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Blogging: Accept No Substitutes!

By (June 5, 2013) No Comment

cassatSome time ago (two years, to be precise — where does the time go?!), I wrote a testy post about some things Leonard Cassuto said about blogging in an online discussion about academic publishing. One of my chief complaints was that he threw “a veil of pragmatism” over “an argument for accepting (even reinforcing) the status quo”:

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. . . . 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,” I went on to say, “is trying to argue that blogging in general, or even particular highly scholarly blogs, should replace traditional publications.” As far as I’m concerned, the question should always be what forms of publication best serve the multiple goals and interests that motivate us to write and publish in the first place. These are diverse, and so too, I think should be our styles and outlets.

Plus ça change… The debate about what place, if any, blogging has in academic publishing not only continues but continues to stress the is over the ought.  A post this weekend at ‘dagblog’ explained the way things are:

You can’t blog your way to a tenure-track professorship.You simply can’t. Even a gig at IHE orThe Chronicle for Higher Education is not enough. That doesn’t mean blogging is not professionally useful to you. It means you need to be clear about what it’s useful for.

Blogging and other social media serve academics by bringing you to other people’s attention and building your professional network. It works largely as publicity for your other work, and it widens your potential audience while strengthening your connections. . . .

 What blogging never does is substitute for other academic writing. It doesn’t get counted as scholarship. It does not serve as an employment credential. (If you wish to argue that it should, I can’t help you. I’m interested in describing what is, not what ought to be…)

I don’t altogether disagree with this as a statement of how things are. In fact, I made similar points in my own post “Should Graduate Students Blog?“:

it would be naive to ignore that blogging (for some good and some bad reasons) is not yet widely recognized as a legitimate form of academic publishing and that the case for it as productive academic work at all remains a difficult one to make. Graduate students aspiring to tenure-track positions hardly need to be told that for most hiring committees, the crucial measure of their competitiveness as candidates will be the number of conventional peer-reviewed scholarly publications on their c.v.–and the more prestigious the venue, the better.

I also said, however, that

blogging is increasingly acknowledged as having a place in the overall ecology of academic scholarship. Graduate students who choose to blog should by now be able to make a thoughtful and well-supported case for the value of that effort as part of their overall scholarly portfolio.

Notice that I do not say that it “substitutes” for other academic writing but that it has a place alongside what we have for some time (but not for-absolutely-ever) seen as the only legitimate (that is, countable for hiring / tenure / promotion) forms of academic writing.

I strongly believe this, and I have some local evidence that such a view is taking hold: the recently developed Tenure & Promotion guidelines in my own Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences include, under the heading “Indicators of Academic Research and Scholarship” (and right after “peer-reviewed publications or performances)”,  ”Other forms of publication or public performance, peer-reviewed or otherwise, in venues such as blogs, policy publications, public concerts, etc.” I don’t know if acknowledging that this is a pretty significant change sounds like the kind of “blog triumphalism” dismissed as passé in the dagblog comments thread — but it certainly seems significant to me.

But this is still focusing on the is, rather than the ought. Is acknowledging blogging as a valuable supplement to other kinds of academic writing and publishing as far as we ought to go? As Ted Underwood notes in his comment at dagblog, “blog is a baggy category.” So too, I’d add, is “academic writing,” which comes in many flavors even within any given discipline. Of most interest to me is, of course, my own discipline, in which the bulk of academic writing falls into the extremely baggy category “literary criticism.”

After reading the dagblog article on the weekend, I tweeted, “If your job is criticism and you write criticism on your blog, why doesn’t that “substitute” for academic writing?” In response, Miriam Burstein asked, “Is it really equivalent, though? I think of much blogged crit as being, at best, like a highly-polished 1st draft…Something that may take 3-5 days is a “long” composition time for a blog, as opposed to 2-3 mos. for an article.” I agree that these two kinds of publication are not the same thing. As far as that goes, if by “substitution” we mean “replacing with something that’s exactly the same,” then OK, we’re done.  But I would also say, as I replied to Miriam on Twitter, that a blog post is not the same as a blog, which over time is more than the sum of its individual parts. It’s blogging, not (usually) writing one blog post, that I would argue could be defended as an academic contribution. I would certainly support Miriam’s blog on these grounds! (Notice my careful qualifiers here: I’m sure we can all imagine and may even have seen a blog post that is every bit as substantial and lasting as a conventionally published article, as well as a blog that for whatever reasons is simply not a convincing part of an academic’s portfolio.)

I would say too that the differences between blog posts and academic articles are not all to the disadvantage of the former. And I would say that for literary critics, at least in some ways or some cases, the difference in kind is not as great as all that — not as great as it might be in other fields. It depends, for one thing, on what kind of literary criticism we’re talking about. In the dagblog post,  the author suggests that

the distinction [between blogging and scholarship] doesn’t pose a problem to science bloggers, or to most social scientists or historians, where the difference between a journal article and a blog essay is usually self-evident. But it can be tricky for people who work in literature or cultural studies, who can be tempted to blur the distinction between writing scholarship about new media and doing other writing on new media platforms.

That makes us literary types sound kind of clueless! (I admit, however, there’s some justice in that comment, as I have more than once explained to my own colleagues that no, writing literary criticism online does not mean I’m doing “digital humanities.”) I’d actually like to suggest, though, that, setting aside that kind of confusion between content and form, “the difference between a journal article and a blog essay”  is not entirely self-evident when we’re talking about literary criticism, and that’s precisely because literary criticism is not a science or a social science. Our preoccupation with publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals reflects some anxiety on our part about that: it’s a kind of scientism that has been beneficial in making some aspects of literary scholarship more rigorous and accountable, more historically attentive, and more theoretically sophisticated, but that has also shaped our profession and our professional lives in occasionally disheartening ways. To be taken seriously, we know we have to look serious, which means avoiding at all costs what was scathingly described (by a peer reviewer of my one and only — and of course unsuccessful — SSHRC application) as “the whiff of belles-lettres.”

There are kinds of literary research and scholarship that have a lot in common with history and the social sciences, or that are so well insulated with theoretical implications that no such unsavory whiff could possibly be detected. But a lot of what literary academics do is not so much produce new knowledge as pursue new understandings of, or ways of understanding, literary texts. Careful close readings lie at the heart of many more elaborate scholarly projects. It is certainly possible to do this kind (or this part) of criticism in an open, accessible way, without the specialized language and complex apparatus of argumentation and citation that differentiate academic from non-academic versions of it. Academic training can be hugely beneficial for this enterprise, but such training need not be conspicuous to be effective. We are experts at reading literature in interesting ways and articulating those readings — that’s what we do. What difference does it really make where we do it? Why should we value it, or consider it “professional writing,” only if we do it in a style and form that severely limits the audience for it and the conversation we can have about it?

Where is the self-evident line, then, between the interpretations of novels we find in academic essays and the interpretations of novels we can find on blogs — besides (again) some specialized vocabulary and a lot more footnotes? In both cases we can and should look closely at the quality (the intelligence, the care, the subtlety, the persuasiveness) of the interpretation, but I would argue that there is a fundamental similarity in the activity represented that — while (to reiterate) it does not mean the final products are exactly the same — is at least as important as any differences. It really is the same kind of thing, just done under different circumstances, for different audiences. 

The author of the dagblog post adds in the comments a statement that seems to shift from description to prescription: ”blogs are really not good vehicles for academic or professional writing.” Well, again there’s the bagginess problem that makes any such big generalizations about blogs imperfect. But besides that, what I object to is the implication that academic writing really can’t be done in other forms or venues, or that it’s the form or venue, not the content or purpose, that defines ”academic or professional writing.” That may be true pragmatically, and in some disciplines it may be necessarily true (I’ll let scholars in those fields hash this out), but at least for literary folks, I think a case can be made that, as literary criticism is our profession, any time we engage in it we are doing professional writing. The desire to draw a firm line between what we do in academic journals and what we do elsewhere seems to me more reflective of our desire to defend ‘professing English’ as a profession than with any really principled or inevitable difference between the two. And, again, the results of that effort have not been altogether salutary, for criticism or for our profession.

Here’s another way to think about the academic / non-academic divide. James Wood has done (as far as I’m aware) no conventional academic publishing (including How the Novel Works, which, however interesting and thought-provoking, is not really scholarly). However, he holds an academic appointment: he is the Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism in Harvard’s English Department. Sure, it’s Harvard and he’s James Wood — but can’t we take away from this high-profile blurring of the boundaries between the academic and the non-academic critical worlds some support for other critics, at least as qualified as Wood, to practise criticism in other ways and other places than scholarly journals? And if we can make that concession, why not accept blogs as one perfectly good place for some of that work? Aren’t there even advantages to making the academy more porous, to engaging more personally and, yes, casually, with the rest of the world? It’s not as if academics are the only ones interested in literature, after all. In Canada we have been hearing a lot about ‘knowledge mobilization‘: if some of the value of conventional peer-reviewed publications is precisely their stability, the value of blogs could be said to be their mobility, their flexibility, and, in their own way, their accountability — because after all, there they are, open for anyone to read and argue with. Their basic model is coduction – again, not a scientific model, but one supremely well suited to the ongoing process that is criticism.

I understand the pragmatic issues, but if we think there is both intellectual and professional value in changing the norms of our profession, we have to keep making the argument, not shrugging our shoulders and reiterating the status quo. As I said in a further back-and-forth with Cassuto, this is a job for “senior, ‘established,’ faculty” above all:

we are the ones in a position to encourage alternative models of productivity and scholarship, and if blogging is valuable to me in the ways I described, there would be real hypocrisy in my case if I didn’t consider it valuable work for people at earlier stages of their careers and work to recognize it as such when they do it.

 I don’t know how much my own advocacy affected my faculty’s new T&P guidelines: I wasn’t on the committee and made no direct submission to it. But I have given three presentations at Dalhousie on blogging and academic publishing, including at a faculty research retreat, and I’ve been including my blog on my c.v. and a statement on blogging in my annual report for six years now. So I’m doing my best to walk the walk.

What matters to me most, though, is that I continue to practice literary criticism, including on my blog. That’s what I trained for, after all. I’ve made conventional academic contributions to my field, and that specialized work informs all the other writing I do. Blogging, though, is where I have the most fun with that expertise, and make it the most freely available. My scholarly articles and books are, I hope, good of their kind — but they are no substitute for Novel Readings!