“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.