Faculty blogs blur lines for Chicago academics

By Ethan Jewett

Faculty blogs, a relatively new phenomenon on campus, can muddle distinctions between a professor as private person, teacher, and professional academic. Chicago faculty bloggers—internet shorthand for web-logger—deal with this tension in different ways.

The newest arrival on the faculty blogging scene is The Becker-Posner Blog, maintained by Gary Becker, professor in economics and the Graduate School of Business, and Richard Posner, senior lecturer in law and judge on the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Both intellectual heavyweights, Becker and Posner began their blog (www.becker-posner-blog.com) with personal interest in mind. “We’re good friends and were just talking about the Internet and suggested to each other that we use this new medium to discuss public policy issues,” Becker said.

Jacob Levy, assistant professor of political science, blogged at his own site (jacobtlevy.blogspot.com) and at the Volokh Conspiracy (volokh.com) before he began a sabbatical from blogging at the beginning of this academic year. Levy began blogging in September 2002.

Blogging can work particularly well when one’s area of academic expertise intersects an area of public interest, Levy said. It is also useful for trying out research ideas or blogging about the academic discipline itself.

But Levy has always been ambivalent about blogging and that factored into his sabbatical. “Across a wide domain of things don’t know anything more than the average reader of The New York Times,” Levy said. But blogging makes it a constant temptation to speak like an expert on subjects outside of one’s area of expertise. When this happens, Levy said, it’s especially destructive to teachers because students won’t know how professors will react to criticism on these issues.

Levy clarified that it is possible to ask questions and raise substantive issues outside of one’s area of expertise in a constructive way, so blogging as a teacher is not necessarily harmful. “It can work really well but there are bad habits it encourages,” Levy said.

Michael Green, assistant professor of philosophy, blogs with students at least partially in mind and agreed. “Politics is like sports for academics,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion. I would like to write about politics, but not in a way that’s tiresome or that’s off-putting to people I disagree with.”

Becker sees the blog he co-authors as designed for general, non-professional consumption. “We’re trying to discuss policy in a non-technical way for an interested, educated audience,” he said. In addition, Becker thinks his blog could be a resource for some of his classes. “It is important for students to see how one uses economic thinking to discuss important policy issues of the day,” he said.

Becker does not keep track of how many students read the blog, but he imagines the number is relatively small. In interviews with 30 students, the vast majority of students reported that they do not read academic blogs, though they say they are happy to hear the blogs exist. “That’s awesome,” said Leo Mizuhara, a third-year in the College, when told about Becker’s blog. Mizuhara said it would be helpful to have a way to read professors’ opinions.

Green blogs primarily about politics and philosophy, and he finds the blog useful for staying in touch with students and trying out paper ideas. “I occasionally hear back from old students that read something,” Green said. “Mostly I think they’re just bored. It must be very boring being a lawyer these days.”

But Green said he believes an academic blog can also be useful for increasing the accessibility of professors. “I remember being terribly curious about what professors are and what they do when I was as student. I still am,” Green said. “It pleases me that it’s more personal than class, for that reason.”

Daniel Drezner, assistant professor of political science, writes for a large audience on his blog (www.danieldrezner.com/blog/), averaging over 5,000 visits a day at his site, which started in September 2002. At this level, the question of whether one is blogging at least partly for students becomes more problematic. “Some students read the blog and I’m not quite sure how to deal with it,” Drezner said. “It gives students a better picture of who I am, and makes me more approachable.”