Friday, January 18, 2008

Old English, New Media: or, Friday Night Meta-Blogging

As everyone knows, blogging isn't really academic blogging unless somewhere along the line, you start "meta-blogging": indulging in that art of writing blog posts which theorize about blogging. Recently, I was asked to write an essay for the Old English Newsletter about blogging and Old English -- more specifically, perhaps, about what is to be gained through academic blogging. Although the essay itself has not yet been published, I wanted to post a bit of it on ITM and Old English in New York -- both to get some reactions, as well as to share what has kept me away from blogging so often in the past few weeks.

Of course, we all know that this particular issue has been done -- some might argue to near-death -- on the blogs. However, I do think I managed to get somewhere when it came to defining my blog-work in terms non-bloggers or those new to the blogosphere might understand. Of course, the usual suspects were among my early inspirations -- Scott Eric Kaufmann, Adam Kotsko, and Joseph Kugelmass are all cited in the portion I'm copying here...however, I also am indebted to posts by Doctor Virago, Bitch, PhD, and of course, the usual suspects here at ITM (Eileen, Jeffrey and Karl). I may still have time for revisions -- but even if I don't, I look forward to hearing from you, dear readers, on things I could nuance, clarify, change or get rid of entirely. Also: my apologies to DTK, who had not yet begun his series of guest posts here at ITM when I wrote this (and so doesn't yet appear in the litany of guest and co-bloggers on ITM that I list in footnote 8).

Excerpt from Old English, New Media: Blogging Beowulf
[The essay from which this excerpt comes begins with a consideration of my own beginnings in the blog world, along with questions of pseudo- and anonymity, before segueing into the conversation that took place, both at Inside Higher Ed and The Valve, between Kotsko, Kaufmann, and Kugelmass. I begin here with the consideration of Kaufmann's article on academic blogging.]

Scott Eric Kaufmann, on the other hand, sees a brighter future for the prospect of blogging in the academy. Maintaining a fairly high readership with his blog Acephalous has given Kaufmann a certain visibility within the scholarly community, but the real pay-off is in the experience he has had not only as an academic but as an academic author, because blogging has given him the experience of learning “what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience.” [1] Furthermore, he poses a particularly challenging question to specialists: “Why not write for people who don’t already [know] how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?” [2]

Kaufmann’s questions here are ones I routinely pose to my first year writing students, encouraging them away from what the Rhetoric and Composition specialists call “writer-based prose” and toward the far easier to engage “reader-based prose.” It is a fine line to walk; what academic blogs can do, however, is allow all of us an opportunity to write for the non-specialist, to attempt to make complex arguments without being obscure. In responding to both of these authors, Joseph Kugelmass makes the point (one I hope will be well taken) that blogs allow an interface between the academy and the “public” in a way more traditional scholarly outlets such as journals, edited collections and books seldom do. Moreover, he claims that “[h]umanistic blogs are one way of restoring the connection between scholarly tradition and the new plenitude of culture.” [3] In short, they allow the humanities to be accessed by their subject – humans.

Kugelmass concludes his meditation on the use of blogging in the formation of academic communities with a possibility many might be familiar with: the idea (though not explicitly stated) of the workshop. Conversations on a blog, he suggests, might function as “stepping-stones to mainstream work: ironing the kinks out of a journal article, gathering sources for a dissertation, drafting a keynote address or the chapter of a book.” [4] Blogging, then, allows a lower-stakes audience for a work-in-progress, and thus allows for the author to take risks he or she might not otherwise take, and benefit from readers’ comments and responses. In line with Kaufmann, he highlights the development of the author in the writing of a blog, arguing that “the opportunity exists to turn blogging into something more than an interstitial occupation, for the lonely times, and the idle times. It can be the practice, as vital in scholarship as in friendship among equals, of discovering a voice.” [5] The idea of a practice inherent in blogging – a practice which should be highlighted as a process rather than a product – is key, for Kugelmass and for many academic bloggers (myself included), in the formation of “voice.” [6]

I would argue that the idea of developing academic “voice” is what makes academic blogging so valuable in general. In May of 2007, after numerous conversations with colleagues at Kalamazoo about the possible ramifications (positive and negative) of letting go of my pseudonym, Old English in New York’s “Anhaga” was relieved of her duties of authorship, and I “claimed my voice.” [7] In the time since, I have used the blog as a forum for promoting the activities of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium, as well as posting interesting calls for papers and descriptions of conferences in the New York area. After having been a frequent commenter on the medieval group blog In the Middle (founded by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in 2006), I was asked in August 2007 to join the collaborative project there as the resident graduate student blogger. [8] In the Middle, and the community that has formed around it, is a forum in which I share my own ideas and projects, to be certain. However, and perhaps more importantly to the development of my academic voice, it has allowed me to be an active commenter and interlocutor for the work of other academics.

Through Old English in New York and now In the Middle, I have found a community of scholars with similar interests, who want to provoke and participate in discussions about the work we do. I would suggest that a part of what is gained in the blogging community is not simply a chance to think aloud on one’s own topics, but to be affected by each others’ work. Even when topics range outside our own areas of expertise, we can still comment usefully and intelligently on each others’ ideas. Moreover, I have found that the ideas and questions raised on the blogs linger with me, and hold a purchase on my imagination which can only enlarge my breadth as a scholar. This kind of interaction often encourages imaginative juxtapositions in what I call a “Forsterian” scholarship, drawing on the epigraph to the E.M. Forster novel Howards End. Our work is to “only connect”: to connect ideas, people, cultures and texts in a network that might, in the end, be best described not only as human but also as humane:

[W]ithout conversation, especially among those who seek, not to tear down your ideas, but to help you make them better and more theoretically rigorous, I really don't believe there is much traction for really good work to develop its highest potential, or else whatever ‘victory’ you do achieve with your work is, again, kind of lonely, maybe even empty. [9]

Here, Eileen Joy picks up on my Forsterian theme, suggesting that scholarly work at its very best is always a process of collaboration. Blogs are becoming a fruitful way for us, as scholars seeking to create a community of thinkers, to reach out across the distances that separate us to form a kind of “global classroom” in which we can all benefit from each others’ expertise early on in projects that can be made more astute through the interaction.

In reaching out in a format that is readily accessible to a culture that is increasingly engaging the texts we study, we have a chance to let intellectuals and enthusiasts who are not “academics” see inside the “ivory tower” a bit more. Perhaps in the process, that tower might be dismantled, allowing the study of medieval cultures and texts a place in a society that often finds it inaccessibly remote. All we need do is connect.


[1] Scott Eric Kaufman. “An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogging.” Inside Higher Ed. 1 November 2007.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joseph Kugelmass. “Academic Blogging Revisited.” The Valve. 1 November 2007.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Here I would like to thank the director and assistant directors of the University Writing Program at Columbia – Joseph Bizup and Nicole Wallack – for introducing me to the theoretical aspects of writing, and in particular this focus on process, which is one of the key components of the course.
[7] “Claiming my Voice” Old English in New York. 16 May 2007.
[8] Although In the Middle began as a single-author blog, Cohen has hosted a number of guest bloggers during the two years of its existence, including Jon K. Williams and Michael O’Rourke. The first In the Middle “book club” event featured contributions from Susan Kim, Heather Blurton and Asa Mittman. Karl Steel and Eileen Joy, who are now co-bloggers with Cohen, also began their work on the blog as guest bloggers.
[9]Eileen Joy. Comment on “Scholarship and Blogs part 54656” by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. In the Middle. 21 December 2007.

cross posted at OEinNY.


bwhawk said...

Great thoughts. I'm looking forward to reading the full article when it's published.

I think, as you've focused on, that the conversation and collaboration is indeed the greatest aspect of blogging--especially academic. It seems to open up conversations that are otherwise so difficult to begin in academics. For example, I've found that ITM fosters myriad conversations that we wouldn't necessarily approach in our normal settings--a wide array of thoughts that may not necessarily connect to medieval studies (or the academy in general) on the surface but can find extreme relevance on deeper reflection.

Thanks for sharing this!

Joseph Kugelmass said...


It is a staggering compliment to be read so perceptively and generously. Thank you. If you wouldn't mind, let me know when the full text is available, and where.

Anonymous said...

Mary - so good that you get the chance to do this - and I agree that the free-ranging conversational element definitely replicates a good discussion group - and extends it. But the conversational is only an element - and it seems to me a blog is never quite as responsive as real conversation. Perhaps it is more like a medieval letter collection? There is the polished and focussed tone of so many entries coupled with a particular kind of open endedness which is both what keeps it interesting and stimulating, and what is also frustrating (the time lag - the uncertainty of reception and response (or continuation). I am sure that we have to accept the downsides with the up. But just like I don't think the book is dead, neither do I think blogs can actually replace conversation - much as they might stimulate and supplement it.

Eileen Joy said...

I agree with srj--even though I often use the term "conversational" to describe what happens on and across weblogs--that what happens between primary blog authors and their readers is not really a conversation, per se, in the same way a groups of friends or colleagues sitting in someone's dining room or at a restaurant might be engaging in truly immediate, give-and-take conversation. But I was also, in the quotation MKH includes in her essay on blogging, using the term conversation to invoke something that I think is often sorely lacking in the sphere of academic publishing where everything is double-blind reviewed and a kind of hostility, as well as the worst kind of gate-keeping, often creeps in to what should be a mutually productive exchange between scholars leading to the betterment of published scholarship. We do not talk enough *to* each other about our work in a manner that would afford more intellectual collaboration, as opposed to intellectual sparring.

A while back, on the British weblog, "Literature Compass" [a Blackwell site that is attached to their online journal of the same name], Deidre Lynch [an 18th-century studies scholar at Toronto] raised the issue of how we can teach our students to engage in intellectual "conversations" which would not necessarily devolve into "debates," and I will copy here some of our exchange on that subject, as I think it is very relevant, too, to MKH's essay here on what is valuable in academic blogging in terms of its more, I really believe, "human" aspects, and also point to the dangers of what happens when weblogs can become too agonistic:

[beginning of excerpt from "Literature Compass" weblog]

# Eileen Joy Says:
March 17, 2007 at 6:57 pm

I think this topic of “conversation” versus “debate” [and of how “discussion” is often misconstrued as agonistic debate] is really pertinent right now, both vis-a-vis the blogosphere and the classroom. I have been blogging for almost a year now over at “In The Middle” [a medieval studies group blog founded by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen at George Washington University], which has led me to other excellent academic “group” blogs such as “The Valve,” “Long Sunday,” “Crooked Timber,” “Savage Minds,” etc. I have personally been put off by how some of the most prominent group blogs, such as “The Valve,” often quickly devolve [my description, admittedly] into what I would term intellectual fractiousness, and it is often difficult to distinguish between genuine, principled disagreement and what looks to be academic posturing, and frankly, showing off one’s knowledge and rhetorical skills. . . . I think, traditionally and historically, , academic disciplinary knowledges have, indeed, often advanced, primarily, via this method of “debate” and critique, and that the idea of something like a non-agonistic “conversation” is often foreclosed before the fact of “discussion.” This is a serious problem, in my mind, and one that we would do well to address, whether in the classroom or when reading/judging papers for publication or at conferences and in the blogosphere, etc. etc. We need to imagine a more generously-shaped and more open-ended form of critical [or, scholarly] conversation, whereby the raising of interesting questions and provisional and only-ever partial answers is somehow privileged over the idea that out of a vigorous “debate” or “clash” of strongly-held opinions, some concepts “win,” while others “lose out.”

Following the work of the political theorist Stephen White, who in his book “Sustaining Affirmation” coined the term “weak ontology,” we might imagine a forum in which we have “strong beliefs, weakly held,” and where incommensurability of opinion is privileged over consensus. William Connolly’s book ‘Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed,” is also informative in this regard, regarding the utility of a certain radical pluralism of beliefs. As Simon Weil once wrote, “When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door.” As to how we could teach our students the art of true conversation [versus lapsing into debates which are usually narrowly conceived in terms of their premises and conclusions], I always start by telling my students that the raising of interesting questions leading to further inquiries is always more valuable than proposing supposedly definitive answers. Everything is provisional, I tell them, and thinking about the ways in which, say, a commonly-held assumption or opinion or idea is provisional is one way to begin. . . .

# Deidre Lynch Says:
March 22, 2007 at 1:01 pm

. . . I couldn’t agree more about the propensity of academic bloggers to opt for agonistic debate over conversation. This has seemed to me to squander some of the potential of the blog as a form of communication. It is disappointing that in this form, too, as much as in published essays and monographs, writing is conceptualized as a way of scoring points, and scoring more of them than others do. (Of course, the “jeu de la conversation” that got me thinking about these questions in the first place was conceptualized in just those terms as well).

Reading recently a fascinating essay by Kathryn Sutherland, on the ways in which women writers turned Adam Smith’s political economy into a conversational matter, I encountered a distinction that Richard Rorty makes between “systemic” philosophers–this is the category in which Sutherland places Smith, obviously–and “edifying” philosophers. Rorty characterizes the latter group as “intentionally peripheral” and writes of them: “to see keeping a conversation going as a sufficient aim of philosophy, to see wisdom as consisting in the ability to sustain a conversation, is to see human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately.” Maybe because we so rarely talk about what happens in the privacy of our own classrooms, academic humanists seem in their public presentation to marginalize that definition of wisdom–”the ability to sustain a conversation.” But this definition, I think chimes nicely with Bill Readings’s hopeful statement about how the postmodern university might at least serve as a place where the question of being-together can be raised.

# Eileen Joy Says:
March 24, 2007 at 6:32 pm

. . . I love the idea of being “intentionally peripheral” to a conversation, with the aim of keeping that conversation sustained [and I would imagine, sustaining], as a form of “wisdom.” I couldn’t agree more. I am currently teaching a course on the figures of the monster, demon, and shape-shifter in medieval literature, and I never cease to be amazed at how much my students desire very definitive answers to questions that can never have definitive answers, and that will always be philosophical in the manner in which Rorty describes as “edifying.” Last week we read Gerald of Wales’s twelfth-century “History and Topography of Ireland,” and while I was trying to point out to my students all the ideological and moral “slippages” in the text–all the ways in which Gerald’s descriptions of Ireland’s supposed “marvels” [bearded women, ox-men, cow-stags, etc.] as well as of its supposed “native” inhabitants slide back and forth between wonder [which is a type of admiration], respectful regard, pity, disgust, and moral condemnation, what my students mainly wanted to know was: is Gerald’s text “pure propaganda,” through and through [in other words, it’s the “did he or didn’t he?” question: either he wrote every single word with Henry II’s program of conquest in mind, or he was doing something else entirely]? Is what he wrote true or false? Did anyone challenge his text, and if so, how, and when? So, while the students want definitive answers to the question of Gerald’s supposed “command” of his sources and material, I’m more interested in showing them how the text [and hence, also, Gerald’s mind] is always more slippery than that, and what we can glimpse in Gerald’s so-called “descriptions” are the operations of a consciousness that, in a sense, can’t make up *its own mind*, and that is also under the influence of past discourses that have impressed themselves in his language. So the aim, ultimately, for me, in the classroom, is to try to get students to *reflect* in a way that raises questions with only-ever-provisional answers upon texts that are themselves always reflecting, always wondering. . . .

[end of excerpt from "Literature Compass"]

Alison said...

Question: is that what "only connect" means? As I recall, it's more ambiguous. Certainly the interpretation you're speaking about is Margaret Schlegel's ambition, for one-on-one relationships and for community--but she fails, with disastrous consequences that she recognizes (another connection) but does not need to suffer, because other people do the suffering for her. It's possible to read Howards End as an indictment of Margaret's reliance on the phrase--the idea--to effect understanding, tolerance, and communication: those things require more than bringing the prose and the poetry into contact. Where they meet there is violence, and the victim is the poor man who's killed by a bookcase wielded by Margaret's son-in-law. After his death, people do change, they do connect, they do understand themselves and their world anew--but at what cost? The Schlegels' and the Wilcoxes' transformation can't bring poor Leonard Bast back. The connection produces good will and knowledge in equal measure to the suffering inflicted on those who cannot benefit from the goodness--those who are, in fact, denied any connection at all.