Monday, July 05, 2010

Blogging Askew, or some such

by J J Cohen

So I'm on this blogging panel -- the first ever! -- for NCS Siena. (More information and pre-conference discussion at Humanities Researcher; Stephanie Trigg organized the session). My paper, or at least notes toward my presentation, needs to be sent to the panel respondent tomorrow. So here I sit in the screened in porch, a few birds chirping, an illegal sprinkler whirring, Katherine and Alex at the piano, fashioning tunes of their own devising. Now it's the theme from Howl's Moving Castle, or some tentative steps towards that complicated song. Though the temperature will approach 100 today, at this moment with its songs and its sounds and its house full of life it is difficult to imagine a moment more beautiful.

Except perhaps for last night. We had friends over for wine and conversation after Katherine went to bed. Alex called my cell at 10 and asked if I'd walk halfway through the neighborhood to meet him as he returned from a friend's: he gets a little nervous as he cuts through the schoolyard field, because there is no light. I set off, a little lightheaded, and listened to the booming of the fireworks on the National Mall. They must be almost over, I thought, it sounds like the grand finale. I'd forgotten it was the Fourth of July.

Alex returned the previous day after two weeks of camp in rural West Virginia. He loves the mountains, lakes, camping, fishing. In one of his letters, though, he complained that he was always hungry, and could we please take him out for noodles and dumplings when he returned? We did that on July 4, lunching at a storefront restaurant in Rockville (an interesting fact about DC is that much of its cultural diversity thrives outside the small city limits; the least pretentious, most authentic "ethnic" food is found in downtrodden shopping plazas in Arlington, Rockville, Germantown, Silver Spring, Wheaton). On an impulse right after lunch we went to Toy Story 3. It was one of those days when the world conspires to assist even the least developed of plans. The restaurant was new to us, and boasted a separate vegetarian menu that was extensive and filled with dishes we'd never eaten; the film was beginning just as we arrived; the day was sunny; our moods were light. We were happy to be together as a family after this break with more breaks to come (I leave for Italy a week from Tuesday; upon my return Wendy leaves immediately for Quebec).

I spotted Alex darting across the dark field because he had his cell phone open, its wan light a small comfort. He was eager to tell me about what a great time he'd had watching a Godzilla movie, and infiltrating his friend's parents' dinner party, where everyone was speaking Spanish and he kept nodding as if he understood. As we passed the creek that meanders near our shortcut home, we stopped. Though the fireworks in DC had ended, the ground, the tree branches and the sky were pulsing with tiny lights.We suddenly felt as if we were in a commercial for some kind of product that tricks you into thinking you'll purchase the experience of a magical moment if you lather with the soap or eat the energy bar. Or maybe that we were in a special effects heavy sequence from a 3D film like, say, Toy Story 3. But it was just fireflies, going about in their hundreds their nightly business of display. Mating is part of the show, but so is (I am certain) an extraneous beauty that is simply art. The insects blinked, every corner of the woods and sky filled with animate stars. We paused in silence and then walked home, resuming our talk of Mechagodzilla.

What does this moment (corny, saccharine, sentimental, but no less true for its sweetness and cliché) have to do with blogging? For me, a great deal. Toy Story 3 is a film about leaving childhood behind. I watched it with a six year old who already understands that she will outgrow her loves (Dora the Explorer stickers were ripped from her bicycle this morning), and a thirteen year old who was so hungry at camp not because they couldn't accommodate his diet, but because he is growing so quickly that he consumes food constantly. While away he sprouted an inch. Soon he will be my height. I was thinking as I walked through the night to meet him how much of the boy remains, and wondering how long that would be true (My heart will break when he doesn't call my cell phone and ask me to meet him on his walk home). I know I am slowly losing him, and that the loss is hard but good.

So much of this blog has recorded key moments in Alex's life, because for a long time it narrated a confluence of the personal and the professional. It doesn't do that so much any more. I write mostly about academic subjects; I quietly enact a quarantine that I instigated the blog in order to overcome. I'm not sure why this should be true. Perhaps because ITM reaches a wider audience than I could have imagined in 2006, and is becoming just another medium in the media landscape. Perhaps because I've reached a point in my life where it is easier to be professional, and that's become my default persona. No doubt it's also because I had a blog-related problem with an obsessional reader, and that experience taught me the vulnerability that revealing too much that is personal engenders. I certainly closed down for a while. Or maybe I just don't have the time I once did to be so self-reflective. And I've also begun to doubt that I know why readers come to this blog (though believe me, I am grateful that they do. I don't say it enough: thank you for reading ITM).

Yet I can't help thinking that I lost something by enacting this partition. I never blogged, for example, about Alex's becoming bar mitzvah, and the ways in which the intensive year leading up to that day profoundly changed my relation to Judaism. I didn't write about Katherine's kindergarten struggles to discover and assert the person she wants to be, the price she has paid among some of the girls in her class for her gender-busting rambunctiousness. These are life events that have touched profoundly my thinking, my feeling, and therefore my scholarship. Yet you won't find any mention here at ITM about them.

I spent much of last fall writing about medieval blogging, and feel like I covered most of the professional portions. What I'm having trouble with, now, is the personal.

9 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

Since Stephanie Trigg, to a certain extent, inspired this post, by virtue of inviting you to speak about blogging at the New Chaucer Society meeting in Siena, I think this is a good place to comment on how important I think both YOUR posts [over time] here at ITM and Stephanie's blog Humanities Researcher have been so important in demonstrating the value of combining the personal with the professional [let me also provide a "shout out" here to other medievalist blogs that I believe have been exemplary in this area: Dr. Virago's Quod She, Another Damned Medievalist's Blogenspiel, xoom, Slouching Towards Extimacy, Old English in New York, and Hwo Cwaeth]. I want to make clear here that by saying, "combining the personal with the professional," I don't mean blogs or blog authors who are adept at maintaining a balance between personal and professional posts, but rather, blogs and blog authors who are especially adept at showing all of the ways in which these two *supposedly* separate realms are never really separate [a signature moment of this for me from Jeffrey's published *print* ouevre would be his Postscript, "Possible Futures," to "Medieval Identity Machines" where he wrote about Alex's anxieties over his father's global travels in the wake of 9/11].

Stephanie began her blog as an almost purely professional space, one in which she would document the travails of working, collectively with others, on grant applications, and thereby help others engaged in the same labors and maybe also help herself and her own university colleagues in improving upon that process. This was certainly an more than admirable objective for her blog, especially since, as she herself pointed out early on, this is not the best time for the humanities and funding and our efforts in this area need to be as broadly collective as possible. This partly gets at the heart of Stephanie's questions about community and blogging, as far as I am concerned--her blog, in a sense, was community-minded to begin with and in admirable ways, but it was also focused primarily on *practical* professional matters. But because Stephanie was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly afterwards, she decided to do something she admitted herself was risky, and use the blog as a kind of cancer journal. A risky venture, indeed, because:

a) maintaining a cancer journal was not the initial stated purpose of her blog;

b) the move *could* be perceived by some as narcissistic;

c) the journal could have easily become maudlin in the worst sort of sentimentalizing ways; and

d) she would have to make herself look very vulnerable in a profession--medieval studies--that has prided itself on its supposed objective methodologies and impersonal modes of study and writing, and let's face it, in any profession or "career," being candid about one's fears in the face of one's own mortality--showing that you're human, in other words--is not what people necessarily want to "see" or "hear."

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...

[continuing]

I will be [painfully] honest and admit that when Stephanie first announced what she was going to do that I winced a little inwardly and kind of held my breath a little. When I was first introduced to blogs in 2004 my first reaction was . . . blech! I said, and often, it's as if a million Samuel Pepys have been unleashed upon the waves of the internet, only none of them as talented as writers and with lives so dull no amount of cyber-gussying them up can make them more interesting. Who has the time, or the patience? I really don't care about your cat, your apartment, the new shoes you just bought, your annoying mother, etc. etc. Along with reality TV and the recent seemingly infinite onslaught of poorly-penned "woe is me" memoirs, I initially saw blogs as yet another entry in what was feeling like a culture so bloated on its own navel-gazing as to be downright perverse [not to mention: I'm bored!]. Shouldn't some things be *private*? Shouldn't they?

But because Stephanie is, in fact [much like Jeffrey] a beautiful writer and also has composed posts that combine humor and pathos and demonstrate a real interest in the lives of those--closely related or not--around her, as well as in the world at large [which is both our profession but also everything else, whether the demise of a favorite milk bar--my personal favorite post of Stephanie's ever--or Australian politics or soccer, or horse races, the death of a beloved pet, the mortality of elm trees, etc.], I found myself absolutely addicted to reading her blog, and at times, crying over it. I found myself connected to a person I had never met, and even more so, to places and experiences alien to me, yet now so close and intimate. I can honestly say that this blog is like a gift I never asked for nor thought I wanted and yet which has, over time bequeathed to me something my profession have never wanted me to have: a picture of a scholar's life as humane and "real," with all of its imperfections, anxieties, and warts, and also its beauties and joys on full display. In short, this is literature, but it is also life.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...

[continuing]

So, perhaps this is a [typically for me] long-winded way to say to Jeffrey, if you feel that, over time [and perhaps for good reasons], you have begun to erect some sort of partition between your personal and professional lives and that there have been less of the "personal" posts lately, please consider taking that partition down again, if even just a little of the way down, as you've done with this post "Blogging Askew." You certainly don't have to blog about *everything* that happens to you and your family. I will still maintain that some things might be diminished by being made too public, but at the same time, if there's any way we can continue to work on this blog toward lessening the often painful divide many of us feel between our personal and professional lives, I think we should strive to do that, if only to bear a bit of light to each other when we need it most and so we can remember to recall that, at the end of the day, it will be the fireflies we watched with our children, or friends, or whoever in the still night *and also* our work and books that will fold us into the eternity of this world--there is no hierarchy of our affects, our attachments, our relations with others [human and otherwise], and the things we can make with our minds and hands--or as George Mackay Brown said it [better than me]:

"All is gathered into the web of creation, that is apparently established and yet perhaps only a dream in the eternal mind; and yet, too, we work at the making of it with every word and thought and action of our lives."

If our weblogs, collectively, can both advance the scholarship of our field while also reminding us that we do this work, even when apart from each other, *collectively*, as persons struggling with while also attempting to find happiness [and even peace and mental well-being] in our lives [which can never really be parceled out into "personal" vs. "professional" anyway--this is a myth], and also in this world we find ourselves in, then we edge our profession, I really believe, a little bit closer to being humane [in the best, hopefully non-anthropocentric, sense of the term as denoting: open and vulnerable generosity]. We can often fail, of course, and will, at "being ourselves," whatever that means, but blogs at least allow us to do that in good company.

Eileen Joy said...

One last thought here, inspired by comments I have been reading over at Humanities Researcher in response to Stephanie's questions about community and blogging, is that a community does not have to be consistently voluble and talkative to be a community. Many readers will never comment and oftentimes we write posts to which there is no real "response" or debate/conversation that ensues, but I would not define a blog community [as some do] by means of the volume/level of written response and/or recordable dialogue and consensus on any given point or points. The "personal" aspects of some blogs are important, even when they are not commented upon, because they give sustenance, especially to grad. students and younger scholars, who very much need to know that our profession is not as inhuman as it sometimes feels at the outset of one's career. These posts are [invaluably] important with regard to what I hope is the zone of *hospitality* [intellectual and otherwise] that medievalist blogs might help to secure and maintain.

Simon Gruening said...

Thank you, Jeffrey, and thank you, Eileen! If it weren't for you, I would have disposed the academia and the Humanities after my M.A. It was you who helped me to believe in the humane of academics again. Before reading your blog entries and getting you wall-posts in Facebook, I ought to believe that academics didn't even have a personal/private life -- though I 'knew' otherwise. In the last few month I got to know more about you and your families than I might ever know about my thesis advisor who I first met about 4 years ago. I don't have that feeling of alienation, competition and separation anymore. I feel understood in my yearning for collaboration, trans-historicity, interdisciplinarity, boundlessness, queerness,... I feel like I found my academic kin. And every single scholar who denies that the personal doesn't influence his professional doing, is a liar! What we do and what we are interested in, is influenced by where we come from. And I really rejoice knowing that e.g. Jeffrey's interest in monsters derives from childhood trepidation. We become less fragmentary by sharing personal things with professional acquaintance.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

there is no hierarchy of our affects, our attachments, our relations with others [human and otherwise], and the things we can make with our minds and hands

I love that line, and the one from George Mackay Brown as well. Thanks, Eileen, for your extensive comments.

I wrote the post because I've puzzling over the dwindling of the personal/professional intertwining in my posts (while Stephanie is so good at maintaining that mix). Other reasons I could add are Facebook as an outlet, and maybe the fact that this is a group blog where others a bit more reticent than I tend to be, or that maybe I've explored those avenues for so long I was just ceasing to do so organically. I don't really know the answer. I do know, though, that I'm a restless person given to experimentation so I can't imagine that the personal/professional separation that crept up on me will hold forever.

But I'm happy to have any readers at all, and especially overjoyed that people like Simon take some hope, some solace, some inspiration from what they find here.

Stephanie Trigg said...

First up, Jeffrey: of course I haven't finished my paper for that session either. I'm going to try really hard just to put down some notes (which I can circulate to the respondent) and then speak to them, rather than writing a full paper. And I've just been reading your essay in Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog which is terrific, by the way, so I can imagine this task is harder for you. Sorry to make you re-visit the topic, but I'm hoping it will be a slightly different, less ... "bloggy" audience at NCS.

It would be interesting to see response to a more personal take in a conference presentation, wouldn't it? Where bodies and faces are exposed at the personal moment? Where audience members can't switch off and click back if they don't like it?

So that's another question: whether the more personal mode we associate with blogs does/should affect the way we speak to each other face to face, professionally?

tenthmedieval said...

I'm not sure what the forum for that kind of exposure would be, if it isn't in fact the Internet. It seems strange to try and breach big questions of work-life balance that affect all scholars at a conference with a specific theme, be it medieval or otherwise. Although it may be easier than most at the NCS in fact just because Chaucer's blog does in fact insert his life so firmly into his work, combing our agendas through the construct; once you read a post about constructing miniature Carolingian pageants for King John as Clerk of the King's Works you realise why the Canterbury Tales were unfinished... All the same, it seems unlikely that people will have come to the NCS for that. Perhaps this is a discussion that should be had more formally online?

Jeffrey, on a more personal note, your post has struck me with weird Internet coincidence syndrome: we just got my eleven-year-old son his first mobile phone, and occasionally he texts me, which I'm finding weirdly disorientating. I think it's because in text he could be an adult; it forces me to realise that he's already more than halfway there, if not more. I suspect I shall remember this post in future years.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

For some reason our moderation is acting up, so I am posting this manually for tenthmedieval.

-----
I'm not sure what the forum for that kind of exposure would be, if it isn't in fact the Internet. It seems strange to try and breach big questions of work-life balance that affect all scholars at a conference with a specific theme, be it medieval or otherwise. Although it may be easier than most at the NCS in fact just because Chaucer's blog does in fact insert his life so firmly into his work, combing our agendas through the construct; once you read a post about constructing miniature Carolingian pageants for King John as Clerk of the King's Works you realise why the Canterbury Tales were unfinished... All the same, it seems unlikely that people will have come to the NCS for that. Perhaps this is a discussion that should be had more formally online?

Jeffrey, on a more personal note, your post has struck me with weird Internet coincidence syndrome: we just got my eleven-year-old son his first mobile phone, and occasionally he texts me, which I'm finding weirdly disorientating. I think it's because in text he could be an adult; it forces me to realise that he's already more than halfway there, if not more. I suspect I shall remember this post in future years.