Academic Blogging Revisited
(x-posted to The Valve)
It’s been a little more than a year since I began blogging under my own name, began contributing to The Valve, and generally took my first steps towards noticeably academic blogging. It’s a new school year, and the topic of academic blogging is in the air again. Here at UC Irvine, The School of Humanities convened a panel with Scott Kaufman and five faculty members, which Scott announced here. Simultaneously, at Inside Higher Ed, both Scott and Adam Kotsko have written new articles on academic blogging: “An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogging” and “A Skeptic’s Take on Academic Blogging,” respectively. Scott’s article is very kind, by which I mean full of tall tales and outright lies written in the best Americanist tradition. It has a number of salient points; so does Adam’s piece. N. Pepperell, who blogs at Rough Theory, has just been asked to join a blog syndicator managed and promoted by her university; her wonderful, ambivalent response is here.
I also recommend a couple of earlier artifacts: the panel presentation on academic blogging at UC Davis (podcast), and Bitch Ph.D’s article on academic blogging. When I wrote my own earlier piece on academic blogging, entitled “The Ivory Webpage,” I argued that intellectual blogging was a more important genre than academic blogging, and that the former could (and should) subsume the latter.
I still hold that view, and yet it seems to me that academic blogging — done by students and faculty at institutions of higher learning, noticeably overlapping with scholarly work carried out by other means — has had a great impact on blogging as a whole, and may become more influential still. The fact is that academics in the humanities have a lot in common with bloggers: the list of the 25 most frequently used tags for WordPress blog posts includes “art,” “culture,” “books,” “writing,” and “poetry.” I might refine my earlier term, “intellectual blogging,” into “humanistic blogging.”
The term “academic blogging” is something of a misnomer; in my experience, most discussions about academic blogs concern blogs within the humanities and the human sciences. Scott and I are graduate students in English, Bitch Ph.D. does her academic work in English, Adam studies theology and philosophy, and N. Pepperell works on philosophy and social systems. There are of course math blogs, physics blogs, and the like, just as there are technology blogs, but these blogs attract a more specialized readership, and do not suffer routine crises of identity.
Part of the reason that math blogs (or, say, blogs about video games) do not undergo the sometimes tempestuous Bildung (development) of humanistic blogs is that they are usually focused on information and evaluation. They are fairly impersonal by nature; they try to build credibility, rather than building a style, though they may be stylishly done. Ultimately, this is a large part of Adam’s vision for blogging within the humanities: “bringing new scholarly research to the attention of an interdisciplinary audience.” Creating a new scholarly news feed is a perfectly legitimate vision for any given blog, but it fails to capture the potential of academic blogging as a whole.
Bitch Ph.D., writing from the standpoint of a blog author, captured that potential very well:
In effect, my blog was doing more or less the same thing that 18th-century periodical essayists were doing: writing more-or-less personal essays on a regular schedule, using a consistent eponymous pseudonym, about topics from politics to the latest news to what the author dreamt last night or where he or she had dinner, and what the company talked about.
When you consider how the work of bloggers echoes the more-or-less personal essays of Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, or Joan Didion, you can see how the individual act of reckoning the world through writing poses many of the same challenges as literary creation, and also provides a foundation for substantial political and philosophical debates. A news feed is something else entirely, and perhaps something less urgent. After all, searching the Internet already yields rich returns, and all major commercial sites involved with culture (Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, and so on) have created ways for users to share information and publish evaluative opinions.
Also, I want to challenge Bitch PhD’s 18th Century frame by suggesting, firstly, that her own blog draws on the often highly personal writing of first-wave feminism, and secondly, that most good humanistic blogs are similar conglomerates. Eileen Joy’s contributions to In The Middle, which frequently (but not always) concern medieval studies, seem to me ideologically grounded in the deep tradition of Renaissance humanism. Steve M, who blogs at This Space, writes in a style reminiscent of the great literary reviews of the 20s and 30s. Within this new diversity of recombinant forms, the archive is reborn: to the extent that Aristotelian moderation, or Romantic sentiments of yearning and disillusionment, are still vital elements of our intellectual culture, they are also recognizable voices within blogging communities.
Still, there is more than the work of single authors at stake here: both Scott and Adam raise the issue of relationships between bloggers, and even of the relationships between different group blogs. For Scott, academic blogs supplement and maintain friendships founded upon shared intellectual excitement and the exchange of ideas. People who read and comment on each other’s blogs gain an understanding of each other as people — they come to imagine a certain unity of sensibility and scholarship in the other person, and understand that unity sympathetically, as mirroring their own tangled aptitudes, passions, and contingent histories. Scott’s closing note of pathos, “[blogs] ensure you’re not forgotten,” means more than the usual desire for literary fame. Bloggers become part of each other’s lives.
Adam, by contrast, writes that bloggers seek each other out of loneliness. He writes, “I know that my interest in blogs peaked when I was living in the rural town where my undergraduate institution was located. I was fortunate enough to find a vibrant intellectual community in Chicago, so that I frankly don’t need blogs as much as I once did.” I think he is right to an extent. One’s interest in blogging is intensified by periods of isolation, and many blogs go under once their authors become sufficiently comfortable — a partner, enough friends, the right job, more concrete hobbies.
While that may appear to be a natural fate for a blog, it is also true that many would-be artists let go of those ambitions when they reach a certain age. Loneliness, sexual frustration, boredom, and even poverty have been fuel for incredibly successful works of art, and we recognize both that art can be poor compensation, and also that it exceeds its sometimes banal origins. Given the political potential of intellectual debate, the democratic possibilities of online media, and the uncertainty and dispersal that afflicts the humanities, there are professional, political, and disciplinary reasons to go on blogging, as indeed Adam has. Paradoxically, the humanities are universally perceived as “in trouble” at a moment when culture and criticism are thriving: new journals, new novelists, a whole new era for television serials, an explosion of independent music and film, and new homes on the web for criticism (Pitchfork, Slate, Salon) and imaginative work (YouTube and other video hosting, webcomics, hypertext fictions, etc). Humanistic blogs are one way of restoring the connection between scholarly tradition and the new plenitude of culture.
There is no real competition between socializing and blogging. If you think of blogging as an opportunity to find other people who share your particular interests, then the pingbacks will be just as far-flung as they are when scholars do traditional kinds of research. Academics travel all over the world to discuss their work with others. Furthermore, most people maintain friendships and/or romantic relationships across long distances, via phone and email, and now sometimes through blogs. It used to be the case that people would beg off of Facebook or Friendster because they “had plenty of friends in real life,” and didn’t need to participate in cyber-stalking and faked intimacy. Now Facebook and Friendster are simply part of our social existence, with no stigma attached.
Scott revels in the way that the celebrity hierarchy of blogging disrupts conventional academic hierarchies, just as he revels in the personal understanding that develops between one blogger and another, and between bloggers and vocal readers. Adam, by contrast, accuses blogs of creating disparities of power, in part because of the way commenting works, and in part because he thinks blogs like The Valve mimic traditional institutional power structures. Scott imagines himself making new friends, and meeting new colleagues, with a lot of overlap between those two groups; Adam looks nostalgically back on a series of blog conversations (about German thinker Walter Benjamin) that happened across blogs, rather than within comment threads.
Again, Adam makes a good point. Commenting is a pain, even just practically speaking. The comment boxes are too small, formatting is difficult, user authentication and anti-spam verification are unreliable, being held in the moderation queue is frustrating, and keeping track of new comments is difficult on most blogs. Furthermore, blogging produces celebrity. As bloggers get more famous, they tend to act like celebrities. They write fewer and fewer replies to commenters, becoming inaccessible and dismissive while often continuing to pay lip service to the people’s democracy of the Internet. If bloggers act like celebrities, they will get snarky comments, even if they have twenty readers. By the same token, many commenters are driven by the medium to become far more condescending and querulous than they would be otherwise. They complain about circled wagons whenever they find themselves in the minority. They take their revenge for showing up in the fine print, but nobody comes away satisfied. For all these reasons, Adam’s preference for inter-blog conversations makes sense.
However, it is possible for comments to resemble the polite, earnest questions that presenters at conferences receive, the responses likewise. A comment thread can also sound like, and equal, a town hall meeting or a witty trail of multiply-authored graffiti. Scott has particularly encouraged comments in those three categories, and has made a point of posting links to specific comments, such that over time the comment threads at Acephalous have become worthwhile and meaningful; the environment has become disposed that way.
Adam’s advocacy for de-centered blog conversations, as opposed to Scott’s more straightforward faith in cooperatives like The Valve, reminds me of the political debates I sometimes have with anarchists about acceptable organizing means. For a blog really to function the way Adam wants, it would have to be maintained by an individual, without any major disciplinary allegiance, and arguably without many readers. Readers create power and attract favorable attention from institutions, particularly if the readers are willing to comment and cheer; group blogs tend to promote intra-blog sympathy (one author coming to the defense of another) and emphasize ideological commonalities; blogging “in the discipline” employs the same strategies that confer power within traditional academic spheres, such as scholarly citation. In reality, there are lots of blogs that remain aloof and obscure, but few of them have committed authors who blog several times per week, since the incentives aren’t there. Since the blogosphere is not limited in its territory, there’s no reason why an author couldn’t maintain one or more conversational, “de-centered” blogs, while simultaneously participating in other forms of collective authorship. Idealizing a sheer lack of organization means wanting the benefits of blogging to be exclusively about an individual’s private intellectual speculation, assuming she can even find that small, centerless circle of like-minded folks without some institutional map. This has its place, but isn’t the only thing blogging can achieve.
Bloggers deal with institutional power every day; the Chronicle of Higher Education is almost exclusively for and about institutions of higher learning. If blogging itself is to become a valuable resource for a broad group of readers, and a force for change within the academy, bloggers must embrace the power that organization and collectivity confers. The alternative is innovation in a vacuum. The fact that, at certain times, collaboration produces turf wars, is evidence of the fact that something emerges therein worth fighting for. Readers do not, as we sometimes imagine, flee in horror from fierce debates across blog lines; instead, that is often precisely what engages their interest, skeptics and enthusiasts alike.
De-centered blog conversations are often stepping-stones to mainstream work: ironing the kinks out of a journal article, gathering sources for a dissertation, drafting a keynote address or the chapter of a book. They are adjunct to academic institutions. But the opportunity exists to turn blogging into something more than an interstitial occupation, for the lonely times, and the idle times. It can be the practice, as vital in scholarship as in friendship among equals, of discovering a voice.