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The Transmogrification of Scholarly Discourse: More Insights from ISA

February 24, 2010

Does a video blog post satirizing a scholarly debate count as a contribution to that debate? This is the question I meant to pose when I chose to preface my remarks with a YouTube clip about academic bloggers on the ISA panel entitled “Do International Relations Blogs Inform Practice? Theory? Both? Neither?”

Naturally, the equipment failed. So it wasn’t until Q&A when I had a chance to hit “play” – and then only in the context of a question about whether the kind of snark associated with blogging is good or bad for academic discourse. (The consensus position on the panel: a qualified “yes.”)

But in this post, I’d like to go back to the point I’d originally wanted to make because I think there really are some interesting questions about how the nature of scholarship and the media through which scholarly ideas are communicated, are transmogrifying due to the merging of academic discourse with new media.

Here’s the original video:

The context is a blog post in which “the author” attempted to summarize and satirize a debate afoot last year among IR scholars – taking place almost entirely in the blogosphere rather than in scholarly forums. As you may recall, it was sparked by an op-ed by Joseph Nye in the Washington Post and then by Dan Drezner’s blog response to it entitled “The Academy Strikes Back” and it was a debate about the extent to which the theory/policy divide could be overcome and who was to blame for it. Though this video may appear to be pure satire, I argued it actually illustrates two arguments about the impact of blogs on the relationship between the academy and the “real world.”

First, it substantively satirizes the reification of a gap between theory and policy – a reification we saw in Nye’s essay and the debate that followed it – and a reification we see in the title of the ISA conference itself (“Theory v. “Policy”). In my view, the erosion of the alleged “gap” between theory and policy is actually exemplified by the very medium – blogs – being used to conduct the debate described in this video. Academic bloggers are, of course, working at the very nexus between the academy and the policy world – and doing so rather successfully, if the anecdotes shared by my co-panelists are to be believed.

Yet for all the reasons mentioned on the panel (and in the background paper), that nexus is a tricky place to be professionally. Perhaps one way to interpret the blogosphere dialogue about Nye’s op-ed is as a reification of the theory-policy gap borne of a need to re-establish the conceptual boundaries precisely because they are so in flux.

Second, as a means of describing an academic debate, this video itself reminds us that the types of user-generated artifacts we might conceivably associate with scholarly output is expanding somewhat beyond that which we were socialized to accept as legitimate, due to the dynamic nature of Web 2.0 – just as academic blogging has expanded that conception over the past few years. Entire conferences have, in fact, relied upon YouTube as a means to disseminate academic ideas rather than conventional presentation formats. How long will it be before such means of expressing views in a debate become commonplace? How will this transform scholarly discourse? How does the ease with which users can generate such content affect what counts as legitimate academic discourse?

Now, let’s not overstate the case. I’m not saying that we are all about to give up writing conference papers and instead just create YouTube videos to disseminate our research or ideas. In fact, Darth Drezner and I have argued quite a bit over whether a video satire of an academic debate constitutes a contribution to that debate or not. And it’s true that although lots of scholars complimented me on the video, not many participants in the debate itself seized upon any of the points I was trying to make with it. So perhaps satire as a form of academic discourse is ahead of its time.

But I think that one of the impacts of blogs and other new media on the academy is that they are forcing us to have these discussions.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.