University professors turn to the blogosphere, for classes and recognition

BY CAITLIN SCHNEIDER
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 2, 2009

Correction Appended: An earlier version of this story misidentified the title of Mark Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the School of Management at the University's Flint campus.

Jed Moch/Daily
University of Michigan professor, Fara Warner, updates her blog and interacts with students at Starbucks on South University.

The booming blogosphere is a world dominated by celebrity gossip, confessionals and radical opinions. But blogs are increasingly hosting a new breed of user: university professors.

In recent years, academics across the country have started using blogs to relay information and ideas. Many are now incorporating the medium into their classes, asking students to take to their keyboards and post thoughts or resources on course material.

“It’s been extraordinarily successful,” said Brian Porter-Szucs, an associate history professor, who has students blog their responses to class readings. He has them search for other relevant material on the Internet and post it on the class blog.

Porter-Szucs said he decided to include blogging in his classes after reading one of his 15-year-old daughter’s homework assignments. Porter-Szucs was alarmed to see his daughter’s writing suffer as she tried to mimic what she perceived as an academic style. He suspected his own students might be writing poorly for the same reason and decided to use a class blog to test the theory.

“My suspicions were confirmed,” he said. “Part of the problem wasn’t necessarily that the students didn’t know how to write, it’s that they hadn’t been taught how to write effectively in a variety of settings. If I could just break through the sense of artificiality that came with the term paper, I could actually get good writing.”

Communications Studies Prof. Fara Warner, who uses blogging in her classes, said the medium allows students to write quickly with relaxed prose. The class blog also serves as a single space in which to archive links or ideas and facilitate class communication. Warner’s personal blog is called “The Power of the Purse,” though she doesn’t update it consistently because of the amount of time it takes to write posts.

“Blogging, for me, is a piece of journalism,” said Warner. “That, for me, makes it a bigger task to blog than to just throw my opinion out there. I still struggle with the immediacy of blogging and wanting to be ethical as a journalist and do right by sources and do right by myself as well.”

The time commitment means professors need to prioritize when it comes to blogging. Those who write personal blogs do so outside of their teaching requirements, but as blogs become more popular, the question of their role in academic research and publishing becomes more complex.

Mark Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the University’s Flint campus, is a self-described “slave” to his economics blog, “Carpe Diem.” Perry said he spends up to five hours a day making various posts to his blog and thinks there is a place for blogging in the duties of a university professor, albeit an evolving one.

“It’s so new that (universities) haven’t quite incorporated it yet into the three areas that we’re responsible for — teaching, research and service,” Perry said. “But it really kind of overlaps in all those areas.”

Perry said he believes that blogging could be considered applied research.

But in an interview, University Provost Teresa Sullivan said that blogging lacks an important element, which generally elevates the credibility of a publication: peer review.

“Peer review is an important quality marker,” said Sullivan. “With electronic media now, anybody can publish anything.”

While the University doesn’t view blogs as a form of official research or publishing, Sullivan said she encourages professors to use them, even if they express controversial opinions or ideas.

“That’s what universities are about,” Sullivan said. “The university is the place where you’re free to put ideas out there, and we’re tolerant of other people’s ideas but it also means you’ve got to be ready for somebody to go after you and attack your ideas.”

That open door for comments adds a dynamic element to blogs, which can further strain bloggers who take the time to edit readers’ posts. Harvard University Economics Prof. Greg Mankiw has removed the comment feature altogether from his economics blog.

History Prof. Juan Cole writes what is probably the most well-known of University of Michigan professors’ blogs as well as the most controversial. His blog “Informed Comment,” focuses on the Middle East and has received both positive and negative critical attention. Cole said most of his students know about his blog, and he references it in class but doesn’t make it part of the curriculum.

“I don’t do my blog as part of my university duties,” Cole said. “I do it on my private time. For that reason, I can sometimes be a little more political.”

With his blog, Cole has gained recognition as an expert on the Middle East and gets at least 800,000 visits a month.

While many professors anchor their posts in facts and data, others employ a less journalistic style and write on topics outside their academic expertises.

Engineering Prof. Thomas Zurbuchen writes a blog through the Center for Entrepreneurship website, though his content generally addresses subjects other than his academic specialty.

“The vast majority of topics are about things other than engineering,” Zurbuchen said. “I feel it’s important to recognize as an engineer that we have to learn how to recognize the impact that we can make, and see opportunity and adjust to change. Engineering is not just engineering, it’s about much more than that, and it requires skills in many other areas.”

Regardless of how this niche of the blogging world evolves, the trend shows no sign of slowing. University Librarian Paul Courant, who is also a Public Policy professor and author of the blog “Au Courant,” said the trend is a positive thing.

“I actually think it’s very good if professors talk or convey their views less formally to a broader audience than we do in our formal research publications,” said Courant. “So I very much like the idea that members of our faculty use their expertise in the wider world.”

Blogs considerably raise the profile of University professors, which is good for the University. Through their archive of posts, professors advertise their expertise in a given field. Establishing that authority leads calls from the media — and the University's name appearing in print.

Perry used himself as an example of what blogs can do to elevate an instructor’s status, saying a Google search of his name yields substantially more results than University President Mary Sue Coleman. Coleman’s name generates 246,000 results while Perry’s name registers more than 2,620,000 results.

“Someone like Mary Sue Coleman, who has a very high profile — you would expect a lot of attention to her on the Internet,” Perry said. “Now here I am just as a professor without any staff, without any research assistants, writing a blog that’s gotten pretty popular. I’ve now got this presence on the Internet that in terms of the number of hits is even higher than the president of the University.”