foreignpolicy | But instead of sulking, whining, or grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift, Kendrick used his scheduled Grammy performance to make Imagine Dragons, one of the year's top-selling rock bands, into his backup band and, well, let Kendrick tell it: "I need you to recognize that Plan B is to win your hearts right here while we're at the Grammys." And he did, with a triumphant, uncompromising performance that brought down the house and momentarily made the Grammys matter again. Instead of brooding over the ignorance of the gatekeepers, Kendrick just seized the moment and went out and relegated them to irrelevance.
That's what academic bloggers have been doing for the last decade: ignoring hierarchies and traditional venues and instead hustling on our own terms. Instead of lamenting over the absence of an outlet for academics to publish high-quality work, we wrote blogs on the things we cared about and created venues like the Middle East Channel and the Monkey Cage. Academic blogs and new primarily online publications rapidly evolved into a dense, noisy, and highly competitive ecosystem where established scholars, rising young stars, and diverse voices battled and collaborated.
These new forms of public engagement, whether on personal blogs or the Duck of Minerva or Political Violence or the Monkey Cage or Foreign Policy or EzraStan or the countless other outlets now available for online publication, are exactly where academics need to be if they want to fulfil their own educational, policy, or research missions. Online publishing actually reaches people and informs public debates that matter. The marketplace of ideas is intensely competitive, and if scholars want their ideas to compete, then they need to get out there and compete.
This seems so obvious that it's sometimes hard to know what thearguments are all about. Some of it is no doubt nostalgic anxiety for an older, more regulated, hierarchical world, and some of it is driven by the admittedly noxious nature of a lot of online commentary. The ISA's president, Harvey Starr, defended the proposed policy as necessary to preserve a "professional environment" in light of the kinds of discourse often found online. Many of the profession's gatekeepers recoil from the public nature of the intellectual combat, as well as from the invective, personal abuse, and intense stupidity that populate most comment sections and the occasional Twitter feed.
But Kendrick Lamar, along with everything that produced him, shows exactly why the ISA would be insane to try to block its membership from blogging or engaging at all levels with the public sphere. It might as well try to outlaw gravity or place restraints on the moon's orbit. If scholars want to have impact on public policy debates -- and many don't, and that's fine -- then there's really no option. You have to play the game to change the game.
Blogs and other online publications should be seen as the equivalent of the mixtapes in the hip-hop world. Mixtapes emerged in hip-hop, far more than in most other musical genres, as a way for rising artists to gain attention, build a fan base, display their talents, and battle their rivals. Sometimes they would be sold at shows or on websites, but more often they would be given away for free on the Internet. Mixtapes would often feature tracks that weren't quite ready for prime time or were recorded over somebody else's beat, but demonstrated the quality and originality of the artist's vision.
Where the earlier generation of rappers found fame through signing a deal and a major label release (the equivalent of getting a tenure-track job straight out of grad school), mid-2000s monsters like 50 Cent and Lil Wayne broke through with their mixtapes. The current generation of stars followed in their paths: Drake, Wale, J. Cole, B.o.B, and company were defined by, and arguably did their best work, not on their formulaic, label-shaped albums but on their earlier creator-shaped mixtapes. But -- and it's an important but -- they couldn't actually consolidate their careers without the major-label deal. Academics need to understand the implications of both dimensions of this new structure of the field: The road to a major-label deal (tenure-track job) lies through the mixtapes (blogs), but career success (tenure) still requires successful albums (books and journal articles).