. Why use a scientist’s character to evaluate his theories when one can just test them empirically? Furthermore, I study natural language processing, and all of my experience so far suggests that people in this field are incredibly friendly and open-minded, tolerant of strange ideas, and willing to approach even the most politically charged topics with calm rationality. If my field were not so open-minded, I doubt I would have ever started blogging, and certainly not under my real name.

But even supposing that blogging won’t hurt my credibility in NLP, I still think there is cause for concern. I also have to consider how my field is perceived by outsiders, especially outsiders to academia. Right now I’m a lowly grad student, but someday I could be a professor, a public representative of academic and intellectual life. Then all of my opinions could be seen as reflecting on my field. Less dramatically, if I am a professor someday, then I will have to worry what my students can find about me on the internet. With this in mind, I am wary of saying anything too stupid now.

But is it cowardice to want to hide my opinions? Am I betraying the things I believe in by being ashamed to speak of them publicly? Sometimes I think so, but I’m also sympathetic to the argument that one must choose one’s battles. If, as a public academic, I want to argue for unpopular models or philosophical stances, it might be best not to tarnish these things by association with my other ideas.

But isn’t this dishonest? Shouldn’t I put everything out on the internet and trust the intellectual community to use all information available to find the truth? I’ve thought about this question a lot, and alas, I don’t think that’s how truth-seeking works. Even if the academic community could be trusted to filter out and preserve the salvageable components of my philosophy (and perhaps it can), I couldn’t expect the internet to do the same. The internet is not a rational, unbiased place. One wrong move online, and I could fall into the spotlight of public ridicule and be forever associated with something stupid I once said.

Perhaps this is why most academics in my field seem to keep their online presence very professional. Looking at their Google+ pages, for instance, I see discussions of research, enthusiasm over new scientific findings and technological advances, and the occasional article supporting an uncontroversial political opinion. And academics’ webpages often have a “personal life” section describing unobjectionable hobbies. But I rarely see academics write publicly about their deeply-held philosophical or spiritual beliefs, about the innermost forces that motivate them to do research. It could just be that these topics don’t interest people who aren’t me, but I’ve met enough academics who have plenty to say about these things in private that I’m disinclined to believe they’re unusual interests.

It sounds like I’m complaining, but I really don’t mean to criticize anyone. Increased privacy is important in a professional setting. And to some extent, there are generational differences at work here; I assume most academics grew up without the internet, and people the people who did grow up on the internet are only just beginning their academic careers. Often, I wonder how the extreme openness of the “internet generation” will interact with the aloofness the professional world requires. I’ve seen some of my friends slowly bury their non-academic identities from public view as they progressed through grad school, and I suppose that to some extent I’ve been doing the same. But when I think about it, I really don’t want to withdraw from online discourse. The internet is such a huge part of my life; to stop writing publicly online would be to cut off many of my closest friendships. Sure, these friends and I do communicate through private channels, but I found many of them through their blogs and forum posts, and some of them found me through my own online writings, and a lot of our interactions center around shared membership in online communities. If I withdraw from this social world out of concerns for privacy, then I will lose one of my main avenues for forming meaningful connections.

In any case, I couldn’t disappear from the internet even if I wanted to. I’ve been leaving trails there all my life; if you google me closely enough, it’s still possible to find embarrassing things I wrote when I was thirteen. So maybe my desire for privacy is hopeless, and the best I can do is bury my old online stupidity beneath my current philosophical opinions, which in turn I will bury with more writings once I decide that my current opinions are stupid too.

Conflicting Communities

So privacy is one of the main reasons I’ve avoided blogging lately. But another reason is that I’ve often felt that the blogging community I’m part of is at odds with the academic system. Sometimes I feel like I have to pick one or the other, and that any loyalty to the blogging community means I am being unfaithful to academia.

It doesn’t seem like this should be the case. After all, blogging is a hobby, and pretty much everyone has hobbies that they do outside of work. But blogging isn’t like knitting or biking or even writing fiction. These activities have different goals from academic research. But the blogging community that I’ve hoped to be a part of shares a goal with academia: both communities try to develop ideas collaboratively. And they do so in dramatically different ways, leading me to think that I can’t do both at once while remaining respectable in both communities.

Academia values depth, while what I will call “internet philosophy” values breadth. From the perspective of academia, internet philosophers are laughably amateurish; they read a couple books on a subject and then formulate grand overarching theories that are easily contested by academics in the relevant field. Internet philosophers dabble, unwilling to engage with a subject for the length of time it takes to understand it thoroughly. As a friend of mine put it, it’s called an “academic discipline” because doing high-quality academic research requires a lot of discipline.

But from the perspective of the internet philosophers, academic fields are hopelessly narrow. Academics tend to zoom in on one tiny little problem so intensely that they lose sight of the world around them. And after studying a field in such detail, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the subtle misconceptions that permeate it; it takes an outsider to suggest a radically new way of doing things. Thus it seems better to look at many different fields and keep the outside perspective.

But this choice between breadth and depth is a false dichotomy. As one of my professors pointed out, there’s a third option: studying two or three academic fields in great depth. Then, the focus is still narrow enough to allow for deep engagement with the subject, but broad enough to confront you with multiple perspectives and keep you from getting trapped in any one field’s way of doing things.

Another contrast I’ve struggled with is that academia is strictly hierarchical, while anyone can contribute to internet philosophy. Within the world of internet philosophy, it’s perfectly reasonable for me to write out grand theories about the workings of the mind, with nary a reference to support my claims. But it would be unspeakably arrogant of me to do so in the context of the academic system, unless I had researched the matter empirically and in great depth. And so I am torn – if I have a small insight that seems like it could be valuable, but which I don’t have time to study more deeply, should I post that idea online? If I did, I could get feedback from people who really do know what they’re talking about. And on the off chance that there’s something to my ideas, someone else could then take them up and explore them in more depth. But I fear that it’s arrogant to write when I really have no idea what I’m talking about.

To some extent, whether or not I am arrogant depends on my writing style when I propose these ideas. If I write with appropriate humility, then there shouldn’t be any problem. But so far, I’ve written all my blog posts in overdramatic internet philosophy style, wording things grandiloquently and claiming to put forth profound new theories. If I want to continue blogging without it conflicting with my academic life, I will have to change my writing style.

A final conflict between blogging and academia is that the two communities often see themselves as actively opposed to each other. Academics dismiss bloggers and their intellectual contributions, while bloggers reject the whole academic system as a useless waste of time. In particular, the LessWrong community seems to value autodidacticism and finding ways to succeed outside of traditional hierarchies and life-scripts. Why bother with an academic degree, they ask, when you can learn the material on your own, for free? A diploma is just a piece of paper, and anyone who cares about them is overly focused on appearances. But then I look at the members of the LessWrong community, and it seems that most members of the LW community struggle to motivate themselves to work. I have met plenty of very intelligent people on LessWrong who have avoided college and are working dead-end jobs at Walmart and despairing for their futures.

Conclusions

After thinking about academia vs. internet philosophy over the past few months, I’ve decided (fortunately, because it pays me) that I prefer the academic system. In general, I just find people in academia so much more admirable: everyone works so hard, and their devotion inspires me to work hard as well. And I like the feeling that, by working in academia, I’m contributing to the larger emergent structure of science and philosophy. I still greatly respect some of my fellow bloggers (especially the ones on my blogroll), but they seem like notable exceptions to the generalizations I made above.

So finally, after four months of avoiding all the online communities I once frequented and instead immersing myself as deeply as possible in the academic life, I am firmly on the side of academia in this “blogging vs. academia” internal debate. This means that I can return to blogging without worrying that I am betraying academia by doing so. My writing style will change a bit (in particular I will try to be less arrogant and presumptuous), and in the interest of privacy I will keep any especially personal details to myself. But for the most part I expect to keep blogging about the same topics I was exploring before.

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7 Responses to Blogging and Academia

  1. When I was a graduate student, I and about eight friends set up a private email discussion group. It allowed us to discuss potentially off-the-wall ideas with colleagues, without restraint, but without fear of damaging our academic reputations by saying things that were stupid or politically unacceptable. This worked extremely well, and I think for most of us was our most important resource in our work—more than our PhD advisors, even.

    Nowadays one could use slightly more sophisticated technology, like a closed Google Group or something.

    • I like this idea, as well as secluded IRC channels and late-night discussions in the lab. Though even with such things, I might still feel an urge to post my ideas publicly online.

      By the way, I’ve enjoyed your recent posts, and I also happened across this a couple weeks ago and have been thinking a great deal about it. I was familiar with the idea of spaciousness, if not by that name, but I was pretty confused about it, and your post gave me the clarity I needed to think more coherently. =) Thanks.

  2. Kaj Sotala says:

    You seem very focused on the potential negatives, while saying nothing about the potential positives.

    Now I don’t personally know exactly what kind of career I’ll be pursuing: it might be in traditional academia, it might be in the private sector, it might be with some non-profit. I’ve even dabbled in politics, though I don’t expect to go back there. Most likely my career will be some weird hybrid of the different possibilities. But I figure that *regardless* of which one of those I end up doing, being noticed by important people in those fields can only be an asset, as it will provide an opportunity to network and collaborate with them. And blogging is one tool by which I can achieve that.

    This seems to work pretty well: I haven’t been blogging about educational games for that long, but talking about the topic in my blog and on Facebook/G+ already earned me one job offer (which I accepted), one invitation to come talk about the topic at a public event (which I turned down, since I didn’t feel like I knew enough about the topic), and several approaches from people possibly interested in creating start-ups around the topic (to which I’ve said maybe, I’ll finish my degree first). Several people have noticed my interest in the topic and sent me relevant links to stuff that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Also, at least one professional in the field felt that the posts that I made were promising enough that he took his time to provide feedback and suggestions on the two most recent ones. Elsewhere, a blogger actually got one of his posts published in an academic journal.

    In addition to the personal benefits, there’s also the civic duty angle. Academics shouldn’t just withdraw to their own worlds where they only debate each other in the safety of specialized journals, leaving the public debate to media pundits rather than public intellectuals. Academic knowledge is supposed to be of benefit to society: if it remains only known by a few academics and never spreads beyond them, it has failed in its purpose.

    I realize that these arguments sound like they mostly apply to blogging directly about one’s field, whereas you were also concerned about the effect of posts not directly related to your discipline. But I do think that they generalize. Even within academia, obscurity is one of your greatest enemies, and one can still get lucky and attract the attention of one of their colleagues by writing about something else. As you said yourself, other academics do seem to be interested in weird unrelated topics as well, even if they only mention it in private. And even when one makes posts that wander outside their own field, their background in their “home field” may allow them to make unique contributions that others wouldn’t have thought of. (Just as long as they don’t become physicists.)

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Also, the conflict between academia and blogging that you describe doesn’t sound really match my experience, given how many science bloggers are academics. Just off the top of my head/RSS subscriptions, I can think of professional academics blogging about anthropology, economics, evolutionary psychology, math, math, philosophy, philosophy… and there are probably thousands more.

    • Thanks for this comment. =) I wasn’t even thinking of blogging about my field, probably because “I’m only a grad student, so I am not qualified to write about these things yet”. But this is very encouraging; thank you for the datapoint (and congratulations on your blogging success so far)!

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        Explaining a topic to others is one of the best ways of learning it yourself, so one could argue that being “just” a graduate student is an excellent time to be blogging about your field. :-) And thanks!

  3. nadith says:

    yeah, so uh, whose side are you on? And if you sign up with either aren’t you really betraying yourself, not the other side? If you are with the academic community then I imagine you would naturally fit in with their styling and developments. To give up though on resources which are inherently yours and inspiring for some kudos or in avoidance of presupposed or even actively exercised prejudice… It seems a little immoral if not simply unreal and the perpetuation and support of ignorance.

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