Sunday, November 22, 2009
Blogging the Middle Ages: A Brief and Personal History of In the Middle
[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 jjcohen.blogspot.com 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.