Academic Blogging

by zunguzungu

Tim Lacy put into coherent form some thoughts I’ve been having about academic blogging, that I want to pass on. He frames his vision for academic (history) blogging in the crotch of two problems: first, the fact “the profession, particularly our subfield, values books most of all…makes the historian feel guilty for committing too much time and energy to ephemeral(?) media—precisely the kind of media that reaches the most people…prevent[ing] historians of the intellectual life from disseminating knowledge in reader friendly, affordable formats.” At the same time, “many intellectual history topics are not conducive to blogging,” since important “topics often require adequate depth in order to explain nuance” while “no one wants to read long posts!”

He goes on to suggest that “an answer to paradox #2 goes some way toward helping with #1”:

“I believe that more intellectual historians need to see blogs as book and article laboratories. This works in the early stages of drafting because all good writers know that draft #1 never, never, never (yes, I’m partly emphasizing this for myself!) really looks like the final version. Writers who transition straight from drafts to final copies are the exception, not the rule. Because of this no one should fear posting early ideas for an article. And if this blog-as-lab approach applies for articles, it applies to book projects triply. Think of all the things that are cut from chapter drafts. Using the leavings from the cutting room floor for blog posts seems like a fruitful line of thinking.”

Obviously, if you’ve been reading this blog lately, you’ve noticed that I’m blogging more about the stuff I work on in my official capacity as exploited academic labor; blogging about the stuff I’m teaching helps me put my thoughts in order, among other things and having a platform to ramble about Tarzan helped me write the first draft of a paper about Burroughs’ novel. Having put a lot of time and energy into bringing my work and blog closer together, though, I’m not really sure what the value of doing so has been; it takes a lot of work to put those posts together, and while there are certainly benefits to me, I could also have just channeled that energy to bear on the actual teaching or writing of the actual paper. I’m not sure that that wouldn’t be more efficient.

The difference is, of course, you the reader, which is where considerations of “value” and “efficiency” start to wear out. This isn’t Taylorism, and the point where academics becomes a conversation is where it ceases to operate by a factory production logic. And while statcounter provides a certain vague sense of how many readers one gets, it’s hard to use this as a real metric in thinking about what kind of conversation is happening, certainly not in any useful way, and I’m more than a little of the belief that thinking in those terms is more of a trap than an opportunity. The problem can be that, as in my classroom, the blank stares sometimes mask boredom and sometimes they hide close and useful attention, and while knowing the difference is incredibly important, it can be very hard to do in practice. In that sense, comments can be a god send, and can also be a kind of distraction; commenters, after all, are never representative of anything other than themselves, however much they may seem to be. And maybe teaching and writing operate on a kind of faith anyway; you do what you need to do for you and then hope, without assurance, that it will find a receptive ear here or there. Often enough, it does.