Professor’s blog keeps OU in the news, world informed on Mideast nation
Merrill Jones, The Oklahoma Daily
The dare came in 2003.
Laura Gibbs, an online arts and sciences instructor, challenged Joshua Landis, international and area studies professor, to create his own blog.
“At the time I was working for IT, and it was my job to see how faculty could use technology to share their stuff with the broader community,” Gibbs said. “Landis was perfect for that since he’s interested in things around the world.”
Landis, co-director of Middle East studies at OU, accepted the challenge. He decided to blog about what he knew the most: Syria.
Five years and thousands of blog posts later, Landis is regarded by many as one of the world’s leading experts on Syria. He serves as an intermediary between U.S. government officials and the Syrian ambassador, and frequently advises Central Intelligence Agency and State Department officials in Washington — all because of a blog.
“It’s not the ideal situation, because it’s like playing telephone when you’re a kid,” Landis said of the communication among himself, Syrian and U.S. officials. “But it’s certainly better than no communication at all.”
After President George W. Bush and his administration forbade U.S. officials to interact with their Syrian counterparts, Landis stepped in as a primary go-between. He’s already flown to Washington three times this semester to meet with various government agencies.
“Before, there was no forum for dialogue between the countries,” Landis said. “This site makes that difference.”
On his blog, “Syria Comment,” Landis rounds up all relevant Syrian news and adds his own expertise or opinion. The blog is read by many abroad, and by officials and policy makers in Washington.
“There aren’t too many experts on Syria,” he said. “This is sort of a one-stop shop for news. Anyone can comment on it if they want.”
Shortly after he launched “Syria Comment,” Landis started receiving e-mails and comments from people around the globe. The feedback now comes in mass numbers — more than 2,000 page views daily and more than 35,000 unique views each month.
“It’s great for him, but it has also paid off for all of us,” Gibbs said. “Getting out the news about Syria is a public service.”
Running a globally-popular blog isn’t easy. Landis said his work begins at 6 a.m. daily. He usually spends three to four hours on the blog before answering numerous e-mails. Add that to teaching responsibilities, constant media interviews, trips to Washington and a family, with whom he lives in the faculty-in-residence apartment in Walker Center, and Landis’ job is demanding.
Since the inception of Syria Comment, Landis has appeared on every major news network as a Syria expert. He has also been featured on the BBC and in foreign publications like the Asia Times. He said he’s been mentioned in more than 2,000 news stories in the last two years, and he’s done more than 50 interviews since the U.S. raid in Syria less than two weeks ago. Each time Landis appears in the media, OU gets free publicity.
“He is one of, if not the leading expert in the country on Syria,“ said Zach Messitte, vice provost for international programs and associate professor of international and area studies at OU. “The blog has turned into a must-read for anyone doing work with international policy. Of the IAS faculty, he is the most frequently cited person in the media.”
Landis said his interest in international politics was sparked in college. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, Landis was a Fulbright Scholar in Lebanon while the country was in the midst of a civil war.
Then he went to the University of Damascus in Syria, where he said he became wedded to studying Syria and the Middle East.
“It was a big adventure,” he said.
An adventure that led to a world-famous blog, which is read by thousands daily.
Landis credits technology for much of his success. He said the Internet has made it possible for professors in Oklahoma to influence policy and decision-making worldwide.
“Here I am at the University of Oklahoma, which you would think is in the middle of nowhere,” Landis said. “But the Internet allows faculty at OU to play a major role in international politics. Now I’m part of a much larger dialogue. I get e-mails from alumni all the time and they tell me it’s nice to see someone from OU on the news, instead of people from Harvard or Columbia.”