Some Afterthoughts on Academic Blogging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Which We Call A Blog By Any Other Name …

LastRose2013… would be the same thing it always was, which is also the point about the rose in the original line, of course. Names are (more or less) arbitrary labels, sure, no problem. But they have connotations as well as denotations, effects and associations as well as literal referents.  And lately I’ve been wondering: how much does the label “blog” (still) influence people’s assumptions about the substance and value of online writing?

This is not a new question, of course. Remember Princeton professor Jeff Nunokawa, who staunchly refused to call his series of Facebook “essays” a “blog”? As he explained in an interview, this is because

“I hate that particular syllable,” but also, more importantly, because “it doesn’t catch what I’m really trying to do, whether successfully or not. These are essays. When I think of a blog — and maybe I’m being unfair to bloggers because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere — my sense of blogs is that that they’re written very quickly. This is stuff that I compose and recompose, and then recompose and recompose and recompose. It’s very written.”

There’s much that could be said about this self-consciously ignorant generalization (I said some of it in my JVC essay on blogging, and I’ve said lots more on related topics in numerous other posts here on blogging.) The assumption that somehow by definition blog posts aren’t “very written” is particularly annoying. But for today let’s focus on his comment “I hate that particular syllable.” I don’t much like it either, insofar as it is not particularly euphonious, but disdaining it on those grounds has something of a “Wragg is in custody” feeling about it (“Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg!”). A “hideous name” is not, of course, actually a symptom of any particular coarseness — but is it possible that the ugly syllable “blog” has created for many people an Arnoldian disdain, as if it signals “an original short-coming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions” of literary form, such as those of the more mellifluous “essay”?

I have been thinking about this again because I had a good session recently with a colleague who wanted some tips on using WordPress. While we poked around my various sites, he commented that he’d been reading around in my blog archives. “There’s lots of good stuff here!” he said, a generous remark which I sincerely appreciated. I think there is too! But I couldn’t help but notice the faintly astonished tone in which he said it, as if he hadn’t expected to find much “good stuff” but had been pleasantly surprised. That’s all good, of course — better that way around than the other way, for sure! But what had set his expectations low in the first place? Could it be assumptions stemming from “that particular syllable”?

Now, it’s entirely possible that I heard something that wasn’t there, and more than anything I was genuinely happy (almost absurdly so!) to be conferring with someone who was taking an interest in what I’ve been doing and learning online all this time. If I projected my own lingering anxieties on him, though, it’s precisely because  so few of my colleagues have shown any similar interest. Some, in fact, have been openly derisive about the whole concept of blogging. A precious few have been engaged and supportive, but most have simply been indifferent (as far as I’ve ever been able to tell). It’s not that I expect everyone I work with to drop what they’re doing and read everything I write! But I’ve wondered why the perception that blogs are not worth reading persists to the extent that when I asked a couple of colleagues once if they read any at all (never mind mine), they both laughed before they said no. How much of that has to do with the word “blog” itself, do you suppose, and what they take it to signify? If we talked about “essays on our websites” instead of “posts on our blogs,” would that sound different enough that it might bring more people across the threshold who might then stay long enough to discover that, indeed, there is “good stuff” to be found?

Why does “blogging” have such negative connotations, anyway? When Paul started his blog on “The Big C” and couldn’t stop talking about it, I admit I was filled with self-conscious horror at how annoying and narcissistic it seemed: what if I sound that way when I mention my blog? (Which isn’t that often, honest! At least, I don’t think it is…) Even I turned against him! But all shared writing is, in its own way, a demand for attention, a claim that your voice is worth hearing. Blogging is just a form: why, in this case, do a lot of people still assume the form defines the content? Was Nunokawa right, not about blogs themselves, but about avoiding the label if he wanted his short pieces to be read differently — or at all?

I think most of us actual bloggers have made our peace with the admittedly ugly vocabulary associated with the online writing and discussions we have (though I bet most of us would happily vote to ban “blogosphere”). But do you think that a lot of non-bloggers (we need a term for them, the way wizards have “muggles” — maybe “Higginbottoms”?) still hear the word “blog” and think “shallow, hasty, and self-promoting”? I don’t suppose it really matters, not for us, anyway, since we’re doing what we want, whatever it’s called, but the prejudice against it continues to puzzle and sometimes provoke me.

And that, speaking of ugly vocabulary, is quite enough meta-blogging! Next up, I hope, will be a post  essay  review  column  discussion excursus  disquisition  confabulation on an actual book. I’m still reading The Stonehenge Letters; I’ve just started Mapp and Lucia; and I’ve downloaded The Duchess War — we’ll see which one I finish first.

The First Ever Novel Readings Book Giveaway!

When I put up my last post, I realized that it was #899 – making this my 900th post at Novel Readings. That seemed like a milestone that ought to be recognized with something a bit out of the ordinary! But what? As I was musing about options, I remembered that not long ago I had contemplated holding a book giveaway for my anthology, The Victorian Art of Fiction, to put a more positive spin on its rather sluggish sales. (OK, “sluggish” is putting it nicely: my last royalty statement shows it selling -3 copies in Canada!) Clearly this is the perfect opportunity for just such a special event. It can also double as my way of celebrating World Book Day!

WP_20140306_002

Lest the sorry story of my book’s recent sales makes you skeptical that you even want a free copy, let me tell you just a little bit about it. (You can also read more about it at Wuthering Expectations, where once upon a time it was the book of the week!) It’s actually the project I was working on in 2007 during the same sabbatical that I launched this blog, making it the perfect prize for this occasion. (The first person to joke that “second prize is two copies” is banned from Novel Readings forever.)  I had been reading quite a lot of Victorian essays about and reviews of fiction — partly because I was asking questions about the kind of criticism we do and how it sometimes seemed to me to fit the primary sources uncomfortably. I wanted to get a better sense of the contemporary conversation into which the Victorian novels actually emerged. I found this material fascinating but also diffuse, and I thought a collection of the choicest examples would be a nice thing to make available, for interested readers as well as for students and teachers of the history of criticism; happily, Broadview Press agreed.

My introduction to the volume that resulted sums up some key themes across the various readings as well as what seemed to me some notable and thought-provoking differences between the way they did criticism then and the way we do it now. But the real fun is in the essays themselves. There are some that are canonical (as far as that concept can even be applied to 19th-century essays about the novel): George Eliot’s “Silly Novels By Lady Novelists,” for instance, and Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction.” There are some by writers whose names are certainly familiar to readers of Victorian fiction: Margaret Oliphant’s “Modern Novelists – Great and Small,” or Anthony Trollope’s “Novel Reading.” There are some by people who, though not widely known today, were major critical or intellectual figures at the time: David Masson’s “Thackeray and Dickens” or Walter Bagehot’s “The Novels of George Eliot.” There are essays on “lady novelists,” sensation fiction, and the morality of fiction; there are discussions of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë by writers including George Henry Lewes and Leslie Stephen. The essays are perceptive, idiosyncratic, sometimes puzzling, often surprising, and occasionally profound. Above all, they reflect a common conviction that fiction is an art form worth talking about, which is a feeling I think is likely to be shared by anyone stopping by a blog called Novel Readings.

So here’s the plan. If you’d like a chance at a free copy of this elegant, entertaining, and edifying volume, just say so in the comments below, in the next 24 hours (it’s 10:00 a.m. Atlantic time here in frosty Halifax, so that will be the cut-off time tomorrow). As an extra incentive, I will also include a pretty bookmark in an appropriately bookish pattern made by a local paper artist! Then I’ll put all (both? the only?) names in a hat and Maddie will draw out one winner. I’ll identify the winner in the comments and invite him or her to contact me by email to sort out mailing information. (With regret, after looking at international shipping rates on Canada Post, I do have to limit this offer to US, Canadian, and UK addresses only. Maybe for my 1000th post I’ll go completely global.)

I hope someone is interested. If it turns out that I can’t even give copies of the book away, just think how depressed I’ll be: what could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain? And so, as James says in the exuberant conclusion to “The Art of Fiction,” go in!

UPDATE: It’s heartening to see so much interest in the book! I wish I could send everyone a copy – but I can’t. The ‘contest’ is now closed. I promised Maddie she could do the actual drawing, so it will have to wait until after work. Then I’ll make the big announcement of the winner. Thanks to everyone for joining in!

AND THE WINNER IS …

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.

Should Graduate Students Blog?

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

Should Graduate Students Blog?

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

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

But it would be naive to ignore that blogging (for some good and some bad reasons) is not yet widely recognized as a legitimate form of academic publishing and that the case for it as productive academic work at all remains a difficult one to make. Graduate students aspiring to tenure-track positions hardly need to be told that for most hiring committees, the crucial measure of their competitiveness as candidates will be the number of conventional peer-reviewed scholarly publications on their c.v.–and the more prestigious the venue, the better. Though blogging one’s research projects can be a useful stage en route to achieving those conventional publications, or even to finishing the dissertation (Scott Kaufman’s Acephalous blog was once the place to look to see this in action!), in itself it is not the same thing and will almost certainly not be valued in the same way. And maintaining a good blog takes time–not necessarily or exactly time away from that kind of clearly marketable scholarly work and publication, but time that might be better used to focus directly on finishing that thesis and getting those lines for your c.v. There are definitely risks involved, then, in deciding to blog.

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

“Buried Treasure”: Disrupting the Archives

Arcimbolo LibrarianIn the article by Robert Cottrell of The Browser that I linked to in my earlier post on blogging and intellectual curiosity, there’s a section on the way “we overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing.” His comments about this really resonated with me. I’m sure I’m not the only blogger who watches posts scroll off into the ether and wishes there were some way to counteract the relentless downward pressure of the form itself — “a thin new layer of topsoil gets added each day or each week,” as Cottrell puts it, while “what’s underneath gets covered up and forgotten.”

Of course, the older posts are still “there,” in some sense, but once they scroll off the bottom of the page, their invisibility can make them seem irrelevant. But book reviews do not lose their interest or value over time — not, at least, if they are conceived of as conversations with other readers rather than marketing or promotional tools tied to publishers’ calendars. Precisely because a lot of book bloggers read on their own schedules, following their own whims, though, these conversations are particularly diffuse, unpredictable, and difficult to re-discover: more than once I’ve read a book that I know some of my blogging friends have talked about before, but I’ve been stymied by the inefficiencies of turning up who it was who said what when, and thus my own thinking is corralled and my post goes up link-less. Tag clouds and category lists are helpful as far as they go, but if you follow more than a handful of blogs, that’s not very far. And what about posts that went up before you started following someone, so you don’t even know that you should look for them? It’s bad enough that I’ll never have time for all the material I know is out there, but what about the unknown unknowns?

Some bloggers, myself included, do have an index of one kind or another to help counteract the present-centeredness of the form. I’ve tried to make mine user-friendly by organizing it into themed pages (see the tabs across the top). I know I appreciate this kind of explicit visitor’s guide when other bloggers do it (here’s Ana’s ‘Review Index,” for instance, at Things Mean A Lothere’s Litlove’s, from Tales from the Reading Room; and here’s Jenny and Teresa’s at Shelf Love.). Still, the form of blogging – and really of all online publishing – means that we are most likely to pay attention to whatever’s on the top of the front page. As Cottrell says

You can call up a year-old piece as easily as you can call up a day-old piece. And yet we hardly ever do so, because we are so hardly ever prompted to do so.  Which condemns tens if not hundreds of thousands of perfectly serviceable articles to sleep in writers’ and publishers’ archives, written off, never to be seen again.

It doesn’t have to be that way! What we need are more overt prompts, that’s all, and we can do this, as Cottrell points out, more easily than ever before. “I suspect that the wisest new hire for any long-established newspaper or magazine,” he proposes,

would be a smart, disruptive archive editor. Why just sit on a mountain of classic content, when you could be digging into it and finding buried treasure?

At Open Letters Monthly, we have actually begun putting a piece or two from our extensive archives onto the main Table of Contents for each issue, usually essays or reviews that somehow complement our new ones or that have renewed relevance. Here at Novel Readings I’ve re-run pieces from my own archives a few times, usually in the summer when the pace of new blogging is slow. I’ve usually felt a bit sheepish about this, but since reading Cottrell’s essay I’ve decided that not only is there no shame in it, but there’s actually value in it. By putting old (or, to use Cottrell’s more positive term, “classic”) content out in front again, I can make sure it isn’t “written off” – that it finds new readers and maybe even starts new conversations. And so I’m going to start re-posting pieces on a regular basis. I’ve never been a “new post every day” kind of blogger anyway, and I don’t intend to reduce the amount of new writing I do, but I will supplement it with “buried treasure.” Because my posts generally fall into two broad categories – academic and literary – my idea is that every week I’ll re-post one thing of each kind. If this starts to seem like too much, I’ll cut back to a “classic” piece of each kind in alternating weeks. And if I end up thinking that a lot of what’s buried deserves to stay there … well, then I’ll have to rethink this whole topic and should probably also think about why I blog in the first place!

Stay tuned, then. And if you’re sitting on your own mountain of classic content, consider bringing some of it out into the fresh light of day. Some of us might have missed it the first time, after all!