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of scholarly publishing in the literary humanities by “rub[bing] its sorry limbs vigorously with … conversations” seem outdated now?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?

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

  1. January 25, 2015 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I made a very brief foray into the world of academia during graduate school, working on a masters degree in English. I loved this time. I loved reading the sort of criticism you describe here. I even considered pursuing a career in it. But, like most of the other students in my classes, I returned to teaching. I would guess one in 30 students in my classes intended to pursue a PhD in English, if that. Most of us were high school and middle school teachers, many were pre-law. We never really intended to do more than get an M.A.

    But I do think many of us would have continued to read academic writing about English if there were some way for us to find the good trees you speak of. When I started blogging, one of my own hopes was that it would lead me to these “good trees.” It has, on occasion, but not nearly as often as I would have liked.

    One commonly stated goal among middle and high school teachers, and elementary teachers, too, is that we will produce life long readers. We would all love it if our students continued reading the kinds of novels, poems and stories we present them. Why this isn’t more of a goal among the 30,000 MLA members has always been something of a mystery to me. There are 30,000 MLA members, but there must be hundreds of thousands of former students in masters programs who would still read critical studies now and then. Blogging seems like an obvious way to reach a broader audience to me.

  2. January 25, 2015 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    This is an interesting post to mull over purely as a curious third party. In the first place it occurs to me that if I were to compare my blog reading five years ago with the piecemeal Twitter-guided link-chasing it has been reduced to now, the main trunk of continuity that has persisted from one era to the other is the roster of former contributors to The Valve. The need for the “rigorous yet informal” middle ground of public outreach hasn’t subsided at all; it’s that the format of the blog, especially the group blog, has effectively seen its discoverability torn apart by the twin impulses of consolidation (under larger mastheads) and individuation (in fire-and-forget social-network ephemera where low effort is rewarded with high exposure and readers are more liable to engage with one-off links than with bylines).

    But I’m given to wonder how many of the conditions or pressures on academic blogging you describe are actually highly discipline-specific. Perhaps it’s just that you are the only one I’ve seen openly confront the way blogging runs into old-guard administrative values surrounding the prestige economy of publish-or-perish (something we interested outsiders don’t see), and other practitioners are largely silent about the obstacles, but if anything I have seen a rapid expansion of academic blogging in other fields that have indeed fed back into the older infrastructure of seminars and university presses. This is particularly true in some areas of the sciences where open discussion of preprints continues to proliferate as an increasingly standard pre-screening before peer review. I reckon certain conditions have to be favourable for this to happen: namely, the discipline has to be small enough to provide a tight-knit sense of community where blogging becomes absorbed as a pillar of the culture (as Language Log has been in linguistics for over a decade now) yet broad enough to avoid collapsing into a game of specialists trading jargon among themselves. It’s a delicate equilibrium.

    Unfortunately, as you noted about the MLA, literary studies isn’t anywhere near that sweet spot. In theory, as far as content goes, literary studies ought to be more accessible than most disciplines because the technical prerequisite for engaging with advanced work is relatively low. But the breadth of specialization is just too scattered, much as the whole notion of literature is itself diffuse. I don’t detect a sense of a disciplinary culture like I’ve seen elsewhere, and it precludes any blog-friendly leadership from making waves.

    Finally, while traffic statistics tell their own story, I would actually venture academic bloggers reach a larger audience than they think. It’s in the nature of a format where specialists work out ideas in front of non-specialists that the latter are content to lurk in the back of the lecture hall and listen in without flagging their presence. Most of the specialist bloggers I read don’t have the faintest idea how avidly I follow their work, and I almost wonder if it’s against my best interests to sit back and not overtly indicate I appreciate their public engagement and would like it to continue. But the best approximation of this gesture we have now is the one-click ‘share’ or ‘like’, which is never any indication that the person doing the sharing or liking was really listening.

  3. January 25, 2015 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Just as a footnote to the above, it is my perception that blogging has become a much more integral part of academic philosophy than of literary studies, especially among the speculative realists (Harman, Bryant, Bogost), but extending to other areas of philosophy as well.

  4. Robert Minto's Gravatar Robert Minto
    January 26, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I think that Dan Green is probably correct. Philosophy (and to that I would add economics, sociology, and anthropology) has a thriving world of blogs — it’s odd, as you’d think literary studies would be more generally accessible and interesting, and, therefore, that it would lend itself as a discipline to wide and inter-connected online representation. Moreover, you would expect scholars of literature to be rather good at expressing themselves (you are an excellent example of that!). And yet, in my experience, there is considerably more snobbery with regard to things like blogging from literary scholars than from scholars of more “inaccessible” disciplines. I have no idea why that is, but it’s a pity. Good blogs by scholars — like this blog — are delightful; we need more of them.

  5. January 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for the twitter chat with our class and for this thoughtful post! I’d agree that blogging no longer seems to be held against one as an academic, but that it may not help a lot when it comes to conventional methods of assessment either. The blog that I’ve participated in for the last five years, The Floating Academy, has recently become the blog for the scholarly journal the Victorian Review. I think this kind of affiliation may help my blogging count for a little more, but I certainly won’t be resting my tenure case on it!

  6. January 27, 2015 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    As an academic in (French) literary studies, I don’t consider my blog academic at all, even when I’m reading something in my field. I wouldn’t put it on my CV, and if I did, I doubt it would be considered legitimate. But I have a colleague in communication studies whose blog contributes heavily to his publication record, despite its being as un-peer-reviewed as my own. I wonder if Robert’s assertion that other disciplines have a different ethos with regard to blogs might be correct, based at least on this sort of anecdata.

    Despite the fact that I don’t put my blog on my CV, though, Rohan, I consider that it’s contributed more to my actual teaching and scholarship than the peer-reviewed journal articles I’ve written. The more widely and closely I read, the more I write, the more I think about books and authors and movements and themes and characters — the better I am as a scholar, and the more I take place in this ongoing conversation for which I am at least nominally trained.

  7. July 25, 2016 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have wondered at the reluctance of scholars who nominally don’t have anything to lose (i.e. Already tenured, full professors) are not more adventurous in their work. Not just in relation to blogging or other forms of public engagement, but in any way at all. I wonder if actually all the years of acting fearfully and trying to conform have changed them in some fundamental way. It certainly suggests that the oft-repeated maxim that tenure protects academic freedom may not be as true as many believe. Or at least the current processes don’t make it that way.

    The conversation in the comments about different disciplines also makes me wonder if it is the very accessibility of literary scholarship (or at least the potential accessibility) to the non-specialist that holds people back. Does it need to be inaccessible to most people to count as scholarship? Does its accessibility to a non-specialist audience put the quality of scholarship in question? It seems a shame that we not only have 30000 literary scholars but that many of them are so lacking in confidence in the value of their knowledge and skills that they fear communicating their scholarship more broadly lest it be considered inadequate scholarship. What a muddle.

    I am cheered that YOU are still interested in this kind of work, and that you are more committed to it now, despite all these concerns. I think I agree that blogging ABOUT academia is less interesting than blocking about one’s academic work.

    FWIW, Jenny’s comment is very cheering. In my (not so humble) opinion, one should do more things that keep interest, skill, and whatnot alive whether or not the institutional structures value it. Not least because being a better scholar is going to have pay offs in the kind of work they do value.

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