Stephen M. Walt

Happy Anniversary

This week marks the one-year anniversary of FP‘s on-line re-launch, and thus the one-year anniversary of this blog. So I thought I’d offer a few reflections on what the experience has been like, and what I’ve learned from it. I was of course flattered when FP invited me to contribute, but I agreed to do ...

Theresa Thompson/flickr
Theresa Thompson/flickr

This week marks the one-year anniversary of FP‘s on-line re-launch, and thus the one-year anniversary of this blog. So I thought I’d offer a few reflections on what the experience has been like, and what I’ve learned from it.

I was of course flattered when FP invited me to contribute, but I agreed to do so with some trepidation. I’d done a lot of writing by this point, including for some popular venues, but I had usually found it difficult to write op-eds and short pieces of commentary and therefore hadn’t done a lot of it. The only way to attract readers is to provide a fairly constant stream of commentary (i.e., nobody comes back if you only post once a month), and I was worried that I’d find it hard to keep the words and ideas flowing.  

Thankfully, that hasn’t been a big problem. Although there have been a few slow days where I was less than fully inspired (you may have noticed), its more often the case that I don’t have time to post on all the topics that I’d like to discuss. One result is that my respect for those who write a biweekly column in the mainstream media has gone down; it would be a luxury to write only twice a week. Given that most of them aren’t teaching classes, chairing committees, or writing letters of recommendation, what do all those big-time columnists do with their time?

I quickly discovered that there is a big difference between blogging and academic scholarship, and one has to approach them with a completely different mental attitude. In academic writing, the overriding imperative is to make things as perfect as you can (even though perfection is impossible), and to take as much time as you have to refine and bolster an argument. When academics write a scholarly book or article, it typically goes through a dozen or so drafts, gets presented and criticized at conferences and seminars, and gets circulated to colleagues for additional feedback. And in some cases (e.g., our book on the Israel lobby), we hired two professional fact checkers to go over every line and then spent an entire week with our editor proofing and fine-tuning.

Needless to say, that’s not how the blogosphere works. I sometimes spend a fair bit of time researching what I write here, and I occasionally run a piece past a colleague to get their advice, but there is a premium on being timely and analytically sharp, and you rarely have time to sit, sift, ponder, and deliberate. That means bloggers are by definition writing things that are more provisional. If we’re honest, we all have to admit that we’re going to get a few big things wrong, or offer opinions that we subsequently conclude are mistaken. I’m reasonably happy with most of what I’ve posted in the past year, but I confess to a sense of trepidation every time I hit “publish.” Advice to would-be bloggers: Bring a sense of humility, but also a thick skin.

Of course, that same sense of immediacy is one of the most gratifying things about having a blog. Instead of writing an op-ed and sending it in to some newspaper, and then waiting for days until some editor rules up or down, I just hit “publish” and it appears. Writing a more-or-less daily commentary forces me to stay more closely in touch with world events, and it has made it imperative to develop new sources and new methods for tracking what others have to say about issues I’m interested in.

Indeed, given the concerns I’ve sometimes expressed about the “cult of irrelevance” in academe, I’ve come to believe that blogging ought to be actively encouraged in the academic world. I’m not saying that all political scientists, historians, or economists ought to start their own blogs, but we shouldn’t penalize scholars who do engage in this activity and we might even consider rewarding it, the same way we should reward scholars who care enough about public service to use their talents and training working in the public or NGO sector. It would be good for the IR field if academic scholars were expected to write a few blog posts every now and then, if only for the purpose of self-examination. If the typical academic had to write a blog for two weeks, they might discover they had nothing to say to their fellow citizens, couldn’t say it clearly, or that nobody cared. That experience might even lead a few of my fellow academics to scratch their heads and ask if they were investing their research time appropriately, which would be all to the good. 

What’s been the best part so far? First and foremost, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to participate more actively in the public debate on key topics like U.S. foreign policy, the AfPak dilemma, the ongoing drama in the Middle East, etc.). At the same time, I’ve also enjoyed exploring more fanciful topics (movies, pop music, sports, novels, holidays), as well as the chance to wander into areas I simply didn’t know that much about. Knowing that I had to “feed the beast” each morning has encouraged me to read more widely and keep a notebook of ideas (a useful diversion during boring faculty meetings), and I’ve found that intellectual spur to be very satisfying.

And as I had hoped, writing this blog has forced me to connect more with the blogosphere itself, which I see as a revolutionary development in mankind’s collective conversation.  I remain in awe of many of my fellow bloggers — there are simply far too many for me to mention them all — and I wish I had more time to wander the net and search out nuggets of insight that aren’t likely to make into more conventional formats (at least not yet). I’ve also appreciated the supportive emails I’ve received from lots of readers, and even smiled at some of the snarky comments from some who seem less-than-enthralled (if not downright hostile).  Forgive me if I don’t read them all or respond; I am trying to retain some semblance of a normal life.

The downside? Obvious: it’s a big time-sink, and I’m still trying to figure out how to write my next book while doing this gig. Writing a solo blog can have a certain treadmill-like quality to it, and there have been a few mornings where I approach my laptop with a sense of obligation rather than zest. And there are those cringe-worthy moments when I realize I’ve made an obvious mistake; thankfully, there haven’t been too many of those.

But on the whole, it’s been a fun ride and I’m looking forward to Year 2. If peace breaks out, expect to read more about arts and music and less about fear, greed, stupidity, corruption and other enduring features of world politics. But don’t hold your breath.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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