Academic Blogging Redux

by zunguzungu

I was really tired Friday morning when I wrote that post on academic blogging, and probably feeling a little yonderish as a result. I was surprised, in fact, when the pensiveness of its tone was pointed out to me, but it makes perfect sense when I think about where and how and why I was writing those words: on Wednesday, I had a real dog of a class and  when I was talking about those “black stares,” I was channeling a real anxiety I was having that my class was going off the rails. Things Fall Apart went well because that’s what it does, but Garcia Marquez is a whole other thing; while it’s a cliché that you should ask questions of students when you don’t quite know the answers, but when you actually do that and they don’t have the answers either, well, it isn’t pleasant. But One Hundred Years of Solitude is a novel where that’s almost inevitable, and for all sorts of reasons what I wanted to talk about on Wednesday and what my students wanted to talk about had turned out to have almost no points of convergence. After class on Friday afternoon, on the other hand, all was skittles and puppies and rainbows; in the interim, I went back over a lot of the material we had butchered on Wednesday and we actually had a really nice class, looking at the way gender works in the novel by reference to the Madonna/whore dichotomy — which I now had some useful orientation quotes — and I’ll post some of what I/we came up with, because I think it came together nicely.

The difference, I have to admit, is that I was much better prepared on Friday. But the problem a teacher runs into in that circumstance is a certain version of the blogger’s dilemma: while you might like it to be a conversation, the practical reality is that it also can’t be; you have to set the agenda and produce the rhetorical structure out of which and off of which any conversation will develop. If you fail to do that, the class will fail. But if you do it well, the opportunity to go off script exists as a function of there being a script.

As Sepoy pointed out, of course, silence can be productive. Even silent audiences can be deeply, deeply felt — something no one is more aware of than a teacher — and as an opportunity to “go public,” writing a post can often be something like the productive failure of the twelve seconds in which the Wright brothers first demonstrated the possibilities of powered flight. After all, a twelve-second flight is of no value to anyone and that first airplane did not, in any concrete sense, “work.” No audiences were convinced by it; it was almost five years later before large groups of people believed that a human being could fly. But the idea that powered air flight was possible needed to fail promisingly before it could start to succeed; the Wright brothers needed to test their ideas at Kitty Hawk before they could figure out how to make it actually work.

By the same token, sometimes you need to do an idea before you can really learn how to do it right. Sepoy’s point that silent audiences can be relied on to pounce on egregious mistakes and overblown hypotheses is true, I think, and in this sense silence can sometimes be “a useful feedback loop.” But I think the real value of a blog post is what it forces the writer to do; because you are speaking to an audience — which sometimes might as well be in your own imagination — you construct intermediate steps that you never would if you were simply talking to yourself, and which can, whether or not they get you there just yet, help take you a lot further along the way towards an idea that really works.

For example, I just presented a paper I’ve written on Tarzan and 1912-era fantasies of flight to my department’s publication workshop — which is why that Kitty Hawk example was on the top of my consciousness — and in mulling over the feedback I got from the workshop, I have to admit that the real macro-benefit of the exercise was just in getting me to write the damn paper in the first place. This is an idea I had all of four years ago, but it took the occasion of an audience to force me to actually write it up, an opportunity for a draft to be read for me to actually make the idea real. This is not to say that I didn’t get some very helpful suggestions; I did, and the intellectual footprints of a few particular people — both at the workshop and not — will be all over the final version. But the difference between an idea I had in Jose Saldivar’s class in 2006 and the actual paper of a couple weeks ago has about 90% to do with the work I did in days leading up to handing out the draft to the workshop participants, and catalyzed by that anticipatory imperative. After that, the things I got from the workshop itself were icing on the cake; the intervention of people who see the same issues differently than you can be crucial — and they can provoke you to fundamentally shift the basis of your thinking — but you ultimately have to do the work yourself. And in the long journey between an idea and a finished product, intellectual community and conversation can be the wind beneath the warped wings, rear rudder, and forward elevator that enable flight.

I’m not sure that using teaching as a metaphor for thinking about blogging is quite right, or the reverse, but I do like the flight metaphor; an idea and an argument either work or they don’t, but a usefully displayed failure (like that twelve second Kitty Hawk launch) can often be the thing that gets you from the one to the other. And I’ve been thinking about all this because I’m going to be increasingly presented with some important decisions about how to present myself as a useful scholar to people who are going to want to make use of me, people who will make decisions about my future on the basis of what I say. And as necessary as it is to do what you like and do what you need to do — and I will, dude! — you also have to find a way to look back afterwards and assess what it turned out to be, as well as make clear for more product-minded thinkers that it was a good thing that you did it.

What makes blogging work, I think, is exactly the fact that one doesn’t think about its utility while you‘re doing it; when you’re doing it right, you might be interested in putting something out — and there’s something to be said for the pressure to regularly update — but if it fails, it fails, and you move on. Since its a platform for exploration, your experiments are allowed to fail. And while knowing that people might read makes you go down pathways you might not otherwise have followed and try to do so respectably, you are also freed from the need to make everything you write into a grand paradigm-busting space clearing gesture; in sharp contrast to the imperative for every piece of humanities scholarship to declare its own unique and original contribution to intellectual progress — a convention which often prevents people from giving realistic assessments of their own work — a blogger can just say “I am thinking about these things, because, and we’ll see where it takes me.” And a blogger can — as is much more acceptable in the sciences — admit to a failed experiment, which can be a really useful thing to have available in the literature (by something no tenure-minded scholar would ever publish).  Being freed from having to constantly justify has a really productive effect on one’s writing, in short, in all the ways that tenure is supposed to do, but which I suspect it actually doesn’t.

After all, the system of academic hiring and promotion into which I am attempting to ingratiate myself (and which every tenured professor has spent a decade internalizing by the time they’re freed of it) is completely fixated on the corporate logic of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, only one of the ways its broken. If we know one thing about tenure, after all, it is that it works — when it works — to the extent that it shields working academics from the pressures of specific expectations, the extent to which it enables men and women who want to innovate, experiment, and create new forms of knowledge to do so freed from the pressures of a specific supervisory eye, etc. But when it effectively shields such a small percentage of the academic labor market and leaves such a vast majority of aspiring scholars outside its bosom, it ceases to be the means to the end of scholarly productivity, and becomes so precious as to have become the only end itself.

Blogging certainly isn’t any kind of solution to any of this; to expect it to solve the problems afflicting the academic institutions of knowledge production would be to laughably misunderstand the scope of the problem. But it would also misunderstand, I think, the value of blogging itself, the way the thing it allows you to do is precisely to escape from the supervisory eye of a product-oriented system, to admit to a process that is so central to what we all do. And I’m tempted to speculate that academic blogging will become the thing that it will become because of this capability of the medium, the thing that the formal mechanisms and structures of the academic machine have forgotten about.

And maybe teaching provides that place as well. In a comment to that last Garcia Marquez post, Jim mentioned that “I don’t know if hanging a concept on the way it’s used helps them pass their test next week,” which is a nice way of indexing the tension between the outcome of teaching and the conversations out of which it happens — the detachment of understanding from use — which we constantly butt up against as we deal with the concrete problems of both learning through practice and testing and evaluating what our students have done through learning. On Friday, my adviser gave a talk to the assembled Graduate Student instructors in which, among other things, he argued that the evaluative function of grading and the act of responding to student writing are not only two different things — which we all sort of know in theory — but that they actually need to be clearly detached from each other in practice. Advocating for a kind of portfolio grading in which students would receive constant feedback, constant instructor response and guidance, but would not actually receive an evaluative grade until much later, he argued that shielding students from the pressure to perform would allow them to explore and grow and learn without having to have already perfected the assignment. I think he’s completely right in some important ways and I’m already thinking about how to incorporate that insight into my teaching. And yet I suspect the practical problems with doing portfolio grading are of a piece with the basic structural problem I run into in each of these examples, the fact that one never quite gets away from evaluation. The wheat from chaff distinctions not only concretely underpin the whole superstructure but they are ultimately at odds with the kind of conversation out of which the results they test must eventually come. But we do have our fun in the meantime, don’t we?