Filling a niche that academia ignores
Before I went to graduate school, I spent some three years working for a series of daily newspapers. I was only 22 years old when I started, and I loved the work. Being a newspaper reporter gave me a licence to pick up the phone and ask anyone any question that interested me. In those three years, I worked a number of beats: business and labour in Marshalltown, Iowa; education in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and in York, Pennsylvania – at the late and lamented Gazette and Daily, reputedly the only left-wing daily in the United States – city hall and the courthouse.
As a young journalist, I had opportunities that young people rarely enjoy.
I became acquainted with bank officials, the president of a manufacturing corporation, labour leaders, judges, city officials and prominent lawyers. It was fascinating learning about the worlds they inhabited and, through them, gaining a better understanding of business, politics and law.
As time went on, however, I began to chafe at the daily midnight deadline. On most working days, I had an hour or two to research a “story” – a newspaper article – and write it. After that, it was on to the next piece. I became increasingly conscious of the fact that I was just scratching the surface of each issue I researched, and I wanted go deeper.
So I applied for graduate school, got accepted to political science and political economy programs at a number of universities, and quit the Gazette. I liked graduate school even better than I had newspaper work, but nothing is perfect. I loved researching African politics and city politics, my chosen areas of concentration, but, as I began publishing my research, it became clear to me that I was missing something I had taken for granted as a newspaperman: A readership.
The bleak reality of academic publishing is that most of us get very few readers. Most of our readers are the same few people we meet at conferences, plus our students – many of whom would not have read what we wrote had we not assigned it to them. Then, a decade or two ago, the internet changed everything. By then I was a senior academic and secure enough to be able to try something unconventional without having to fear career death.
Combining an academic research career with a few hours a week devoted to blogging has allowed me to scratch my journalism itch – the unfulfilled desire to go deeper – while addressing my dissatisfaction, as an academic, with the inability to reach more than a few readers.
Blogging is a wonderful opportunity for academics to fill a niche that conventional academic writing ignores. Academic journals are full of facts and ideas that are bound to be interesting to many non-academics, but that potential readership only rarely delves into journal articles or monographs, because, from a layperson’s point of view, academics take forever to get to the point.
Interesting facts or ideas that emerge from academic research cannot be laid out the way journalistic research is, for very good reasons. A body of academic findings must be placed in a theoretical context, and an academic article or book must set out explicitly how the findings in question are related to the literature. Theory and literature reviews are unlikely to be perceived by a non-academic as desirable reading material. Blogging allows us to gather the interesting things we have learned in our academic research, strip them of theoretical discussions and literature reviews that only interest academics, and lay them out for a wider readership.
This is not only an interesting and satisfying thing to do, it is also a potentially important asset for academia as a whole. Though we live in the wealthiest society in world history, attempts to allocate some of those vast resources to public purposes face heavy resistance. Blogging gives us an opportunity, by presenting our findings to the public at large, to demonstrate that the resources universities command are valuable to society.
My blog: An overview and some samples
My blog, available at christopherleo.com, consists of two parts:
• Short articles that deal with research findings and commentary on those articles.
• A column entitled The Passing Scene, containing short entries about interesting material I encounter daily in my research and reading, and links to that material.
Following are examples of some of the topics I’ve addressed in my blog:
• A 2007 blog entry documented the techniques a developer used to get city council to agree to substantial and ultimately unjustifiable government subsidies for a major downtown development. Such techniques are widely used, and it is important for participants in or observers of local politics understand them.
• Another blog entry showed how city council was misled into agreeing to a bridge project that turned out to be far more expensive than promised.
• In a comparative study of housing and homelessness in three Canadian cities, my research assistants and I showed why a federal government program that made sense in Vancouver was ill-suited to Winnipeg and Saint John, New Brunswick, and what that, in turn, teaches us about differences among cities.
• In recent years, I’ve found myself devoting more attention to commentary on current affairs. Thus in November 2013, I offered some critical comments on the urban expansion policies that were being pursued by the City of Winnipeg. A few months earlier, I commented critically on the way the city government communicates (or rather fails to communicate)with its constituents.
• In my retirement, I’m planning to excavate some of my findings from research on African politics that I was doing in the 1970s and 1980s. This comment on differences between African and North American culture is part of the groundwork for that venture.
Here are some other samples of my blogging over the years: