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.

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

  1. July 4, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Rohan,

    This is such a wonderfully thoughtful post that I hesitate to post a comment without something more thoughtful to say in response than simple praise.

    You raise several intriguing ideas/issues (i.e., the idea that only bloggers with “street cred” are worthy; the idea that not all bloggers in the humanities are dhers; the corporatization of previous independent bloggers (thinking of Tenured Radical moving to CHE); the idea of academic blogging as a public space to explore scholarly ideas, etc).

    Thanks for the food for thought. And fyi: have you read the blog Roxie’s World (and Roxie’s typist’s article “Madwoman with a Laptop”?)? The ideas you raise are ones she has pondered, with the addition of a gender perspective. If not, it’s here: http://roxies-world.blogspot.com/

  2. July 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Rohan,

    Thank you for such an insightful post, and for all of the links. As someone who considers herself an academic (of sorts) and a blogger (of sorts), this conversation about blogging and academia gives me a lot to think about. I’m still trying to figure out whether my blog is academic or whether I want it to be academic in scope (and I haven’t thought about whether I want to include it in my job applications). But my blog is a space where I can share my ideas with readers, readers who may never look at any article I published in any academic journal, and I like that I can reach a broader audience. And like you, I too carefully edit and proofread my posts before they go on the air, hehe.

  3. July 4, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    You have hit on an important point about the importance of gate keeping and prestige/reputation in academic practices.

    I even begin to wonder if this resistance of digital modes of publishing (including blogging but extending to e-books, electronic journals, etc) is precisely that it opens up possibilities to challenge those existing hierarchies. Is the refusal to engage in these practices, unless properly attached to an institution with a previous print reputation like the CoHE or a journal that also has a print edition, perhaps indicative of a fear that this new order might not confirm their high status in the academy?

    It seems to me that we are living in times of rapid change. Those currently in power (however limited in scope that power might be) have a stake in downplaying the value of tools that could lead to their overthrow.

  4. July 4, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    btw, I also agree with you that digital forms of publishing and writing are not the same thing as digital humanities.

    I understand the latter to include all kinds of analytic strategies using digital tools, as well as programming, and more complex forms of conveying knowledge (including fancy things with maps; embedded links to primary documents or alternative editions, etc.)

    Eliding blogging with digital humanities seems to be making it more complicated than it really is. And distancing it from traditional forms of publishing in ways that are unnecessary.

    As a Victorianist, perhaps you could usefully compare blogging and other forms of digital publishing with various forms of publishing in the 19th century (another time of great change and new technology). It seems that things like novels serialized in popular magazines were as much a challenge to the then dominant forms of publishing (and literary authority) as blogging is now but I don’t know much about this.

    I wonder, for example, if the prestige and authority now granted to writers like Dickens was also granted in his day. Which reminds me of some work I did on Harriet Martineau (for teaching purposes) which suggested that the value of her work was not recognized at least in part because she wrote about complicated new ideas in economics in a way that common people could understand (in Illustrations of Political Economy). Despite the fact that these publications were more popular (i.e. sold more copies) than Dickens, whose work is still known and reprinted today. Of course her gender was not an insignificant factor as well.

  5. July 5, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Lovely, thoughtful post, Rohan. I find Cassuto’s thinking illogical at base. His primary objection seem to be lack of an editor’s hand, either in validating the worth of the post, or in pimping the content. And yet, he says he’ll read blogs by people who have already published elsewhere and/or have created a consistent series of posts over time. Eh? The two are a mismatch. Publication elsewhere does not mean that blog posts have been ushered through some virtual gateway. Nor does it mean they have been subjected to the rigors of a blue pencil.

    But publishing and academia are rigidly hierarchical structures – both very hopped up on power. Blogging challenges all such hierarchies, and all such power structures. That’s the real problem, it seems. Ah, I’ve just read your reply to Jo, which is much more nuanced than my approach here – and far better for it! But cussedly, I still think it’s about challenging power and authority. Cassuto’s (not) saying, I spent my working life putting my writing through the hell of peer review – so should others before we pay attention to them.

  6. July 6, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rohan,

    I love everything you say here, but especially the phrase “strangely deferential to people’s habits.” In fact, of course, the habits have already changed. I’ve been blogging a grand total of seven months, and I’m fairly confident that my blog has already been read by more people — and used more constructively — than any of my print publications.

    As a teacher of graduate students, I confess, I still tend to give them conservative advice. But I’m actually beginning to rethink that a little. This post helped me rethink. Thanks!

    Ted

  7. July 7, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Hi, Ted–nice to hear from you after many years, in another example of the way blogging can generate or reinforce connections and relationships! My own experience is that most people’s habits have not, in fact, changed very much, but perhaps the momentum is shifting. I too feel constrained to give conservative advice, or at least to explain the standard expectations, but more and more, I contextualize it by stressing that things are changing, that nothing is certain no matter what kinds of publications you generate, and that as a result you should be the kind of scholar and writer you think is most worthwhile.

    The conservative point of view is very much (and unfortunately) reinforced by the ‘chain of command,’ here at least: I’ve been on our tenure and promotion committee numerous times and though we have begun reformulating our own evaluation policies based, in part, on the MLA’s recommendations, it’s pretty clear that people with unconventional profiles need a lot more explaining and defending as they move through the process.

    Seven months is a pretty good start! I think people underestimate the work and commitment that goes into sustaining a blog–but those who don’t blog also don’t understand the rewards. I am interested in your comment that your blog has been “used more constructively.” I think that’s ultimately a more persuasive point than “read by more people,” since quantifying the use of print scholarship is tricky (see comments to this post) as is the relationship between frequency of use and value.

  8. July 7, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I agree. My experience may not be representative — actually, I know it’s not representative — because what I’m doing now is digital humanities in the narrowest, text-mining sense of the word. In that community, there’s just no question that the main dissemination channel is online — a combination of Twitter, blogging, and building resources that get put online to be used. Print publication matters too — but print publication feels glacially slow in a field where things are changing month by month. Blogs can be much more genuinely interactive, on a time scale of weeks.

    In other fields, the analogy that occurs to me is literary journalism. It used to be the case that English profs would sit down with book reviews and magazines every week to try to think about the intersection between literary history and “what’s happening now,” in the broadest possible sense. Most of that activity now takes place online, and increasingly, it takes place in a networked way where the editorial gatekeeping function is distributed across the network. A well-curated, widely-read blog ought to be understood as equivalent to (at least) a series of review articles and op-eds.

    It’s true that administrative committees are going to be slow to catch on to all this, also true that interesting sparks are going to fly as old power structures and new systems of communication & gatekeeping grind against each other. But my sense locally (here at Illinois) is that people realize things are changing; they may or may not *like* the fact, but they realize it. I also have high hopes for CHNM and “Press Forward”; they’ve got good people working on that project.

  9. July 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    The most popular post on my blog so far has been “How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless”, which was published at InsidehigherEd.com with the University of Venus, but a longer version appears on my blog:

    http://collegereadywriting.blogspot.com/2010/07/how-higher-ed-makes-most-things.html

    When suddenly the traffic inexplicable spiked to that post, I learned that “Henry Adams” from the Chronicle of Higher Ed was recommending people read it (see comment #23 http://chronicle.com/article/Academic-Bait-and-Switch-Part/125716). I Was floored, flattered, and amazed.

    Part of the point of the blog post was how there is a disconnect between “sharing” ideas and the gatekeeping functions. Unless you share in very specific, limited, and limiting ways, your work doesn’t mean anything. Cassuto is simply reinforcing what I wrote in that post.

    Have you heard of the new project in Australia? It’s called The Conversation (http://theconversation.edu.au/) and the content is exclusively provided by academics. Now, there are gatekeepers (editors) but they are not academic experts, rather they are writing experts. The site is proving quite popular. When I learned about it at World Views 2011, Mary Churchill (from University of Venus) and I expressed some concerns that this was simply reinforcing the existing hierarchies of academia; they were using the voices of established (thus “peer reviewed” experts) and excluding the voices of minorities and women.

    I think this is the biggest issue and threat of blogging; not only disrupting the publishing hierarchy, but also the academic hierarchy. Voices that have long been excluded (or marginalized) in the conversation have an opportunity to bypass those gatekeepers who have, for one reason or another, kept them out. I find Cassuto’s comments (and all of those whom his comments represent) to be not only close-minded, but also borderline racist, sexist, classist, and ageist. I might be pushing it a little too far, but to avoid reading blogs is to avoid reading the voices of people who have been historically excluded.

    I’m done now. Excellent post.

  10. July 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Lee makes a good point about the racist, sexist, classist, and ageist implications. I suspect Cassuto (and others) would resist this mainly because that is not their individual intention. However, Lee (and Mary Churchill who she references) is correct to point out that this has structural implications that reinforce heirachies based on those categorical differences. And Cassuto and others privileged in the existing system need to both acknowledge their privilege and take responsibility for actions that either reinforce or undermine it.

    I’m fine (on one level) with him deciding to reinforce the existing privileges. I’d like to see him take responsibility for doing so rather than hiding behind apparently universal values of “quality”.

  11. July 11, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks, both of you, for these thought-provoking comments. Now you have me thinking about the “there are only so many hours in a day” line–reminiscent of arguments against expanding the canon, as there are only so many classes in a term. It is always true that you can’t do everything with the time you have, so it’s always a question of priorities, of what you think that time is for.

    It is pretty obvious that the new media reproduce in many ways the hierarchies of the old media: on Twitter, just for example, the same old handful of major publications have thousands of followers but follow hardly anybody and rarely engage in break-out chats about any of their tweets (though they always ‘RT’ good reviews / publicity). High-profile academic bloggers at major sites, like Stanley Fish at the NYT, are not really blogging at all, simply pronouncing, with no attempt to engage in a conversation as comments are posted. Blogging sites that are carefully curated by academic institutions (like Arcade, at Stanford)–or like The Conversation, which I hadn’t seen before–reproduce not only the hierarchies but to a large extent the exclusive tone of insular academic discourse.

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