Blogging Against the Machine

Juan Cole is a hard man to classify.  For over a decade he has been a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, but he’s probably better known for his blog, Informed Comment.  In 2006 he was nominated to teach at Yale, but a senior appointments committee scuttled his bid, leading many to wonder if his controversial Web posts on Middle East politics had come into play.  This fall Penn’s Political Science Graduate Student Organization honored Cole with the Nearing Award for Advancement of Social and Political Issues in the Face of Institutional Resistance.  At his acceptance, Cole argued that the economic underpinnings of the traditional tenure system are on the verge of collapse, and predicted that blogging will shape the faculties of the future.

If our system is working as we think it should work, we’re attaining an understanding of human society, organizing knowledge about it, and then we’re disseminating that knowledge for the benefit of that wider society.  If our model is actually working, then don’t you think somebody, somewhere in the U.S. government, would have read what we wrote about Iraq before invading and occupying and running that country?  And yet it is very clear to me from looking at interviews with the principals who planned and carried out that invasion and occupation, that none of them had the slightest idea of anything about Iraqi history, or who Grand Ayatollah Sistani was, or who Muqtada al-Sadr was. 

Paul Bremer, who had been the ambassador to Holland and was made the viceroy of Iraq, who knew no Arabic, once went up to the Kurdistan region and parliament.  And he saw this portrait on the wall of a man with a long mustache and traditional Kurdish clothing, and he said, “That’s a handsome figure.  Who is that?”  That was Mustafa Barzani!  Mustafa Barzani had been the chief leader of the Kurdish independence struggle back into the ’40s.   I mean, it’s like Bremer had taken over Cuba, and was walking around the halls of government and he saw a portrait of this man with a beard and a cigar and said, “Well that’s a handsome figure, who might that be?”  

So there’s something wrong with our model.  And this is producing a crisis which we’re all aware of but which nobody addresses.  Which is that we give tenure on the basis of the revision of a dissertation into a published monograph.  The economics of that used to be that the libraries—it was a socialist system—would buy 800 copies of the monograph that was published by the university press.  Well that’s over.  And it’s partly because of the impact of medical journals that have been bought up by venture capitalists, who are charging $4,000 for subscriptions, because medical journals have things in them like how to cure cancer, and everybody wants to know that, so libraries can’t afford not to buy those journals.  The shortfall has to come out of someplace, so it’s coming out of the monographs. 

So university presses are increasingly being told by their administrators, We’re not subsidizing you anymore.  You make money for us somehow.  So this whole model of our writing very, very specialized dissertations and then having their publication subsidized … that’s on the verge of complete collapse. 

I think that the Internet is going to change all of that radically.  I think that the dissemination of academic study and knowledge through blogging is one of the ways that it’s going to change, and that ultimately it will be recognized as a valuable and central activity in our academic lives, and certainly it has the prospect of breaking out of the ivory tower and making the very valuable labors that are done in academia available to a wider audience.


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