Some Afterthoughts on Academic Blogging

escher12Some follow-up comments on academic blogging, prompted by comments on my previous post here and on Twitter. My main take-away at this point is that there are a number of further refinements that matter to any attempt at generalizing. Here are the ones I’ve been thinking about the most so far:

1. Disciplinarity makes a difference. I was thinking and writing about blogging in “literary studies,” which is what Holbo’s early posts focus on as well as where my own main interests and attention are. I don’t know as much about other fields, but some people suggested that blogging may have gained more ground as a recognized academic activity in other fields (such as history) than it has in English — or perhaps that English, precisely because it is such a vast and scattered “field” to begin with, is less likely to cohere around common conversations (or new models). As Nicholas commented, “the breadth of specialization is just too scattered, much as the whole notion of literature is itself diffuse”; that diversity can be seen as one of the field’s great strengths, but it also guarantees a degree of chaos that makes reform elusive. Nicholas proposes that blogging has taken greater hold in some of the sciences; Robert suggests that “philosophy (and to that I would add economics, sociology, and anthropology) has a thriving world of blogs.” I’m interested in just what “thriving” means. From some perspectives, English has a world of blogs too, if you look at individual blogs (including group blogs), but in terms of the place blogging has in the way the discipline understands and organizes itself professionally, my impression is that in the larger context of academic literary studies, blogging remains a fringe activity.

I have also been thinking that blogging in literary studies may be more likely than blogging in other fields to merge with other forms of non-academic writing — because our main objects of study and analysis are the subject of a lot of commentary by a wider bookish culture (from the NYRB to the vast array of book blogs that have no academic connections or aspirations). The impulse that led some literary academics into blogging may now have led them (or may now be leading others) into writing for sites like Public Books or the Los Angeles Review of Books instead of sustaining individual blogs.

2. Jobs and the job market make a difference. A lot of the most exciting bloggers I followe(ed) — including a number of my Valve colleagues — were graduate students when they started blogging. The energy that went into this new enterprise was tied up with hopes about how the profession might change as they entered it, but, as Aaron Bady ruefully commented on Twitter, “While we were hoping the profession would grow to include blogs, the world decided to shrink the profession.” Questions about whether blogging is (or could be) valuable to academic scholarship in principle need to be carved off from questions about whether blogging is (or was) a good option for those aspiring to enter the profession. I don’t think the two questions are unrelated: whether writing a blog makes it easier or harder for someone to become a full-time academic is bound up in how the profession works — what it values, what it rewards. I have written about some of the pragmatic questions before. In my last post (and a number of my other posts on blogging) I address mostly the principled ones: is blogging something we need as a profession (or, because I know that those securely within the academy are not by any means the sum of those in literary studies, as a community of scholars)? what can it do for us, what has it done for us, where has that energy gone? I have always acknowledged that I am fortunate to be able to persist in my own experiments in non-traditional publishing — to be an academic in my own way — because I have the security of tenure. I have also noted that people in my position need to be advocates for those who take the same risks without the same protections. It’s a big world, though, and attitudes change slowly. It would be wrong not to recognize that however strong a case might be made for academic blogging in theory, in practice some great scholar-bloggers may have lost faith in it because they realized that it was not helping (and may even have been hurting) their professional prospects. (I don’t think it has helped mine, but again, it’s up to me to decide how much I care, else what’s tenure for?) So I would add … 

3. Hope makes a difference. Starting an academic blog, as was pointed out to me by someone off-line, is a pretty optimistic gesture, not just about your work but about your career. Sustaining it takes more than just persistence (not to mention time that could, always, be used for other things). It also takes faith — faith in the value of your work, in your voice, and in your vision of the academy.

4. National frameworks make a difference. A few people pointed out that in the U.K., there seems to be pretty strong interest in blogging, partly because of the new emphasis on “impact” in evaluating research. This is clearly an equivocal blessing, as we discussed on Twitter. Requiring everyone to blog hardly seems right: it’s not a form that suits every one, or every project, and expectations are far too likely to be additive (blog as well as maintaining a stellar record of conventional publications!). Assessing impact is also a tricky business. It would be awful to be judged on the basis of “hits”: we all know that the internet rewards bad behavior, sensationalism, extreme positions, and adorable kitten pictures! We would never ask how many times a peer-reviewed book had been checked out of the library before giving it credit for a tenure or promotion application — and yet when I have asked here about how I might make the case for blogging as part of such an application, I’ve been encouraged to stress exactly such quantitative metrics. I’d be interested to know what my British friends have experienced when they’ve included blogs as part of their scholarly profile. The absence of peer-review is often the first objection raised to counting blogs as academic publications: are we any closer to establishing alternative measures of quality?

The Case for “Intelligent, Bloggy Bookchat By Scholars”: How’s It Looking?

JVCOn Thursday I participated in a Twitter Q&A with the members of Karen Bourrier‘s University of Calgary graduate seminar on Victorian women writers. The students had been assigned my JVC essay on academic blogging (anticipated in my 2011 BAVS presentation, which you can see the Prezi for here, if you aren’t one of those people who get sea-sick from Prezis!). The group showed up very well prepared with questions for me, and the half hour went by in a flash, with me thinking and typing as fast as I could. (Here’s the Storify, if you’re interested.)

In preparation for the session, I did some rereading, not just of my essay but of some of my old meta-blogging posts (many of which are listed under the “On Academia” tab here, or in the “blogging” category). I also looked back a bit further, to John Holbo’s founding post for The Valve, where I was a contributor from 2008 to 201o. I’ve actually reread this essay, “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine,” fairly often over the years, but I hadn’t previously gone back further from it to the Crooked Timber posts it links to on “Academic blogging and literary studies.” The second one of these especially, “Lit Studies Blogging Part II: Better breathing through blogging,” strongly anticipates the Valve essay, while The Valve itself is obviously what Holbo meant when he said “After this post I swear I am going to settle down to just doing the sort of thing I have in mind, rather than talking about how nice it would be to do it. Proof in pudding.”

I’m always swearing off meta-blogging (and meta-criticism more generally). And yet just when I think I’m out, something pulls me back in! This time the trigger is one of the questions I was asked during the Twitter session: whether my thoughts about academic blogging had changed since my essay was published. Also, rereading Holbo’s posts, now a decade old, I found it hard not to wonder: what happened? how did it turn out? Does Holbo’s call for improving the condition of scholarly publishing in the literary humanities by “rub[bing] its sorry limbs vigorously with … conversations” seem outdated now? or misguided? or utopian? Holbo advocated “intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars. . . . That isn’t scholarship,” he acknowledged, “but – in a world with too much scholarship – it may be an indispensable complement to scholarship.” Has that hope for the beneficent effects of blogging fizzled out, or has it been (even to a minor extent) realized? Was Holbo wrong in his premise that academic literary studies were in need of any such thing? Or was he right, but there has proved to be too much inertia in the larger system to which academic scholarship and publication belong (especially, systems of institutional credentialing and validation) for the pro-blogging arguments to make much of a difference?

My immediate answer to the question on Twitter was that my thoughts about blogging have not changed but my attitude has. To explain in more than the 140 characters I could use there, I remain convinced that blogging is (or can be) a good thing in all the ways Holbo talked about, and in some ways he didn’t (my own blogging, for instance, has never been “academic” in quite the ways he emphasizes, such as hunting out and promoting the best academic scholarship, but I stand by its value as a form of criticism). Overall, more academics are probably blogging now than in 2005, though I really don’t have any sense of the big picture and certainly no data to back up this impression. But I haven’t seen much change in the way things operate generally in the academy, and if anything, the number of bloggers actively promoting a significant shift in the way we understand scholarship and publishing seems to have declined. In my own immediate circles, I don’t see any signs that anyone is interested in actually doing any blogging of the kind Holbo described (some do now write blogs that address academic issues or serve professional associations, both good things but different), and I never hear anyone mention reading any academic blogs either (again, with the exception for blogs about academia, rather than “bookchat” blogs of the kind in question). I have no reason to believe most of my colleagues ever read my blog: if they do, they never mention it to me! (That might be different if Novel Readings were more academic and less bookish. I’m never a good example for my own arguments about all this!)

What it looks like to me, more or less (and again, my perspective is inevitably limited, so I’d be interested to hear how others perceive the situation) is that not much has changed since 2005. People who were into blogging then are often still into it (several of my former Valve colleagues, for instance, continue to maintain their personal blogs, though The Valve has been closed for renovation since 2012). But they seem less likely to make claims for, or express hope for, the form as something that can and should change how the profession of literary studies works.  I think blogging as such is no longer likely to be held against you as an academic — but it’s also not going to work for you, particularly at any of the key professional moments (hiring, tenure, promotion), when you’ll still need a defensible record of conventional publishing.

I still see the situation of literary studies pretty much as I did then, which is much the way Holbo describes it in his posts. There’s more published scholarship than we can ever hope to process in a meaningful way, and the reasons for that have more to do with professional imperatives than with any need to churn out so much so fast for the intellectual benefit of so few.   “How many members of the MLA?” asked Holbo in 2005;

30,000? That a nation can support a standing army of literary critics is a wondrous fact, and quite explicable with reference to the volume of freshman papers, etc. that must be marked. The number is inexplicable with reference to any critical project. Yes, we need new scholarship (don’t bother me with more false dichotomies, please.) The point is: no one has a clear (or even unclear) sense of what work in the humanities presently needs approximately 30,000 hands to complete. I don’t mean we should therefore hang our heads in shame, although being a member of a standing army of literary critics must be a semi-comic fate, at least on occasion. But the utter lack of any justification for 30,000 literary critics assiduously beavering away explicating, interpreting, erecting new frameworks, interrogating the boundaries, etc., has consequences. Notably, when a book or article is up for publication and the hurdle is set, ‘if it has real scholarly value’, we discover this condition is just not as intelligible as we would like, conditions being what they are. It isn’t true that literary scholars value the output of 30,000 other literary scholars. They just don’t, and that is quite sensible of them, really.

That seems fair enough, although I also think we  all value the output of a select subgroup of that 30,000, as well as of the larger ends we believe the whole enterprise serves — which is why Holbo was not, and I am not, calling for an end to it all, the way Mark Bauerlein seems to. But the sheer chaotic vastness of it all still occasionally provokes despair.

And, dedicated as I am to preserving the forest, I do often recoil from individual trees — and the less time I spend reading properly “academic” criticism, the harder it is for me to tolerate it when I dip back in. I recognize, however, that other people genuinely relish both reading and writing it, which is more than fine with me, because that’s how (to stick with the arborial metaphor!) the trees I do appreciate are able to take root and flourish. It continues to mystify me, though, that so many academics seem so content to keep planting trees in those woods knowing that hardly anybody will hear their hard-won knowledge or insight when it falls into its safely peer-reviewed place. Even people who have no professional reason to play it safe any more seem oddly uninterested in, or even resistant to, getting the word out about their research in other ways (I say this because I have proposed it to some of them!) — and I get no sense that this has changed in the past decade. Is it anxiety or snobbery that makes it seem preferable to them to hold out for acceptance by a journal or press that will deposit their work safely where almost nobody will read it, rather than to tell other people about it directly through the magic of WordPress? Surely at some point you have enough credibility just to speak for yourself, and you should do that if your actual goal is to increase the overall sum of understanding in the world. Mind you, then you’d also have to try your hand at self-promotion, something else that, as Melonie Fullick has observed, runs against deep-seated academic prejudices.

I always find myself going back to Jo Van Every’s comments about validation vs. communication. The display case in our department lounge, our faculty-wide book launch, the list of recent books by members of NAVSA — these all seem to me monuments to the triumph of validation in academic priorities, because by and large these books and articles (representing so much ardent labor!) are reasonably responded to as Lawrence White (quoted by Holbo) responded to the “current project” of John McWhorter, “some modest essay modestly proposing modest new perspectives on some modest problem in linguistics”:

At this point I say to myself, “Yes, we should all be working hard & earning those paychecks, & I’m sure Professor McWhorter does fine work in his field, & I have no doubts as to his fine intentions, but what are the odds that this essay will make any difference to anything?”

“We have to learn to live,” Holbo observes, “with dignity, with the effluent of institutionalized logorrhea.” That ardent labor is not in vain, and there is dignity in pursuing our scholarly interests rigorously and in achieving our professional goals. (What fate isn’t “semi-comic,” anyway, seen in the right light?) Still, I would add that we ought to learn to let go of the quantitative imperatives that structure our professional processes, as well as to break away from the rigid prestige economy that clearly still governs our publishing priorities. But these changes seem a little less likely to me now than they did in 2007, when I gave my first presentation to my colleagues on blogging — or than they did in 2011 when I made my case at BAVS, or in 2012 when my essay was published.

I’d love to know what other academic bloggers think — especially (but definitely not exclusively) any other former Valve-ers who might be out there. Were we wrong about the problem, or about blogging as a potential solution? What difference, if any, do you think academic blogging has made to academic writing, or publishing, or conversations? Has its moment passed without its potential ever being realized — which is what I rather fear?

“The value of appreciation” — Harrison Solow, Felicity & Barbara Pym

I missed Barbara Pym Reading Week by just a bit. I have been keen to read more Pym and serendipitously picked up a couple of Pym’s novels at a book sale just in time for it (The Sweet Dove Died and A Few Green Leaves). And I ordered Harrison Solow’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, which arrived on schedule. Then other things got in the way and I missed it.

sweet doveI did read The Sweet Dove Died a week or so later, though. It’s a slight little book, yet it wasn’t an easy read for me: I kept picking it up and putting it down and letting myself be diverted to other books. It’s true I’d been on a steady diet of Dick Francis novels and so perhaps my reading senses (they’re like spidey senses only less tingly) were not attuned to Pym’s dry tone and small scale. I was eventually drawn into the pathos (or is it bathos?) of Leonora’s lost loves, and of course I abhorred the loathsome Ned … but I felt as if the larger significance of the subtle nuances were escaping me.

I was afraid that my relative inexperience and lack of success with Pym (I didn’t love Jane and Prudence either, when I read it last year) set me up badly for Felicity & Barbara Pym. It turns out, though, that the opposite was true, as Solow’s charming and slyly provocative book is (in part) a tutorial for someone not altogether unlike me. Not quite or even very much like me, I hope, as the recipient of the letters that compose the novel is a self-absorbed undergraduate who gets a little snippy at blows to her self-esteem. Actually, that last bit sounds kind of familiar … Anyway (as Felicity might say), she’s registered for a seminar on Barbara Pym and Mallory Cooper (whose side of the correspondence is all we see) is called in to provide some advance tutoring.

Felicity initially isn’t much better at appreciating Pym than I was, and Mallory is quick to call her (alright, us) on it:

Your notes aren’t bad. You have touched on a few themes that Pym’s biographers, editors, and critics analyse repeatedly: Silly men. Mousy women. Tea. Religion. Quotations. These are worthy of mention. The fact that you still think nothing happens is not. It merely shows that you do not respond to what does happen in the novel, for whatever reason — innocence, feminism, scepticism, youth, cynicism, thoughtlessness, expectation, or too rapid and therefore too shallow reading of the novel — too light, perhaps, a perception of the economy of expression Miss Pym employs.

OK, OK: I am appropriately shamed and humbled.

solow

Over the rest of the correspondence Mallory — cranky, erudite, witty, persistent — does her best to improve Felicity’s perception, working with her on nuances of dress and class, on historical contexts, on literary relationships (the riff on Religio Medici is particularly memorable), on silly men and, crucially, on the real significance of mousy women:

At best, the cultivation of mousiness is to participate in a distinctive moral past. At worst, it may indeed be a camouflage, brought about by war, under the protective covering of which the wish to inhabit one’s own cosmos peacably can be fulfilled.

“And now,” she continues, “– on to Tea” — and the excursus on tea is a wondrous thing indeed.

The Pym neophyte will benefit enormously from all of this: I have been moved not only to a greater appreciation of The Sweet Dove Died (“There is even an entire Pym novel devoted to the downfall of elegance, beauty, and taste, personified in the character of the colossally self-preoccupied Leonora”) but to a wish to reread Jane and Prudence and to acquire as soon as possible Excellent Women and Less Than Angels (at a minimum).

But the sneaky thing about Felicity & Barbara Pym is that Pym herself (as Solow acknowledges in her Preface) is not exactly the real subject of the book: instead, she’s a device for allowing Mallory — or  Solow — to critique academic approaches to literature she thinks are limited and limiting. Pym’s lack of academic currency (and really, how likely is it that anyone would offer or take an entire seminar on her novels?) makes her useful for this project: “she is such an antithesis to the prevailing attitude.”

It’s a project that could, like Pym, seem “outmoded.” Mallory speaks with nostalgia of a time when universities “were sacred to the pursuit of education, whereas now, for the most part, they are desultorily engaged in the dispensing of narrow expertise.” Her position is not exactly anti-theory: there’s even a theory primer of sorts near the end, which, though brisk and tendentious, is not inaccurate and includes the full URL of a real website at Brock University for “some rather more practical assistance,” perhaps even enlightenment. I might sum it up as a “pre-theory” position: Mallory feels that the literary conversation, particularly but not exclusively in the academy, needs to start with what Solow calls “the context of the civilisation of literature itself” — not just the big picture but the really big picture. “We do not read, after all, as a species,” Solow says in her Preface,

in order that we may deconstruct and dissect. People buy books and borrow books from libraries because they like them. They read, re-read, recommend, learn from, incorporate values from, live by, study, and take to bed at night, books they like; books they appreciate; books they find meaningful.  Appreciation is not perhaps what the university requests of its students today. But it is what writers … deserve.

As Felicity’s tutor, Mallory keeps broadening, rather than narrowing, the field of inquiry, the scope of questions. The ultimate goal, though, is not to ignore the range of theory, interpretation, and scholarship available but to arrive at it equipped with as rich an “appreciation” as possible, so that you can figure out its worth for your reading (and writing) with some independence. “I hope you will not ignore all of these critics,” exhorts Mallory, “for, among the labyrinths of nonsense, there is great, great worth. But that is for you to discover . . . ”

Excellent Women

To some extent I sympathize  with Mallory’s skepticism and impatience with the “labyrinths of nonsense,” and I certainly embrace the idea of appreciation, which is something I often pitch to my own classes as our goal (as opposed to, say, “liking”). The kind of appreciation Mallory endorses is also, crucially, not an anti-intellectual kind. There’s even a paragraph in the book that is eerily like a speech I have given more than once:

I want you to feel — and feel deeply about literature. But I also want you to know why and how these emotions are engendered by the writer, the text (apart from the writer), the words (apart from the text) as well as the relationship between the reader and all of the above. I also want you to be able to take that emotion out of any equation when it is necessary to do so. Otherwise, we could all take courses in “My Favourite Books” and spend endless and idle time in groups resembling your friend’s therapy session “sharing” our feelings about why we just love Gone with the Wind and how cool Harry Potter is. Not that there is anything wrong with that, intrinsically. But it’s not what we do in academic literary studies. If that’s what you want to do, join a book club.

Yet there are aspects of Mallory’s approach, and even more of her tone, that seemed a bit 1990s-culture-wars-ish to me, and I wondered how important it was that Felicity & Barbara Pym is epistolary fiction, rather than a straightforward first-person treatise or polemic: is Mallory herself being ironized even as she’s the vehicle for Felicity’s (re)education? Is her rather prim tone and affected manner a way of placing her at a safe distance? Are we meant to embrace her nostalgia, or to see her as embodying another among the list of theoretical approaches, one that purports to speak for the universal value of literature but that, in doing so, reveals its own limitations? (The book is actually, Solow says, “both fiction and non-fiction”; there are clear biographical parallels, but it’s also clear that we aren’t meant to assume a direct identification of author with speaker.)

Felicity & Barbara Pym, then, provokes as well as amuses. It had lots of connections, sometimes unexpected, to my own adventures in re-thinking literary criticism (speaking of “why we just love Gone with the Wind!). I would recommend Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel over Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, and I didn’t much care for Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, but these are hardly irreconcilable differences to have with a book  so lively and ingenious.

Full disclosure: Harrison Solow and I follow each other on Twitter and have had more than one friendly exchange. I first learned about Felicity & Barbara Pym as a result of this contact — and I’m glad I did.

The May Marks Meeting: That’s What It’s All About

Today we held one of our department’s most cherished and loathed rituals: the “May Marks Meeting.” It’s called that because one of its key elements is the annual review of students’ marks in aid of awarding our departmental scholarships and prizes, and also because we go over the standing of all of our current graduate students. Other fun features include receiving year-end reports from all the department committees.

title_english

In the old days, this meeting used to run all day and leave everyone bitter and exhausted. One reason was that before so much of the university’s business was computerized, things like calculating credit hours and grades often had to be done manually, while many other questions could be settled only by phone calls to the Registrar’s Office. Many of the awards we administer also have very particular terms set by well-intentioned but ill-advised donors that leave too much open to interpretation (word to the wise: if you want to leave a bequest to set up an academic award, please confer with some academics about wording): does “woman student who leads her class in English” mean “woman student majoring in English who has the highest grades”? or, our long-time favorite, what exactly is “an inquiring and original mind”? Oh, the hours, quite literally, that sometimes went into impassioned debate, or frantic recalculations, or reassignment of prize money on the discovery that for some reason the chosen candidate was ineligible!

Over the years we have refined our processes, and not just because we can now call up student records instantly online: wherever possible, we have clarified or set precedents for vague award terms, and we have essentially banned nominations from the floor and shifted the burden of decision making from the department as a whole to our undergraduate committee. Today, only about half an hour was spent on this business. In so many ways, this is a huge improvement — not just because it’s more efficient but because the results are less arbitrary. I would not want any of my colleagues who happened to read this post to imagine that I am in any way nostalgic for the old days! (Well, OK, sometimes I miss the old department lounge, which was a friendlier place to spend a day.)

What I have been thinking since today’s meeting ended, though, is that the half hour we spent talking about the nominees and recipients of our prizes and scholarships was by far the best half hour of the meeting (which, today, actually ran less than 5 hours, including our lunch break). Almost everything else on the table, you see, was bad news: budget woes, declining enrollments, graduate recruiting challenges, disappointing graduate fellowship results. So much of this seems beyond our control (as one colleague finally exclaimed, “Look, I don’t know how to change the Zeitgeist!”), and so much of it seems to reflect not just a broad cultural disengagement from the humanities but the failure of our more immediate leaders to stand up and fight for us — even though, as another colleague pointed out, we teach a lot of students and we do it, on the whole, very cheaply compared to other faculties. When you go to a VP’s office seeking support for something of national significance and get turned down coldly even as all around you are the signs of administrative expansion (not to mention office renovations) … when you’re aware that there is always money for something but that we are constantly told we need to cut and cut  … well, over time it’s pretty demoralizing, and as I’ve written about here before, our work turns nearly as much on our energy and creativity as it does on our expertise and professional training.

Despite the atmosphere of generalized gloom in which we have all been working for some time, though, most of us still find ourselves excited about and renewed by our classroom time and our students. And finally, during that last half hour, that’s what we got to focus on. Listening to people speak with such obvious delight about their students’ merits and successes — from admission to Oxford to clever revisions of 18th-century poems — did a lot to counterbalance the cynicism and pessimism brought on by the earlier items on our agenda. Our collective appreciation of our students as interesting, promising individuals also confirmed (as if I needed it) how much more our teaching is about than “content delivery.” It’s not, ultimately, the marks the students earn that matter the most, after all: it’s the mark they will make in the world. Our role in making that future possible may be difficult to measure, but it’s still important to remember, and to value.

Should Graduate Students Blog?

blogger-logoOn Thursday I’m speaking to our graduate students’ “professionalization” seminar about academic uses of social media, particularly blogging. I’ve given related talks a few times now, but this is the first time I will have led a session about blogging specifically for an audience of graduate students, for whom some of the issues I typically address have somewhat different implications. Thinking about this, I was reminded that last spring Leonard Cassuto (with whom I had a couple of initially testy but ultimately amicable exchanges about the place and value of academic blogging) asked me for my thoughts about whether graduate students should blog. He was working up a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the question that, as far as I know, never ended up in final form — at any rate, I didn’t see it, and he never got back to me to ‘preview’ his use of any quotations from my reply, which he had promised to do. I thought I might as well “repurpose” the response I sent him, as I had taken some pains over it, so here it is, lightly updated. I’d be very interested in any responses, qualifications, objections, or counter-arguments, not least because they will help me refresh my own thinking about this as I head into Thursday’s seminar.

Should Graduate Students Blog?

Should graduate students blog? That’s a tricky question with at least two important aspects to it. One is whether graduate students should blog with the specific aim of advancing their professional academic careers (that is, improving their chances of getting tenure-track work). Another is whether they should blog for its intrinsic benefits.

These are not, of course, entirely separate questions: some of the things that can be gained from blogging (greater ease and confidence in writing, experience with the give-and-take of post-publication peer review, connections with other people in your field but also with a wider audience, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, freedom to experiment with topics and with voice) can contribute to professional success by making better scholars, teachers, and intellectuals of us all. It can also inculcate work habits conducive to producing more conventional publications: regular bloggers can all testify to the ever-present awareness that the blog needs to be fed!

But 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. Though blogging one’s research projects can be a useful stage en route to achieving those conventional publications, or even to finishing the dissertation (Scott Kaufman’s Acephalous blog was once the place to look to see this in action!), in itself it is not the same thing and will almost certainly not be valued in the same way. And maintaining a good blog takes time–not necessarily or exactly time away from that kind of clearly marketable scholarly work and publication, but time that might be better used to focus directly on finishing that thesis and getting those lines for your c.v. There are definitely risks involved, then, in deciding to blog.

That said, 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. I think a crucial point is that this case needs to be backed up by faculty members who can explain, to their colleagues and to administrators, the role blogging can play in developing original scholarship as well as in knowledge dissemination and outreach. Those of us who have used the protection of tenure, for instance, to experiment ourselves with alternative modes of writing and publishing need to be advocates for graduate students who take the risk of doing less conventional kinds of work. (See, for instance, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s piece on supporting students working in Digital Humanities, which is not the same thing as blogging but raises many similar issues, including how such non-traditional work can be recorded and evaluated).

There’s one more angle that’s maybe worth considering: with tenure-track positions so rare, graduate students may look at blogging, not just as an activity related (however equivocally) to their potential academic careers, but as one way of turning their skills and knowledge outward from the academy. Though this can hardly be counted on, blogging can help someone establish an identity and a following that might create new kinds of opportunities–in online journalism, for instance, or in other ways not strictly imagined at the outset. Again, there are risks in investing time and effort in something without a clear professional pay-off, but just what that profession or pay-off might be should certainly no longer be defined in solely academic terms. Aaron Bady, proprietor of the blog zunguzungu and one of my former colleagues at The Valve, comes to mind as a good example of someone who has established a significant online presence.

So, do I think graduate students should blog? I do think they should consider it, because I know from my own experience how intellectually beneficial blogging is and how it creates contacts and opportunities. It would be hypocritical of me to recommend against graduate students engaging in work I believe to be good for us and for our profession. But I think they need to be aware that as far as I can tell, my view remains a minority one, and they should think carefully about how they manage their time and about what kind of blog, if any, might serve them best. Defining a niche, for instance, might be important; collaborating in a group blog might be a way to spread the work around (see, for instance, The Floating Academy, whose contributors would be good people to ask about blogging — I’d be happy if they weighed in here). If graduate students do decide to blog, I think they should be ready to explain clearly how doing so contributes to their professional development and to the advancement of understanding in their field, and I think we should listen to them and find a responsible way to evaluate the value of the work they’re doing. (Blogs are just a form, after all; their value and impact depend on how that form is used, on what it is used for. We should be well past the point of generalizing about blogging as such.)

I certainly don’t think we (t-t faculty, administrators) should expect or demand that graduate students blog, at least not until we’ve normalized giving professional credit for blogging: that just adds one more thing to the already daunting set of expectations they labor under.

What do you think?

“Move it or lose it”: on stagnation and (im)mobility

ns-dalhousie-universityCraig Monk’s column in the latest University Affairs really struck a chord with me. Energized by the presence of a new colleague, he reflects on the challenge of “elud[ing] stagnation” in academic work. Hiring often happens in cycles, and right now at many places (Dalhousie included — or at least in my faculty at Dalhousie) there’s no new (full-time) hiring going on at all, with the result that there are no infusions of fresh ideas or enthusiasm that aren’t compromised by uncertainty. In addition, as Craig points out, “tenure limits lateral mobility”; while he is a wholehearted supporter of tenure (as am I), he recognizes that even as it protects the core of our work and values as academics, it also makes some kinds of positive change difficult to effect. “It would be nice to work,” he observes, “in a field that eludes stagnation.”

Security and stability in one’s jobs are wonderful – and increasingly rare – things to have. No tenured academic can help but feel both incredibly lucky and incredibly privileged. Like Craig, more than anything I value the autonomy that comes with these advantages: “I have never,” he notes, “felt pressure to teach only certain texts, and I built a research program around satisfying my curiosity.” That same description of why this is such a great job also hints, though, at why it is also a challenging one. A great deal of the work is self-motivated, and to do it well requires not just curiosity but also enthusiasm, creativity, and energy.

I see very little evidence in my daily work that tenured faculty live up to the stereotype summed up in the term “deadwood.” The path to tenure is too hard and uncertain and requires too intense a personal commitment to requirements that you have to really care about to do at all, never mind successfully. In my experience, academics are driven — by passion, by interest, by ego, by a need for constant affirmation … by many things, none of which magically dissipate when tenure is finally won. But that drive needs fuel, and I think Craig is right that stagnation is a risk, especially when economic conditions are difficult, class sizes are rising, resources are scarce, colleagues are not replaced, and students seem more interested in credentials than education. Add to these pragmatic concerns the constant messages humanities faculty get (from outside as well as inside the university) that our work is not valuable and our expertise is dispensable, and it can be difficult to sustain the enthusiasm that generates excitement and new ideas in the classroom or in our writing.

I’m particularly prone to feeling stagnant in spring (or what passes for it here). It’s not just the dreary grey weather, though that’s certainly part of it: after all these years, I still get painfully homesick around the time the cherry blossoms start to come out in Vancouver. For some years after I came to Dalhousie I continued applying to jobs in the hope that I could be closer to my family. Realizing that this was never going to happen was very depressing for me and made me feel quite trapped. One of the cruelties of academic life is that you become less mobile the more experienced you are — until and unless you cross the magical threshold and become a contender for something like a Canada Research Chair, or take a turn into administration, though even then moving to a particular location is hardly something you can make happen. I do try not to brood about this any more, but I’m reminded of my immobility every spring when students start reporting on the results of their various applications: as they move on to new programs and new jobs, very often in different cities or even different countries, I find myself wistfully telling them “send me a postcard – I’ll be here, where I always am!”

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Anyway, because literally moving is not something I can any longer work or hope for, I have tried to find ways to avoid stagnation while staying in the same place, and the paradoxical thing is that while tenure is a major impediment to the former, it provides crucial protection for the latter because it gives me the freedom to experiment. I’m not that interested in the particular changes Craig mentions (such as secondments, exchanges, cross-appointments, advising, recruitment, administration). What I have done, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by accident, is reinvent myself as a scholar and professor. Dreaming up new courses is one obvious version of this. I also took a big turn in my research interests in the years just after I got tenure and my monograph came out, away from gender and historiography, where I’d been focusing since graduate school, and towards literature and ethics. This meant a gap in my publication output, but the work was very rewarding and led not only to a couple of articles but also to significant changes in my pedagogy. Then in 2007 I started blogging, not realizing how much of a change this would ultimately lead to in the way I conceptualize both academic work in general and my own professional life more particularly. More than anything else, my work with Open Letters Monthly (though it’s not clear that it will help me advance professionally) has helped me feel that I am not standing still — that while I may sit at the same desk in the same office I’ve had since 2001, I have moved on in some ways that really matter.

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Still, a little more literal change might also be refreshing. I recently learned that a colleague in my faculty is leaving for a position somewhere else (yes, a rare example of lateral mobility!). I wonder who’s in line for his office.

Incalculably Diffusive? The Impact of the Humanities

From the Novel Readings archives, a response to early reports on the UK’s “Research Excellence Framework.” Collini’s critique (and this post) came out in November 2009 (sadly his piece now appears to be behind a paywall). UK academics can no doubt update us on how far his concerns have proven justified.

BalliolAt the TLS, Stefan Collini has a trenchant critique of the British government’s “Research Excellence Framework” for research funding in the universities. A key factor will the assessment of “impact”:

approximately 25 per cent of the rating (the exact proportion is yet to be confirmed) will be allocated for “impact”. The premiss is that research must “achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society”. The guidelines make clear that “impact” does not include “intellectual influence” on the work of other scholars and does not include influence on the “content” of teaching. It has to be impact which is “outside” academia, on other “research users” (and assessment panels will now include, alongside senior academics, “a wider range of users”). Moreover, this impact must be the outcome of a university department’s own “efforts to exploit or apply the research findings”: it cannot claim credit for the ways other people may happen to have made use of those “findings”.

Collini’s main interest is in the “potentially disastrous impact of the ‘impact’ requirement on the humanities”:

the guidelines explicitly exclude the kinds of impact generally considered of most immediate relevance to work in the humanities – namely, influence on the work of other scholars and influence on the content of teaching

Collini points out a number of profound “conceptual flaws” in the proposed process, among them the assumption that all disciplines across the university can and should be assessed in the same way, and the pressure on researchers to devote their time not to the “impact”-free zones of writing and teaching in their areas of specialization (because influence on work in your field, for instance, does not count as “impact”) but on marketing. His concluding peroration:

Instead of letting this drivel become the only vocabulary for public discussion of these matters, it is worth insisting that what we call “the humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is – insofar as the expression makes any sense in this context – an end in itself. Unless these guidelines are modified, scholars in British universities will devote less time and energy to this attempt, and more to becoming door-to-door salesmen for vulgarized versions of their increasingly market-oriented “products”. It may not be too late to try to prevent this outcome.

Though I agree it is essential to make the argument about the intrinsic value of “the humanities,” it seems at least as important to challenge (as he does) the mechanisms for measuring impact, because the “end in itself” argument risks perpetuating popular misconceptions about the insularity of humanities research, when in fact it is quite possible to argue that our impact on the wider world (particularly, but not by any means exclusively, the cultural world) is already substantial, but probably too diffuse to be measured even by the “thirty-seven bullet points” comprising the “menu” of “impact indicators.” Two academic articles I read recently provide some supporting evidence for this claim.

fingersmithHere’s Cora Kaplan, for instance, in a recent essay in The Journal of Victorian Culture:

Sarah Waters has a PhD in literature . . . ; she has said that her research on lesbian historical fiction suggested to her the potential of an underdeveloped genre. In its citation and imitation of their work, Fingersmith paid generous tribute to Victorian novelists; it also has a considerable indebtedness to feminist, gay, lesbian and queer critics and social and cultural historians of Victorian Britain. It would not be too frivolous to see Fingersmith – together with other examples of fictional Victoriana – in their synthesis of the detail and insights of several decades of new research on the Victorian world and its culture as one measure of the ways in which Victorian Studies has developed over the last half century. (JVC 13:1, 42)

And here are Patricia Badir and Sandra Tomc responding, in English Studies in Canada, to calls to take the humanities “beyond academia.” Offering a polemical summary of “what the humanities in general, fueled by highly esoteric post-structural theory, have accomplished in the way of widespread social and cultural contributions over the last twenty years,” they begin with the premise that poststructuralism began as a “theory propounded by a tiny priesthood of high intellectuals”:

But this priesthood had acolytes–graduate students at first, then, by the mid-1980s as “theory” inevitably made its way into the classrooms of ivy league professors, undergraduates. The undergraduates . . . did not uniformly move into Ph.D. programs, thereby assuring theory’s continued enclosure in a specialized community. They moved into a variety of illustrious professions and industries, including, most significantly, America’s powerful and ubiquitous culture industries. . . . [T]he Hollywood of today is ruled by ivy league degrees, most of them earned in the 1980s or 1990s, and most of them . . . heavily larded with humanities courses–courses in English, film studies, American studies, gender studies, history. These people were taught by their professors to value certain kinds of aesthetic objects. As they assumed positions of authority in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they began to patronize films and filmmakers that meshed with what they had been taught was cutting-edge culture. The signature films of the early 1990s . . . featured the “politically correct” identity issues and self-referential formal experimentation lauded in the postmodern classroom: Thelma and LouisePhiladelphiaThe Crying GamePriscilla, Queen of the DesertThe PianoPulp FictionThe English Patient. In television, . . . the transformation to postmodern forms has been even more radical: Buffy, the Vampire SlayerThe X-FilesAlias. . .

“One could make the same argument,” they go on, “for the field of journalism,” and they go on to do so, and to the “massive industry” in “‘literary’ objects” including not just books but adaptations. To calls that the humanities address the interests of “civil society,” they reply that “the humanities have, in a large measure, already shaped contemporary civil society”: “the fashions we are being asked to follow are our own.” (ESC 29:1-2, 13-15). I’m sure it’s easy to argue about which are the “signature films” of the 1990s, but the general case that specialist research in the humanities makes its way into the wider world by way of our classrooms seems presumptively strong–but that is just the kind of “impact” apparently discounted by the Research Excellence Framework.

I’m sure more (and perhaps more concrete) examples could be provided by most academics looking at intersections between their own fields of specialization and the world “outside” the academy. A concerted campaign to demonstrate the “impact” of humanities research might do as much good as insisting also that, whatever its “impact,” the work is valuable in itself. And it should probably be carried on not (just), as with my two examples, in the pages of academic journals, but as publicly as possible–in the TLS, but also through blogs, letters to the editor, talking to our neighbours–you name it. Many thousands of our students are out there somewhere, too, who could surely testify to the “impact” of our work, not just on their cinematic tastes, but on their thinking, reading, and voting lives. After all, the REF may be specific to the UK, but the narrow version of utilitarianism it represents is not.*


*Narrower than J. S. Mill’s, certainly: “Next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory is want of mental cultivation. A cultivated mind – I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties- finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future. It is possible, indeed, to become indifferent to all this, and that too without having exhausted a thousandth part of it; but only when one has had from the beginning no moral or human interest in these things, and has sought in them only the gratification of curiosity.”