Tuesday, April 04, 2006

ye olde days of the internet

In the distant past of the early 1990s, technology was -- for the Average Professor or Pedagogue -- a wee bit frightening. TVs were OK, and computers that aided in word processing were fine, but the internet seemed like a place that sucked in your credit card numbers and otherwise abused your data. It was not, for the most part, a Scholarly Organ.

Medievalists, however, tended to be the exception. Because they love all things intricate, obscure, and difficult, they embraced the new world of email discussion lists, html and the WWW with gusto. And passion. Sometimes the flame wars on email lists like Ansaxnet were raging so heatedly that the dinky computers people possessed in those days of yore would combust. I know of one prominent medievalist who was badly singed and to this day refuses to keep his laptop on his lap.

In an attempt to place some order on this multiplying critical chaos, sorting sites like the Labyrinth at Georgetown were born. To encourage focus and depth -- and perhaps a bit more civility -- the electronic discussion group known as Interscripta was introduced. The first discussions were on Augustine and medieval subjectivity. Then, in 1994 (yes, I was alive back then -- a recent PhD in search of a tenure-track job) I moderated a colloquy on Medieval Masculinities. Medievalists from around the world participated. I then collated and shaped the ungainly thing into a hypertext article. Because electronic publishing meant little at the time (it was held in about the same regard as duplicating your work on a copy machine), I also arranged to have it appear in hard copy in the journal Arthuriana.

So why bring all of this up now? For a few reasons. Dr. Virago's recent query about men and feminism at Quod She. A graduate student conference that I attended at CUNY on "Masculinities in the Long Middle Ages" that proved to me the topic is still fecund. Discussions on several blogs about the identity work and experimentation that anonymous blogging enables. For me the Interscripta discussion -- held way back when a topic like masculinities was not yet part of the scholarly mainstream -- enabled me to pursue interests that were difficult to frame within the traditional graduate training I'd recently finished. I suppose this is just a long way of saying that the community which electronic communication fosters is, well, important -- and is often not deeply enough considered when we think about what shapes our scholarly lives.


Anonymous said...

for me, the joy of reading blogs stems from their voicing of other aspects of our scholarly lives that are less than easy to own: debt, dating, teaching failures, pervasive racism and sexism, working class alienation, and the soul crushing burden of bleak cynicism (to name just a few fun topics!). Blogs are an outlet for these types of expressions about the frustrations of scholarly communities, raising the stakes of "professional" identity. (That's why I find this blog so charming. You post about theory and you post about the pictures you and your brother took in Ireland!). Few can take such professional risk. (For example, it took me awhile to become comfortable with signing my name to my responses here!).

I keep hoping for more engaging discussions on listservs, but if the women's studies list is any guide, there seem to be a few people who respond a lot and a lot of folks like me who just read silently. And, how to put this... well, responding to the listserv seems to generate weird misreadings rather than productive discussions. But, perhaps that's just the peculiarities of the listservs I'm on (REED, working class listsrv, hnet new jersey, and the wmstlstrv).

(Though, the women's studies listserv broke the britney spears pro life monument story faster than cnn!)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm happy you find the blog interesting. It's an experiment, and an enjoyable one so far.

"Few can take such professional risk": I understand that sentiment completely, and wholly understand why so many bloggers (esp. those who are grad students and assistant profs.) remain anonymous.

Still, there are risks that are worth taking, even while hedging your bets -- that's why I knew when I was an assistant prof. that any electronic publishing and internet oriented scholarship had also better been backed up with print versions and lots of traditional venues.