Blogging: Accept No Substitutes!

Lady (Waterhouse)Some time ago (two years, to be precise — where does the time go?!), I wrote a testy post about some things Leonard Cassuto said about blogging in an online discussion about academic publishing. One of my chief complaints was that he threw “a veil of pragmatism” over “an argument for accepting (even reinforcing) the status quo”:

Yes, it’s true: there is a “prestige deficit.” But I would have expected a discussion about ways the digital age is changing academic publishing to at least evaluate, if not actually challenge, that normative thinking. . . . We might also consider whether there are other goals in academic publishing (particularly related to work in progress or collaboration) or other values (such as open access) that are better served by non-traditional forms including blogging.

“Nobody that I know of,” I went on to say, “is trying to argue that blogging in general, or even particular highly scholarly blogs, should replace traditional publications.” As far as I’m concerned, the question should always be what forms of publication best serve the multiple goals and interests that motivate us to write and publish in the first place. These are diverse, and so too, I think should be our styles and outlets.

Plus ça change… The debate about what place, if any, blogging has in academic publishing not only continues but continues to stress the is over the ought.  A post this weekend at ‘dagblog’ explained the way things are:

You can’t blog your way to a tenure-track professorship. You simply can’t. Even a gig at IHE orThe Chronicle for Higher Education is not enough. That doesn’t mean blogging is not professionally useful to you. It means you need to be clear about what it’s useful for.

Blogging and other social media serve academics by bringing you to other people’s attention and building your professional network. It works largely as publicity for your other work, and it widens your potential audience while strengthening your connections. . . .

 What blogging never does is substitute for other academic writing. It doesn’t get counted as scholarship. It does not serve as an employment credential. (If you wish to argue that it should, I can’t help you. I’m interested in describing what is, not what ought to be…)

I don’t altogether disagree with this as a statement of how things are. In fact, I made similar points in my own post “Should Graduate Students Blog?“:

it would be naive to ignore that blogging (for some good and some bad reasons) is not yet widely recognized as a legitimate form of academic publishing and that the case for it as productive academic work at all remains a difficult one to make. Graduate students aspiring to tenure-track positions hardly need to be told that for most hiring committees, the crucial measure of their competitiveness as candidates will be the number of conventional peer-reviewed scholarly publications on their c.v.–and the more prestigious the venue, the better.

I also said, however, that

blogging is increasingly acknowledged as having a place in the overall ecology of academic scholarship. Graduate students who choose to blog should by now be able to make a thoughtful and well-supported case for the value of that effort as part of their overall scholarly portfolio.

Notice that I do not say that it “substitutes” for other academic writing but that it has a place alongside what we have for some time (but not for-absolutely-ever) seen as the only legitimate (that is, countable for hiring / tenure / promotion) forms of academic writing.

I strongly believe this, and I have some local evidence that such a view is taking hold: the recently developed Tenure & Promotion guidelines in my own Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences include, under the heading “Indicators of Academic Research and Scholarship” (and right after “peer-reviewed publications or performances)”,  “Other forms of publication or public performance, peer-reviewed or otherwise, in venues such as blogs, policy publications, public concerts, etc.” I don’t know if acknowledging that this is a pretty significant change sounds like the kind of “blog triumphalism” dismissed as passé in the dagblog comments thread — but it certainly seems significant to me.

But this is still focusing on the is, rather than the ought. Is acknowledging blogging as a valuable supplement to other kinds of academic writing and publishing as far as we ought to go? As Ted Underwood notes in his comment at dagblog, “blog is a baggy category.” So too, I’d add, is “academic writing,” which comes in many flavors even within any given discipline. Of most interest to me is, of course, my own discipline, in which the bulk of academic writing falls into the extremely baggy category “literary criticism.”

After reading the dagblog article on the weekend, I tweeted, “If your job is criticism and you write criticism on your blog, why doesn’t that “substitute” for academic writing?” In response, Miriam Burstein asked, “Is it really equivalent, though? I think of much blogged crit as being, at best, like a highly-polished 1st draft…Something that may take 3-5 days is a “long” composition time for a blog, as opposed to 2-3 mos. for an article.” I agree that these two kinds of publication are not the same thing. As far as that goes, if by “substitution” we mean “replacing with something that’s exactly the same,” then OK, we’re done.  But I would also say, as I replied to Miriam on Twitter, that a blog post is not the same as a blog, which over time is more than the sum of its individual parts. It’s blogging, not (usually) writing one blog post, that I would argue could be defended as an academic contribution. I would certainly support Miriam’s blog on these grounds! (Notice my careful qualifiers here: I’m sure we can all imagine and may even have seen a blog post that is every bit as substantial and lasting as a conventionally published article, as well as a blog that for whatever reasons is simply not a convincing part of an academic’s portfolio.)

I would say too that the differences between blog posts and academic articles are not all to the disadvantage of the former. And I would say that for literary critics, at least in some ways or some cases, the difference in kind is not as great as all that — not as great as it might be in other fields. It depends, for one thing, on what kind of literary criticism we’re talking about. In the dagblog post,  the author suggests that

the distinction [between blogging and scholarship] doesn’t pose a problem to science bloggers, or to most social scientists or historians, where the difference between a journal article and a blog essay is usually self-evident. But it can be tricky for people who work in literature or cultural studies, who can be tempted to blur the distinction between writing scholarship about new media and doing other writing on new media platforms.

That makes us literary types sound kind of clueless! (I admit, however, there’s some justice in that comment, as I have more than once explained to my own colleagues that no, writing literary criticism online does not mean I’m doing “digital humanities.”) I’d actually like to suggest, though, that, setting aside that kind of confusion between content and form, “the difference between a journal article and a blog essay”  is not entirely self-evident when we’re talking about literary criticism, and that’s precisely because literary criticism is not a science or a social science. Our preoccupation with publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals reflects some anxiety on our part about that: it’s a kind of scientism that has been beneficial in making some aspects of literary scholarship more rigorous and accountable, more historically attentive, and more theoretically sophisticated, but that has also shaped our profession and our professional lives in occasionally disheartening ways. To be taken seriously, we know we have to look serious, which means avoiding at all costs what was scathingly described (by a peer reviewer of my one and only — and of course unsuccessful — SSHRC application) as “the whiff of belles-lettres.” Bonnard The Letter

There are kinds of literary research and scholarship that have a lot in common with history and the social sciences, or that are so well insulated with theoretical implications that no such unsavory whiff could possibly be detected. But a lot of what literary academics do is not so much produce new knowledge as pursue new understandings of, or ways of understanding, literary texts. Careful close readings lie at the heart of many more elaborate scholarly projects. It is certainly possible to do this kind (or this part) of criticism in an open, accessible way, without the specialized language and complex apparatus of argumentation and citation that differentiate academic from non-academic versions of it. Academic training can be hugely beneficial for this enterprise, but such training need not be conspicuous to be effective. We are experts at reading literature in interesting ways and articulating those readings — that’s what we do. What difference does it really make where we do it? Why should we value it, or consider it “professional writing,” only if we do it in a style and form that severely limits the audience for it and the conversation we can have about it?

Where is the self-evident line, then, between the interpretations of novels we find in academic essays and the interpretations of novels we can find on blogs — besides (again) some specialized vocabulary and a lot more footnotes? In both cases we can and should look closely at the quality (the intelligence, the care, the subtlety, the persuasiveness) of the interpretation, but I would argue that there is a fundamental similarity in the activity represented that — while (to reiterate) it does not mean the final products are exactly the same — is at least as important as any differences. It really is the same kind of thing, just done under different circumstances, for different audiences. 

The author of the dagblog post adds in the comments a statement that seems to shift from description to prescription: “blogs are really not good vehicles for academic or professional writing.” Well, again there’s the bagginess problem that makes any such big generalizations about blogs imperfect. But besides that, what I object to is the implication that academic writing really can’t be done in other forms or venues, or that it’s the form or venue, not the content or purpose, that defines “academic or professional writing.” That may be true pragmatically, and in some disciplines it may be necessarily true (I’ll let scholars in those fields hash this out), but at least for literary folks, I think a case can be made that, as literary criticism is our profession, any time we engage in it we are doing professional writing. The desire to draw a firm line between what we do in academic journals and what we do elsewhere seems to me more reflective of our desire to defend ‘professing English’ as a profession than with any really principled or inevitable difference between the two. And, again, the results of that effort have not been altogether salutary, for criticism or for our profession.

jameswoodHere’s another way to think about the academic / non-academic divide. James Wood has done (as far as I’m aware) no conventional academic publishing (including How Fiction Works, which, however interesting and thought-provoking, is not really scholarly). However, he holds an academic appointment: he is the Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism in Harvard’s English Department. Sure, it’s Harvard and he’s James Wood — but can’t we take away from this high-profile blurring of the boundaries between the academic and the non-academic critical worlds some support for other critics, at least as qualified as Wood, to practise criticism in other ways and other places than scholarly journals? And if we can make that concession, why not accept blogs as one perfectly good place for some of that work? Aren’t there even advantages to making the academy more porous, to engaging more personally and, yes, casually, with the rest of the world? It’s not as if academics are the only ones interested in literature, after all. In Canada we have been hearing a lot about ‘knowledge mobilization‘: if some of the value of conventional peer-reviewed publications is precisely their stability, the value of blogs could be said to be their mobility, their flexibility, and, in their own way, their accountability — because after all, there they are, open for anyone to read and argue with. Their basic model is coduction – again, not a scientific model, but one supremely well suited to the ongoing process that is criticism.

I understand the pragmatic issues, but if we think there is both intellectual and professional value in changing the norms of our profession, we have to keep making the argument, not shrugging our shoulders and reiterating the status quo. As I said in a further back-and-forth with Cassuto, this is a job for “senior, ‘established,’ faculty” above all:

we are the ones in a position to encourage alternative models of productivity and scholarship, and if blogging is valuable to me in the ways I described, there would be real hypocrisy in my case if I didn’t consider it valuable work for people at earlier stages of their careers and work to recognize it as such when they do it.

 I don’t know how much my own advocacy affected my faculty’s new T&P guidelines: I wasn’t on the committee and made no direct submission to it. But I have given three presentations at Dalhousie on blogging and academic publishing, including at a faculty research retreat, and I’ve been including my blog on my c.v. and a statement on blogging in my annual report for six years now. So I’m doing my best to walk the walk.

What matters to me most, though, is that I continue to practice literary criticism, including on my blog. That’s what I trained for, after all. I’ve made conventional academic contributions to my field, and that specialized work informs all the other writing I do. Blogging, though, is where I have the most fun with that expertise, and make it the most freely available. My scholarly articles and books are, I hope, good of their kind — but they are no substitute for Novel Readings!

Update: a shortened version of this post ran on the LSE Impact blog.

14 thoughts on “Blogging: Accept No Substitutes!

  1. Jo VanEvery June 5, 2013 / 3:35 pm

    I think you nailed it when you say that this is about the profession of professing English. That snide comment about the whiff of belles lettres is such an obvious distancing statement (from some kind of hobby of the aristocracy).

    I’m on your side about the importance of using one’s academic training to have a broader influence on relevant areas of the world. However, there are some who see the blurring of this boundary as endangering their ability to earn a living as professional professors.

    The issues about where we publish are fundamentally the same issues as we need to address with students in explaining the difference between reading and discussing books in a neighbourhood book club and reading and discussing books in an English Literature class at University. Some people’s response to the denigration of the latter as the former is to reinforce the boundaries and assert that there is something special and important about the professional scholar. The jury is out as to whether that helps or not.


    • Rohan June 7, 2013 / 4:51 am

      The issues you raise are so interesting, Jo. I do, of course, think there are things scholars do that are different (and important) — but as you suggest, that doesn’t necessarily mean denigrating other related activities.


  2. litlove June 6, 2013 / 10:58 am

    In the UK the huge hoopla that universities have to go through every few years to get government money has changed the goalposts. One of the biggest factors now is proving that your research has ‘relevance’. Now in many ways, I’m not against this. Even if there are proportionally a lot fewer people interested in literature than computer games, say, the number of people interested across the English speaking world is still large. It’s good to get as many of them as possible into the conversation. I’m with Leavis, who said back in the 60s that the great thing about literature was that it invited everyone into the debate about culture and society, everyone could voice their thoughts. Whereas the discourse surrounding science is inevitably exclusionary – you have to be trained to understand it. Well you can see where I’m going with this – blogging is the most out-there, crowd-pleasing, audience-reaching thing that an academic will do. It’s a great way to gauge relevance, and to revel in it.

    What I particularly liked about blogging when I was still an academic is the freedom it gives you to pursue ideas, to work creatively. Whether we realise it or not, writing in academia is very restricted and channeled by fierce guideline. You can’t just say, hey I’m going to stick these two authors together and compare them because my gut instinct says there’s something there. But you can blog about it, and see where the ideas take you. I agree with you completely that blogging is a great playground, and isn’t that what we want in the arts – a lifeline to fun and spontaneity? Of course we can take those ideas away and hone them and chisel them into the perfect academic essay for consumption by a tiny minority. But how can it be wrong to want to explore those ideas, test them out, play with them, think them through in a sympathetic public arena?

    You’ve always been very clear, Rohan, that blogging is not a substitute for any other kind of writing. I don’t understand how it can possibly threaten any other kind. It is its own thing, and valuable in lots of ways, not least spreading an inclusive and interesting message about literature and the things we do with it.


    • Rohan June 7, 2013 / 4:56 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, litlove. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the idea of ‘popularizing’ – a scientist who blogs, at least one aiming to engage a non-scientific audience, would probably be doing something that doesn’t look that much like the practice of science, but would be explaining or popularizing science. With literary criticism, the difference seems less to me: we write about books as professional scholars, and we write about books on a blog … There are (or can be) lots of differences in style and approach, but the core activity is the same.

      I agree about the freedom of blogging and the restrictions of academic writing. I think Open Letters is a great intermediate form: essays there are more polished and self-contained than (most) blog posts, and are edited scrupulously by more people than the author — and aim at more completeness, if not authority — but there’s still a lot of room to use your own voice, and there aren’t the requirements of annotation or theoretical frameworks etc.


  3. Shelley June 6, 2013 / 12:17 pm

    This essay is well worth it if for no other reason than the phrase “prestige deficit”!

    First time I’ve heard that. Fits so many situations….


    • Rohan June 7, 2013 / 4:57 am

      It does fit a lot of situations, doesn’t it? And across lots of different publishing venues.


  4. Jeffry A. House June 7, 2013 / 12:36 am

    I don’t quite understand why Open Letters Monthly cannot be considered, or at least cannot develop into, a prestigious professional journal. Is the editorial process here something which falls short of “peer review”? Does the format require less elaborate arguments than a full-fledged article in an established journal would?

    Historically, many important literary magazines were established outside of the Academy, yet contributed hugely to literary culture.

    It does seem that professors must knock at select prestigious doors if they expect advancement within their field. The praetorian guard enforcing professional standards at the most sought-after professional journals also keeps the general public away. Blogging, which straddles those standards, promises to increase the number of people who follow literary debates, and read the works being discussed. That, to me, is even more important than even the best professional article about Ulysses or Moby Dick.


  5. Rohan June 7, 2013 / 5:08 am

    Jeffry, that’s such an interesting question. The journal itself (as opposed to the affiliated blogs, like this one) does have a pretty rigorous editorial system, but it does not follow the conventional ‘peer review’ protocols familiar to academics (blind submissions, for instance, and anonymous refereeing). And essays for it do not have anything like the scholarly apparatus typical of academic publishing. But you are right about “literary magazines” that have long contributed to literary culture without these forms — the TLS, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, to name the obvious suspects — and then there are other journals (like the Virginia Quarterly Review) that are also less formally scholarly but still very intellectual. Of course, we would love to think that OLM can hold its own in this company! Certainly its best pieces do.

    But publication in these venues (even the most prestigious, long-established ones) does not mean the same thing as peer-reviewed publications when it comes to evaluating a professor’s “productivity,” I’m pretty sure. (The academics who publish in the top tier of them, though, are often at a career stage where they probably don’t need to worry about that.)

    I agree that blogging can do a lot for literary debate broadly speaking, and that that is important. What a lot of people would not agree on is whether an academic contributing in this way is being “productive”. I guess I’ve made pretty clear that I think so — allowing, as always, for evaluating the specifics.

    I also think it’s relevant that academic publication is an amazingly slow process: if communication, rather than professional validation, is its main purpose, the usual methods fulfill it very badly! And that’s not even getting into the vexed issue of open access to those articles when they finally get published. Academics can tell horror stories about the years it takes from submission to publication — blogging is one way to get ideas into circulation and kind of take the pressure off the system!


  6. Simon Lavery June 10, 2013 / 12:46 pm

    Thanks for a stimulating piece. As an ex-academic who’s just started blogging, and is therefore not constrained by the requirement to further his academic career in his literary output, I find your openness to the potential advantages of blogging most refreshing. Surely the academy exists, primarily, to provide an arena, a platform, call it what you will, for discussion, debate and conjecture, as well as for the dissemination of received opinions and atrophied scholarliness.


  7. Rohan June 10, 2013 / 5:08 pm

    Simon, I agree about the academy’s central mission — though I try not to be naive about the institutional realities, some of which are key to supporting my own freedom to experiment in different venues as I have been doing! Welcome to blogging. Unconstrained sounds good!


  8. Levi Stahl September 25, 2014 / 11:12 am

    I understand the reluctance on the part of scholars, given the current environment, to highlight or make claims for their blogging. What I don’t understand is why anyone would be reluctant to do it, nonetheless. Sure, time is always tight, but having an outlet for writing regularly can’t help but be a good thing, right? Surely these thoughts are in your head–what scholar isn’t sort of thinking about their vocation all the time?–so why not write them down, force them into form, refine them? It’s at least as much an investment of time as an expense of time.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 25, 2014 / 6:56 pm

      I think the usual argument is indeed time – but as you say, if you’re thinking about your interests (and perhaps writing informally about them in other ways, including note books and rough drafts), there’s no reason why a blog couldn’t be an extension of that, with the benefit of possibly getting some comments. I know when I was blogging about topics I was also writing conference papers or publications about, it was definitely helpful to me.


  9. Sunita September 25, 2014 / 11:31 am

    Without going into a substantive debate about the differences between blogging and scholarly writing, I wanted to address your example of James Wood’s appointment. In the United States at least, “Professor of Practice” is a specific designation that indicates that research is not part of the criteria for the position. It recognizes and allows departments to appoint talented individuals whose focus might be on teaching, or applied work, or non-academic writing that the academy sees as valuable. So the fact that Wood has that designation, rather than a standard “Professor” designation, is an indication that the university is making a distinction. Duke and several other R1 universities have created this separate track (and it is definitely separate from the standard TT appointment system).


    • Rohan Maitzen September 25, 2014 / 6:57 pm

      That’s a good point, Sunita. I don’t think it is typical to have such a position in the humanities, though, (I could be wrong about that, of course) so it seems to me it is still an innovation in terms of how the discipline conceives of itself.


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