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of scholarly publishing in the literary humanities by “rub[bing] its sorry limbs vigorously with … conversations” seem outdated now?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?

Blogging: Accept No Substitutes!

cassatSome 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.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Academic Blogging

Logistics and institutional issues: how do you find time for it, where (if anywhere) should it go on your c.v., and how should tenure and promotion committees evaluate it?

At least, this is what the audience questions were almost exclusively about when I spoke about blogging at my faculty’s “research retreat” on Friday. Here’s a link to the Prezi I used, which is basically a condensed version of the one I prepared for the British Association of Victorian Studies conference in August. I was supposed to speak for only 8-10 minutes, so I just highlighted the arguments for and against blogging as I see them and quickly pointed out what the illustrative quotations were, on the principle that interested parties can easily find the Prezi and read them (and follow the links) themselves. What I really tried to emphasize in my own remarks is that if we think about why we do research and publish it in the first place–to advance or improve a conversation–then writing online makes perfect sense. I also stressed that for me, the real benefits are intellectual. I specifically invited follow-up questions about ways my blogging had affected my teaching, my research, my writing, and/or my intellectual life. I didn’t get any questions about that at all, leading me to think that the single most important quotation in the presentation is the one from Jo VanEvery: “Scholars lose sight of the fact that academic publishing is about communication. Or, perhaps more accurately, communication appears disconnected from the validation process.” What people wanted to talk about was “validation.” As I said at the close of the discussion, I think that preoccupation in itself is worth reflecting on. It’s inevitable, perhaps, because we are professionals trying to get and keep jobs and build careers, but I think concern about bureaucratic processes should follow on reaching a better understanding of the value of the activity, to the individual scholar, to the university, and to the broader community. Maybe people were taking for granted that blogging could be beneficial in the ways I was describing and so didn’t need to ask about it, but the impression I got (perhaps unfairly) was that they couldn’t quite imagine those benefits trumping the low likelihood of professional rewards for the time spent. The one specific positive benefit someone raised from the floor was that blogging might help lay the groundwork for a grant application–but as I noted, that assumes that getting grants is itself a priority. What if we don’t need them to do the work we think is important? (You certainly don’t need a grant to keep a blog.)

And my responses to the questions that were asked? Well, the “how do you find time” question is not one that gets asked about activities that we do not perceive as “extra” to our “real” work, so the answer to that would depend on how you find time for anything you think should be among your priorities. I don’t have a strong opinion about what heading the blog should be under on a c.v. except that I think it should in some way be treated as a research, writing, and publishing project, not as “service.” And I think tenure and promotion committees should evaluate it by reading it — not one post, or even a few posts at once, but ideally by following it for a while as well as exploring the archives. I think bloggers (and academics involved in any non-traditional kinds of work) need to help by explaining clearly what they are up to and contextualizing it so that people who have never read a blog before (and there are still many of these people in academia) have some appropriate frameworks for what they are looking at, and they should also help by thinking about how to curate their blogs so that newcomers can easily grasp their range as well as follow key examples. In my own case, I think (I hope!) the index pages I’ve built are useful in this way. As indicated in the new MLA guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship, I also think that tenure and promotion committees need to include people who understand new forms of scholarly communication, including as external reviewers. Someone who is also a blogger, for instance, is more likely to appreciate and fairly assess the quality and contribution of another blogger’s site than someone who reads only conventional scholarship.

The other panelists  were talking primarily about newspaper op-eds and letters to the editors. It was interesting to me that in general, they expressed more discomfort or dislike for the experience of being exposed to the unfiltered world of the internet. Being social scientists and historians, though, they were talking about writing on political topics, so they are engaging in conversations where stupid virulent attacks are more likely, not just because a national newspaper is much higher profile than my own quiet corner here, but also because politics rile people up more than whatever someone happens to think about The Good Soldier or Lightning Rods.* I can understand why one piece of advice they had, then, was simply not to read the comment threads that follow but to wait for the wave of attention to pass and hope to have made a small difference to the public conversation and perhaps to create further networking or writing opportunities for yourself by the exposure. I felt lucky, really, that though I am not Utopian or idealistic about the openness of the internet, my own experience of it has been, by and large, really positive and rewarding.

*Though it is possible to rile people up a bit on these topics, if you have the right audience!

The Unbearable Lightness of the Digital

I had an interesting chat with a colleague the other day about academic writing and publishing that shifting over, inevitably, into the changing ways we do our writing and publishing now. My colleague said, basically, that he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something particularly ephemeral about online publishing: when it’s not in front of you, after all, where is it? Or, when its original home has expired in some way–whether it has been taken down or the site is no longer maintained or updated (as is the current status of The Valve, where I did a lot of writing for a while) or the content has migrated–where is it then? With hard copies, they are always somewhere. I have offprints of my articles and reviews, for instance, as well as copies of my books. No matter how old they are (and how unlikely it is that anyone might want to pick them up and take a look) I know where they are and the medium they are in will not be outdated. Just the other night I was actually working on a piece and trying to remember something that, it occurred to me, could be easily found in my U.B. C. honours thesis c. 1990, which exists now only in a cerlox-bound copy on my shelf.

Even though I know digital content is (or at least can be) archived and stored and in many ways is actually more accessible and durable than some kinds of paper archives, I have sometimes had the same feeling as my colleague about online writing, especially blogging. I know that all my posts are still “there” and can be searched for and viewed easily enough. (I also make back-ups by way of preserving the content against unforeseen catastrophes. What if WordPress just shut down one day?!) But there’s something relentless about the way the posts scroll off the bottom of the page. That makes them seem to lose currency, even though, with book reviews at least, there’s no reason why they should. I have tried to counter that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ effect by building the blog index, which groups and lists posts in what I hope are useful ways and gives a little form to the range of topics I write about. But there’s something about not having anything tangible to show for all these years of writing. It’s one thing to pull a book off the shelf and put it in someone’s hand: here, look what I made! It’s more complicated to do that with a blog.

I thought of this recently when my faculty held its annual “Book Launch,” which (as journals and articles are also displayed) is really more of a research showcase than a book launch. There was no provision made this year for displaying digital projects, so as not one of my 2011 publications was in print, I had nothing to contribute. Well, I could have printed out copies of my book reviews and essays–but you don’t end up with something that looks quite right when you do that unless you can figure out some way to recreate banners, not to mention links. And how do you display a blog without a computer, if you did decide to insist that it deserved, literally, a place at the table?

I know that the kind of publishing I’ve been doing doesn’t really count as research by academic standards. It’s not just that I’m publishing in digital-only forms but that I’m writing for a non-academic audience, and while I do often draw on original research, I’m putting it to slightly unconventional purposes. Because I’m well aware of this and have decided to live with the professional consequences, I’m not really upset about the book launch, though I will suggest that next time they make sure to have computers set up, as I know I’m not the only one whose research is being disseminated electronically, while other people in the faculty are at work on archival or other digital projects that really deserve to be shown off even though they aren’t books. The MLA has been advising us for years now to “decenter” the monograph, after all: here’s an opportunity to think through how we can do that.

But I do feel odd–bereft, even–that I’ve done all this writing and from a certain perspective it’s invisible. It’s not any less “there” than the offprints of articles I have filed away, but why does it feel as if it is more transient, more ephemeral? Am I just still, in spite of everything, in thrall to print? Is it a sentimental thing? Do those of you who also keep blogs ever find yourself fretting that for all your hours of writing, you have created something that seems oddly insubstantial?

Research That Matters: Knowledge and Novelty

OK, I admit it. My previous post about reading and research is also disingenuous. In a university context, research is not just “purposeful reading” or “reading in pursuit of knowledge” or “reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question.” University-level research, research that is publishable in professional venues, research that is eligible for funding, is research that produces new knowledge.  The research mission of a university is to move the frontier of knowledge, to add to the world’s sum of knowledge, to be at the cutting edge of knowledge… I know that! I’m only sort of pretending not to know it when I ask why research that serves other academic purposes, including teaching and individual intellectual development, does not earn a researcher the same support or the same professional credit.

But I’m pretending not to know it because “the pursuit of new knowledge” is not as obvious, or as easily applied, a principle as it sounds. One possible line of questioning begins with “new to whom?” The degree of hyper-specialization that characterizes the contemporary university is the result of the standard answer: new to other specialists in the field. This is obviously the right standard, isn’t it? It doesn’t advance knowledge to repeat what has been done before, to redo what has been tested. You can’t discover what is already known; you can’t have progress in a field unless you are constantly finding out something new.

This makes perfect sense, right? And yet it isn’t 100% obvious that what I’ve just said applies as well to literary research as it does to, say, research in genetics. What counts as a “discovery” in literary scholarship? Turning up a lost manuscript? OK, that’s an easy one. Explicating and contextualizing the work of a previously unknown or little-known author? Yes, good. Overturning a longstanding theoretical paradigm? Yup, I think so. Proposing a new reading of a novel based on paying attention to a detail nobody has ever paid attention to before? Well, OK. Contradicting a proposed new reading of a novel based on an alternative interpretation of a detail nobody has ever paid attention to before? Constructing a large theoretical claim based on readings of novels that pay attention to details usually disregarded? Yes, fine. Applying a theoretical framework from another discipline to a novel in order to read it in a way that it has never been read before? Yes! Of course! These are exactly the kinds of things literary scholars do (not all the things they do, but how long did you want this paragraph to get?). I wouldn’t argue that understanding texts in new ways doesn’t produce something reasonably called “knowledge.” At any rate, all of these activities affect the way we think about things. If our activity leads us and others to think in a new way, to see something in a new light, that moves some kind of frontier, surely.

But it seems to me there’s a difference that is at least worth thinking about between the importance of doing something new in genetics (or whatever) and pursuing novelty in literary studies. In some kinds of research, work that isn’t new and that doesn’t take into account every other recent discovery will be useless and irrelevant to anyone. But the drive towards novelty and hyper-specialization in literary studies is itself generating a great deal of work that is relevant only to other specialists, and even then, not so much. There is no large project or inquiry, after all, towards which incremental additions are being made; there’s just a proliferation of pieces often with little connection to each other. Even to other specialists, the work of keeping up is not only nearly impossible now, but also (and relatedly) of diminishing importance.

I’ve written about some aspects of this situation before, here in this post on Mark Bauerlein’s “The Research Bust.” I don’t think this kind of observation has to lead into an argument for the cessation of literary research, or for insisting that literary scholars return to doing only certain kinds of research that are more measurably productive of new information (for the case against literary “readings” and in favor of “a more traditionally scholarly conception of literary study”, see this post by D. G. Myers, also triggered by Bauerlein). One reason that I would support people continuing to do new readings is that we can’t be sure where inquiry will take us, and our sense of what “more traditionally scholarly” research is a priority might well be affected by ideas arising from rethinking texts we thought we already knew. If these new readings are truly driven by intellectual curiosity, by attempts to puzzle through problems, however abstract, then there’s value in them, for the researcher as well as for the audience of other people also interested. “Who can say,” as George Eliot remarks in Middlemarch, “what will be the effect of writing?” And I think we ought to have the same open-minded assumption about thinking. (If the research is not truly curiosity-driven, on the other hand, then we might remark, with Dorothea, “what could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain?”)

But I don’t think that the only paradigm for valuable work in literary studies should be one derived from a scientific model, as if a similar cumulative advance of information is ongoing, or one that disregards the other kinds of audiences there are for literary understanding. The reason the umpteenth interpretation of Middlemarch is important to at least some specialists is that they already know a whole lot about Middlemarch — but lots of people don’t, people who would be interested in knowing more. Our focus on novelty underestimates the value of what we already know, even though unlike old theories of the atom, old ideas about books have not lost their real-life significance; it also undervalues the skills we have at making what we know accessible to people who don’t know it yet, and reduces our audience to each other instead of trying to imagine how we could be part of the broader literary culture. The ‘cutting edge’ is actually a much less important place to be in literary studies (as well as a much more shifting territory).

 

Reading and Research Redux: The Somerville Novelists Project

I admit, my earlier question “When is reading research?” was a bit disingenuous: obviously, research is purposeful reading. Of course, this definition can get batted around a bit too, depending on how you define your purpose: the pursuit of pleasure? aesthetic enrichment? familiarity with current best-sellers? Perhaps it’s better to say that, at least in a university context, research is reading in pursuit of knowledge, or reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question or accomplishing a task. As Jo VanEvery also points out in her recent post on this topic, though, we have become preoccupied with the results of that reading, so that oddly, the process of exploration fundamental to defining a question in the first place has become devalued. And in universities we have also become preoccupied with research funding as a measure of productivity and success. If you don’t have a grant, you aren’t doing it right. Here, for instance, (with specifics expunged) is what the Assistant Dean of Research for my Faculty reported at the last Faculty meeting:

X has been awarded a —- Grant; X and Y have received a —- Grant for a conference… —- Grant applications this year are numerous and promising; X’s project on Y received a very positive mid-term review [from its funding agency].

At a recent presentation from one of our VP’s for research, at which he tracked our “success” and goals exclusively in terms of granting dollars, he made the point that money is measurable and thus is the easiest aspect of research to track and evaluate. The same is true, of course, of publications. But (as I and others pointed out to him emphatically in the Q&A that followed) that’s only true if the rubric you want to use is a pie chart or bar graph. If you really understand (as he claimed to) that research funding does not tell the whole story about research productivity, much less about the value of any given research project (especially in the arts and humanities), why continue using such inadequate tools? Perhaps there are fields of research in which research is better explained in a narrative, rather than a PowerPoint slide. Would it be too much, I wonder, to try to change our habits so that we acknowledge other dimensions of research activity–and stopped sending the incessant message that the best research is the most expensive? What about research that culminates in new classes, also? Isn’t that work valuable to the university? Isn’t that a purpose to which universities are fundamentally committed? You wouldn’t think so, by the way the term “research” is typically used on campus.

In any case, I can tell when my own reading has crossed into research of that more recognizable kind because I start to think about it in terms of obligations–things I should look up, things I need to know in order to achieve my purpose. I start to think in terms of depth and definition: more about this and this and this, but not that. Still, it’s always hard to draw the lines: there are no external rules about relevance, so you have to keep reading somewhat open-endedly as you figure out just how it is that you are going to define your project. There’s not a question “out there” waiting for me to turn my attention (and my students’ attention) to it: I have to mess around in all kinds of material until I see what I could do with it that is interesting and new. This conceptual work is, for me, among the most interesting and creative phase: there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.

I’m in that happy stage right now with my Somerville novelists reading. I have defined a purpose for it–my fall seminar–and the reading I had been doing out of personal interest, which had included all of Brittain’s Testament volumes as well as the volume of Brittain and Holtby’s journalism, some of their fiction (as well as Margaret Kennedy’s), and some biographical materials, is now the first phase of a more deliberate investigation. I think this phase is happy for me because it involves focus but not the kind of micro-specialization that would be required to say or do anything research-like on Middlemarch now. Instead of having to read abstruse ruminations on theoretical or other kinds of topics that have less and less to do with the things that excite me about Middlemarch, reading I would be doing only out of a weary sense of professional duty (must keep up with the latest!), I’m doing reading I’m genuinely interested in–maybe because this material has simply not attracted the degree of scholarly attention Middlemarch has, it’s still possible to talk about it quite directly and with a real sense of discovery.

Here are some of the books I’ve collected so far for this research:

Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Ed. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge (I’ll be posting a bit about this soon, as I’m over half way through – the stories are familiar from Testament of Youth but the letters in full have a remarkable immediacy and personality)

Winifred Holtby, Women and A Changing Civilization (I have a sad feeling that this 1934 book may have more relevance today than we’d like – “Wherever a civilisation deliberately courts its old memories, its secret fears and revulsions and unacknowledged magic, it destroys that candour of co-operation upon which real equality only can be based,” Holtby observes near the end – and flipping another page, I find “we must have effective and accessible knowledge of birth control.” Yes, I thought we’d had some of these fights before!)

Vera Brittain, The Women at Oxford

Vera Brittain, Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (I’m curious to see what this reads like in comparison to the many volumes of women’s historical biography I worked with for my Ph.D. thesis, later my book)

Susan Leonardi, Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists (as far as I know, this is the only critical work specifically dedicated to my seminar topic, and so far it is my main source for other relevant titles)

Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. (This collection includes an essay Lynne Layton specifically on “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” as well as some useful-looking contextual ones.)

Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman.

This list shows the some of the frameworks that I expect will be important to talking about the core readings for the seminar in a rich and informed way: the stories of the writers; their works (our “primary” sources); the history of women at Oxford and in WWI (which means making sure I am reasonably well-prepared about general contexts); and theories and contexts on women and education, particularly university education. Each of the writers we’ll look at in detail will also raise more particular questions: with Sayers, for instance, the history of detective fiction will be of some relevance.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? That I’m excited about it makes me think it isn’t really research after all: research is work, right? Reading for pleasure isn’t work. And yet it can be, of course, and that’s the ideal of this kind of career–that it lets you do what you love, as well as you can, to make your living. That love itself can’t be the sole purpose of your reading makes sense in a professional context, but I’ve read an awful lot of scholarly writing that seems motivated by nothing more than the need to make certain moves in order to pass professional hurdles. In a previous post I quoted C. Q. Drummond saying “policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” Too much of the apparatus and discourse of research in the university seems to me to emphasize and reward everything but love of learning: it favors, as I said in that earlier post, “a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible.” This project so far has been supported only by me, with some help from my university library. So it won’t ever get me mentioned in the Assistant Dean’s report (just as my publications in Open Letters had no place, literally, at the display of recent books and articles put on in my Faculty)–especially if its only output is a class, not an academic article or book. I haven’t ruled out that kind of result down the road, but I haven’t defined it as a plan yet either. In the meantime, I’m going to keep calling what I’m doing “research.”

When is Reading Research?

I’ve been thinking more about what we mean when we say “research.” In my post on the ‘duties of professors,’ I quote C. Q. Drummond’s remark,

If research in an Arts Faculty means humane learning, then we all hope our teachers are as much involved in research as they possibly can be. We want them to know better and better what they are talking about, so that they will have, and will continue to have, something intelligent and important to profess to their students. But if research means output or publication, as it so often does today, how do the students profit?

In his turn, Drummond quotes George Whalley, who suggests that the word “research” is altogether misleading or inappropriate when applied to humanistic inquiry: ““The functions of research are specialized and limited; … the word research is not a suitable term for referring to the central initiative and purpose of sustained inquiry in ‘the humanities.'” “Most professors in Arts Faculties,” Drummond proposes, “would be better off reading more and publishing less.” Of course, reading is research for most humanists–that is, it’s the research process. But not all reading is research–or it it?

When we talk about “doing research,” I think we conventionally mean reading in service of a particular research project, that is, reading in pursuit of a foreseen research product, a published essay or book. Does that mean that reading for which we cannot already identify such an outcome is not research, then? Certainly it’s reading for which we can get no particular institutional support. For instance, if I want to get a research grant, it does me no good to justify my budget on the grounds that I am gathering materials on subjects about which I would simply like to know more than I do, or in which I have a developing interest but, as yet, no idea what, if any, payoff there will be in terms of publications. I also can’t get research support to develop new classes. I might be able to get a grant from our Center for Teaching and Learning–although peering at their page, the only grants I see them offering are for “faculty members who are seeking new and innovative ways to incorporate technology into their teaching practice” and “high impact initiatives that address student engagement activities/projects in the first year of their studies.” Too bad if I just want to follow my curiosity, acquire new expertise, and then gather students up to share it through reading and discussion.

My own new class on the ‘Somerville Novelists’ may, in fact, incorporate technology (brace yourselves, students–I’m thinking wikis again!), but it will have been developed from reading I did initially purely out of interest–and of books I bought with my own money. I don’t mind about the money–though it’s sometimes frustrating to realize how much the university relies on our willingness to do things “on our own” without which the institution would be a much poorer place, and by that I don’t mean poorer financially. (I bought the laptop I’m using with my own money too–the university doesn’t provide “home” or portable computers, or at least our faculty doesn’t, but imagine how academic work would grind to a halt if we could not work evenings and weekends, or not without coming in to campus. But that’s another issue…sort of.) I don’t really draw strict lines between what I do for work and what I do for myself, precisely because being a professor is not just having a job but having a certain identity–filling (or aspiring to fill) a certain kind of role in the world. But especially since reading Drummond’s essay I’ve been thinking about the way our particular understanding of “research,” one that yokes together the process and the product, undervalues other kinds of reading. I do mind about that, because I think it artificially narrows both that job and that identity.

Is there really only one professionally worthwhile kind of reading? I’ve recently bought Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I bought it out of interest: I’ve been exhilarated by learning about other early 20th-century women writers, and West is a major figure. I’m not sure where to place her: she’s not specifically in the Somerville crowd I’ve been looking into, and she’s not really a Modernist (I don’t think). I’m curious to figure out more about her. Reading The Return of the Soldier made me more curious. She is not–and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is not–obviously continuous with any issues or genres I have an explicit “research” interest in. There are plenty of books in “my field” of Victorian literature that I haven’t read, and there are also plenty of books about Victorian literature that I haven’t read. I have some declared “research” projects that have not reached the official finishing point of publication in an academic journal (much less an academic monograph). Clearly, if I read (when I read) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon I am doing it only for myself: it’s not research. And yet reading it will almost certainly  help me have “something intelligent and important to profess to [my] students,” and that I don’t know exactly what else will come of it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t even necessarily a bad thing that nothing concrete (beyond some blog posts) may ever come of it. But by some measures–the only ones that mean much, professionally, these days–it would be more productive for me to read the umpteenth specialized analysis of Middlemarch. Now that would be research.