In February, we here were asked by Literature Compass to write a reflective piece for a special issue on "E-medieval: Teaching, Research, and the Net." It's due in a couple of weeks, which means we're writing now.
Given who we are, and what we're writing, it'd be foolish not to share our material here in the hopes the soliciting comments in advance of submitting our article. Caveat: my only claim to authority is being online frequently. Which is to say: I'm not claiming authority. My sense, too, is that I'm not writing for an audience of internet sophisticates. Sophisticates, yes, certainly, but perhaps not about blogging. What I'm saying may be old hat to you but a chapeau entirely nouveau to others, I hope.
With that, here's a draft of my piece:
Five years ago, Jeffrey asked me to join Eileen and him online for, as I remember, “a few weeks,” just until they could get themselves out from under some work. They never let me go, and I don't expect they ever will. In my intermittent blogging at ITM since then, I conducted my medieval education in public, to repurpose, on a humbler scale, Hegel's infamous jibe against Schelling. On the blog, I've exposed myself and my academic faults permanently, and here, in this small piece, I'm offering a pair of proposals to encourage others to do the same.
What I've done online is permanent in that even deleted blog posts will endure in the Wayback Machine or some future technology, so I should expect that what I say will continue to be said somewhere by one of my prior, but uncannily persisting, iterations. If you're online, the same goes for you, already.
This permanence alone counters the charge that “blogging is just a platform,” no different, for example, than delivering a conference paper. For obvious reasons, the public of both ITM and academic conferences may be largely the same, and a post's comments, at their best, work like a conference q&a. Blogging, though, frees us from the temporal limits of a conference schedule, and from the requirement that presenter, audience, and interlocutors occupy the same room for the duration of their conversation. This is an obvious point, worth repeating.
In this regard, whatever the charges of elitism that might be laid against ITM for, say, its particular (and in modern academia, anomalous) core of writers (mostly tenured or close to it), or even for its theoretically esoteric bent (most recently, a tendency towards object-oriented ontologies), ITM is a great deal more public and perhaps even more democratic than the traditional conference of our peers. Anyone with access to the Internet and equipped with the knowledge of how to use it can read anything we have written. For better or worse, anyone can let us know what they think, whenever they like. And even the apparent failures at ITM, suffered by all us—-laboriously composed posts that elicited nothing but silence—-still might attract some attention. No failure of this sort is permanent. The same can't be said for a couple of my Sunday-morning Kalamazoo papers, swallowed by empty rooms at the end of their alloted 20 minutes.
Obviously, I'm advocating for more blogging. Or, perhaps just as well, permanent conference web pages that include as many conference papers as presenters are willing to have posted, with space provided for comments or at least email addresses. If needed, slight increases in registration fees could pay for web hosting. These spaces would constitute an archive whose contents, by design, continued to change. Then the conference need never finish (and, one hopes, session-jumping might cease, because we know we could read any paper we missed). If a paper posted in this way finally achieved print, then that could be noted online, which might potentially land journals more readers than they might have otherwise received.
For good reason, some will object to this proposal. I hope that publishers will realize that work published online does not steal from but rather intensifies interest in the printed, (presumably) more refined developments of the same arguments. What success my book will have will be, I imagine, largely due to the interest built by the blog.
Permanence of course presents other, more serious problems. The bad readings, inept translations, bibliographic omissions, and erroneous corrections of senior scholars—-all the academic sins that we always think ourselves to be committing—-will embarrass us forever. Graduate students, who have no business saying anything to anyone but their dissertation chairs, will ruin their careers. Junior scholars will be expelled, sans tenure, into the kinds of work they hoped never to do, or into no work at all. Bloggers will find themselves tethered perpetually to a reading, for example, on the Yvain of “de Troyes.” And we should all tremble to know that talking about anyone online inevitably summons them: Pierre Haidu, James Simpson, Sylvia Huot, Patricia Ingham, and many others have dropped by ITM, to complain, to encourage us, to join in. That can be scary.(image from Heath Brandon under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license)
I want to acknowledge this anxiety, in the sense of both marking its existence and affirming its validity; and then I want to push past it. Speaking from my experience of moving from being a graduate student to an assistant professor to a book-published assistant professor, all while blogging, I can say that writing online for a public of medievalists, senior and otherwise, has given me a community, saving me, when I needed it most, from the savage loneliness that I understand afflicts most graduate students. Perhaps as importantly, blogging gave my scholarship a confidence, playfulness, and inventiveness that I doubt I could have found any other way. I have exposed myself to humiliation; I've probably been humiliated in ways I barely understand; and when I scavenge my early posts for material for current projects, I keep my eyes half-shut over fear of what I'll find.
Yet isn't this true for any scholar who keeps working? If it's a problem, it's a more general one. If we're doing it right, shouldn't we always be a little embarrassed over what we once thought or wrote? We have to publish, anyhow, so embarrassment will find us out if we live long enough in the profession. We should always know ourselves exposed, to other scholars, even to the public, and, I hope, to our future selves. This is a problem, but the only way to avoid it is not to exist at all.
My vote's for existence, and as much of it as possible. With the proviso that I speak from a position of (so far) success, which itself provides a kind of false après-coup justification, I can recommend my path to all junior medievalists. At the same time, I should also acknowledge that it's hard to keep a blog going. ITM's nearly six-year existence is a rarity amid other medieval blogs, which have generally proven to be far more effervescent.
With that in mind, I offer another proposal to save individual or temporary affiliations of students the trouble of maintaining their own blog when they ought to be finishing their dissertations: graduate programs should run blogs open to the contributions of their students. Surely faculty or a research assistant could supervise such a project on a rotating basis. Even if such a blog were open only to an audience of their peers and departmental faculty, students would come to know more about the work of their fellows; they would build a richer community of scholarship among themselves (and perhaps with other graduate students at other institutions, if a kind of “consortium” of these semi-private blogs were set up); and they would learn to write for a public rather than (only) for a seminar leader. This may be the most important skill in helping young medievalists realize what we're told is the most important professional transition, that from being students to being confident colleagues. We just need to tell ourselves, and our students, that only exposure will dull the fear of being read. And we, someone's big other, need to tell them, too, that the fear never goes away, so we, and they, might as well write.