Some Afterthoughts on Academic Blogging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Which We Call A Blog By Any Other Name …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buried Treasure”: Disrupting the Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Metablogging: Three Interesting Posts

Like conventional academic criticism, lit-blogging is subject to fits of self-consciousness culminating in metablogging. While a few years ago such posts were likely to be forward-looking and exploratory, about the possibilities of blogging as a new frontier in criticism, the latest round of posts from Dan Green, Scott Esposito, and Steve Mitchelmore are more equivocal. Actually, Dan Green is pretty much just negative:

Literary blogs are (unwittingly, I hope) abetting the capitalist imperative to get out “product” as quickly as possible. New books appear, are duly noted, presumably consumed, and then we’re on to the next one. While sometimes lit bloggers consider an older title, it’s usually by an already established author or a “classic” of one sort or another. Little time is spent considering more recent books that might not have gotten enough attention, or assessing a writer’s work as a whole. Once the book has passed its “sell by” date, nothing else is heard of it and every book is considered in isolation, as a piece of literary news competing for its 15 seconds. The more potential readers come to assume that this is the main function of lit blogs, the less likely it is that the literary blogosphere will have any lasting importance. Literary blogs might let you know who reviewed what in the New York Times, but that The New York Times might not be the best place to go for intelligent writing about books is not something they’ll have the authority to suggest. (read the whole piece here)

Stephen Mitchelmore’s response is almost elegaic, but there’s still a hint of that early utopianism:

I have to admit that for years I was mystified why my blog writings have gone apparently unnoticed, at least in terms of page views. While the most popular blogs were getting thousands a day, I was lucky if This Space gathered 300. I thought, isn’t my review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones better than almost all the others, and didn’t my post on a road traffic accident say more about life’s relation to literature than any journalist’s exposé of an author’s life? Perhaps, however, these explain why it is relatively unpopular. Anyway, I have a difficult relationship with praise and criticism, with self-effacement vying for dominance with aggressive resentment. It is probably best to write, as in those early days of Spike, as if nobody is watching. After having published a dozen or so reviews in print media, I’m nowadays genuinely happier to work for weeks on long reviews or essays and have them disappear into the gaping void. Finding a way to talk about the reading experience is, I’ve realised, the greatest pleasure of writing; where it ends is of no importance. Still, over the last fourteen years of online work, I’ve seen the names of my key writers – Thomas Bernhard, Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici – become familiar whereas before they were marginalised. If I have had only a minor role in this, it has made the effort worthwhile.

Yet I still like to imagine an ideal literary website in which the design, the writing and, most of all, the editorial vision offers a unique and dynamic approach to literature and culture in general, countering the banalities of commercial literary sites. So what might it look like? I have an idea but it requires an exceptional amount of work by people who have to earn a living elsewhere. Perhaps such a website is only ever the green ray as the sun sets on one’s hopes. Such a feeling is nothing new and we may learn something from previous attempts in strikingly similar times. (read the whole post here)

Scott Esposito picks up the thread:

I’m not sure how ironic Stephen was being about not understanding why his reviews were lesser-known than those elsewhere (and generally his are of much higher quality that what you’re likely to find in other places), but it’s not too hard to explain. Likewise, the method of building a literary site with high amounts of traffic is not mysterious. Go have a look at the Huffington Post books section, where every week you can find gossip about celebrity memoirs and counter-intuitive lists along the lines of “10 Most Outrageous Outfits From New Book ‘Critical Mass Fashion’ (PHOTOS).” Just make sure to have enough important names within your h1 header, say something contentious but not terribly complex that will generate a billion links, and keep it all short and with a lot of photos. Copy that with your own stable of writers, and you too can build a fairly well-trafficked site. This is not rocket science.

Obviously, some people would shoot for other things in a site besides high traffic, and this points out the problem with focusing on hits as a measure of a website, even though the first question anyone ever asks me about my sites is how many hits they get. But as Stephen’s site demonstrates, you can be influential even without getting major traffic. So choose what you want your site to be, and then do it. (read his whole post here)

“Choose what you want your site to be, and then do it” strikes me as excellent advice. Like every blogger, I wonder at regular intervals what I do this for. I think it’s disingenuous for bloggers to suggest they write purely for themselves: no need to post online, in that case. We all write online in the hope of getting readers. But it doesn’t have to be thousands, or hundreds, to be a satisfying experience (in my case, I average barely 100 hits a day, at least based on the Sitemeter tracking, and we all know that not every hit is an actual reader). If you take Scott’s advice and write what you want–and invest in Mitchelmore’s insight that “finding a way to talk about the reading experience is … the greatest pleasure of writing,” which I think is a large part of the truth–your site will have integrity and reflect your own values as a reader and critic. Then the readers you get will be those you want to enter into conversation with, and the extension to criticism represented by your site will be sincere. I think Dan Green’s disappointment stems from his having had very specific hopes or ambitions for lit blogging. His was one of the first blogs I started reading, and the seriousness with which he took the work and the potential of blogging as an alternative form of criticism was really important to my own developing sense of what the form might allow, what purpose it might serve. While he’s right that there’s a real loss if the overall direction of the ‘litblogosphere’ is towards commercialization and marketing, the form itself remains infinitely malleable. The risk (indeed, the likelihood) is that the good stuff–the thoughtful, independent, eclectic voices–will be drowned out by the louder ones that pander and preen and sell (out). So here I agree with Scott that it’s no good to ‘persist in this “take your ball and go home” attitude.’ The New York Times may not be the be-all-and-end-all of criticism, but it would be nice to be able to harness some of the power of the prestige print publications, now all with notable online presences. If only their blogs and reviewers would play nicely with others and actively seek out interesting independent voices online who represent serious critical alternatives, showcasing them rather than insisting on the tiresomely reductive ‘critics vs. bloggers’ debate. If they really care about the condition of criticism in the present day, they would join in the effort to sustain good discussion, which–whatever its provenance–actually supports their own work by continuing to take books seriously.

Academic Blogging at ACCUTE

I’ve been meaning to say a little bit about the lunch-hour session on academic blogging that I convened at ACCUTE last week. As some of you will know, this session was the down-sized version of a panel I proposed for which there were, well, not many submissions. I’m not altogether sorry. Our informal discussion was certainly more fun and interactive, and probably more productive, than a series of well-rehearsed papers would have been. I enjoyed meeting other bloggers, including The Classroom Conservative and some of the founders of the new, and highly recommended, 19th-century blog The Floating Academy. (During the conference I also met a couple of lurkers: if you’re still out there, thanks for introducing yourselves! Who says the Internet can’t foster actual human interaction?) Also present were some academics who blog but don’t necessarily define themselves as “academic bloggers,” which in itself raised some interesting questions about how (or whether) we define our working or professional selves as distinct from our personal or other selves.

I began with a few words about how I stumbled into blogging and then some comments on what seem to me its benefits from a specifically academic perspective: writing often, writing for a potentially wider audience, getting feedback on work-in-progress, making contacts. I think I also mentioned the slow pace of academic publishing (not conducive to the steady or collaborative development of ideas) and the frustration with writing more for careerist than intellectual or scholarly reasons. The flip side of all this is (again, from a narrowly academic perspective) lack of professional recognition for this activity, which then raises questions about the time commitment, particularly for junior faculty. Then we just went around the room and everyone explained their own interest in or experience with blogging, academic or otherwise. I thought it was a friendly and productive discussion. Probably what emerged most strongly for me was that, just as it is difficult to define “blogging” because the form itself determines almost nothing about the content, so too “academic blogging” can take many forms, from the scholarly to the personal to the literary. As a result, academics who believe their blogging is contributing in some significant way to their professional development and therefore want some credit for it (and let’s face it, most of us have an interest in moving forward, not just intellectually, but also professionally, so the issue of “what does this count for?” is bound to come up, given how many demands there are on our time) will have to make the case based on the specific kind of work they are doing. Still, it also seems to me that the primary value of blogging, whether academic or not, is and should be intrinsic. Whether you blog because you find the mental exercise stimulating or clarifying, or because you find it useful to have a repository for your unfolding ideas, or just because you enjoy it, then whatever else comes of it, you won’t be sorry. And given the ways academic work tends to meld with everything else we do and think about, our work is bound to benefit, even if only indirectly. Many of us remarked, for instance, that the simple challenge of writing often and (implicitly) for a broader audience than other specialists was, in itself, one of the chief attractions and rewards of blogging: it brought us back in touch with the pleasure of writing. I’d like to hear any follow-up thoughts from others who were there.Thanks to all of you for coming! I was afraid it might be a lonely lunch for me.

As it turns out, there was another blogging panel at the Congress, sponsored by University Affairs; unfortunately I didn’t know this one was on the schedule until I had already booked my return ticket for that day, or I would certainly have attended it as well. (If any of you were there, I’d be interested in your report. I found a bit more information about it, here and here.) I was surprised to see only one Canadian blogger on the panel, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been, considering my own experience trying to uncover other Canadian academics who blog.

Reflections on Blogging My Teaching

I began my series of posts on ‘This Week in My Classes‘ back in September, in response to what I felt were inaccurate and unfair representations of what English professors are up to in their teaching. As I said then,

I don’t suppose that my own classroom is either wholly typical or exemplary, but I think it might contribute somewhat to the demystification of our profession, now that the teaching term is underway, to make it a regular feature of my blog to outline what lies in store for me and my students each week.

The resulting entries range from brief commentaries on key passages to meditations on larger critical or theoretical issues prompted by a particular reading or class discussion (on October 1, for instance, there’s some of each); from notes on pedagogical strategies or favourite discussion topics (such as ‘giant hairball’ day) to protracted afterthoughts on the central issues of a class meeting or reading (such as the didactic or instructional aspects of 19th-century courtship and marriage novels).

And so? What did I accomplish by writing all this up–and by putting it all out in public? I think there’s no way to tell if I made any difference at all to the kinds of pervasive and (in my view) pernicious attitudes towards literary academics expressed in the Footnoted posts that prompted me to do this. It seems pretty unlikely! How would these angry people even know my blog exists, after all? And even if they did come across it, the odds of conversion would surely be pretty slim for a determined anti-academic. Still, I think it was worth making the effort and putting some evidence against their version out there, just in case. Where in my posts would these people find evidence that I hate literature and spend my time on political indoctrination? (April 16: or, again with reference to this post, that I dismiss aesthetics, hold in contempt the notion of literature as “record and register of literary art,” and oppress my students with my hyperliteracy? Sigh. A classroom is large and can contain multitudes–of ideas and voices and critical approaches.)

As the weeks went by, though, I more or less stopped thinking about these lost souls. So who was I writing for? Well, as other bloggers often remark, your only certain audience is yourself, so you have to find the effort intrinsically valuable and interesting, which I almost always did. Teaching is, necessarily, something you do in a state of rapid and constant motion (and I mean not just mental but physical, as the Little Professor has recently proven). Classes follow on classes, and on meetings and graduate conferences and administrative tasks and attempts to meet proposal deadlines, in what becomes a blur of activity as the term heats up…and though a great deal of planning and preparation typically goes into each individual classroom hour, I hadn’t usually taken any time to reflect further on what just happened, or what’s about to happen. I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other ‘non-professional’ interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.

But isn’t that a goal I could have achieved by keeping a teaching journal off-line? Well, sort of, but not altogether. For one thing, blogging (again, as other bloggers have remarked), precisely because it is a public form of writing, puts a different kind of pressure on you as a writer. Though perhaps nobody will read your posts, somebody actually might! And once you realize that, you try to write better–just in case. Maybe there are all kinds of dedicated prose stylists in the world who laboriously craft the entries in their private notebooks. But even they probably have their eye on posterity (“one day, when I’m famous, these notebooks will sell for a fortune on eBay!”). It’s true, too, that the ‘blogosphere,’ with its millions of members, includes many samples of writing done, as far as anyone can tell, with no care at all. But for me at least, the accessibility of writing in this medium (and the impossibility of ever really taking something back once it has been ‘published’ on the internet) raises the stakes, even while the relative informality of the blog post as a genre has been a welcome change from the demands of professional academic writing.

Further, I like the idea that I might write something that other readers find interesting, useful, or mentally stimulating. My teaching posts in particular seem to me likely, if chanced upon, to be welcomed by readers outside an academic setting who are, nonetheless, interested in learning more about the kinds of reading contexts and strategies I work on with my students. Looking through my posts, I think there is nearly enough in them for someone to do an ‘independent study’ of my reading lists for any of the four classes I taught this year. The frequent publication of ‘books about books‘ aimed at non-academic audiences suggests an appetite for what you might call ‘reading enhancement.’ Maybe other teachers, too, would get some ideas for how to approach some of the texts I’ve discussed, just as I have often sought ideas from posted syllabi or from the blogs of other people in my field or, more generally, my discipline. At its best, the ‘blogosphere’ is a great reservoir of information and insights made generously and collaboratively by people of all kinds; we can learn from each other and contribute to each other’s learning. This is not something that can happen off-line. (Here, of course, is the justification for blogging at all, not just for blogging about teaching.) And in the year or so that I have been blogging, I have been contacted by a few readers who have seemed genuinely appreciative of my efforts in this direction.

Finally, as a blogger, I found that carrying out this plan to do a regular series of posts on one theme added a helpful structure to my posting habits: it was a kind of productive discipline. Like all academics, after all, I’m used to working to deadlines. Often, I began my week thinking I had nothing in particular to say. But I ‘had’ to post about my classes (also like all academics, I have an over-developed sense of obligation and I’m used to generating my own necessities). And once I started writing, most of the time I quickly found I was invigorated by discovering that I did have something to say after all.

Overall, then, I’m glad I set myself this task, and reading through my posts, I’m pleased with the results. No doubt other English professors do very different things, including with the same primary materials I took on. No doubt there are some who would be alienated, rather than won over, if they happened upon this material; no doubt some who have read it have turned away impatiently (or worse), for their own theoretical, political, or other reasons. But my posts represent my classroom well, and thus I admit, they represent me well too. Yup, that’s me: the one who cries over Oliphant’s Autobiography and finds passages in Dickens poetic, who admires George Eliot’s stringent morality but worries about the way her better people seem driven to sacrifice themselves to their petty partners because ‘the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision,’ who watches House and Sex and the City and finds Agatha Christie clever but shallow, who goes all pedantic when homework comes in but relishes her students’ creativity and humour in devising class activities, whose children delight and torment and distract her. That’s the thing about teaching–and about blogging too. You put yourself out there, try to be your best self most of the time, have moments of irritability and moments of eloquence–and then you sit back and see if anyone was paying attention.

Even in Blogging, Everything New is Old

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

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