James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Blogosphere and loathing in academia: To blog or not to blog

Posted by James McPherson on April 20, 2009

I created this blog it to try to reach students in a new way while learning some new technological skills and sharing information about two subjects in which I have some expertise. This Wednesday will be the one-year anniversary of the day I started blogging. It also may be my last day.

The blog has proven to be a valuable method for saving Internet links and ideas that I use in teaching and other writing, and to help students (and at least a few professionals) access some useful tools. I’ve been able to share a lot of information and some skills achieved through this experiment that I, and therefore my students, might not otherwise have picked up. An unexpected side benefit is that it actually seemed to boost my credibility–my “cool factor,” as one student put it–with some of those students.

All in all, my year of blogging has been a great experience–interesting, useful and usually fun. I would recommend it to about any teacher, in any academic discipline (though posting weekly might be more rational than my almost-daily approach).

But I’ve decided to step away from regular blogging, and this seems like a logical time. Tomorrow I’ll offer more details about why I’m quitting–or at least cutting back considerably–and Wednesday I’ll offer a list of my previous favorites, in case you want to check out any you’ve missed. Today I’ll note some of the things I’ve most appreciated about doing this.

Though I’ve tried to make the vast majority of my posts about media and politics rather than about me, please forgive this departure into the personal. Feel free to skip this post (and tomorrow’s), but if you’re a fellow academic or media professional interested in some of the reasons you may or may not want to actively participate in the blogosphere, you may want to read on.

After spending a few days at a Poynter Institute workshop and talking to some other professors and journalists about the idea, I wrote my first blog post (a prediction of success for Barack Obama and potential problems for John McCain) last April. But I’ve decided that one year (and more than 300 posts) is enough. And though I’ve been thinking about it for some time (and mentioned it in passing here a couple of weeks ago), my decision caught even my wife by surprise.

By the way, if you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that I never use her name. She actually appreciates a level of anonymity on the Web and elsewhere, as difficult as that may be to believe in this viral, egocentric, Twitterific, in-your-Facebook, screw-YouTube, blogtastic culture.

Like me, my wife has mixed emotions about my decision to step away from the biosphere… er, blogosphere (and no, the two are not synonymous). She’s happy that I’ll be a bit less compulsive about doing this (and of course will believe it when she sees it), but a bit disappointed that I won’t be sharing my ideas (most of which she likes) so regularly. At least I think that was the mixture of her emotions, and not the other way around–that she’s glad not to feel obligated to read so much of what I write, but unhappy that I may have more free time with her.

Her surprise at my decision came because she knew that I wasn’t bored with or burned out from blogging. In fact,  in some respects it energizes me. I feel more connected with the professional worlds of media and politics, and in some ways more connected with my students.

I’m not stopping because I dislike the writing. Like George Orwell and many others, I knew early in life that I would be a writer, and I love to write in varied ways. My published works include a couple of books, several book chapters, and articles in academic journals, newspapers and magazines. As-yet-unpublished works include a book of short fiction and a partially finished novel.

I love how words work, what Orwell called “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another.” I amuse myself, if not others, with a creative headline or turn of phrase (I hope you didn’t need to read the first five words of today’s headline out loud to get it), giving proof to Orwell’s statement, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

Though I’d been warned about “trolls” and other crazies who might find me, and some did, but I’ve never worried much about criticism and frankly I’ve greatly enjoyed most of my interactions with people here (and on other people’s blogs). I take pride in the fact that even when I know I’ll offend people, I try to do it in a thoughtful way that encourages dialogue rather than closing it off. I try to do the same elsewhere, as well: At least one conservative blogger has me linked as the one liberal alternative on his site, as a result of our online discussions.

Via this blog I’ve “met” students who have never taken one of my classes, and have engaged in “discussions” with a number of professional journalists as well as with other bloggers. I’ve been enriched by all those who comment, and am especially grateful for the regulars such as Gabrielle, Luis, Zelda, Grady and Mike (at least two of whom disagree with me more often than they agree).

A few people have been very offended, of course. Blatantly stupid or offensive remarks have come from both conservatives and liberals. At least one parent of a college student has suggested that I be fired from my job as a professor–but the reaction he received from other readers who came to my defense was one of the highlights of my blogging experience.

The professional and student connections I made quickly helped me overcome some fears that blogging might somehow detract from my teaching. I don’t personally know many other faculty bloggers, and though there are some out there this is not a well-tested pedagogical approach.

I did have someone ask me how this might affect my future promotion possibilities, especially since my opinions often run counter to those of many  administrators, donors, students and parents associated with the institution where I teach. My wife chuckled at that question (which she wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t even considered), remembering what she used to call my “continuing efforts to avoid tenure.”

After all, since long before I started blogging I’ve been writing strong opinions in local newspapers, participating in political panel discussions, and joining political protests. More recently, I wore a black armband daily for several weeks to protest and mourn the Iraq War.

Along with a variety of media history artifacts, my office is decorated with items such as a large “No War” yard sign, a poster showing the 1963 March on Washington, a large 48-star American flag, a poster of a controversial Artis Lane lithograph of the Statue of Liberty, a stuffed “George W. Bush pants-on-fire doll,” and a framed copy of the 1979 “H-bomb” issue of the Progressive that led to what should have been a key First Amendment case. (I say “should have been,” because by the time the case was decided, as I’ve noted in both my first and second books, the mainstream media had mostly  given up engaging in the sorts of activities that the First Amendment was designed to protect.)

I do think that the fact that I have been tenured and promoted, and that this blog has actually been mentioned in the university’s alumni magazine, speaks well for the administration and the values of my institution–which a couple of years ago granted me one of its highest teaching awards. Yet most of my students disagree with me politically (further reflecting the idiocy of the “indoctrination” arguments made by David Horowitz and others like him), and those who disagree with me most strenuously tend to be among the students I tend to like most (yes, like parents, teachers have their favorites, and like parents we try to hide it).

I also am not ceasing blogging because I’m in danger of running out of ideas. I typically have parts of more than a dozen drafts under way. Some entries I quickly write and posted on one sitting. Others (including this one) I work on half a dozen times over a space of days or weeks before posting. Some I never finished, and they were eventually discarded or just forgotten in my “drafts” bin. Others I went back to after extended periods of thought or after an event suddenly makes them seem more timely.

So there are some of the reasons why I have reservations about stepping away from this year-long educational exercise. Tomorrow’s post will explain why it is time to do so.

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10 Responses to “Blogosphere and loathing in academia: To blog or not to blog”

  1. Joy said

    What?! How am I supposed to entertain myself during my office hours? You’re going to force me to watch lego Star Wars figures fight each other on YouTube. No good.

  2. Joy said

    Plus, I get more traffic from your blog when I post a link than all other traffic sources combined. Speaking of which… http://theshakenbakekind.blogspot.com/2009/04/fight-guns-with-girls.html

  3. James McPherson said

    On the plus side, you still can link directly to YouTube from my site–and now I’ll have more time to look for those Star Wars figures. 🙂 Thanks, Joy.

    And for anyone else out there reading this: Go read Joy’s blog, starting now, if you haven’t already. Her post of today is a thoughtful and timely one.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful posts, which I always read, but rarely commented on. Thanks, too, for not giving in to the twittering phenomenon

  5. James McPherson said

    You’re welcome, on both. And I’ll keep reading yours.

    By the way, you’re getting a mention in tomorrow’s post–which, come to think of it, is more than I got out of my interview of last week with the New York Times. An editor decided that David Carr’s column of today needed quotes from only one historian instead of two, so mine ended up on the digital cutting room floor. Yet another reminder, perhaps, that I should keep my day job. 🙂

  6. Gabrielle said

    I’ll wait till tomorrow’s post to start arguing my case that the crazed blogosphere needs your logical-yet-amusing contributions.

    Anyway, here’s an article I thought you might like: http://crooksandliars.com/john-amato/gov-perry-talks-succession-texas-tea-pa

  7. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Gabrielle. I suspect Texas is so big because anything smaller just wouldn’t hold that much crazy. I read yesterday that about a quarter of the people there thing they have a legal right to succeed. If only that were true, and we could convince them to go. 🙂

    A side note, to anyone reading: I just got back from an inspirational lecture by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! (linked at right) She has done some very important work, and keeps on doing it. I might have bought a book and chatted with her, but the line was way too long, so I’d have been there past my bedtime.

  8. Jasmine Linabary said

    I’ll admit this came as quite a shock to me as well. I’m interested to see your post tomorrow…

    As one of your students who was pleased and inspired by the fact that her professor was adapting to the online side of journalism and delving into new technologies, I’m interested to hear about the ways you will hope to continue to show that to students if you are not blogging.

  9. Luis Lopez said

    Jim-

    I have enjoyed reading and contributing over the past year, and to be quite honest, I am also quite surprised by this post. I am too interested in what your post tomorrow reveals.

    I have seen how you have quickly adapted to the beast that is online journalism, and it would be rather sad to see you depart it.

  10. James McPherson said

    Thanks, Jasmine & Luis, for your kind words. The two of you have been inspirational to me, and serve as excellent reminders of how fortunate I am to be able to have the job I do. I just posted the follow-up to this post, and managed to quote both of you in it. I hope it explains things, but if not I’d be happy to follow up via comments or over coffee.

    I had been planning for a several weeks to stop on the one-year anniversary of the blog. But I didn’t mention it here except in passing, because I wanted to give a thought-out explanation. As I allude to with the follow-up post, sometimes I write better than I talk. And sometimes I don’t do either as well as I should. 🙂

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