I am just returned from the annual meeting of the Midwest MLA [Palmer House Hilton, Chicago], where Michael Berube gave the "President's Keynote Address" on Friday evening, entitled "Professors at Work." We had no idea what this was going to be about, and as it turns out, we're not entirely sure Prof. Berube knew either, but some of what he had to say will interest readers of this blog, I think.
The first half of Berube's talk appeared to be a mainly humorous riff on popular culture representations of professors, during which he showed clips of Streisand leading a class discussion on the mythology of love in The Mirror Has Two Faces [during which scene, the medievalish words "Chretien de Troyes" and "Lancelot" are clearly visible on the blackboard] and of Professor Snape [played by Alan Rickman] terrorizing Harry Potter in the classroom [Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone]. Berube then switched gears, without much of a transition, to the subject of the inhumanity of the humanities [i.e., all the ways in which universities seem to be designed to maximize cruelty to others, especially during job searches], and to illustrate this point we got clips from Babe and Toy Story [please don't ask which ones: suffice to say, that one clip involved a wild dog trying to tear a toy apart with his gnashing teeth]. All of this, as it turned out, did not really have much to do with what the REAL topic of his talk turned out to be: academic blogs.
Yes, that's right, the main topic of Berube's M/MLA keynote address was academic blogs and how, if you really want to see "professors at work," you've got to travel to the wild and wonderful world of the academic blogosphere, the production of and traffic in which Berube compared to the emergence of print culture in the late medieval/early modern period. So, number one point: it's possible that, historically, and in relation to issues of cultural literacy in general and public intellectual blathering more particularly, blogs could be very very important, indeed. But Prof. Berube also did not want, I think, to make too much of academic blogs, in the sense that--at least for now--they may not count for much in the way of publishing-toward-tenure, although he did take great pains to point out how much intellectual discussion & important critical debate is happening on blogs that isn't happening anywhere else. By way of example, Prof. Berube shared that, in one case, a scientist whom he had been criticizing on his blog [can't recall name] actually joined in the discussion at one point and that the comment thread on that discussion exceeded 150 posts. I, myself, have also noted that, just this past Friday [Nov. 10], Berube's blog, Le Blogue Berube [haha], had its five millionth visitor [yes, that's impressive]. Five million. Wow. Berube mentioned that he himself spends about two hours each day writing for his blog, although he readily admits that as a tenured, advanced professor, he has the luxury of choosing to do so.
By way of classifying academic blogs, Berube said there are two kinds: the "raw" and the "cooked." "Cooked" blogs are highly sophisticated and have posts that are much like polished, full-length essays [the best of these, according to Berube, are blogs such as Crooked Timber and The Valve]. "Raw" blogs mainly focus on random personal musings and, in Berube's mind, often aren't worth the trouble [examples of these, according to Berube, are . . . guess what? I'm not going to mention them because I don't believe in repeating that kind of negative critique--let's just say that the blogs we link to here at In The Middle provide a good sampling of both types, if we follow Berube's lead on this]. In The Middle wasn't mentioned at all: damn! Berube thinks blogs provide excellent professionalization venues for especiallly smart and talented graduate students [his favorite is Eric Scott Kaufmann, who participates on The Valve and also has his own blog, Acephalous]. Finally, Berube has no problem with anonymous blogging, especially for graduate students and the untenured: if it was good enough for classical authors, it should be good enough for all of us.
So, there you have it. I'm sure I left some things out--if anyone else was there with me in the audience and remembers something I haven't, please jump in and add, emend, and criticize! The upshot of the whole talk seemed to be something along the lines of "blogs are extremely important venues for intellectual work, and are even generating audiences regular academic publishing does not generate, yet are still not taken seriously enough by some, and who really has the time?" Who, indeed?