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?

3 Comments to Some Afterthoughts on Academic Blogging

  1. Robert Minto's Gravatar Robert Minto
    January 26, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    You asked for specification about what “thriving” means in the context of the blogs of the disciplines I mentioned in my comment on your last post. While I don’t read as many blogs as I used to, I can at least give you the following shallow survey:

    Philosophy — in ethics in particular, there are several fabulous group blogs where original scholarship and communal discussion of scholarly literature (for example, important articles in the big philosophy journals) takes place — for example PEA Soup. These blogs often do a lot of work spreading the word about CFPs and discussing disciplinary issues. There are also a lot of really splendid personal philosophy blogs — an example (which Dan Green mentioned) of a movement of individual blogs which actually blurred for a while the difference between blogging and scholarship was the Speculative Realism movement, with blogs like Deontologistics and Larval Subjects. (Philosophy as a discipline is also dominated — in terms of rankings of departments — by a blogger of dubious beneficence, the great power Brian Leiter of the Leiter Report.)

    Sociology — has one of the most fabulous experiments in academic blogging ever, the “web-based monograph” Understanding Society, by Daniel Little; also, a host of excellent personal blogs (often by graduate students, but frequently by professors as well: see Kieran Healy).

    Anthropology — has probably the best academic group blog I’ve seen, Savage Minds. Not really sure about the rest of the landscape, not being an anthropologist…

    Economics — well, here I hardly need to point out that the blogs of well-known economists are some of the most popular and influential on the internet (see Krugman). Here’s an illuminating list.

    All of these blogs certainly engage in furthering academic debates and highlighting scholarly literature. As for their significance for the CV — here I can only speak to my knowledge of philosophy. There, especially with respect to the Speculative Realism movement, reputations have been made specifically from blogging — someone like Graham Harman (though he does little philosophy blogging anymore) must owe a considerable part of his reputation to the reach of his blog. Someone like Levi Bryant (of Larval Subjects) has worked out in public the content of his books, and draws an enormous (for a philosophy blog) readership heavily invested in discussing his ideas.

    Anyway, what it all shows, I think, is that academic blogging is not impossible — and it can even be enormously generative and invigorating, especially when done as a group or carried on between lively and interconnected blogs. — In philosophy there has also been some push-back against the speedy form of internet-based concept development: even between serious scholars, the dynamics of internet argument can reduce cooperative thinking to monkey-style crap throwing. But if it maintains a certain equilibrium and remains leavend by good humor, few things are as exciting as a group of thinkers united across distance by the lively interaction of their blogs.

  2. January 28, 2015 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    The blog Sociological Images (http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/) is an ongoing academic blog in sociology, as well, by Lisa Wade at Occidental College (and other contributors.) The popularity and content of the blog suggests it must take up a lot of her time; I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a large part of her scholarly production.

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