2012: My Year in Writing

cassatI began my annual look back at 2012 with my small contribution to the Open Letters year-end feature. I’ll follow up soon with my regular survey of highs and lows from my reading and blogging year. But this year I thought I’d also take a moment to review the writing I’ve done this year for venues besides Novel Readings.

Most of it was for Open Letters Monthly, of course, and I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to write about whatever interests me, as well as for the challenges to write about things I might not otherwise tackle. Also, as I always tell new or prospective contributors, the editing process at OLM is one to cherish: we bring different interests and sensibilities and styles to bear on every piece, but always in the interests of making it the strongest version of itself that we can collectively manage, and I know that my pieces always end up better than they began.

My first OLM piece in 2012 was “The Quiet One: Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” I think this is a wonderful novel – more artful, in many ways, than Jane Eyre, if without its visceral appeal. I teach it regularly and the more time I spend on it, the more I admire the unity and integrity of Anne Brontë’s accomplishment. It was a treat to write this up: it’s basically a much-elaborated version of the notes I use for lecture and class discussion.

The scariest piece I wrote in 2012 was “Abandonment, Richness, Surprise: The Criticism of Virginia Woolf,” which was my contribution to our special 5th anniversary issue. I was not initially enthusiastic about doing an entire issue on criticism, and I wasn’t at all sure I had what it took to say anything at all about Woolf as an essayist. On the first count, I was completely converted as the pieces came in. Sam Sacks on Frank Kermode, Greg Waldmann on Edmund Wilson, Steve Donoghue on Elizabeth Hardwick, John Cotter on Gore Vidal … the project brought out the best in our writers as they spoke from the heart about the people who showed them what criticism could be. As for my own piece, the faint edge of desperation I brought to the task unexpectedly gave me courage to get more outside my own head than I’m usually able to do and to write with a freedom I rarely feel. This is the 2012 publication I’m most proud of, precisely because it’s a bit riskier in voice and approach than any of the others.

The most fun piece to write, on the other hand, was definitely “All the World to Nothing: Richard III, Gender, and Genre.” As I confess in the essay, I’ve been a “Ricardian” for many years but I hadn’t found a place for that somewhat esoteric interest in my working or writing life before. Yet as I thought about the elements I wanted to include in the essay, I realized that a lot of the work I’ve done as an academic has grown out of my early passion for historical fiction, while a lot of my conceptual thinking about gender and historiography finds apt illustration in the tale of the last Yorkist king and his mostly female advocates. I have a feeling that not a lot of readers followed me down the slightly wandering path I took, but I hope those who did shared in my last gleeful “ha!” They will also understand the great excitement I have felt as this news story unfolds.

I wrote two essays on George Eliot this year, stages in a still somewhat indefinite longer project about her thought and her novels and what they might mean for us today. In the first of them, “Macaroni and Cheese: the Failure of George Eliot’s Romola”, I bypassed the essay I initially thought of writing, in which I made a case (as I did a couple of years ago for Felix Holt, the Radical) that the novel is better than is usually thought, and chose instead to think about the ways in which the novel is every bit as bad as it seems. I know that fear of failure holds me back: I find George Eliot’s failures inspiring because they teach me about reach and ambition and intellectual courage. That said, Romola actually is a fascinating and occasionally thrilling novel, so if you’ve already made your way through the others, don’t be put off by all this talk of failure!

Also for Open Letters, I reviewed The Life of George Eliot, by Nancy Henry (in our ‘annex,’ Open Letters Weekly) and Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s newest novel  Two-Part Inventions. Henry’s biography is smart, thorough, and yet somehow not as exhilarating as a life of George Eliot deserves to be, perhaps because it is that odd hybrid, a ‘critical biography.’ Still, it’s miles and miles better than Brenda Maddox’s abysmal George Eliot in Love. Schwartz is the author of two novels I admire enormously–Disturbances in the Field and Leaving Brooklyn–but I wasn’t inspired by Two-Part Inventions mostly because it seemed to me that Schwartz wasn’t either.

The second of my George Eliot essays this year, “‘Look No More Backward’: George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Atheism,” appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and then, rather to my surprise, in Salon). As the essay was in progress, I had second thoughts about the ‘New Atheist’ hook I’d proposed for it when I pitched it, but that is how I’d pitched it and (understandably) that’s what they wanted me to stick with, so I did. It’s not that I don’t believe what I said, but as I’d feared, that set-up was a distraction for some readers, who seem (at least from the posted comments) not to have persisted as far as my reading of Silas Marner. I have argued before that we could do worse than look to George Eliot for ideas about how to be both godless and good and this was a good experiment in making that argument in more detail and taking it to a wider public, while still doing the kind of close reading that I hope might be seen as my trademark when (if) people think of me as a critic. I have yet to muster enough courage to write a sustained essay on Middlemarch, but when I do, it may well build on this foundation.

Finally, I published one essay in a conventional academic journal this year, though somewhat ironically (given that my non-academic publishing was almost all in my supposed areas of specialization) it’s about blogging: “Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice” appeared in the Journal of Victorian Culture. This paper grew out of the conference presentation I gave at the British Association of Victorian Studies conference last summer. It was supposed to be made open access but there seems to be a hitch with the publishers: anyone denied access who wants a copy can just let me know.

So: that’s six essays and two book reviews in 2012, which is not bad for someone who has been told her ‘publication record is spotty‘! And that’s not taking into account any of my writing here on the blog, much less any of the writing I do as a matter of course for work, from lecture notes to handouts to evaluations to memos to letters. Of course, none of the writing in those last five categories really feels like writing, though it’s easy to underestimate how much creativity and ingenuity it calls for. There were some definite highlights in my blogging year, and I’ll be looking back at those in my next post. I love the complete freedom of blogging–freedom from deadlines and other external requirements, and freedom to say what’s on my mind without second-guessing myself too much. However, one of my goals for 2013 is to keep up a good pace of essays and reviews outside Novel Readings, because I still find writing for other people intimidating (and yes, I know, other people read my blog, but it feels very much like my space, so it’s just different, however irrationally). In addition to writing for Open Letters, I might have another go at pitching a piece somewhere else, just to keep pushing my boundaries. But what, and where? (Ideas welcome….) I find I’m still quite clueless about this process, and I hardly know if I’m more nervous about a pitch being turned down or accepted, but that’s just the kind of anxiety I need to get past. Maybe 2013 will be the year I figure out how to just write, without so much agonizing. On the other hand, isn’t agonizing part of what defines writing?

Blogging is Detrimental to Literature? Make Him Stop Saying That!

Just when you thought maybe, just maybe, the worst was over when it came to casually dismissive generalizations about blogging–you know, of the kind that used to get us all riled up way back in 2008, and that still irked us in 2010–we get this, from the editor of the TLS:

The rise of blogging has proved particularly worrying, [Stothard] says. “Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers [sic] opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.”

Yes, that’s right: he’s worried that if readers stop tagging along after the “traditional, confident” critics who occupy the literary high ground, they will end up (lemmings that they are) following bloggers over the cliff into the slough of mediocrity, and then they will be worse off! He’s right: there are some important issues here. They just aren’t quite the ones he’s talking about…

Is there really no way we can put an end to this kind of pompous and insulting pronouncement? Can’t we flood the comments with links to book blogs that inspire and excite us as readers and do more than the TLS ever does to bring us to books we would otherwise not discover? Can’t we explain that the world of  “traditional, confident” criticism often seems hopelessly circular and self-referential–that it can only be good for literature to have a variety of voices and perspectives and tastes in play? Can’t we remind him that people have always bought books that others thought were “no good,” and that the process of sorting and judging is always a fraught one? Can’t we get across the basic point that blogging is a form that can hold as great a variety of content as a newspaper (imagine dismissing the TLS because of the existence of the Sun or the Mirror) and that the problem continues to be one of filtering–a problem the TLS could help with by actually reading a wide range of bloggers and encouraging (maybe even engaging with!) those that offer the most informed and provocative and original commentary? Can’t we … Oh, never mind. It’s hopeless.

But actually, no it’s not. Here’s Daniel Mendelsohn,  in his recent ‘Critic’s Manifesto,’ discussing how the “the advent of the Internet [has] transformed our thinking about reviewing and criticism in particular”: “First, there has been the explosion of criticism and reviews by ordinary readers, in forums ranging from the simple rating (by means of stars, or whatever) of books on sites such as Amazon.com to serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers.” It’s true he sees this in terms of “ordinary readers” finally going public, not as his having discovered critical peers online, but he certainly acknowledges that there’s more to blogging than seems to be dreamt of in Stothard’s philosophy: he even gives the impression that he might actually have read some book blogs (and not just those run under the aegis of “traditional, confident” publications). Mind you, Mendelsohn (surely someone whose opinion is worth something even to Stothard) has been making more carefully qualified statements like this for years: apparently Peter Stothard doesn’t listen to him either. So, maybe it is hopeless–for Sir Peter.

And for the rest of us? Well, I’m not worried. We’ll just keep reading and writing, and somehow I’m confident nobody will be worse off because of it.

The Worth of Our Work (with Some Thoughts on Jonah Lehrer)

Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this . . that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

The very smart and funny Adam Roberts has decided to put an end to his blog Punkadiddle. Iif you haven’t already had the pleasure, you should check out the archives – I particularly enjoyed his skewering of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, especially this one, which starts hilarious and ends profound (that reminds me–time for a tea break!). As a Victorianist, though, I found posts like this one of the greatest value to my own thinking.

It’s understandable that Adam would decide to close up shop in one venue when, as he says, his time and energy are needed elsewhere. Blogging consistently (by which I mean not just posting regularly but staying involved with comments and generally maintaining a site that reflects genuine engagement with its subject and with other readers and writers) does take a lot of time and energy, and people’s interests and priorities change over time. As a result blogs ebb and flow, and come and go. The Valve, where both Adam and I were contributors, ran out of steam a while back, and that was a group effort, which in theory should be easier to keep invigorated. I’ll miss following Adam’s work at Punkadiddle, but I’ll look forward to keeping up with it in other venues.

One part of Adam’s farewell post really made me think:

Once upon a time writers were paid in money, but now writers are paid (in the first instance at any rate) in eyeballs, which may or may not at a later stage, underpants-gnomically, turn into money.  Part of this new logic is that the writer ought to be grateful simply to have the attention of those eyeballs.  I’m as deep into this new economy as anybody, of course; I read many thousands of fresh new words, free, online every day.  But I wonder if it doesn’t have more downsides than ups.  Take the material contained in the archives of this blog.  If the sort of thing I write is worth paying for then I’m a mug to give it away for free; and if it isn’t worth paying for (of course a great deal of online writing isn’t) then I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own, carrying on.

As a number of comments on his post have noted, it’s tricky to measure the worth of a blog monetarily: for many bloggers, the chief attractions of the form are the intrinsic pleasures of the writing itself and of the conversation that it stimulates. Yet as Rich Puchalsky comments there, “It’s very easy for people to say that the value of an activity is not measured in what it earns… but part of the monetization of attention is that yes, really, it is hard to say whether written work that people don’t pay for is valued.” Certainly as long as work is unpaid it doesn’t make sense to keep it up unless the effort is repaid in some other way, while anyone who’s enjoying the writing and doesn’t need or want money for it can hardly be faulted for continuing to do it. But how much does the willingness of so many people to write criticism for free make it difficult for those who hope to make a living at it?

As Adam says, it’s a strange new economy here on the internet, with attention or “eyeballs” the primary currency. Adam and I are both somewhat insulated from the effects of this because we’re academics. As Tom Lutz wrote about the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit “for free” as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job” (“Future Tense“). There’s a sense in which Adam and I are both already getting paid for whatever we write, depending on how broadly we define our university’s missions and our professional obligations. (I have a few times made the case that academics who write blogs related to their areas of specialization are making valuable contributions — here, for instance, and more recently here.) Blogging for free can be understood as a variety of open access publishing, and I don’t think anyone’s making the argument that academic articles made freely available aren’t valuable–but at the same time, built into arguments about such open access publishing is the assumption that the work is already being paid for. Academics are also hardly used to being paid specifically for their publications. I have never received a dime from any journal that published my work: the currency there is not eyeballs but prestige and professional recognition. (I also wasn’t paid by the LARB for the essay I published there.) I made a few hundred dollars in total from each of my books. Academics are accustomed, that is, to thinking of writing primarily in non-monetary terms. But, as Lutz points out, “many of us are not [academics],” that is, not everyone publishing their writing for free online already has economic support for that effort.

I don’t know how to do the math here, really, especially when models that assume scarcity increases value hardly seem to apply. Criticism is not a pursuit that responds well to supply and demand, any more than literature itself is–not if what you want is some version of “the best that has been thought and said.” The relationship in both cases between popularity and quality is surely a vexed one. It makes sense in some ways to expect the best work from people who will do it no matter what, simply because it means that much to them, but then with professionalism comes a particular kind of experience and expertise, as well as editorial and public scrutiny which, perhaps, leads to better work overall. (Even as I wrote that last bit, though, I wanted to retract it: the quality of criticism that appears in a lot of paid venues is not inspiring, outside a few elite publications. Punkadiddle is–was–many times better than the review section of my local paper, or of either of Canada’s national papers, for that matter. But isn’t that as much a sign of the limitations of the marketplace as of anything else? Presumably, newspapers publish the kinds of reviews [they think] their subscribers want to read. See also this critique at Lemonhound of a recent published review, though I don’t know if it was paid for.)

In any case, as Lutz says, “We don’t know what the future of publishing is, but we know that the future for every writer requires food.” Edward Champion wrote a strongly-worded response to Lutz’s essay. “Financially speaking,” he observes,

The Los Angeles Review of Books is no different from any other group blog or online magazine. As Full Stop‘s Alex Shephard observed, the question of basic survival is crucial to all writers, regardless of where they come from. The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s present interface relies on Tumblr and, even though it has featured close to 100 posts, it is just as dependent on volunteers and donated time as any other online outlet. As such, so long as it does not pay, it assigns zero value to the labor of its contributors, which makes it not altogether different from The Huffington Post.

“Lutz’s essay is unwilling to swallow the bitter pill,” Champion concludes: ” in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value. . . .  those who want the content are so used to getting it for free that they expect writers of all stripes to surrender their labor for nothing.” In the comments, he and Lutz go back and forth a bit about whether his assessment is unduly negative. I’m certainly hoping that the Los Angeles Review of Books succeeds in its aim of finding a sustainable financial model that includes fair pay for its contributors. As Champion points out, Open Letters Monthly is one of several other “quality online outlets” that have been “getting by” with basically no revenue stream. It’s a labor of love, something we keep doing because we believe criticism is intrinsically worth doing as well as possible. Is this, as Champion says, “an unsustainable model in the long run”? As he’s well aware, oddly it isn’t (as long as we’re willing to cover the core costs, like server space and postage, ourselves), because enough people want to write that they’ll do it for free–if they weren’t, it would certainly be impossible for us to keep offering the magazine for free, which is what the new internet economy expects. Would we like to pay our contributors, never mind our editors? Sure! But we can’t, and they (and we) are all willing to do the work anyway. Maybe, as Adam says, we’re all mugs.

That said, there are people who are paid for their writing, and it seems both inevitable and just that at this moment when there is so much great criticism online for free (the problem, of course, is finding it reliably: the challenge is curating and filtering the endless proliferation of material) there is sharp scrutiny of those lucky few. What should our expectations be–what should the standards be–for those who somehow have made writing a paying gig? It would be gratifying if the hierarchy of quality were clear: if only the very best (the smartest, the most engaging, the most eloquent, the most original) writing was writing that made money. (Heck, it would be gratifying if the very best writing was the writing that attracted the most eyeballs! If only.) This is pretty clearly not the case, and I know I’m not the only person writing for free who sometimes puzzles or even fumes over the results (see, for instance, Steve Donoghue’s often excoriating series on ‘the penny press.’). “You have eight pages in The New Yorker!” I have been known to rant … you’d better use them really, really well! Meaning, of course, use them as I would use them, if I ever got the chance! (Though is it really the money that matters, or, still, the eyeballs? Writers want readers above all. Hence the difficulty of figuring out the economics.)

I think this paradoxical context of scarcity amidst abundance is relevant to the recent brouhaha about Jonah Lehrer, whose “self-plagiarism” has cast a shadow over his recent appointment to a pretty plum position: staff writer for The New Yorker. Is ‘repurposing’ your own work the worst sin a writer can commit? Of course not. Writers rework material all the time. Academics, for instance, routinely use material first in a conference paper, then an article, and then in a book. A writer like Lehrer whose main contribution is a particular expertise or insight in a field is bound to repeat it in multiple variations. But there are ways and ways of doing this, and the measures of how best to do so (ethically, creatively, intellectually) surely include not just transparency (acknowledgement, “as I said in this prior piece,” and attribution, “previously published in”) but also development and enrichment (if large chunks of wording need no revision whatsoever over a long period of time, that suggests not so much dishonesty as mental stagnation). Even if it’s not a strictly illegitimate practice, it’s not very impressive for a writer to be so repetitive.

It’s also a kind of double-dipping. Some have disputed the entire idea of “self-plagiarism,” on the logic that you can’t steal from yourself. That’s true in a literal way, but you can try to get credit twice for doing something once–for submitting the same assignment to two different classes, for instance. That’s considered cheating at a university because it means you did not in fact do the amount of original work your credit-based degree requires. It devalues your credential, and it means you looked for a short-cut, too. The best students don’t do that; the best educated students haven’t done that. The best writers, similarly, won’t be the ones doing the same thing over and over and trying to get credit for it every time. You can’t put the same publication more than once on your c.v. as an academic or, I assume, on your resume as a writer. That’s padding, to make your list of publications look longer than it is. In both situations, time pressure is proposed as an excuse (students are stressed and over-committed, Lehrer’s a busy guy). Srsly? Without even sorting out whether Lehrer had the legal right to rerun material he’d already published (and as far as I know, the consensus is that he retained copyright on his material, but I don’t know the specifics of his contracts), again, don’t we expect something more of our best writers? And don’t we expect staff writers at The New Yorker in particular (a job many of those Champion describes as currently having to “debase themselves for scraps” would be overjoyed to get) to be conspicuously the best? Don’t the editors of The New Yorker expect that their writers will set an example of intellectual curiosity, originality, creativity, and rigor?

Yes, there’s an element of Schadenfreude here, but  it’s about something more than just sour grapes. Those of us who write for free online have heard for years about the deficiencies of our amateur efforts (here’s Ron Hogan on the same example)–it’s no wonder that we get riled up when the very publications that supposedly set the bar for us all turn out to be kind of slack, orwhen  those who somehow (“underpants-gnomically,” as Adam so colorfully says) turn their writing into money turn out not to be conspicuously better than those who don’t or even, like Lehrer, kind of worse. I’m not saying Lehrer clearly doesn’t deserve to be a staff writer at The New Yorker. He’s not a book critic, and he’s got special expertise and celebrity of his own, so he brings things to the table that presumably have their own kind of value. (Still, I would have expected that kind of disrespect for the magazine to be disqualifying for keeping his post.) Even so, I think his example does further complicate the discussion about what writing is worth. In some of the ways that really count, Adam’s writing at Punkadiddle is clearly worth more to him (as an exercise of his own intelligence and wit and expertise) than Lehrer’s was worth to him. Lehrer wanted the paying gigs: to sustain them, he had to take shortcuts and, as a result, he shortchanged his readers and his publishers.

How should we really measure and repay the worth of our work or others’? It’s a wonderful thing to do work that you love, but as the economy of the internet shows (or, for an example in a different area, the economy of higher education), love can make exploitation awfully easy–and there’s no guarantee that love is what you’ll buy with your money, as The New Yorker found out.

I have no interest in monetizing Novel Readings. I am fortunate not to need this work, which I enjoy and benefit from in other ways, to be a specific source of income. But I know (as Ed Champion and Tom Lutz know) that the work we do online is not really free, even if we make it freely available, and I worry that Champion is right that we are all contributing to the devaluing of criticism even as, ironically, we all read and write it for free because we do value it. Open Letters Monthly does not have the manpower or resources or infrastructure to do the kind of massive fundraising work going on at the Los Angeles Review of Books. We do, however, have a PayPal account set up for donations. If you’re ever wondering if you can do anything to help sustain the wonderfully rich and generous and perhaps (if Champion is right) ultimately unsustainable world of online book reviewing, one small gesture would be to put a little in the hat there. At the very least, it would help us with the cost of our web hosting, the one thing eyeballs alone can’t buy.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Academic Blogging

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

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

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

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

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

A Meta-Blogging Moment

There seems to be a touch of meta-blogging going around. Some of it’s implicit and seems to have resolved (for instance, Bookphilia‘s transmogrification into Jam and Idleness). But an extensive conversation broke out around Dr. Crazy’s “what is the point” post at Reassigned Time 2.o, a post that clearly struck a chord with a lot of people who have been blogging for a while, including with Miriam Burstein, who wrote her own follow-up at The Little Professor. For a lot of people, changes in their situation have affected their time for writing, or their freedom to write, or their urge to write–some folks who were job-hunting or untenured are now tenured, for instance, and preoccupied in different ways. Changes in technology have made a difference: between Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr there are more ways to communicate online than were once dreamt of in our philosophies. For some, there’s also a fatigue factor, too, or discomfort with something that once felt liberating and expansive becoming routine or obligatory. Or, perhaps most simply of all, doing anything for a long time prompts reflection on the value of continuing the same way, or continuing at all.

I haven’t been blogging as long as some of these others (Miriam notes that The Little Professor has been around in some form for about a decade!). Novel Readings just turned five in January, and I’m not really in the mood for deep reflection or reevaluation. I’m doing more or less what I’ve always done, and I’m basically still fine with it: I post about books I’ve read, I post about my teaching, I post about academic issues that interest or vex me, I post once in a while about personal things.

That said, I am aware of some changes in my blogging habits. I used to write more short posts, for one thing. I also used to write more posts that jumped off from something someone else had posted, whether in the “MSM” or at another blog. And I used to do more round-up posts of links to other things to read.

I’m not sure why my book posts have gotten longer, but I don’t really worry about that. I write what I’ve thought of to say, in as much detail as I feel like writing! For some books, that’s a lot. For a smaller number of books, that’s not much. Lately, sometimes, it’s nothing at all. I like writing the longer posts better, by and large, because they are more satisfying to work on and to look back on. They do take time, though, and that’s probably why I don’t post as often as a number of the other book bloggers I follow, who seem to manage a post every couple of days at least. Though I have friends who say I must read very fast and all the time, I also feel, reading other book bloggers, that I actually read slowly and not nearly as much as they do!  I also used to post about pretty much every book I read–in fact, for the first couple of years that was kind of a principle of mine, as it kept me posting and prevented internal debates about which books were or were not worth posting about. When I finished a book, it went in the “to be blogged pile” and stayed there until it was done! If I thought I had nothing to say, I still had to give it a go–and it was surprising how often I found I did, after all, have at least something to say. That would probably be a good practice to revive, not least because it was good for me intellectually to be surprised in that way.

I never made a deliberate choice not to write more response posts. Since in theory that kind of cross-blog conversation is a big part of what I like about blogging, I wonder what happened. Perhaps it’s that reading blog posts by lots of different bloggers over the past five years tired me out a bit, especially because conversations come in waves–fads, even. Do I really want to have another exchange about the sorry state of contemporary book reviewing or the off-hand assumption that academics contribute nothing of interest to it? Or if a conversation is going on vigorously on something I am interested in, I don’t feel very motivated to add my two-cents’ worth just to be in the game. Right now, for instance, Jonathan Rees is writing all kinds of great posts about the wrong-headed embrace of technology, including Blackboard, on our campuses. I’m not anti-technology but I’m anti-Blackboard and skeptical about lots of other things getting a lot of hype from corporate-ed types. But Jonathan Rees is covering these topics just fine and I don’t really expect anyone is aching to get my perspective on the same issues, at least not in more depth than I can offer in a comment on his posts–so commenting makes more sense. Still, I do think conversations are one of  the great things about blogging, so I’m going to be more self-conscious about my decisions to blog or not to blog about something seen elsewhere, and try to make more decisions to blog rather than not. Just blogging about my own thing all the time does not exemplify the ethos of generosity and expansiveness that drew me to blogging in the first place.

The same goes for linking to and commenting on other people’s blogs, which I have been doing far too little of. Link posts don’t need to be as overwhelming as zunguzungu’s Sunday Reading lists (which leave me feeling that I don’t spend enough time on the internet–not a feeling I get very often!): they can be a nice way to point anyone who stops by my place to  some of the good stuff I’ve enjoyed, and they are a way, too, of acknowledging the pleasure I get from the efforts of other bloggers. As for commenting, well, I blame Google Reader, actually, for a decline in my commenting: I faithfully  read everyone on my blogroll and then some, but because I read them all handily aggregated, I’m not actually there at the other site, which means commenting requires a little extra effort. But it’s not much, and I should do it more. Again, conversation is a big part of the point, and I really appreciate it when someone comments here. Mind you, some of the sites I’d comment on already get a healthy dose of comments, and again it sometimes seems pointless to join the chorus if I don’t have much really specific to say. But when I do, I should say it, even if it’s just a little thing, because it’s good to make connections as tangible (and as generously) as possible.

I guess if I do have a concern about Novel Readings, then, it’s that it has become a bit hermetic. I don’t want to perform blogging and hope people do me the favor of reading: I want to be involved in blogging as an activity. I still am, but not as much as I once was. We’ll see what happens about that. My overall interests as a blogger haven’t changed, though, and my experiences on other forms of social media haven’t really affected the way I feel about this space, though they do let very welcome air and light into it.

The Unbearable Lightness of the Digital

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

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

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

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

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

Back from BAVS

I got back Monday afternoon from my long-anticipated trip to Birmingham for the British Association of Victorian Studies conference–and, of course, my stop-over in London for sightseeing and book shopping. I’m now in the midst of back-to-school preparations. Though I am feeling very glad that I did so much work for my fall courses before I left, inevitably there are still details to be finalized, and in fact it’s a good thing I didn’t quite finalize things like my syllabi, as for various reasons (such as the last-minute announcement from higher up that we are not renewing our contract with Turnitin.com for this year–ask me how good an idea I think that is…), a number of sections needed to be tweaked. So I ‘m doing that, and making plans for the actual classroom time on Friday and Monday, updating PowerPoint slides and lecture notes, and making sure I have things like sign-up sheets for presentations and attendance lists. It adds to the excitement that the printer in our main office is defunct: as Dalhousie does not provide individual faculty members with printers (or, more significant these days, with ink cartridges, which typically cost more to replace than the whole darned machine), I rely on the office printer for my course materials, reference letters, and so on, so this is pretty inconvenient. The workaround in place is our new copier, which is “networked” so that we can send documents to it straight from our offices–except that the networking is itself a work in progress, to be completed by the end of September, and my computer remains out of the loop. So there are various extra steps involved any time I want a document sharp enough to copy.  I know, you’re all fascinated by this trivia about the glamorous life of the professoriate! Anyway, bit by bit the pieces are falling into place, the handouts into the folders, the notes into order, the graphics into position.

As for BAVS, I feel good about the experience. It was a big conference, with five parallel sessions running in most time slots and thus there was a lot of competition for everyone’s attention. In my own case, I find that my capacity to listen to specialized academic papers is somewhat limited at the best of times, and so I rationed out my attention a bit stingily, not attempting to attend a panel in every time slot but rather taking one break to go into downtown Birmingham to explore the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (which was wonderful, and topical, too, since it houses a terrific collection of Pre-Raphaelite art), and another to go across the street from the main conference site to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts (also wonderful, a real gem, as Ann promised when we met for our very pleasant dinner the night before the conference). The genre of the academic conference paper is, in my view, a somewhat problematic one. Typically, papers are highly specialized, and they are also usually very tightly crafted, polished to a high degree of rhetorical sophistication. As a result, I find it isn’t easy to engage with them, to see how to get into a conversation with (or about) them. If your own research isn’t highly proximate, it’s unlikely you know enough to get into the details, and if you’re interested anyway, you may feel kept at a distance by the effect of closure such a paper generates. I guess I wish conference papers were more like blog posts: preliminary or open-ended (or open-minded) enough that you feel invited into a conversation rather than impressed by a performance. That said, I heard some interesting papers, good things of their kind: they told me things I didn’t know or addressed questions I hadn’t thought of. A highlight for me was Colin Cruise’s plenary on ‘Arranging meanings: Pre-Raphaelite compositions and narratives,’ not only because it was intrinsically interesting and well presented, but because I had only just seen, in the BMAG, many of the paintings he focused on.

I think my own presentation went well. Our panel on ‘knowledge dissemination in Canada’ offered snapshots of three quite different projects, one the well-established Disraeli Project based at Queen’s University, presented by its director, Michel Pharand; another the Affect Project, a large-scale interdisciplinary endeavor recently launched at the University of Manitoba under the leadership of my good friend Arlene Young; and the other my adventures as an academic who blogs. We had a reasonable audience, considering the number of alternatives they had (if I’d had the choice, I too might have been at the Carlyle panel!)–around 20 people, maybe? I’m terrible at estimating these things, especially when I’m buzzed from nerves, as I always am when speaking in public. My prezi worked fine, which was a relief, after all that time spent on it, and I was even able to do a little last minute tinkering and get in a snippet from the Guardian piece that went up just that morning in response to my earlier post about Leonard Cassuto’s dismissive attitude towards blogs. There was some pretty lively discussion after. I was not surprised that the first couple of questions were, let’s say, skeptical–one of them was prefaced with a hope that it wouldn’t sound “too adversarial.” I didn’t think so, but I did think it skipped past a number of the quite careful framing statements I had made in order to present a kind of extreme worst-case scenario the logic of which, to be honest, I didn’t completely grasp. The concern seemed to be that somehow if we started doing something besides the conventional, highly structured and hierarchical and gated forms of academic publishing, we were heading down the slippery slope to having all our research funding and graduate programs cut — because (and this part of the question, or response, I do remember quite clearly) “in that case why would we need to do research or train graduate students?” As one of my main points was that the non-academic writing I’d been doing was closely integrated with, or reliant on, expertise acquired through my own specialized research, I don’t think I did, myself, offer evidence that such research was irrelevant or beside the point beyond the gates of the traditional publishing models. In fact, to the contrary, I was trying to make the point that such research has more value outside those gates than we typically believe, or at least than we typically let it. As for training graduate students, well, as readers of my blog know, I have a lot of doubts about whether we should continue to train graduate students in quite the way we have been doing for the last several decades, and it was really in service to those concerns that I emphasized my own belief that we need to make a place for (and make the case for) the value of unconventional scholarly practices including blogging in the overall landscape of recognized academic activities.

It struck me, listening to the more dubious voices in the audience, not just that they gave some signs of the defensiveness people like Alex Reid have written about, but also that they tended to talk about “the system in which we are embedded” as if we have no agency in that system. Has Foucault made cowards of us all? Who makes up the academic system, after all, if not the people who embody it? To be sure, there are all kinds of people in that system, often people with administrative or executive powers, who show no appreciation for the academic humanities. But if we really believe we can change our profession for the better, surely we should advocate for those changes, and seek to explain them in the strongest and clearest and most aggressive ways, rather than condemn ourselves–and, more pressingly, those coming after us–to persisting in a system we believe is dysfunctional. It may also be that breaking open the current rigid paradigms of academic scholarship and publishing will help us make the case for the value of our work to those administrators by showing it to be less insular, to serve a broader public. This is part of the logic behind the support structure for the new Los Angeles Review of Books, as I understand it; Tom Lutz, the founding editor, noted in his powerful essay on the state of book reviewing that academics are able to contribute to “as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job.” In any case, the questions were not, really, “adversarial,” but curious and eager to consider the further implications of the fairly modest proposals I specifically made, and it seemed worthwhile to have stimulated that kind of discussion. I think it’s telling that quite a number of young scholars, mostly continuing Ph.D. students, came up to me later to express their interest in what I’d said. Maintaining the status quo is not, overall, in their interests, I think, and their eagerness to think about how else things might be done was energizing.

Unusually for me, the conference felt most useful as an opportunity to have these informal exchanges, and also to meet people I knew from blogs or Twitter or the long-standing VICTORIA listserv, or from reading their scholarship, to make the personal contact that moves conversations and relationships forward — networking! It was a real pleasure putting faces to names, especially Rosemary Mitchell, whom I have ‘known’ for many years (since we both wrote essays on 19th-century needlework and historiography and decided we would be not competitors but allies) but never met in person. David Skilton was there! I was able to tell him how useful I have found his book Anthony Trollope and His Contemporaries. And I met Regenia Gagnier, whose book Subjectivities was one of the first critical books I bought when I was a student at Cornell, and Lyn Pykett, whose work on sensation fiction I rely on, and I was able to reconnect with one of my very best former students, now completing her Ph.D. in the UK (hi, Emily!).  I could wish there had been a bit more time for simply mingling, as we were either in sessions, standing in the crowded atrium eating the (very good) lunches provided, or seated at tables for dinner. Perhaps if I hadn’t been too tired from traveling to go to the pub …

Next up: some self-indulgent posts about my eagerly awaited visit to the London Review Bookshop and other bookish haunts.

“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 …. )