Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Blogging the Middle Ages: A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

by Jonathan Jarrett

[JJC says: I don't know about you, but I am deeply enjoying these brief histories of blogs I've long admired. For background on this archival project, read the posts here, here, here, here, and here. And doesn't that picture of Jonathan capture his very soul?]

       I began A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe in very late 2006, in a period of frustration with the academic job market as well as other parts of my life. Unable to forecast with any certainty when I might manage to get anything into print, and conscious that even if I submitted several papers the very next day (or as it really transpired, over the next twelve months) they would still take months to emerge (and to date none of those five submissions have done so), I decided to make a stand for myself in a forum I could influence and affect immediately, to wit the world-wide web. So I first set up a respectable set of permanent web-pages on a non-commercial server[1] and when I was sure that they would do for anyone who should web-search me to find, considered the matter of a blog.

       I was already aware of academic bloggers in my field--most notably, the long-serving Another Damned Medievalist, whose very nom de blog indicates that there were others when she started--her particular interests had brought her up in web-searches of mine for teaching material and I had made some initial attempts at contact, though she rightly ignored the unknown crazy man at that time--ironically we are now good friends.[2] Investigation of her blogroll however made it clear that this was a method of communication now being pursued by clever, serious and above all employed people, and something that several of them appeared to feel was no shame to do under their own names. Carl Pyrdum's Got Medieval and Richard Scott Nokes's Unlocked Wordhoard especially caught my attention, the former because of his sheer command of irreverence and scholarship delivered in alternate blows in a web-friendly style, and the latter partly, indeed, because of his good humour, but also because of his apparent intention to run a clearing house for everything medieval in the Blogosphere.[3] This seemed like a good club to be part of. However, very few of them were British, and I was not at all sure that my local academic climate was so conducive to such growth. (I wasn't at the time aware that Magistra et Mater, who had by then been a colleague and great source of advice already without my having had any notion of her Internet presence, was representing her and my country in this way.[4] That took me far too long to discover.) It would, I suspected, be seen as trivial, a waste of effort that a serious scholar would have put into 'real work' and also liable to be taken the wrong way unless absolutely spotlessly academic.

       On the other hand, a few months before I had been at a party in London held by a friend of mine who worked in stock market technology, and both he and a friend of his had recently been encouraged to start professional blogs for their company. I, raised in British academia true enough, couldn't see what the company thought it would gain from this--it seemed like a dotcom idea that money would just fall from the sky if the Internet were invoked enough. I did at least recognise, however, that this was the crest of a wave, and my friend's friend, whose name I have unjustly forgotten, tried to persuade me fervently that it was much more. He asked me about my field, and about my web presence, and said, "Well, if I Google 'tenth medieval' I ought to get you, first page.' He was convinced that a blog was the way to do this (and, it must be said, currently Google proves him right). As you can tell from A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe's actual domain identifier, this stuck with me.[5]

       So the choice came down to waiting forever with a bare-bones CV and a web presence basically confined to undergraduate music obsessions, and not getting a job, or to taking over my own presentation on the web and making sure that I looked like, not just a scholar, but one who was in touch with new media and outreach to the public, something which I believed and believe still is a moral obligation of our profession, especially in the UK where it is so substantially state-funded. You already know which one I chose, so there seems little point in trying to dress it up as if it were an even choice. I tinkered with the design for a while and then put a first post up on 6 December 2006. (It's still there; I've only ever deleted one post, though I now forget what or why.) That month I got 31 page-views, and no-one commented. The advert that the blog was always intended to be was there, but it didn't seem that anyone was seeing it yet.

       For a year or so the blog continued to do nothing, though I was having fun writing it, perhaps too much fun given the danger of an apparent lack of audience on the Internet. Comments began, but were few. Richard Scott Nokes did me the great kindness of noticing and linking me several times and every time this brought me a few extra readers, and similar generosity from Steve Muhlberger at Muhlberger's Early History also helped in the same way.[6] All the same, by the end of 2007 the traffic was still only just over a thousand views a month, many of whom appeared to be web-searchers hoping for rather more from my use of the word `sex' than I think they got, and I didn't bother posting any kind of anniversary.

       2008 however really was the year of Tenth Medieval. Again the big numbers were coming from porn searches, at least at first, but it's been my experience that any link to a big forum nets one a few readers who stay, and this kept happening. By now, too, the blog had long replaced my static pages as my public face; I answered comments quicker than I answered e-mail, because no-one else could see if I failed to answer e-mail but the blog would betray inattention. And it seemed to be working. The numbers grew slowly and also quickly, incremental growth and occasional big links, and I realised that daily updating grew them even more. (That was a lunatic thing to attempt and only goes to show what obsession and procrastination can do combined.) By 2009 they had started falling again, but I'm glad to say that they're now healthier than ever although I am devoting far less time to the blog, a paradox that has dogged it all its life.

       I had started giving reports of seminars at the Institute of Historical Research some time before, partly because I was presenting and partly because I've always felt lucky to be part of them when I have been able--whether the reports constitute a proper return is maybe questionable, but some colleagues further afield have told me how grateful they are for them so it's been a particular blow not to be able to go to them this term. I tried to leaven my reports of others' work with plenty of my own, recycled or occasionally original but trivial; I was trying to avoid, however, any problems with signing off work for journals as never previously published, and I still mainly avoid premiering academic content I intend to use `for real' on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. (This is one of many ways in which publication in the humanities has yet to catch up with the Internet's existence, I think.) When no inspiration came I usually had a bag of other people's posts to comment on, and I can find something to say about almost anything, but I have been quite proud of how much actual work has gone into my blog; I have sometimes depended on other blogs who just aggregate content from elsewhere but I've never wanted to be one of them. My Corner is ultimately supposed to be mainly about me, and always has been.

       This all improved my thinking, or so I like to believe. I'd learnt quite a lot of my debating on the Internet, largely on an old text-based system called Monochrome (still out there[7]) and on Usenet; now, when I got into arguments, which I did and still do as readers of ITM will surely and especially know, those skills tended to mean that I would rarely back down even when I had to admit I was wrong; a ground shifted could then be defended anew. That and the discipline of regular writing have, I think, strengthened my actual writing a great deal. And, of course, by following links and clicking things I have learnt a great deal, especially in technological fields that are dark to a lot of my contemporaries. So that has been worthwhile, though not so much dependent on having my own blog.

       But, the blog has made me contacts and friends. The latter know who they are, but I also occasionally get people at institutions with vacancies urging me to apply there--they have, alas, always been overconfident of my `fit', it seems--and been invited to speak at three conferences now solely though the strength of the blog, as well as been invited to submit material to two journals (and Larry Swain of the Heroic Age[8] deserves a particular plaudit here for having actually published something that I wrote in the lifetime of the blog!). It also earnt me an invitation to join the team at Cliopatria, although I think that they've been struggling to remember why ever since I did![9] And, although a few European colleagues have slowly discovered it, including eventually all my referees (and they still write for me, which was a relief), my first trip to the USA as an academic for the Haskins Society Conference of 2008 was an eye-opener. People knew me for the blog, quite a lot of people, and I found this rather scary. I'd been hoping initially that people would find the blog only because they were looking for me for some other reason; now, I realised, I'd built something that threatened to drown out any scholarly presence of conventional appearance I could hope to put together in the same time.

       As you can see, then, I'm ambivalent about the good the blog has done me. There certainly is some: the invitations and the friends, as well as the reassurance during vacations that actually someone is interested in what I have to say, has been hugely helpful and at times a lifeline. On the other hand: it has caused me numerous embarrassments where I've met someone about whom I'd been careless years before; it has sucked up an immense amount of time which I might, in retrospect, have been much better advised to spend in libraries or formatting copy for submission; and, most crucial of all, it has not helped me get hired, and I don't know that it hasn't hindered me. I don't think the UK academic environment is really aware of such things yet, though students citing my mini-paper on the First Crusade will slowly change this perhaps! but when it is, I fear it is some way behind the enthusiasm of the USA for such things. (I've said elsewhere and will say again that this is because UK academia has been throttled by the Research Assessment Exercise's dictation of funding. The RAE, although this may now be changing as it becomes the Research Development Framework, has always been utterly unsure how to rate online work and outreach, and has filed it with exhibitions and performances as bottom in overall importance. Having a blogger on staff never brought a UK history department any extra funding, and they would rather have someone with two journal articles than four hundred blog posts any time. Who can argue with that when it may mean job cuts if they don't?) Well, these are the times we face and I knew that when I started, but I was hoping to see some change and that gamble has flopped.

       Meanwhile I am now considerably more famous as a blogger than as a scholar, whereas I had originally planned to be a blogging scholar. Obviously that balance was basically mine to control, so if it's faulty I have only myself to blame. And I do feel hypocritical about feeling this way about it: if, after all, the reason to do such a thing prima facie is outreach, and that's why it's good advertising, the fact that I now have a public outreach of ten thousand-odd readers a month should be good, right? And it is: but it isn't, sadly, what I was trying to achieve, and it turns out that it doesn't help achieve that goal in the slightest.

       It has been fun, of course and most of all, and that's why I continue to do it, but if a budding scholar in my position of late 2006 were to ask me now whether he or she should do similar, I'm afraid I'd advise against. Before Facebook and Twitter took off (and they will presumably fall, as the life-cycle of social applications follows that of boy-bands after the oozlum bird) it made a kind of sense as advertising, but only in friendly fields where this kind of third string output was valued. In the humanities at large, and in the European humanities especially, the establishment still mistrusts online work, seeing it as unreviewed and insignificant, unvalued by funding bodies and of course, transient. Such a scholar would be much better advised to concentrate all-out on print media before it finally kicks up its heels, because until it does there are no CV points in blogging medieval history. It's just for fun. So it's just as well it is fun, really!

[3] &


Anonymous said...

Since Jeffrey has generously overlooked it, I should add the caution that this was done in one take between lecture-writing stints by a man (me) recovering from some unidentified stomach bug, and it's cold in England today. This may go some way to explaining the tone of DOOM, and the great length; I wasn't satis compos mentis to make it short, sorry. Or it could just be my soul showing through :-) I do like that picture.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Did I really ignore you? I'm rather surprised at that. Were you using an obtuse screen name?

Anonymous said...

An archival question! I'll explain in e-mail but after some brief investigation I suspect the answer is "I couldn't work Blogger's comment function then..." Sorry!

theswain said...

Well, I know what you mean about the distinction between known as a blogger or a scholar. But from my viewpoint, I don't see the distinction. Your blog is always scholarly and I for one have learned a great deal from your writing. Ok, so given things in the UK and number of publications etc count for more institutionally (and I want to make a distinction between being a scholar and being part of an institution), and so on, but in your case you are known as a scholar by your blog readers. Now if we can only find us both jobs.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for being so honest about the potential pitfalls of blogging as well as the positives. I think people sometimes have a tendency to get swept up in the excitement of new technologies and toys and wilfully ignore the costs that they may extract (just look at how many of those corporate blogs started with great enthusiasm a year or two ago haven't had any new posts for months). You raise an interesting issue, too, re: how to balance the provision of original scholarly content (which I think you do extremely well) with the need to keep back anything that may be published in non-electronic media.

Anonymous said...

There shouldn't be that distinction, of course, but a peer-reviewed blog would be a nightmare to maintain...