Sunday, November 22, 2009

Blogging the Middle Ages: A Brief and Personal History of In the Middle

by  J J Cohen

[An installation in a noncomprehensive series on the history of medieval-focused blogs. I invite you to leave your ruminations on this history in the comments, especially if you experienced ITM's development differently. I also invite my co-blogges to leave their own accounts, or add to my own.]
During my last sabbatical, I accidentally wrote two books and started a blog. Too much time on my hands.

In the Middle began as on Wednesday January 18 2006. During these somewhat early days of the e-frontier, I had been enjoying reading some blogs medieval in focus (Quod She, Ancrene Wiseass, Blogenspiel, Old English in New York, Unlocked Wordhoard, among others), and some that were not (Michael Berube, University Diaries, Bitch PhD, Dean Dad, Savage Minds, again among others). The sabbatical came at a good time. I'd received my terminal promotion, I did not yet know I was going to be forced at gunpoint to become the next chair of my department, the rest of my life stretched before me without objective or goal. I had a whole semester with no class to teach and no one to advise, so I thought, why not try something new.

Blogger made setting up a new site easy. At first I did little more than cut and paste some obscure publications, hoping to offer them to a wider audience: the blog as Open Access delivery system. Early posts therefore include dictionary and encyclopedia entries as well as fragments from books. My most popular post ever was a work in progress on erotic animals. To this day that piece drives more disappointed Googlers to ITM than any other. Looking back on them now, I don't discern much personality in the posts. They are simply scholarly publications pushed into the world through a novel mechanism, but without a significant change of voice or mode.

But then the comments started.

One of the first people to respond to my posts was Karl Steel, then writing as "Karl the Grouchy Medievalist." He mentioned my infant blog at Quod She, prompting the generous Dr Virago to send many readers my way. My blog took off from there: having people respond, even via pseudonym, to what I e-published prompted me to write more, and to take more risks with what I was disseminating. I quickly christened the blog with its current name to ensure that the focus was on the discussion as much as the posts: it was not my desire to make the site all about me, but to use electronic communication to help envision and maybe even bring into being new kinds of scholarly community. I was especially interested in fostering an interdisciplinary space where hierarchies (grad student versus professor versus interested member of the public) and other sortings endemic to the profession (institutional prestige, geographic location, rank, number of publications in peer reviewed journals) were simply beside the point.

What I posted at ITM continued to be fairly professional in focus and tone. Works in progress were my staple, but every now and then I placed something that contained a shard of biography with its scholarship. On February 8 2006 I mentioned my son Alex for the first time, though not by name. Mostly I focused on what he was reading. Soon, though, fragments of his own writing appeared, and he was joined by his pink-obsessed sister. Though ephemeral, these posts remain among the most important to me. The tone of ITM has changed over the years, becoming a good deal more professional again, so I have moved much of the personal material over to Future Lost Archive and Facebook. But I still enjoy writing about -- and am obsessed with -- the moment of interpretation and those carried in its wake. That is, ficto-criticism.

I was uneasy at first about bringing much that is supposed to be segregated into private life onto ITM. To a degree the weblog form demands it; scholars do not live in disembodied isolation; my friends and my family are my constant collaborators, whether they know that or not; and for reasons I have a hard time articulating, exploring the relation between scholarly practice and lived experience is simply important to me, and a blog offers the ideal form for such exploration.

Eileen Joy made her first appearance on Feb. 24, but only because I was writing an essay for a book she was editing. This afterword turned out to be the first essay I ever composed via the blog. Many other such essays would follow (e.g. here and here). In 2006 many academics were worried that blogs were a distraction from the real work of scholarship. A month after starting to blog I knew that the form could be a catalyst to productivity, as well as a new mode of doing engaged work. I was hooked.

I have worried repeatedly, even tediously, about ITM becoming just another stodgy arm of the discipline.

I've never felt a strong sense of ownership over ITM -- meaning that, I have always wanted it to offer a communal space. That's one reason we've had so many guest bloggers: Daniel Kline, Michael O'Rourke, Greg Carrier, Justin Brent, Geoffrey Chaucer. Three of these guests became co-bloggers: Karl Steel, Eileen Joy and Mary Kate Hurley (four, if you count the Tiny Shriner). Working with these three conspirators and friends has been one of the best results of founding ITM. Together we've experimented with what the blog can accomplish: book reviews, syllabi, conference reviews, book clubs, advance notices of publications, accounts of the profession, ephemera, fun links, manifestos, rants, raves, appreciations of lives well lived...

It's been pleasing as well to watch ITM's readership steadily grow. At the moment we have 228 subscribers via Google Reader alone, 51 fans via Facebook, 434 additional visits to the blog each day ... In the Middle reaches many more people than any book or essay I could ever compose.

Not all the sailing has been smooth. Sometimes someone googles himself and doesn't like what he sees. Sometimes having to face the author I am speaking about makes me realize my own failings, especially in tone (I rewrote a snarky part of this essay after an email exchange). From time to time I've taken a post down because it misfired so badly (that doesn't bother me: my mantra is that if you don't sometimes fail, you are playing too safely -- and what is gained by such circumspection?). Longtime readers of In the Middle know that I have had a recurring problem with a commenter. The best I can say is that these troubles resulted in some statements of belief that were good for me to write. Yet I considered ceasing to blog. I'm happy I didn't, but the experience continues to trouble me, even if it seems to have come to its end.

I don't want to end on a negative note. I'd like to think that what I've learned through the blog I've put into practice in the other communities where I've found myself in a leadership position: as chair of my department, as director of MEMSI. I have often stated that much of my pre-blog scholarship has been a series a letters written to unknown receivers. That's a lonely position from which to write. What I love about In the Middle is that the blog reminds me every day of the community for whom I compose, a community of which I am proud to be a member.


Anonymous said...
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Dr. Virago said...

Wow, I don't think I realized I played a pivotal role in bringing you early readers. Cool! Glad to have been there.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: thanks so much for these reflections, and I'm happy to add some of my own, albeit briefly [oh, who am I kidding?].

My first feeling about weblogs--of any variety, medievalist or otherwise--was to stay away from them, partly because I never understood how I was supposed to read everything I was expected to read [articles, books, etc.] and now I would have to keep up with weblogs, too? How on earth would I manage it? Plus, I had a dim [and I realized later, partly egregiously mistaken] view that all weblogs were like really bad personal diaries and I often described the blogosphere [of which I only had a dim awareness] as a million Samuel Pepys running amok [only not as interesting or as historically valuable as Pepys]. But then, in the spring of 2006, Betsy McCormick kept telling me, over and over again, that there were some really cool medieval blogs that I would be stupid and woefully "out of it" *not* to read: primarily, In The Middle, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, Quod She [Dr. Virago], and New Kid on the Hallway. So I did start reading these blogs and I was both entertained by them and also provoked to think more deeply by what I do as a medievalist, but also as a thinker and writer situated in what we might call the *waning* field of the humanities. At the same time, I was still thinking that there wasn't enough time to read everything that was out there because I was also following links on all of these blogs and beginning to realize how much really good *intellectual* dialogue and debate was going on in the academic blogosphere more generally [especially on blogs such as The Valve, Savage Minds, I Cite, Michael Berube's blog, Crooked Timber, K-Punk, Long Sunday, Acephalous, etc.].

I may have very well just flitted in and then flitted back out of the medievalist and other academic blogs if it had not been for a personal crisis that I was undergoing in spring 2006, in which case, I sometimes liked to say, "Jeffrey Cohen's blog saved my life." Maybe that's an overly dramatic thing to say, even personally embarrassing, but it's also partly true. In May of 2006, shortly after Jeffrey started this blog, and also after he generously plugged the BABEL Working Group [much to my shock and surprise], I found myself in Cambridge, England where I had gone to undertake some research on Anglo-Saxon law codes, and this research wasn't going so well mainly because my personal life was in total upheaval and I was depressed. Instead of sitting in the Cambridge University and Corpus Christi libraries reading old books and manuscripts, I found myself spending most days in the Caffè Nero coffee shop in the town square reading Jeffrey's blog and participating in some lengthy conversations and debates over the role and purposes of literary scholarship and I found myself quickly drawn in to these conversations and debates and, in a sense, found a temporary but sustaining intellectual fellowship there, one that helped me get through those painful days in Cambridge, and also accompanied me as I made my treks shortly thereafter from one temporary residence to another throughout the summer. On one level, this and other academic weblogs were for me, that spring and summer, a welcome respite and distraction when I couldn't concentrate on anything else, while at the same time, I increasingly found this space a really useful one for airing and testing out ideas that were actually critical to my scholarship.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...

By way of concluding here, and all kidding aside, *really* trying to brief, I guess I would just want to say that, over the time, this weblog has served, for me, all sorts of different [productive] purposes, not all of them commensurate with each other:

1. it has allowed me, at a minimum, to keep in vibrant touch with my co-bloggers here as well as other medievalist bloggers as regards their ongoing scholarly projects and their thoughts on other academic [and sometimes, personal] matters [not to mention, it allows me to engage directly with other scholars who I am reading, without having to resort to the traditional book or article review, which can take years after the fact to materialize]; although you can never really replace the intimacy of face-to-face relationships, the far-flung locations in which we all live and work mean that we cannot realistically "see" each other as often as we might like, and the medievalist blogosphere, in some ways, extends the kinds of dialogue and debate that typically only happens at conferences [and not always in the sessions themselves, but afterwards, over beers, etc.]; granted, many blog posts are one-way communications with not much visible conversation and/or chatter afterwards, but they are out there, always ready to be grabbed and read, in pieces or in toto, and that just means, again at a minimum, that there is always a fount, as it were, of always circulating, open ideas relative to our field that we can tap into at any time, which I like to think breaks down a little the solitude and solitariness that often defines our studies, and which often contributes to what Liz Scala has recently described as the "fantasy of the complete individuality and intellectual autonomy" that often serves as the "last hidden refuge of the humanist or romantic 'self'," and which we might do well to work to de-mystify. Our work is more interpersonal and social than we might often allow and weblogs serve as important spaces, I think, for highlighting and even *engaging* more vigorously, this fact; finally, I think the medievalist blogosphere has acted almost as a quickening agent, causing actual things to "happen" much more quickly than they might otherwise have come into being [such as new courses, articles, symposia, etc.], to whit, see #2:

2. it has given me the ability to broadcast the news and mission of the BABEL Working Group in a way that simply would have never been possible in any other forum and that has reached many more persons than I would have reached just trying to promote the work of the group through conference sessions and regular publications [which inch along, years and years at a time, from inception of writing to that writing actually appearing in print], and I honestly believe that this blog has therefore been instrumental in, at the very minimum, helping to create broadly networked [if not always visible online] conversations and chatter about the group's work that was ultimately influential in helping us launch "postmedieval," among other projects.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...

3. it allows me a space to ruminate out loud personal scholarly projects that are so nascent that, before blogging, I would have hesitated to share them with anyone in any other kind of forum, like a conference session, and which would have never been ready for anything like an article review. Although we've had some interesting debates here over whether or not blogging can constitute "real" scholarship, I do think weblogs provide important sites for floating and testing out one's ideas and, frankly, also for *sharing* one's ideas, for simply letting them loose in the world and seeing where they might travel and land. I think it has been typical of academic life for a long while now to be fiercely protective of one's ideas and even to keep them mainly partially hidden until the so-called "final" moment of print publication where one can, supposedly, claim "first" intellectual property rights on an idea, approach, textual discovery, etc. This sort of approach to our work has always turned me off, as I think our field should recognize and engage better [and more ethically] what could only ever be the collective nature of our scholarship. We certainly don't have to agree with each other over anything, but we could afford to be less paranoid about the so-called "ownership" of our work. Yes, I know some careers have been damaged in the wake of various intellectual property heists, but my own feeling is that you share everything you've got and don't be hesitant to let loose with even the half-baked ideas because you never know where they might lead once they get loose--even when they fail, they land *somewhere* and that's another place to begin. And as far as I'm concerned, whatever I have suggested or thought out loud on this weblog, it's everyone's property. Go ahead and take it [with some attribution, of course--I'm big on attribution: nothing happens in a vacuum]. On some level, it's about combustion of intellectual energies with blogs serving as the heat.

4. finally, this weblog has simply afforded me a safe space to say out loud, and in public, what I really *feel* and *care* about, without the risk of professional embarrassment that often motivates us to "pipe down" when we're aware that we're speaking "in print" or in other, more formal environments that feel too permanent to allow us to later back or tone down; it allows me to wear my real feelings on my sleeve without fear of having to always remain, forever stuck, in those words/feelings because blogs are a little bit like perpetual cognitive mobility machines that highlight the restless fluidity of ideas more so than their museum-like enshrinement in immovable type. The blog is, somehow, for me anyway, a space of intellectual freedom where I can say just about anything, and actually get away with it.