The Invisible College

JBD_square.jpg By Nick Li

Brad DeLong is an economics professor at UC Berkeley where I go to school. I recently came across an article of his that provides his musings on the "invisible college" and he uses the phrase in his title (well before this blog was founded) – clearly the phrase coined by Oscar Schachter is beginning to enter the popular lexicon. The important background to this article is that Brad sometimes gets criticism these days for not publishing "serious" economic papers and devoting so much time to his blog, which is one of the most popular economics blogs on the web. So this article constitutes a defense of blogging as a worthwhile activity by a serious academic, and helps people like us feel less like ego-maniacs who think we have something important to say or serial procrastinators who should be doing real work (though we are those things sometimes too). The full article is reproduced below. 

CAN BLOGGING DERAIL YOUR CAREER? The Invisible College By J. BRADFORD DELONG Right now I’m looking out my office window, perched above the large, grassy, Frisbee-playing, picnicking, and sunbathing area that stretches through Berkeley’s campus. I’m looking straight out at the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a view that I marvel at every day I wonder why the chancellor hasn’t confiscated such offices and rented them out to hedge funds to improve the university’s finances. I walk out my door and look around: at the offices of professors who know more about topics like the history of the international monetary system or the evolution of income distribution than any other human beings alive, and at graduate students hanging out in the lounge. It’s a brilliant intellectual community, this little slice of the world that is our visible college. You run into people in the hall and the lounge, and you learn interesting things. Paradise. For an academic, at least. But I am greedy. I want more. 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. Plus, Web logging is an excellent procrastination tool. Don’t feel like grading? Don’t feel like writing that ad hoc committee report or completing the revisions demanded by clueless referee X? Write on your Web log and get the warm glow of having accomplished something. Plus, every legitimate economist who has worked in government has left swearing to do everything possible to raise the level of debate and to communicate with a mass audience rather than merely an ivory-tower audience. That is true of those on the right as well as the left. Web logging is a promising way to do that. Plus, there is the hope that someday, somehow, all of this will develop in a way to provide useful tools for teaching or marketing one’s books, or something ? that Web logging is a lottery ticket to something in the future, unknown but good. Plus ? and this is the biggest plus ? it is a play in the intellectual influence game. My blog got about 20,000 page-views a day last month. 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. Are our deans impressed? 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. J. Bradford DeLong is a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley. His blog can be found at

2 thoughts on “The Invisible College

  1. To me, the fun of blogging is the comments you get; and if you don’t get them, that must mean something as well. But what? I don’t know…. And then there’s the surprises. Once I thought I was replying to a comment by a young student who called himself Mr. Dontbelieveit, but it actually turned out to be a grandmother (see here).

  2. Actually, I haven’t been criticized by anybody except for one guy who I would characterize as… somewhat loony.

    The general line is:

    (a) It’s an interesting move in the public education game
    (b) It’s an interesting move in the intellectual influence game
    (c) Whether it’s a cost effective move is unclear
    (d) Nevertheless, somebody should be doing it to see–and we are glad that you, Alex, Tyler, Greg, Jim, Menzie, Mark, and company are doing so…

    It’s an adventure. Come by for office hours sometime: W2-whenever, in Evans 601 or 611…

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