The Invisible College

Brad DeLong has an interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The Invisible College.” From the conforts of a tenured post at Berkeley, one of the handful of best universities on the planet, he muses,

I would like a larger college, an invisible college, of more people to talk to, pointing me to more interesting things. People whose views and opinions I can react to, and who will react to my reasoned and well-thought-out opinions, and to my unreasoned and off-the-cuff ones as well. It would be really nice to have Paul Krugman three doors down, so I could bump into him occasionally and ask, “Hey, Paul, what do you think of .. .” Aggressive younger people interested in public policy and public finance would be excellent. Berkeley is deficient in not having enough right-wingers; a healthy college has a well-diversified intellectual portfolio. The political scientists are too far away to run into by accident — somebody like Dan Drezner would be nice to have around (even if he does get incidence wrong sometimes).

Over the past three years, with the arrival of Web logging, I have been able to add such people to those I bump into — in a virtual sense — every week. My invisible college is paradise squared, for an academic at least.

This is quite true. Indeed, as I remarked at an panel on blogging at an academic conference a while back, blogging has allowed me to live the “Life of the Mind” in a much fuller sense than I had teaching a 4/4 load at a state university. Those not so engaged, however, have yet to be convinced, as DeLong notes:

The hope of all of us who blog is that we will become smarter, do more useful work, be happier and more productive, and will also impress our deans so they will raise our salaries. The first three hopes are clearly true: Academics who blog think more profound thoughts, have a bigger influence on the world — both the academic and the broader worlds — and are happier for it. Are we more productive in an academic sense? Maybe. We will see when things settle down.

As to the dean being impressed? Not so much, for now.

Not so far, but they should be. A lot of a university’s long-run success depends on attracting good undergraduates. Undergraduates and their parents are profoundly influenced by the public face of the university. And these days, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed Web logger like Juan Cole or Dan Drezner is an important part of a university’s public face. Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty. Yale loses from not having an equivalent.

A great university has faculty members who do a great many things — teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, the many things that are “research,” public education, public service, and the turbocharging of the public sphere of information and debate that is a principal reason that governments finance and donors give to universities. Web logs may well be becoming an important part of that last university mission.

If it’s true of the Dan Drezners and Brad DeLongs, it’s especially true for those not teaching at elite institutions. Certainly, I’ve had a more wide-ranging impact, for good or ill, on OTB than I ever did as a professor.

Correction: I originally had DeLong at Stanford, a superb private school in California, rather than Berkeley, the state’s best public university. Thanks to Kevin Drum for the correction.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty.

    I’ll say. But the reputation gained is not a very good one. Then of course, it is Michigan we are talking about…

    Go Buckeyes!