“The Measure of Blogging”: More from Leonard Cassuto

Leonard Cassuto has published some further thoughts on blogging at the Guardian, with some specific attention to my response to a couple of his earlier comments in the live chat back in July.

I don’t have time to reply in detail right now as (ironically) I am at a conference in Birmingham heading off to give a presentation about blogging as knowledge dissemination. I will quickly say that the “critical error of fact” he points out (that “[his] writing for the Chronicle is in fact a column, not a blog”) doesn’t seem that critical to me, really, but I accept the correction. The difference between the two as he explains it has to do with only two things: where in the Chronicle his writing appears (including that it appears in the print version), and that it is edited by others (including fact-checked). That process, he notes, “almost always” improves the product. It’s true that my blog is not fact-checked except by me, and as it turns out, my attempt to identify just what the process was for his pieces was not thorough enough – I didn’t altogether rely on the statement in the Guardian that identified his pieces as a blog post for the Chronicle, but when I looked around the online version I didn’t see anything that clearly contradicted that description.  I guess the Guardian doesn’t fact-check very thoroughly either. In any case, it seems only fair to retract the suggestion of hypocrisy about that example. Now that he’s posted a declared blog post, he has also softened his general stance on blogging: “I mostly don’t read blogs. I’m reading this one right now, and I’m even posting to it.”

But the point of my previous post is not to determine exactly the right label is for Cassuto’s writing (as Cassuto acknowledges, “the world does not turn” on that question). The Chronicle publishes a lot of articles I think are surprisingly poor (many seem like nothing more than link-bait), despite whatever editing they have received, and by far the most valuable resource it offers, in my opinion, is the Profhacker blog. I don’t decide what to read based on the form or label.

There’s more I’d like to say, including about the model of “authority” Cassuto gives (how does “going viral” confer “authority,” for instance?) and the value of “visibility” (an argument which reproduces existing publishing and prestige hierarchies) as well as the assumption that to succeed, graduate students and junior faculty are best advised to continue in the most conservative way possible in their work. As senior, “established,” faculty, 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.

Finally, I’ll note that I disagree with Cassuto’s conclusion that ‘if Dr Maitzen’s blogging is “unofficial,” then it doesn’t deserve the same kind of attention that her “official” publication does.’ I used “scare quotes” around “official” in my earlier comment for a reason: I don’t like that distinction, and one of the points I’ll be making today in my presentation is that I think we, collectively, as a profession, need to broaden our understanding of what counts as real, official, scholarly work. But more important, I think my blogging deserves as much, if not more, attention than my other publications. It’s more interesting and wide-ranging and intellectually curious, and it’s relevant to a wider audience. In many cases it is better written, too. It does indeed “demand a fair amount of attention” to follow blogs and to participate in the conversations that a post can generate. On that note, I think it’s interesting that Cassuto chose to publish his reply as a blog post in the Guardian but never engaged in the discussion that unfolded in the comments after my post went up last month.


Cassuto On Blogs: “I have nothing against them, but I don’t read them, either.”

The quotation is from a comment by Leonard Cassuto in a recent Guardian “live chat” on academic publishing. Here it is in full (he’s responding to an inquiry from Melonie Fullick about “how academic blogging might fit in with a kind of publishing ‘portfolio'”):

Another thing about blogging: lots of people with certain reading habits don’t read blogs. I have nothing against them, but I don’t read them, either. This is as much a function of available time as anything else. By restricting myself to published writing (whether digital or print), I am in effect ascribing value to the gatekeeping function of editors. I don’t do this because I’m a snob, but rather because there are only so many hours in a day.

Especially in the context of a discussion explicitly intended to address how academic publishing is changing in the digital age, this remark strikes me as both disingenuous and disappointingly narrow-minded. To begin with, he does have something against blogs: he does not consider them “published” (huh?), and they haven’t been seen by an editor, and thus he doesn’t consider them worth reading. At all. The first objection is incoherent, especially as he later goes on to say that blogs lack prestige because of “the absence of intermediaries between writing and publication”–in other words, they are published, but without (to use his vocabulary) gatekeepers. He doesn’t read them because they are self-published. The second objection is understandable from a pragmatic point of view: there is a lot of writing out there, on and off the web, and as he says, “there are only so many hours a day.” It’s not as hard as all that, though, to do a little filtering yourself, and to me it bespeaks an astonishing lack of intellectual curiosity not to look around to see which blogs might be of professional and/or personal interest and value.  (It turns out he is able to name at least two bloggers with “street cred,” Brad DeLong and Michael Bérubé–which dates his info a bit, as Bérubé has, at least temporarily, stopped blogging–so he knows where he might start looking for others, or he does if he understands the function of the “blogroll.”)

There’s also some lurking hypocrisy here: the Guardian feature opens with a link to a “blog post” by Cassuto himself, at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Now, I don’t know the mechanics of publishing in the CHE. Perhaps there’s a careful gatekeeping process there, determining which pieces deserve to appear under that illustrious banner, or perhaps there’s at least an editor who mediates between Cassuto’s unfiltered thoughts and his posts–which he calls “columns.” (I hope so, else by his own logic, why should we read them?) Perhaps the gatekeeping process begins and ends with the invitation to write for the Chronicle, which gives you a general stamp of approval. In that case I’m sure Cassuto scrupulously edits his posts columns himself, after writing them and before posting publishing them: he’s an experienced professional writer, after all, and well-qualified to do so. If so, it might occur to him that there are others who can do so as well and get good results, even without the Chronicle‘s sheltering umbrella of authority.

Here’s the exchange that followed (in the original thread, of course, it’s interspersed with the rest of the ongoing discussion):

RM: I know this is common (I have many colleagues who say the same thing), but this attitude implies, even assumes, “blogs” as a category have nothing in them worth competing for that time with other forms of writing/publishing–which is odd, since we would never trust in such wide generalizations about “magazines” or “books” or “articles”–the content should matter, not the form. It’s an odd, and inherently conservative, form of complacency, I think.

LC: You’re missing my point about teh [sic] value of the gatekeeping function. In general, I like to invest my time in writing that an editor has seen first.

RM: I agree that editors can provide a valuable service, and that it is helpful given the array of reading options out there to let someone else provide a filter, but in 20 years as an academic I’ve also read plenty of poor stuff that somehow passed through that gate! But my main point is just that people should be wary of generalizing about (or making decisions about) blogs if they don’t read any. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence has some really good discussion of the ways peer review (as one kind of gatekeeping) can hold back innovation and new ways of thinking.

LC: I don’t want to overwork this, but part of my point has to do with the credibility of blogs in the larger world of publishing, which is what we’re talking about. Some blogs (Brad DeLong’s and Michael Berube’s come to mind) have huge street cred that has been built up not only through years of steady and high-quality output, but also (and this is significant to me) by the work that these prolific and influential scholars do outside of their blogs: in other words, lots of people read the blog because they already respect the writer’s scholarship. Of course there are good and bad blogs, just as there is good and bad refereed scholarship and good and bad articles in the TLS, but the relative lack of prestige of blogs as an outlet has at least partly to do with the absence of intermediaries between writing and publication. You might think that prestige deficit a bad thing and I might disagree, but it’s a fact that bloggers need to consider as part of their decision to devote their time and energy in that direction.

So again we have a veil of pragmatism thrown over an argument for accepting (even reinforcing) the status quo–pragmatism, at least, from a careerist perspective (see digiwonk‘s comment on that post column). 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. Once you acknowledge the imperfections of the gatekeeping system (“of course … there is good and bad refereed scholarship” [emphasis added]), you should be open to more imaginative ways of conceptualizing the processes or forms of scholarly discussion and knowledge dissemination. Based on Cassuto’s own admission, the presence of “intermediaries between writing and publication” is no guarantee of quality in communicating the results of specialized research. 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 is trying to argue that blogging in general, or even particular highly scholarly blogs, should replace traditional publications. But surely it’s time people stopped saying “I don’t read blogs” as if there’s nothing questionable or retrograde about that.  At the very least, if you don’t read any of them, there’s absolutely no way you can know what their value is, which means you aren’t really qualified to speak about the place they should have in academic publishing–only to pass along the news (which is no news to bloggers) that most academics are prejudiced against them.

Cassuto is actually inconsistent about all this, though. In the comments I’ve quoted so far, he sounds resolutely against the professional utility of blogging–again, narrowly construing ‘utility’ to mean ‘useful in building a professional resume.’ Upthread, however, he makes what I thought was a very encouraging statement about avoiding preemptive assumptions based on the form of someone’s writing:

For me personally, I now judge everything case by case. if I were reviewing the work of a job candidate who writes a blog, I’d want to see if it were a good, substantial blog, and evaluate accordingly. But there are plenty of people in my discipline who would simply say that blogging is not scholarship, however broadly conceived.

Here, then, he differentiates himself from  his stodgy colleagues. Here’s my pleased reply to that earlier remark:

It is good to see you say you would actually *read* the blog to evaluate it. This seems crucial: those who simply dismiss blogging as “not [being] scholarship, however broadly conceived,” at least in my experience are usually people who don’t read blogs and make assumptions about their content and their value (and their potential role in scholarship and scholarly communication) based on what they think they know about the form of blogging.

Later on, he sets himself up as the champion of a “new world of possibilities.” A participant in the discussion proposed that it would be good if graduate programs encouraged

digital writing as part of a research portfolio. Academia will still push for “traditional” publishing outlets[;] however blogging, video and other media formats help students collect, archive and curate knowledge – which helps with research and publishing goals.

“Yes, it would,” Cassuto says:

I’ve been writing about this in my own columns in hortatory tones. But most of my peers don’t know how to teach “digital humanities.” I’ve just started to take my own advice and encourage it, but there’s an entrenched population who has to be educated about the new world of possibilities.

Perhaps it’s not really an inconsistency but rather a slippage between the broader category of “digital writing” in the first comment and Cassuto’s use of the term “digital humanities,” which (to me, at least) means something rather different. Though there are digital humanists who blog, there are many bloggers (myself included) with no particular affiliation to digital humanities as an area of specialization. At any rate, his comments specifically about blogging do not suggest he is quite as different from his “entrenched” colleagues as he believes. Blogging is a part of that “new world”; the way to be educated about it is to actually read some blogs. He has some catching up to do. One place to start, if only for its historical interest, might be here (on the internet, 2005 is pretty ancient history!).

Like Cassuto (who, to be fair, is rather taking the fall here for the many other people who have said similar things to me about their “reading habits”), I don’t want to overwork this, particularly as I understand the main purpose of the Guardian chat was to give advice on how to be a successful academic, and all practising academics know that the safest strategy is to do the most familiar (and prestigious) things.  But even so, there are no guarantees, and I do find it discouraging that, a few years after the MLA issued its own recommendations on rethinking how we approach academic publishing for tenure and promotion (PDF) (see also Stephen Greenblatt’s 2002 letter) , the conversation here unfolds in a way that ultimately reinforces not just traditional but constraining and conservative ideas about how to “get ahead.” Despite gestures towards “portfolios” and nontraditional forms of scholarly writing (both of which the MLA encourages), the emphasis is on placing articles in journals and book manuscripts with publishers–the more prestigious, the better. Even in these forms, priority is given to print over online or electronic forms. From one press rep: “most authors and academics have a preference or taste for printed books”; Andrew Winnard of Cambridge UP also  comments that:

Digital developments continue apace but print has a suprising [sic] resilience. In terms of academic career progression in the humanities, there is still, it seems, nothing that quite replaces a physical book when presenting evidence to one’s Head of Department. Compared to 300 pages in a weighty binding and an attractive cover, a ‘click’ struggles to compete.

Again, they all seem to be strangely deferential to people’s habits, which I can see if your business is marketing, but not so much if your interest is (as Aimee says at the Chronicle) “to disseminate good ideas and advance our collective understanding of the world.” (The recurrent assumption that form determines the value of content–or its prestige, if that’s any different–is increasingly bizarre to me. How many of these folks go get the print journal if they can download the PDF of the article they want? Why should this be different for another source just because it’s book length?) Blogging is approved of as a “marketing tool,” with a couple of arguments floated about the way it proves interest in (and perhaps facility for) communicating with wider audiences. When/if a blog has any “street cred,” it’s because of its author’s previous success in traditional forms of scholarship and publishing–which  creates something like an ‘argument from authority’–these must be good blogs (because “of course” there are both good and bad blogs) because they are written by people whose other work was good. And so now they don’t need editors to come between us and them! Hooray! We can read them happily–even though they’re online!–not because they are good in themselves (though they may well be) but because they come trailing the clouds of their authors’ reputations–never mind what problems there might be with the system of peer review on which conventional academic publishing (and thus prestige, and reputation) depends. No need to go looking for the little people. They’re out there, though, and in fact one great thing about blogging is that while the attention is often hierarchical, the form is not–and the results can be surprising. Even lowly graduate students can sometimes use it to clamber out of obscurity! There are more kinds of prestige, perhaps, than are dreamt of in our conventional philosophy.

In some of the recent discussions among bloggers about hostility towards academic blogging (some good links are helpfully rounded up here), some raised the point that to some (non-blogging) academics, blogs are seen as self-aggrandizing. I should be clear that I don’t defend blogging in these discussions because I think of my own blog as exemplary as an “academic” or scholarly blog. It would be a mistake, that is, to look here and draw general conclusions about whether blogging “counts” as a kind of academic publication. My particular style of blog makes that issue harder to puzzle through than blogs like, say, Timothy Morton‘s that are more (if not exclusively) oriented around specialized research interests and projects. Though I do find writing my blog helpful as I think through ideas for my academic work, I don’t use it primarily as an outlet for that academic work. Instead, particularly in the past year or so, I have been using it to different ends (see here). I don’t think those ends are irrelevant to my work as a teacher and scholar, but I think my interest in redefining that work–getting away from specialization, writing more for a broader audience, and so on–is somewhat different. Somewhat–not entirely! Given the traditional parameters of academic publishing, I could not practice (or share with readers) the kind of writing I want to do without an outlet of this kind. From that perspective, then, my blog is exemplary of the kinds of things that are shut out by the preoccupation with prestige and gatekeeping reflected in Cassuto’s comments. I have my own recent experience with the consequences of my decision to “devote [my] time and energy in that direction.” So I agree that bloggers need to be realistic about the place of blogging in their overall professional development, including about the widespread assumption “that blogging is not scholarship, however broadly conceived.” But I think it does both bloggers and the profession a disservice to let “realism” be an excuse for leaving people’s (or our own) habits and prejudices unchallenged.

And with that, I’ll edit and proofread this post, hit ‘publish,’ and welcome (as always) your comments.

Reality Check: ‘The applicant’s publication record is spotty’

To those of you who are also my  Twitter friends, I apologize: I said I was finished with this issue and moving on, but it turns out it is still going around in my head and needs a bit more sorting out–not because I feel aggrieved (that, I’m basically over), but because I think it is symptomatic in ways that are worth further disucssion.

My immediate situation is this: I was invited to participate in a panel  on ‘knowledge dissemination in Victorian Studies in Canada’ at the upcoming British Association of Victorian Studies conference. Specifically, I was asked to present a paper about my experience as a blogger and how it connects to broader issues about research, writing, and ‘knowledge dissemination.’ I was also invited to propose a workshop for graduate students on academic blogging (or, as I like to think of it, blogging as an academic). Naturally, I think this is all good. For one thing, it is encouraging to find that my blogging seems interesting and significant enough to other academics for them to want to hear more about it. Also, it seems like evidence that this activity of mine, which is not by any conventional definition “scholarship,” can nonetheless open a door for me into an event like this–at least to the organizers, that I have been blogging was a reason to include me in this gathering of scholars, not a strike against me. The panel was duly accepted by the conference organizers, and I spent some substantial time last month putting together the materials required to apply for funding to cover travel expenses and the conference registration (which in this case is quite a substantial sum, as it includes on-campus accommodation as well as a registration fee). Times are hard and budgets are tight, but participation in conferences is a recognized professional activity, the kind of thing we are supposed to do, to share our ideas and learn about other people’s. I do it rarely, because my experience is often disappointing, but BAVS is just the kind of conference that promises to be really worthwhile. Our attendance at international conferences also does a little to raise the profile of our home institutions–though in this particular context, I think it’s worth pointing out that my blog, where my name and institutional affiliation are clearly displayed, also does this. (I think it’s safe to say that many people who read my blog had never heard of Dalhousie University before they came here–though perhaps I underestimate the successes of our PR team in getting the word out. I’d actually be interested to know from readers if I’m right about this.)

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that the institution I sort of work for that I don’t regularly name here, the University of King’s College (please don’t ask me to explain the Dal-King’s relationship–nobody can do it–let’s leave it at saying that I’m a member of the “Joint Faculty”) promptly coughed up the money I asked them for. Since they are a small institution and in particularly challenging financial circumstances right now, their commitment to supporting faculty research and conference travel is particularly appreciated. Thanks, King’s! But they have a cap on these grants, and just getting to the UK is very expensive these days, even though it’s a modest 5-hour direct flight from here to Heathrow. Luckily, there’s a special fund available through Dalhousie for international conference travel, specifically intended to help with the likely shortfall between a standard-sized travel grant and the real cost of even a short trip. I applied for a modest additional sum from this fund, to make up the difference between the King’s grant and what I anticipated the whole trip would cost. This application was turned down.

This is perhaps an unnecessarily long preamble, especially since the real point of this post is not to complain about this outcome–or at least, not exactly. I understand that universities do not have enough money to pay for everything, and I’m actually readier than most of my colleagues to point to conference travel as something that ought to be more rare than it is, given the multitude of ways we can communicate with each other for free, or at least for no more than the already budgeted overhead costs for internet access. I myself last attended a conference in 2009. (That doesn’t mean that there is nothing valuable about bringing a community of scholars together, though, and providing the occasion and support for focused and also serendipitous face-to-face engagement.) Given the shortage of funds, I also see that applications have to be ranked and there will be some that aren’t ranked as high as others. I do think the rationale for these decisions should be explicit and transparent,  so that we put in the best applications we can and can realistically assess our chances of success before going to the trouble of applying again. So on getting the bad news that I wasn’t getting any more money from my university towards this trip, I fired off a request for the reviewers’ assessments of the application, and here’s where I got my knickers in a bit of a twist, because the single negative comment in the two otherwise perfectly positive evaluations was, under Quality of Applicant,”The applicant’s publications record is spotty.” Given that neither reviewer objected to my budget or to anything about the conference or to my proposed participation in it (“the conference and the applicant’s contributions seem noteworthy,” remarked the same person), it doesn’t seem far-fetched to conclude that the “spotty” publication record accounts for the relatively low rating assigned the application by Reviewer #2 (of course they are anonymous, though my application wasn’t) and its mediocre overall final rating. Did that perception “cost” me the grant? I’m not sure, since I don’t know precisely where the cut-off point was for the fund/don’t fund decision, but something did, and that’s the only clue I have about what it might have been.

But here’s the thing. Yes, absolutely, my publication record over the last 5 years (which is what they asked about) is “spotty” if by that you mean that I haven’t published a peer-reviewed academic article since 2007. My anthology of Victorian writing on the novel did come out in 2009: I’m not sure where editorial projects rate on the whole academic prestige scale, but I can tell you it was a pretty big undertaking and included a fair amount of original scholarship, particularly of the “reading things from old periodicals and figuring out if they are somehow significant, based on research into secondary materials about Victorian theories of the novel” kind. During that 5-year period, though, I have also published 5 essays and 4 book reviews in Open Letters Monthly. Actually, those are all since October 2009–so in the past 18 months or so, I have been more active as a published writer than during any previous time in my life. Because the application asked us to highlight publications especially relevant to the proposed conference, I listed my essay on Ahdaf Soueif as well as my review of Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love and my pieces on Felix Holt and Vanity Fair (remember, the panel is on ‘knowledge dissemination in Victorian Studies’).  Though the blog is discussed in the description of my paper I submitted for the panel (included in the application file), I did not attempt to declare it a “publication” on the application form, even though it is in fact the writing most relevant to a paper about my experience as an academic blogging in Canada. As a blogger, there’s nothing “spotty” about my record at all: I have posted 2-3 pieces (sometimes more) every week on my blog since 2007, for a grand total of 600 posts (601, counting this one!). Some of them are incidental, some of them are substantial. Some reflect original (if sometimes incomplete) thinking about scholarly problems, many of them address critical and interpretive questions. I think I could make the case that on this occasion, I have every right to identify this material as in an important sense a relevant “publication”–but I didn’t. There’s no place on the form, after all, to justify doing so, and the package overall is pretty clear about the relevance of blogging because that’s what I was invited to the conference to talk about. Maybe I made a tactical error in trying to avoid directly confronting the whole “a blog is just meaningless self-publishing” thing, but you’d think a careful reviewer might have thought a little outside the box provided and seen that in this case, that “spotty” comment was kind of missing the point.

I did, however, present my Open Letters pieces as publications, though I did not put the little asterisks next to them to indicate “peer-reviewed.” I think this is  where the “spotty” comment really comes from, and here’s where I think our reliance on (or our faith in) peer review does a disservice, not just to those of us doing other kinds of publishing, but to the principle that what matters is the quality of the work, not the system that grants it (or doesn’t grant it) an extrinsic stamp of approval. Nobody is going to actually read any publication I list on something like this, starred or not. The task of deciding whether I’m doing good work or not has been outsourced to the readers of academic journals. I’m sure I don’t have to tell an audience of bloggers that there are serious flaws with peer review (see here for lots more about it). There’s no good reason (except efficiency and habit–and I don’t underestimate the weight of these) to assume that the little asterisk means “job well done” while its absence means “not a real contribution to the academic enterprise.” Or, we shouldn’t assume that if we understand “the academic enterprise” a little more broadly than perhaps many people do. Consider the panel topic again: “knowledge dissemination.” That’s an ugly coinage, but basically doesn’t it mean getting the word out about what we know? Who says that the only important thing is getting the word out to other academics? (Indeed, who says that other academics get their information exclusively from academic sources?) In fact, though probably the humanities were not at the forefront of anybody’s mind when worrying about this, there’s been a national discussion in recent years about the importance of communicating scholarly research beyond the traditional frameworks (for example).  My review of Brenda Maddox’s book has been viewed 561 times since it went live. As academic blogger Alex Reid has reported, statistics show that 93% of humanities articles go uncited. That doesn’t mean they aren’t read, but if they were serving the purpose they are supposed to, e.g. furthering academic understanding and debate, their citation rate would surely be close to their viewing rate. I can’t know what the results were of those 561 “hits,” but it seems fair to say I disseminated something there. My essay on Gone with the Wind has been viewed more than 9700 times since it went live, and though you would have to read it to know, it offers an extensive ‘expert’ reading that is enmeshed in my work on fiction and ethics, as well as on historiography: it just presents that expertise in an accessible, jargon-free (well, nearly!) way. The Ahdaf  Soueif essay has been viewed a modest 282 times–but reading it over, I am convinced it makes an original contribution to our understanding of Soueif’s novels, and 282 is not bad if Alex Reid and his respondents are right that the average readership for a humanities article is somewhere between 2 and 7. Why would it be better if I had padded it around with footnotes and laid it to rest in the Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures? Of course, I realize it might have been rejected if I had sent it to the Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures. The whole thing would have been a much slower process, certainly: not just writing the kind of paper that can compete for space in such a publication, but waiting to see how I did. Heck, I waited 5 months for a reply to a preliminary inquiry about submitting it to another journal, one that claims to ‘welcome’ such inquiries and even to recommend them prior to our undergoing the full submission process.  By writing it on my own terms, subjecting it not to academic peer review but to the scarily rigorous review of my co-editors at OLM, and then publishing it there, I seized an important moment and, yes, disseminated my knowledge. The only way in which I think it would be preferable to be in, say, JMEL, would be that an essay there would be found and cited by other scholars working on related topics in a way that probably the Open Letters piece won’t be–it won’t show up in the MLA bibliography, right? That said, any scholar with anything on the go these days will do a range of searches including a web search, so someone writing on Soueif is surely bound to find my essay if they are doing a half-decent job of research.

I can’t help but be aware, though, that to some extent I am rationalizing my own recent choices, the way I have prioritized my time. It has turned out that for me, it is not possible to do everything. One rationale often heard for academic blogging is that it can further a ‘proper’ research and publication agenda. This has happened for me to some extent, especially in the early days of my writing about Soueif and while I was contributing at The Valve, but that’s not really how I have been using my blog for some time. Instead of writing posts about Victorian literature, or Victorian studies, I have been writing about Vera Brittain and Elizabeth Bowen and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo–and Salley Vickers and Jennifer Egan and Morley  Callaghan and Brian Moore. I have chosen to do this, as I have chosen to write essays and reviews for Open Letters on both Victorian and non-Victorian topics, in the full knowledge that I have only so much time for reading and writing and that these are not the kinds of reading and writing that will serve me best professionally. I know perfectly well that the kind of writing I’ve been doing doesn’t “count”;  I feel guilty and inadequate and defensive about not having been equally productive at the kind that does, and I can hardly pretend to be surprised that there are consequences to this.I have thought often about how my decision to use the security of tenure to experiment with the parameters of my work as a critic will affect my chances of any further promotion: it’s ‘research and publications’ (that is, research that leads to academic peer-reviewed publications) that will count for that, no matter how enriched my teaching is as a result of my other intellectual explorations, or how good and even well-respected my non-academic essays might become.

A couple of my “tweeps” have kindly suggested that it’s not easy being “in the vanguard” or being an innovator in a system that is as rule-bound as academia (I’m extrapolating a bit from their 140-character replies to my venting!). I think that without making exaggerated claims for the value of the writing I’ve been doing, it’s safe to see the reviewer’s response to my profile as symptomatic of something like this. The categories and labels in use are no longer sufficient; the boxes we are given to fill in do not fit what all of us are doing; the patterns we are expected to follow need to be altered. A productive, respected (if I may?) blogger presenting a paper on blogging at a panel on knowledge dissemination should not need a string of unrelated peer-reviewed publications to prove herself.

And that really is my  last word on this incident! (Well, except for any responses I might have to comments. And any follow-up tweets …. )

Second Anniversary Musings

My first post here went up on January 18, 2007.

A two-year anniversary seems as good a time as any for some reflections on my experience of blogging so far. I’ve written fairly often already about blogging and my interest in it as an extension of my academic work, my pedagogy, and my desire to find common ground between academic criticism and ‘common’ readers. So what else is there to talk about?

Well, for one thing, I have found that writing this blog has made me very aware of the things I can’t (or at least don’t) talk about here–this is a feeling enhanced by my recent reading of the anthology Dropped Threads (from the cover: “A beautifully woven tapestry of perspectives on the silences women still keep”). Now, I’ve never been a convert to the highly confessional version of blogging, not just because it seems at once solipsistic and exhibitionist, from the writing side, and voyeuristic, from the reading side. And even if I were inclined to blog about myself in a more personal way, because I use my own name rather than a pseudonym, self-disclosure risks impinging unfairly on others’ privacy. Of course, there are no external inhibitors here, only my own sense of propriety and reserve. But maybe because the format of a blog makes it feel like writing in a diary, the gap between the (usually) calm, reasonable tone of my postings and my currently rather vexed and complicated life can sometimes be disconcerting. Blogging for me is another version of my calm public face. I certainly prize and respect self-control, but as the wise narrator of Middlemarch observes, “behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.” It’s tempting, sometimes, to launch an anonymous blog in an attempt to tap into the same reservoir of kind, thoughtful people I’ve discovered are “out there” ready to contribute generously to conversations about books, to see what answers they might have to some questions about life. But don’t worry: I’m never going to turn Novel Readings into naval gazing. I’ve been reading too much Carlyle recently to be tempted into that kind of self-indulgence!

Even as an expression of my public or professional personality, my blogging has seemed to me lately to have become a bit bland. Not that it ever was particularly edgy! And by some, I know, my approach has always been dismissed as ‘middle-brow’ at best (that’s not, by the way, an epithet I’m altogether averse to). Still, in person, even at work, I think I’m a bit more acerbic and prickly, or funny and irreverent, than I have been here, where of late “a common greyness silvers everything.” Also, I’ve become more inclined to avoid topics on which I feel snarky and know I might generate some controversy (however small in scale). In some ways it is responsible to think twice about statements which, thanks to the wonders of electronic memory, you can’t ever really take back. I also believe reciprocal courtesy and avoidance of cheap ad hominem slurs should be the standards for blogging as much as for any kind of intellectual exchange. Still, one of the initial attractions of blogging was the freedom it offered to express my opinions without layers of qualifications or justifications (or footnotes). Though of course with tenure I have, officially, all the leeway I could want to say what I think, I do try to get along with my colleagues, and I have a responsibility to my students to present a variety of perspectives and to teach a range of material that is variously congenial to my own critical commitments and temperament. Being polite and responsible like this can sometimes feel intellectually dampening, that’s all, and for a while, I felt relatively uninhibited here, and so took a few more risks than usual. I don’t want to seek controversy or be contrarian just for the sake of it, but I don’t want my commitments to remain wholly implicit here: I’d like to define myself more sharply as a critic and make Novel Readings stand out more distinctly as a source for a more particular kind of commentary. We’ll see how that goes.

On another topic, since I started putting time in as a blogger I have inevitably asked questions about the value of doing this instead of doing other things that lead more directly to professional credit or advancement. In the next year or so I’d like to discuss some of the things I’ve learned or considered more formally with first our departmental and then our faculty administration. I’ve already proposed to our departmental committee on professional development that we move towards a ‘portfolio’ approach to to evaluating academic publications. Given how strongly worded the MLA’s recommendations on scholarly publishing were, it is a bit shocking to me how little impact they appear to have had so far on ordinary practice–or even on thinking about ordinary practice. I’m not claiming anything in particular for Novel Readings here, except insofar as exploring the world of academic blogging and electronic publication has opened my eyes to the inadequacies of our entrenched assumptions about what ‘counts.’

Finally, blogging for this long starts to raise questions about the value of the archived material. I recently did some downloading and sorting of old posts, with an eye to drawing on them for some more formal writing projects. Doing so made me very aware of the sheer quantity of writing I have done here over the past two years (hundreds of pages worth, it turns out). The material varies widely in quality and depth, but I would like to do something to ensure that the more substantive posts are accessible in a useful way: one aspect of literary or academic blogging that has always bothered and puzzled me is that writing about books is not properly subject to quite the same time pressures as, say, writing about current events (or even, dare I say it, writing about pop culture). The blog format, though, persistently favours the new, always moving older posts down and then off the page as if somehow critical insights get dated like any other story. I’m going to work on setting up something like a ‘table of contents’ for the blog that will work better than the ‘labels’ function to direct visitors to what I think of as the “back-blog” of material here. There’s no reason in principle why despite the unbreakable convention of ‘latest first,’ a blog couldn’t work less like a newsfeed and more like a constantly expanding volume.

‘Tis Aw a Muddle…or Is It?

I’ve been trying for a while to find a conceptual framework that will unify the various reading and writing activities I’ve been doing. The immediate, pragmatic motivation for bringing things into some kind of order is that it’s about time I applied for some research grant money to support those activities (and by “support,” I mean pretty basic stuff, like buying ink cartridges for my office printer or paying for research-related xeroxing, not to mention buying books, renewing memberships in professional associations, or upgrading my take-home computer equipment–all expenses that are not covered by my department or faculty). There is money to be had, internally and externally, but of course to get any of it you need to have a research project defined clearly enough to justify your demands. I have a couple of objections to this system. One of them is just to the principle of the thing: doing research is part of my job, so I’ve never understood why I have to scrounge up the money necessary to get it done. Another is to the inflationary effect of the grant application process. Except for the occasional conference trip, I don’t actually need much money–what I really need is time to think and read. In terms of funding, what I’d like is enough to cover the basics (cartridges, xeroxing, books) on an ongoing basis. I’d like to feel I can keep reading and thinking and looking things up and writing things until I reach a point at which I can’t express my ideas and findings adequately in short form but need the time and resources to produce a book that will do them justice. Instead, I have to start the process assuming I’m writing a book, because that’s the kind of project that gets grants. So I have to inflate the significance and scope of what I’m currently doing, and what I plan to do next, so that I can ask for enough money to get taken seriously. (SSHRC standard grants, for instance, now require a minimum budget of $7000, but we’re generally advised to ask for a lot more). Our main internal source of research funding clearly spells out in its terms that it is seed money for SSHRC-fundable projects, so it is also not hospitable to exploratory work, and it also rules out what it calls “basic research overhead,” which it declares is the responsibility of our departments and faculties. It doesn’t say exactly what counts as “basic research overhead,” but I’m thinking that category probably includes things like printing and xeroxing, and maybe books (which I know SSHRC used to refuse to pay for)–and it specifically excludes computer equipment. So some fancy footwork is required to explain one’s research needs in a way that will at once meet the approved criteria and actually provide the things one needs for one’s research. And, to get back to my main point, the whole thing has to be framed as an attempt to accomplish some clearly defined research endeavor…ideally, one that builds in some coherent way on past research accomplishments.

Of course, I have applied for research funding before, and I have used the resources I obtained responsibly and gotten things done–published, even. I haven’t made a successful SSHRC application yet; my one attempt (which, in retrospect, I admit was enthusiastic but naive in its presentation) was slapped down hard enough that I wasn’t very motivated to try again, though it’s interesting to me that I have, after all, gone on to do some key parts of the ‘program of research’ described in it, so it can’t have been altogether wrongheaded. The most recent internal money I got was to help me get the Broadview anthology taken care of. But now that’s all gone, and so is my last print cartridge and any remaining credits on my copy cards. So it’s time to go back and ask for some more. But for what?

My problem is (and I realize that I have brought it on myself by the choices I’ve been making about how to use my time) my attention has been increasingly diffused over the past couple of years. Instead of picking one critical problem and pursuing it consistently, I’ve been looking around at a lot of different things. Why have I been doing this? Well, for one thing, I can’t seem to bring into focus any one critical problem that feels urgent to me: I can’t find something to work on that seems truly necessary and exciting, and I’ve chosen to indulge–or respect–my weariness with the flood of academic microcontributions that has resulted from the incessant pressure to publish as soon as possible and as often as possible. I felt that academic scholarship tended too far away from the liveliness and urgency of literature and I wanted to look outside to see how non-academics talked about books, or how academics talked about books outside of ‘work’ that maybe had more mobility and potency. And the first thing to really hit me once I started looking around in this way was just how ignorant my own specialized research had made me. Behold, I knew not anything! Or at least not anything that anybody else was likely to take an interest in–or so it seemed.

This was the point at which I began a relatively systematic exploration of books about books, as well as books about the relationship between academic criticism and what we might call ‘public’ criticism. This was also the point at which I began taking more time writing blog posts and tentatively looking for a place for myself (small, no frills, just a corner of my own) in the wider world of book talk. It took me almost no time to realize that I am very poorly equipped to be a public intellectual: graduate training does not produce generalists, and life pre-tenure, not to mention life post-babies, does not make it any easier to broaden your reach. Still, my professional work has given me some equipment for analyzing books that aren’t Victorian novels, and it was both educational and fun to see how that might work. I have also written about academic issues and about my teaching, both exercises in mobilizing what I know in new ways. Along the way, I think I’ve done some decent thinking and writing. (I’ve written before about the intrinsic benefits of blogging; making connections with other readers and writers, academic and not, has been the very best part of this experiment so far.) I’ve also completed the Broadview anthology and puttered along with my inquiry into Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun as an engagement with Middlemarch, so it isn’t as if I’ve been doing nothing but playing online. However, I do feel that I have fallen behind in my supposed area of specialization, because while I was looking the other way, the flood of new publications continued. Now I feel inadequate in two directions!

Overall, though, I’ve been doing so much reading and writing that it seems as if it must add up to something. So far, however, I just can’t see what. I can see a strong convergence between my metacritical inquiry into the nature of academic criticism and its alienation from the wider reading public, on the one hand, and my attempt (primarily through blogging) to find a different kind of criticism, though so far that attempt is not systematic or particularly ambitious. I can see links, too, between those issues and my work on 19th-century criticism (very much an activity of the public sphere). But I don’t really want to do a project about criticism so much as I want to do criticism differently…but it’s hard to see how to do writing about the literature I’m best prepared to write about (Victorian literature) in a non-academic way, because non-academic book talk seems (reasonably enough) preoccupied with contemporary writers about whom, and about whose contexts, I discover I am in many respects an amateur. So perhaps the Soueif project stands as a way of bringing 19th-century literature into a modern discussion because that is what Soueif herself does by taking Middlemarch as in some way her starting point?

Well, I’m not going to arrive at any answers tonight, and there may in fact be no answer that draws these different threads together. Maybe what I need to do for the grant application is articulate fully the interests and goals of the Soueif essay and never mind the rest. But I’d like to think there’s a point to the rest of it too. I’m also aware that exploring without a shaping purpose eventually becomes dilettantism, and I’m convinced of the importance of being earnest even without a research grant to strive for, so any time I can clear some mental space, I’ll think about it some more.

Blogging Talk Follow-Up

There was a great turn-out and a lot of lively discussion at my talk on Friday about blogging. Several people suggested that they would like links to the material I highlighted, so I’m providing them below, grouped by where I used them in my presentation. First, though, here are some of the things I’ve taken away with me to think about more.

Because I framed my discussion of blogging with some material on academic publishing, one topic that got a fair amount of attention in the questions after was peer-review; this was no surprise, and also it’s something that is addressed a lot among academics who blog. One colleague made the interesting observation that debates about academic blogging seem always (including in my talk) to be set up in terms of its potential contributions to or value as research; much less consideration is given to how it might relate to our teaching. I know there are people using blogging as a pedagogical tool, as a way for students to communicate with each other about course material, for instance, or as a version of reading responses (Miriam Jones does course blogs, for instance). But I think this comment was not so much about how we might add student blogging to our array of assignment options (though others picked up on this possibility as appealing) as about how writing as an academic blogger might put a kind of public face on our own pedagogical activities and ideas (along the lines of what I have been doing with my posts on ‘This Week in My Classes,’ perhaps). The ‘routine’ or everyday character of blogging also matches the rhythm of teaching, in which you are incessantly rethinking your material and looking for ways to bring it to life (intellectually and affectively) in your classes. Writing up this work requires conceptualizing it in ways that perhaps we don’t always do otherwise–and also, I’ve found, brings out connections I might not have seen otherwise. I’ve seen some suggestions that, of the categories used to measure academics’ professional contributions, blogging should be considered ‘service’; I guess I think that’s just a way out of trying to evaluate the substance of the writing.

Another suggestion, from the same colleague, was that academic scholarship has a wider audience outside the academy than is often supposed. I’m not sure how we would go about testing this hypothesis, but it would be interesting to know. And another colleague observed, also in discussion about our relationship to the wider public, that teaching is too often overlooked (in my dozen years of teaching, how many students have passed through my classes? it’s tricky to measure, especially as many students take two or more classes with me–I’ve had some take five or six!–but certainly the number would be somewhere around 2000). As others pointed out in response, even so, that’s only a fraction of the reading public, and only for a limited part of their lives (and when they are under compulsion to pay attention!). But when measuring our impact on literary culture, it’s true that we ought to take teaching into account. (That said, one of the reasons I’ve been thinking again about my own research projects is that they tended not to resemble very much the work I do for my teaching. This is where the trouble starts, for me.)

Finally, another colleague proposed that, overall, the internet is great for connections, comments, and other ‘lighter’ forms of scholarly interaction (I’m paraphrasing) but not suited for sustained analysis. I think this is true in a way, but more because of how we use the internet than because of any necessary limits on its forms. Among the disincentives to long, thoughtful posts is that they don’t ‘matter’ or ‘count’ professionally, for example. But if we re-imagine scholarly discourse to accommodate or value some kinds of on-line exchanges as professional contributions (CV-worthy, in other words), I don’t see why they should be taken any less seriously by writers or readers than, say, ‘responses’ to articles that sometimes appear in journals by invitation–which are not, strictly speaking, peer-reviewed in the same way as anonymous submissions. Participation in book events is a form of on-line academic discourse that seems basically equivalent to publishing a book review, with the extra burden of having to respond to other scholars’ queries or dissenting views. (Update: See Dan Green’s thoughts on these issues at The Reading Experience.)

Overall, then, much to continue thinking about. As the point of my presentation was to get just this kind of conversation going, I consider it a success. Thanks to everyone who showed up!


First, I compiled a number of links about academic blogging previously; see here. Also, if I referred in my talk to a source I haven’t included here and you’d like to follow it up, let me know; it wasn’t feasible to put in every single cited source.

I. Questions About Academic Publishing

MLA Task Force Report
FitzPatrick, “On the Future of Academic Publishing, Peer Review, and Tenure Requirements
Krause, “Considering the Value of Self-Published Websites”

II. Questions About Audiences: Ourselves, Other Academics, Other Readers

Erin O’Connor, “Relatively Sincere”Lisa Ruddick, “The Near Enemy of the Humanities is Professionalism”

III. Blogging in Particular

Tedra Osell (BitchPhD), Academic Blogging and the Public Sphere
John Holbo, “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine”
Miriam Jones, “What I Told the Tenure Committee”

IV. Varieties of Literary and Academic Blogs (samples)

Conversational Reading
The Elegant Variation
The Reading Experience

Academic (Administrative, Literary, and Other)
Confessions of a Community College Dean
Deans’ Weblog
The Little Professor
Michael Berube
The Long Eighteenth
Blogging the Renaissance
Crooked Timber
The Valve

V. Long-time Bloggers Reflect

An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogging
A Skeptic’s Take on Academic Blogging
Academic Blogging Revisited

About Academic Blogging: A Round-Up

As a relative newcomer to blogging, I’ve been especially interested in thinking and learning about reasons for academics to blog, so I’ve been collecting links to articles and posts on this topic (or ones that would stimulate thought about it, one way or another). I thought I’d put the list up here, as it takes time to prowl around and find them in blog archives and so on. I’d be happy to be pointed to others (I’m sure there are many). All of these, of course, include links to other related posts or sites.

  1. “Form Follows the Function of the Little Magazine” (John Holbo, The Valve, March 31, 2005)
  2. “Academic Blogging and Literary Studies” (John Holbo, Crooked Timber, April 18, 2004)
  3. “Why Blog?” (Miriam Jones, Scribbling Woman, November 3, 2005)
  4. “The Blogosphere as Carnival of Ideas” (Henry Farrell, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7, 2005)
  5. “Against Phalloblogocentrism” (Scott McLemee, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 3, 2007)
  6. Scott Eric Kaufman‘s Blogging Panel Paper (presented at the 2006 MLA Convention)
  7. “Bloggers Need Not Apply” (‘Ivan Tribble,’ Chronicle of Higher Education, July 8, 2005)
  8. “They Shoot Messengers, Don’t They?” (‘Ivan Tribble,’ Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2, 2005)
  9. “Can Blogging Derail Your Career?” (Chronicle of Higher Education, July 28, 2006)
  10. “Blogging!” (Michael Berube, July 25, 2006)
  11. Workbook (April 3, 2006)
  12. “Why I Blog Under My Own Name (and a Modest Proposal)” (Matthew Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland, College Park)
  13. “Historical Scholarship and the New Media” (Panel featuring Tedra Osell, Scott Eric Kaufman, Brad DeLong, Ari Kelman)
  14. “I’m Nobody, Who Are You?” (Tedra Osell discusses pseudonymous blogging in the context of 18thC periodicals; posted at The Long Eighteenth)
  15. Discussion on “In the Middle” of Michael Berube’s Midwest MLA Address (November 13, 2006)
  16. “Theorizing Blogging, Theorizing Theory” (Amardeep Singh, The Valve, April 19, 2006)
  17. Tim Burke, Easily Distracted (“The Trouble with Tribble,” “Publishing Presentation on Academic Blogging,” “Berube Stops Blogging“)

I would also be interested in hearing from any academic bloggers who happen across this post what level of interest or awareness there is in blogging in among their colleagues in their home departments. Are blogs and blogging seen as fringe activities, in relation to conventional modes of scholarly research and communication, or are they moving towards the mainstream? Are your colleagues skeptical, curious, enthusiastic, uninterested?

Even in Blogging, Everything New is Old

I’ve been reading through the archives of some lively blog debates related to my own questions about the terms and tendencies of contemporary academic literary criticism (see, for instance, here, here or here). Following the long chains of arguments and rebuttals, examples and counter-examples, I’m struck with a familiar sense of futility: when so much has been said by so many so often, what can I hope to add? I’m also struck, though, by just how unaware I was that conversations of quite this kind were going on. It’s not that I did not know that the terms of criticism have long been debated,of course, including in polemical and political ways as they often are in these blog exchanges–I did my graduate work at Cornell in the early 90s, after all. It’s more that I literally had never heard of blogs until last year, and until early this year, I had no idea that there was such a category as ‘academic blogs.’ So what seemed to me like something new and experimental, like casually posting some notes on my current reading online, turned out to be entirely old and, as far as rethinking criticism goes, hardly experimental, especially as I did not know enough about the blogging scene to have any particular critical or theoretical agenda when I started.

I’m not really sure why my obliviousness to these online forums and debates–at a time when, after all, I was hard at work on other specialized reading and writing–strikes me as somehow symptomatic of more than just my own individual ignorance. Maybe the point is just that the ideal often expressed by academic bloggers (e.g. here or here) about opening up lines of communication is still a pretty long way off: at least in my immediate circles, blogging is definitely still seen as a fringe activity. In a way, it is ‘just’ (or just like) another academic specialization, in that academic bloggers know each other and link to each other and talk to and about each other, as do, say, medieval historians or Christina Rossetti scholars. I am persuaded that blogging has the potential to change a lot about our working and thinking lives (this was useful in clarifying some of the issues, as was this, to pick just two of the long and growing list of materials I’ve bookmarked), but old habits die hard and skeptical attitudes abound. Then, when it comes to joining in the debates, precisely because this form of publication and discussion is so diffuse, it feels like a particularly difficult conversation even to eavesdrop on, never mind to participate in. Also, while in typical academic publishing, with its glacier-like pace, it’s hard to feel that you are coming in too late, somehow reading these blog archives on the function of criticism makes further comment seem SO 2005…how does one ‘make it new,’ on or off line?

Professors, Start Your Blogs…

I read with much interest Dan Cohen’s post “Professors, Start Your Blogs” (now a year old, but new to me). I appreciated his discussion of the reasons academics might not only want to blog but also justify blogging. He is particularly clear and persuasive about the merits of bringing specialized knowledge, even obsessions (if “properly channeled and focused on a worthy subject”), to a wider audience. The idea of bloggers in well-defined niches becoming “a nexus for information exchange in their field[s]” makes intuitive sense and seems to be borne out by examples, including those he gives. At the same time, he points to what he calls “altruistic reasons” for blogging, reaching out to “an enormous audience beyond academia. . . . I believe it’s part of our duty as teachers, experts, and public servants.” I agree, but it strikes me that his two kinds of reasons (call them obsession and outreach) are not wholly compatible. The high degree of specialization in academia is one of the main reasons academic research is not particularly accessible, never mind interesting, to broad audiences. My own interest in blogging is motivated largely by a desire to escape or redefine the limits of specialization, not to reproduce them in an alternative medium. Cohen’s account of what makes a blog successful exacerbates my ongoing concern, though, that there’s not much point competing with thousands of other blogs for readers’ attention unless your own site offers something distinctive, some angle or attitude they can’t find anywhere else. To use my own blog as an example, I enjoy writing up my latest reading and I find it useful posting about subjects related to my embryonic project on ‘writing for readers,’ but if my ultimate goal is to provide something that will, in Cohen’s words, “frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value,” I’m going to need to narrow, or at least define, my focus–ideally, in a way that still satisfies my desire to get out of the ivory tower and into a wider conversation.