Chronicle Forum On Blogging And

Chronicle Forum on Blogging and Careers

The Chronicle of Higher Education did a forum, which is freely accessible this week, on the question of “Can Blogging Derail your Career?”

Among the respondents are some prominent academic bloggers, including Michael Berube, Brad DeLong, Dan Drezner, and Glenn Reynolds. Several of the contributors said nice things about this ephemeral servant, for which thanks. Some implied that I am misbehaving out here, to which I reply with this anecdote.

Henry David Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax put in to support the immoral American-Mexican War, and was sentenced to a night in jail. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him and asked him “David, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “What are you doing out there?” If intellectuals aren’t misbehaving in the sense of dissenting and critiquing the collective grounds of our political being, then they aren’t doing their jobs.

NB: I’m closing this column to comments. I wouldn’t know how to moderate them.

My comment:


Juan R.I. Cole Responds

The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic’s career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about “careers,” the tenured among us least of all. Despite the First Amendment, which only really protects one from the government, most Americans who speak out can face sanctions from other institutions in society. Journalists are fired all the time for taking the wrong political stance. That is why most bloggers employed in the private sector are anonymous or started out trying to be so.

Academics cannot easily be handed a pink slip, but they can be punished in other ways. The issues facing academics who dissent in public and in clear prose are the same today as they have always been. Maintaining a Web log now is no different in principle from writing a newsletter or publishing sharp opinion in popular magazines in the 1950s.

The difference today is that, because of Internet neutrality (which may not be long with us), an academic’s voice is potentially as loud as or louder than those of corporate-backed pundits. Occasionally, my Web log has generated as many as 250,000 unique hits and over a million page views per month. Entries have also been sent in e-mail messages in numbers that cannot be traced. My Web log is, for the moment, certainly a mass medium.

The ability to speak directly and immediately to the public on matters of one’s expertise, and to bring to bear all one’s skills to affect the public debate, is new and breathtaking. I have had some success in explaining the threat of Al Qaeda and suggesting how it should be combated, and have addressed U.S. counter-terrorism officials on numerous occasions on those matters. And then there is Iraq, about which I was one of the few U.S. historians to have written professionally before the 2003 war. In the summer of 2003, when the general mood of the administration, the news media, and the public was unrelievedly celebratory, I warned that a guerrilla war was building and that powerful sectarian forces such as the movement of Moktada al-Sadr were a gathering threat. I gained a hearing not only with broad segments of the public but also at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

I am a Middle East expert. I lived in the area for nearly 10 years, speak several of its languages, and have given my life to understanding its history and culture. Since September 11, 2001, my country has been profoundly involved with the region, both negatively and positively. Powerful economic and political forces in American society would like to monopolize the discourse on these matters for the sake of their own interests, which may not be the same as the interests of those of us in the general public. Obviously, such forces will attempt to smear and marginalize those with whom they disagree. Before the Internet, they might have had an easier time of it. Being in the middle of all this, trying to help mutual understanding, is what I trained for. Should I have been silent, published only years later in stolid academic prose in journals locked up in a handful of research libraries? And this for the sake of a “career”? The role of the public intellectual is my career. And it is a hell of a career. I recommend it.

Juan R.I. Cole is a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. His blog can be found at

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