The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Vision Thing: More on the New Duck

July 11, 2021

There’s still a lot of work to do on the new site, but on Friday I did manage to put up a draft of the top-level instructions for contributors. It hints at some of the sensibilities behind the reboot, as does one of my recent Twitter threads. So I suppose it’s time to elaborate.

The Duck of Minerva and the Evolution of Academic Politics Blogging

I founded the Duck of Minerva in 2005. Histories of “blogging” (whatever that means) trace the form back to the mid-1990s. I usually identify 2002-2003 as the period when “first wave” academic international-relations and politics blogging emerged. By that time there were a number of platforms that made weblogging a viable option for the non-technical; and the early 2000s were, unfortunately, particularly auspicious for international-relations bloggers. There was a lot going on – including the September 11 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO enlargement, and the onset of the Color Revolutions – to make foreign policy unusually salient in U.S. political discourse. This meant that “pioneer” international-studies academic bloggers could join a relatively small but quite vibrant community of people arguing about terrorism, the Bush doctrine, and the like.

In this reckoning, the Duck of Minerva belongs to the “second wave” of political-science and international-relations academic blogging. As far as I know, the Duck was the first collective academic blog that focused on international relations. It arrived too late for its mostly younger writers to gain entry into the politics-blogging “elite,” but early enough to avoid getting lost in the gathering deluge of academically-oriented politics blogs. That had a lot to do with support from more established blogs and bloggers.

I think that it’s fair to characterize the prevailing attitude toward academic blogging in 2005 as “extremely skeptical.” The scholarly community tended to view social media as, at best, a distraction from proper scholarly activities. But it was more complicated than that. Many of the pioneers were able to “skip the line” of academic status hierarchies. Moreover, journalists and members of the policy community read their blogs, which opened up opportunities – such as writing for major public-facing outlets. I think it’s pretty clear that some of their academic colleagues didn’t think any of this was legitimately earned.

Still, the advantages that successful – and even semi-successful – academics derived from blogging were increasingly difficult to deny. The entry of prominent international scholars, such as Stephen Walt (in 2009), into blogging helped legitimate the activity. There had been earlier forays by senior international-relations and politics scholars into blogging and blogging-adjacent writing, such as at the “America Abroad” channel at Josh Marshall’s now-defunct TPMCafe, but these didn’t, as best I can tell, make much of an impression.

The Monkey Cage, founded in 2007, probably did the most to change attitudes. As Lindsay McKenzie reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2018:

Just over a decade ago, a small group of academics started a political science blog called the “Monkey Cage.” In an inaugural post, the academics wrote that they were tired of political science research being overlooked by the media and policy makers, and set out on a mission to get more people interested in their research.

The original version of The Monkey Cage took aim at the folk theories that dominated political journalism in the United States. And it did move the discourse to some degree. It arrived as “explainer journalism” – which often involved translating academic knowledge for a more popular audience – was starting to take off. John Sides, in particular, tried very hard to make ensure that The Monkey Cage communicated the current state of consensus opinion about elections, political communication, and the like.

The Monkey Cage… embodied a rather specific vision of political-science blogging

The Monkey Cage thus embodied a rather specific vision of political-science blogging. In a 2011 PS forum, Sides discussed blogging almost entirely from the perspective of academic research – as a way of making it more accessible and visible to the broader public, for scholars to draw attention to their own work, and to chronicle and think through ongoing projects.

Much of this resonated with me; I often used the Duck of Minerva as a medium for working through academic ideas and arguments (in fact, this is one of the things I’ve missed most about blogging here). But Sides’ understanding of academic blogging was also a bit crimped, as Robert Farley pointed out in a 2013 response:

Although I appreciate the effort to “just add blogging” to the discipline of political science, I worry that in making blogging safe, Sides gives away too much of what makes it interesting, influential, and fun. Specifically, I have two major objections to Sides’ characterization of blogging in political science. First, the article heralds an effort to discipline the political science blogosphere, establishing metrics for differentiating between “good” blogs that can contribute to (or at least should not be held against) a political science career, and “bad” blogs that do no one any good. In short, Sides’s article served both prescriptive and proscriptive purposes.

My approach to the Duck of Minerva was basically anarchic. If you were an international-relations academic – or at least academic-adjacent – and wanted to blog here… then you could blog here. What I enjoyed about blogging was precisely how it could build ongoing conversations that crossed some – and here imagine that I’ve drawn six lines in black Sharpie under “some” – of the status hierarchies that normally marked academia. Whether via comments or trackbacks, discussions at the Duck might easily involve autodidacts, undergraduates, and full professors. Rank was, at least in terms of how I experienced these exchanges, secondary. When I spoke about academic blogging, I usually stressed this as one of its major virtues.

Such conversations often ranged widely; at any given time the front page of the Duck might include a post about Star Trek, idle thoughts on the timing of the industrial revolution, a lengthy riff on logical empiricism, an entry in a cross-blog debate about NATO expansion, ‘shameless self-promotion’ of a recent article, a feminist analysis of a recent foreign-policy speech, and a polemic about graduate-school admissions.

Undergirding the exercise was… a shared understanding that blogging was, at some level, ‘thinking aloud.’

These posts could be explanatory, didactic, or polemical in character. But undergirding the exercise was, in my view, a shared understanding that blogging was, at some level, ‘thinking aloud.’ Posts usually ended, whether explicitly or implicitly, with the question “What do you think?” When readers were supposed to take a specific post in a different spirit, it was up to the author to make that clear. Someone, perhaps PTJ, described this mode of blogging as resembling a conversation in the hotel bar at an academic conference – but one that was, at least in theory, open to anyone with internet access.

Of course, different international-relations and political-science bloggers approached the medium differently. Some blogged under their own names, others used pseudonyms. Some focused on a single topic – such as terrorism or counter-insurgency – others skipped from subject to subject. Many were centered around political arguments, political advocacy, or partisan politics. Lawyers, Guns, & Money, which Rob Farley cofounded, is a good example of that style of blogging. It’s also one of the few political-science adjacent, independent academic blogs that’s not only survived but seen an upward trajectory in its reach and readership. (In contrast, a bad month for the Duck of Minerva in 2021 sees fewer hits than a good day for the blog during its prime.)

All of this makes the concerns that Farley articulated at the end of his PS piece particularly interesting:

What we have not yet seen, but what I suspect may be coming, is the infection of the political science blogosphere with all of the dysfunction that marks the typical political science department. We should prepare for all of the endless skirmishes that characterize the borders between subdisciplines and methodologies to play out in the blogosphere. Such a development is probably inevitable, but is more likely when we define the contribution of political science blogging in terms of increasing the visibility of extant political science literature.

Some of his predictions didn’t pan out, but it does seem that we now largely “define the contribution of political science blogging in terms of increasing the visibility of extant political science literature.” This happened, I submit, because of three intersecting developments.

The Decline of the Blogosphere

By the time that academic blogging became widely accepted in political science the old blogosphere was pretty much dead. (How accepted? There was a period when graduate students and younger scholars were routinely advised to maintain a personal blog, let alone to place posts with an established one. I sometimes got the sense that the attitude was “if you blog it, they will come.”)

Many blogging veterans will note that the demise of the old blogosphere significantly predates its normalization in the field. By around 2010, if I remember correctly, the signs were everywhere. Successful pioneers had mostly handed in Blogger, WordPress, and Typepad accounts for paying gigs; nobody was clicking on links anymore, the bottom had fallen out of cross-partisan engagement; and the pro-Fafblog coalition had collapsed.

Over the next few years, Facebook and Twitter steadily pulled time, energy, and purpose away from independent academic blogging – a trend that only accelerated as the decade wore on. Twitter, in particular, started to emerge as the main medium of journalism, and thus replaced the blogosphere as a meeting place for policy types, journalists, and academics. (I don’t have remotely enough energy to trace how the rise of YouTube and early podcasting fit into this story, but I’m sure they do.)

In 2013, Google shut down Reader, its RSS/Atom aggregator. Despite the existence of decent alternatives, this was still a big deal. The absence of Reader made it more onerous to keep up with other blogs – and therefore take advantage of a daily stream of grist for posting. Reader’s disappearance also cut off a significant source of readership, especially since causal users were less likely that dedicated bloggers to shift to Inoreader or the Old Reader.

I should stress that none of this meant the end of blogs, academic or otherwise; rather, it produced transformations in the ecosystem that greatly weakened independent, amateur academic blogging. I’m not the first to note that in 2014, when the International Studies Association floated a “blogging ban” for specific ISA officers, the idea seemed almost quaint given the shifting social-media landscape.

Professionalization

Normalization brings professionalization. Some of the discipline’s discomfort with blogging rested on prevailing views about proper academic comportment. Recall what I said I really liked about blogging: its informality; the way it allowed one to jump from subject to subject; an ethos that, like progressive education, can strike outsiders as chaotic. For no small number of political scientists, blogging was not merely undignified – it demeaned the academic vocation itself.

I suspect that this will sound bizarre, even incredible, to most anyone under 35 – especially if they’re familiar with political-science Twitter. But it’s something that first- and second-wave bloggers heard pretty frequently. It supercharged other objections to blogging, such as that it distracted form ‘real research.’ Some of my friends worried that blogging might harm my ability to get tenure; I told them that if Georgetown was going to deny me tenure because of blogging, then I didn’t want tenure at Georgetown.

Concerns about academic comportment were not, in fact, unfounded. Consider the regularity with which academic gets in trouble for something they wrote on Twitter. The difference now is that we’re used to this kind of thing:the ship is out of the barn, the horse has left the station.

Nonetheless, just as email has shifted from a casual to a relatively formal mode of communication, writing ‘a blog’ now often means submitting a short-form piece to an editor for online publication. Blogging is to Twitter as Email is to Snapchat. I’ve sometimes heard Duck bloggers say that they didn’t post a piece here because it wasn’t “Duck worthy” and I’m not sure what that means… except that it’s not 2005 anymore, I guess.

The Monkey Cage Template

At some level, it doesn’t make much sense to separate out these developments – not from each other, and certainly not from the third on my list: the rise of the current iteration of The Monkey Cage.

“It’s a different animal now,” said Joshua Tucker, a “Monkey Cage” editor and professor of politics at New York University. Asked to reflect on what had changed at the blog, Tucker said he did miss some aspects of the old format — the informality, the engagement in niche academic debate — but what the blog does now is “incredibly valuable,” he says. “It’s become such a public good for the discipline.”

The runaway success of The Monkey Cage at the Washington Post created a model that overwhelmingly defines how political scientists think about academic blogging as a normalized, professionalized activity. It combines aspects of explainer journalism, the use of blogging to promote specific scholarship, and one-way (academia → policy) “Bridging the Gap” sensibilities.

In general, a Monkey Cage post hooks a piece of scholarship to current events – even breaking news; authors discuss how their research ‘shows’ something that, in turn, explains or interprets the event; and, frequently, they elaborate what it all means for policy.

This is a perfectly fine model. It can reach tens of thousands of readers. But if you compare it to the broader universe of academic blogging, it’s narrow, formulaic, and, for lack of a better term, didactic.

Posting at the Duck of Minerva

My understanding is that the Duck of Minerva publishes a number of pieces that were previously turned down at The Monkey Cage. The Monkey Cage has become, in effect, a highly selective journal. The Duck? I suppose you could say that we are… more egalitarian.

The Duck will continue to publish this style of post, regardless of the route it takes to get here.

However, there are real merits in looser, more open-ended styles of blogging. We can’t go back to the old blogosphere. It’s long gone. But we can try to reproduce, at least at this one site, some of its better qualities. That means, among other things, seeking to publish more debates and symposia – which (by the way) are a great way to promote academic work.

One of my big aims is to encourage those posting here – whether they are guests or their names are on the mast head– to adopt a more informal, conversational approach. This extends to promoting their scholarship. For example, we’re experimenting with a Q&A format. You provide us with answers to six or seven questions about your new article or book. We put them into a post and publish them. No muss, no fuss.We make shameless self-promotion fun!

Many of our most popular posts deal with the discipline, its challenges, and its pathologies. These are definitely still a big part of the mix. They’ll persist in both vanilla form and under the “Bridging the Gap” brand. The informality of blogs can also make them a productive environment for talking about power relations – and patterns of exclusion – in the profession. We hope to publish more content on these topics. Do you have something you’d like to write about under the rubric of “academia?” Do you have questions you’d like to see answered? Let us know.

The majority of Duck posts should end in explicit or implied questions; they should aim to start conversations or keep them going. Half-baked ideas are encouraged.

The majority of Duck posts should end in explicit or implied questions; they should aim to start conversations, or keep them going. Half-baked ideas are encouraged. Posters should avoid over claiming the certainty of their findings, their interpretations, and their arguments. The main difference between the Duck of 2021 and that of the 2000s will be tighter editorial control and screening – to reduce the risk of misjudgment on the part of authors as they adopt a more free-flowing style.

Questions? Reactions? Ideas? Email us, or better yet, comment below. Over the next few weeks we’ll expand the contents of the information submenu and start building out our FAQ. I’ll also have more to say aboout the effort to build intellectual community and how the affiliated podcasts fit into that vision.

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.