Friday, July 02, 2010

Floundering Around Together: Medieval Blogging Redux

Figure 1. snapshot from Jonathan Harris, Universe (an internet constellation)


A couple of days ago, Jeffrey directed our attention to Stephanie Trigg's questions regarding medieval blogging, which she posted on her blog Humanities Researcher, as a prelude to a session she has organized for the upcoming meeting of the New Chaucer Society in Siena [July 15-19] on medievalist blogging and community [and which will feature papers by Jeffrey, Carl Prydum, Stephanie, and Jonathan Jarrett, with a response from David Lawton]. I tried to post some comments on Stephanie's blog yesterday but realized that my comments were, as always, swirling out of control and then Blogger kept sending me messages like, "danger, Will Robinson, danger!" I hope everyone will indulge my response to Stephanie's questions here--primarily to one of those questions in particular, "does blogging build new communities?" As is typical of me, I answer in a wildly optimistic vein.

I think medievalist blogging, in some respects, has had an enormous impact on community-building within certain sectors of medieval studies, especially those that [uncharacteristically for our field] favor collaborations between graduate students, junior scholars, and some established figures, such as Stephanie and Jeffrey, who have used blogs to share work-in-progress and to talk candidly about the various travails of an academic professional life, as well as the intersections [some joyful, some more anxiety-ridden] between our personal and professional lives.

We can be honest and say that the interwebs rarely live up to all the hype that is broadcast on their behalf [they have not necessarily democratized information, for instance, and they may have even created so much info-noise that we are too overwhelmed by that noise to adjudicate any of it properly; they have been conducive to cyber-bullying; they have not necessarily brought people closer together but may even serve to help us further entrench ourselves in social isolation; etc. etc.]. At the same time, I can honestly say that I'm not sure I would have the career I have now if it were not for the connections I have made via In The Middle and other virtual medievalist spaces [nor, and this is the important part, would I be as happy as I am now in my career or profession or whatever you want to call it]. I would second what Michael Pryke says about the impediment of long geographical distances that make it difficult to be proximate to each other in ways that would sustain long-term, engaged critical conversations, intellectual exchange, collegial amity, and the like. For me, face-to-face encounters will always be the most pleasurable and even the most intellectually rewarding, and the BABEL Working Group, especially, prizes the occasions for those encounters and goes well out of its way at conferences and the like to create and sustain spaces for convivial and other types of more "serious" bodily togetherness; however, having said that, I just don't think BABEL could have ever drawn a crowd into a room at the Kalamazoo Congress or anywhere else without In The Middle having provided us with platform from which to promote the group and its mission, projects, etc., and to also cultivate friendships and acquaintances with persons who have helped us accomplish so many projects [books, grants, special journal issues, symposiums, etc.] over the past few years. For almost 3 or so years, starting in 2004, BABEL organized sessions at various conferences where, literally, either NO ONE or, like, 4-5 people showed up, and then, little by little, a critical mass started to take shape, and the first people in the seats, so to speak, were all, I must say, blogging friends, like Dr. Virago and Old English in New York, as well as people I knew absolutely nothing about, yet they had been “lurking” for a long while as faithful readers of ITM and other medievalist blogs.

Before blogging and other types of interweb sites such as Live Journal, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, a medievalist's life [with some exceptions, of course] would go something like this:
• spend almost all of your time in isolated study [in libraries, college offices, home offices, museums, wireless spots, etc.]
• occasionally venture out to a conference or two per year to share your work and [hopefully] receive some constructive criticism and maybe even make some professional acquaintances that might be sustained over time across various geographical distances and maybe even turn into mentorships and/or friendships
• go back to isolated study [if you're lucky, you might have fellow medievalist university colleagues who support you during those periods, but I, for example, have no such colleagues and have to travel to be with fellow medievalists who have some empathy with the desires I have for my work]; otherwise it's what now has become the dreaded email correspondence, which can be time-consuming and draining [how do you write so many letters every week to everyone you care about, detailing personal and professional travails, calls for assistance, etc.?], whereas blogging is like writing one long, passionate letter to the entire world—it still takes time and effort but with a wider purchase on the hope of an audience who is always, even when silent, just kind of “there”
• spend years writing a book, or article, or whatever based on your prolonged studies [mainly undertaken, again, in isolation from like-minded colleagues]
• wait years for that book, article, or whatever to actually be read, edited, accepted, and come out in print
• spend 1 or maybe even 2-3 years waiting to read reviews of your work, at which point, do you even still care [?], or, to put it more mildly, a lot of time has gone by and most of that time has been spent in a community, not so much of persons, but of texts and things
What I haven’t also mentioned here, but it’s critical, is that, before blogs, the professional processes we underwent to get published and/or even just to be accepted within certain professional sub-communities within medieval studies [whether that might be the John Gower Society, the New Chaucer Society, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, and the like] were, for many of us, daunting, impersonal, and not at all conducive to making us feel as if it were okay to, say, take risks, experiment, think outside the box, simply be ourselves, etc. without undertaking great professional risks, experiencing anxiety, and going forward without a safety net. Becoming a scholar, historically, has felt for a while now like a hazing process, and there is precious little room, as competitive as everything is, to fashion communities within which the health of the discipline as a whole [and maybe even some sort of collective happiness] and not just individual “careers” is the main priority. Blogging, and more so, a community of bloggers, means there is now a space where we can move personal professional projects from inception through to completion within a community that is not really interested in censure or in “policing” work as much as it is devoted to offering encouragement and some strong advice about how to go forward with our “life projects.” It also means that conversations undertaken in the hallways of conference centers continue well after the conferences end and the professional isolation I detail above is [hopefully] lessened and ameliorated. And even when there is mainly silence, you always know there are readers out there, as opposed to published articles and books that might take 5-10 years to get out there for a readership of 20 or so persons who may or may not even let you know they exist and have read your work. In short, even if you have readers, even if you have a "community" that is out there somewhere [an English department, a Society, whathaveyou], a lot of time is spent alone. I would go so far as to also say that a lot of worrying about one's career goes on without much external support for the alleviation of that anxiety.

There are always going to be some who say blogs are okay for informal conversations about one’s scholarship, teaching, and the ins and outs of our professional lives, but that they cannot serve as a “serious enough” space for “real” scholarship [whatever the hell “real” means, and what’s really the hang-up here?—isn’t it just that, in a sense, blogs help to clear out all the elitist rubbish of academic “business as usual” in which, frankly there are too many cranky gatekeepers who can hide too easily behind their blind peer reviews and the like? is it really true that if too many things are published without enough supposed "expert" oversight that the discipline will be harmed? are there really certain professional protocols that have to be enforced--like double-blind peer review--or else good scholarship will fall by the wayside? etc. etc.]. I just can’t disagree strongly enough about this; for me, blogs definitely serve as spaces where "real" scholarship can be practiced and developed, in various fashions.

For me, medievalist blogs are the 18th-century coffee and chocolate shops of the 21st century. They’re also Warhol’s Factory, Gertrude Stein’s apartment on the Rue de Fleurus, Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters in their cross-country bus, and even more so maybe, Frederick Furnivall’s house in London where he often held the first meetings of the Early English Text Society in the mid-1800s. We might reflect that many of the professional structures and constraints under which we currently work in the field we call English Studies came about circa post-1910, a date I borrow from David Matthews’ book The Making of Middle English [that’s when Furnivall died and Israel Gollancz, the first Professor of English Language and Literature at King’s College, London, took over the EETS]. This is just to say that English Studies is a much more modern discipline than many people realize, and much of the very early labors undertaken on behalf of studying the so-called “national,” vernacular literatures of the British Isles was mainly undertaken outside the academy proper, in sitting rooms and tea shops. James Murray, who edited texts for the EETS and also worked mightily on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, did so in a tin shed built several feet down in the ground in his backyard in Oxford so that he wouldn’t block the view of an Oxford don who lived next door. Murray was also technically barred from entering the libraries and common rooms at Oxford because he was Scottish and not a member of the Church of England [he was a Dissenting Congregationalist, as were my father’s family], and yet, many years later he was knighted and walked in a parade in his honor in London alongside Thomas Hardy, who was also knighted at the same time.

I relate this anecdote to remind us that we should pause to consider what we have lost in the transition from radicals to hyper-professionalized academicians, and in such a short time, no less. Tenured radicals? I wish. For me, blogs at the very least hold open the possibility of gathering spaces in which we might wrench ourselves a little from the charnel houses of deadening and dead “careers” and consider more desiring-pack collective-type projects and lives, ones in which membership in a particular university or professional association is not required, one’s level or place of education is beside the point, and the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual amity on behalf of the cause of the continual development of a vibrant humanities and a livable life [for the many as opposed to just “you and yours”] is a laudable goal.

Thinking back to Cary Howie’s discussion of the space of the “as if” at the Post-Abysmal sessions at the 2010 Kalamazoo Congress, I would just say here as a provisional “final word [or two],” that blogs are at their best and are most conducive to fostering community when they operate as sites for the practice of the suspension of belief that clears a “landing site,” as it were, for thought and work that we could never anticipate [nor should try to stop] in advance. Medievalist blogs could be [and sometimes are] like houses of hospitality; in more modern parlance: holding areas that allow us room and time to flounder around with each other in spaces where we don’t have to feel threatened if we might say “the wrong thing,” and where we can dare to mix the personal and the professional without fear of censure for stepping over some “line” that’s always been artificial to begin with. There’s always room and time for correction, for retraction, for emendation, for apologies, for debate and conversation, and for what Lauren Berlant calls a “shared disorganization,” which might just be the basis of the beginning of multiple, beautiful friendships-becoming [the idea here being, for me anyway, that we should be after short-term convivial gains, which can actually be "present" to us, and not necessarily worry about our work in relation to that thing called "posterity"]. Blogs make this possible, in ways the graduate program, the "disciplinary" department, the typical academic conference, the Society, and the "profession as usual" just can't even imagine.


Anonymous said...

Quo vadis, 21st-century academia?
I'm not gonna say much more than "Thank you" for putting my thoughts down to paper. Or in that case, keyboard. Personally, I feel as if we're spiralling towards some sort of academic revolution where -in the end- scholarship has to redefine itself (as some of the elitists might call it) or to remember where it came from (which, as you've so beautifully lined out, means taking business back to the tea rooms, wether they're virtual or not)
One point about the assumed audience and the fear of being threatened: Something you haven't mentioned is the fact that medieval blogging also makes it more approachable to students. Reading about you guys, reading about BABEL has actually fostered an interest in medieval studies. Something all the high-brow scholars at my "focus on medieval studies" literature department haven't been able to achieve.
I'd rather spend a week on a conference with you and Jeffrey and all the other nice people commenting here and on Facebook and whatnot than one hour in a seminar in my department talking about strong verb vowel alternation.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks Eileen. I've not written my NCS paper yet (!!!) so maybe I'll just read this post, which pretty much covers what I want to say.

Though I'd also add that a blog is not a self-existing entity, not its own solitary community: it depends upon, intensifies, and is amplified by other alliances. I think of ITM, the ITM FB page, individual blogger FB pages, other blogs, BABEL, postmedieval, GW MEMSI, New Middle Ages as overlapping projects that strongly support/mutually reinforce each other. All of these are collective enterprises (e.g., ITM has 371 readers via Google, 382 Facebook Fans: everyone who reads, sustains), but all also depend on a small number of strong personalities / dedicated organizers to keep them going. So large group endeavor still tends to be catalyzed and kept alive by a small number of "activists."

Anonymous said...

I can't help feeling old when I say this, but, what we're talking about here is not really a blog, specifically, whose name implies a kind of chronological record; we're talking about a bulletin board system (what the kids call a 'forum', so I gather). Obviously a blog can function that way—here it is doing so—and the categories therefore overlap. All the same, Eileen's points are not blog-specific, though they are extremely heartening and I think basically 'right on' (as the kids used to say).

Enti Arends said...

A beautiful piece. I would just like to say that, as a student coming into The Profession and just as someone with an interest in the field, blogs like ITM are places I feel welcomed. They give me an idea of what is going on, possible directions and spaces.