Saturday, September 03, 2011

Two Proposals for Increasing Permanence, Exposure, and Humiliation

Sin Will Find You Out by KARL STEEL

In February, we here were asked by Literature Compass to write a reflective piece for a special issue on "E-medieval: Teaching, Research, and the Net." It's due in a couple of weeks, which means we're writing now.

Given who we are, and what we're writing, it'd be foolish not to share our material here in the hopes the soliciting comments in advance of submitting our article. Caveat: my only claim to authority is being online frequently. Which is to say: I'm not claiming authority. My sense, too, is that I'm not writing for an audience of internet sophisticates. Sophisticates, yes, certainly, but perhaps not about blogging. What I'm saying may be old hat to you but a chapeau entirely nouveau to others, I hope.

With that, here's a draft of my piece:
Five years ago, Jeffrey asked me to join Eileen and him online for, as I remember, “a few weeks,” just until they could get themselves out from under some work. They never let me go, and I don't expect they ever will. In my intermittent blogging at ITM since then, I conducted my medieval education in public, to repurpose, on a humbler scale, Hegel's infamous jibe against Schelling. On the blog, I've exposed myself and my academic faults permanently, and here, in this small piece, I'm offering a pair of proposals to encourage others to do the same.

What I've done online is permanent in that even deleted blog posts will endure in the Wayback Machine or some future technology, so I should expect that what I say will continue to be said somewhere by one of my prior, but uncannily persisting, iterations. If you're online, the same goes for you, already.

This permanence alone counters the charge that “blogging is just a platform,” no different, for example, than delivering a conference paper. For obvious reasons, the public of both ITM and academic conferences may be largely the same, and a post's comments, at their best, work like a conference q&a. Blogging, though, frees us from the temporal limits of a conference schedule, and from the requirement that presenter, audience, and interlocutors occupy the same room for the duration of their conversation. This is an obvious point, worth repeating.
In this regard, whatever the charges of elitism that might be laid against ITM for, say, its particular (and in modern academia, anomalous) core of writers (mostly tenured or close to it), or even for its theoretically esoteric bent (most recently, a tendency towards object-oriented ontologies), ITM is a great deal more public and perhaps even more democratic than the traditional conference of our peers. Anyone with access to the Internet and equipped with the knowledge of how to use it can read anything we have written. For better or worse, anyone can let us know what they think, whenever they like. And even the apparent failures at ITM, suffered by all us—-laboriously composed posts that elicited nothing but silence—-still might attract some attention. No failure of this sort is permanent. The same can't be said for a couple of my Sunday-morning Kalamazoo papers, swallowed by empty rooms at the end of their alloted 20 minutes.

Obviously, I'm advocating for more blogging. Or, perhaps just as well, permanent conference web pages that include as many conference papers as presenters are willing to have posted, with space provided for comments or at least email addresses. If needed, slight increases in registration fees could pay for web hosting. These spaces would constitute an archive whose contents, by design, continued to change. Then the conference need never finish (and, one hopes, session-jumping might cease, because we know we could read any paper we missed). If a paper posted in this way finally achieved print, then that could be noted online, which might potentially land journals more readers than they might have otherwise received.

For good reason, some will object to this proposal. I hope that publishers will realize that work published online does not steal from but rather intensifies interest in the printed, (presumably) more refined developments of the same arguments. What success my book will have will be, I imagine, largely due to the interest built by the blog.
Permanence of course presents other, more serious problems. The bad readings, inept translations, bibliographic omissions, and erroneous corrections of senior scholars—-all the academic sins that we always think ourselves to be committing—-will embarrass us forever. Graduate students, who have no business saying anything to anyone but their dissertation chairs, will ruin their careers. Junior scholars will be expelled, sans tenure, into the kinds of work they hoped never to do, or into no work at all. Bloggers will find themselves tethered perpetually to a reading, for example, on the Yvain of “de Troyes.” And we should all tremble to know that talking about anyone online inevitably summons them: Pierre Haidu, James Simpson, Sylvia Huot, Patricia Ingham, and many others have dropped by ITM, to complain, to encourage us, to join in. That can be scary.

I want to acknowledge this anxiety, in the sense of both marking its existence and affirming its validity; and then I want to push past it. Speaking from my experience of moving from being a graduate student to an assistant professor to a book-published assistant professor, all while blogging, I can say that writing online for a public of medievalists, senior and otherwise, has given me a community, saving me, when I needed it most, from the savage loneliness that I understand afflicts most graduate students. Perhaps as importantly, blogging gave my scholarship a confidence, playfulness, and inventiveness that I doubt I could have found any other way. I have exposed myself to humiliation; I've probably been humiliated in ways I barely understand; and when I scavenge my early posts for material for current projects, I keep my eyes half-shut over fear of what I'll find.

Yet isn't this true for any scholar who keeps working? If it's a problem, it's a more general one. If we're doing it right, shouldn't we always be a little embarrassed over what we once thought or wrote? We have to publish, anyhow, so embarrassment will find us out if we live long enough in the profession. We should always know ourselves exposed, to other scholars, even to the public, and, I hope, to our future selves. This is a problem, but the only way to avoid it is not to exist at all.

My vote's for existence, and as much of it as possible. With the proviso that I speak from a position of (so far) success, which itself provides a kind of false apr├Ęs-coup justification, I can recommend my path to all junior medievalists. At the same time, I should also acknowledge that it's hard to keep a blog going. ITM's nearly six-year existence is a rarity amid other medieval blogs, which have generally proven to be far more effervescent.

With that in mind, I offer another proposal to save individual or temporary affiliations of students the trouble of maintaining their own blog when they ought to be finishing their dissertations: graduate programs should run blogs open to the contributions of their students. Surely faculty or a research assistant could supervise such a project on a rotating basis. Even if such a blog were open only to an audience of their peers and departmental faculty, students would come to know more about the work of their fellows; they would build a richer community of scholarship among themselves (and perhaps with other graduate students at other institutions, if a kind of “consortium” of these semi-private blogs were set up); and they would learn to write for a public rather than (only) for a seminar leader. This may be the most important skill in helping young medievalists realize what we're told is the most important professional transition, that from being students to being confident colleagues. We just need to tell ourselves, and our students, that only exposure will dull the fear of being read. And we, someone's big other, need to tell them, too, that the fear never goes away, so we, and they, might as well write.
(image from Heath Brandon under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license)


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Karl, for reminding me that you are merely a guest blogger. I'll revoke your blog access later, after I get out from under some work.

Great piece.

I wish I had a way to convince graduate students that the risk of being vulnerable and having an electronic presence is a risk worth taking, but it isn't a message I convince all that many people with. A few graduate students I know well will post from time to time, though typically with a comment rather than work in progress, but most are too e-reticent no matter how much I urge them to let some anxiety loosen its grip.

Anonymous said...

Nicely observed, Karl. You're mostly talking here about the value of airing/exposing ideas, but I think the question of tone is equally important. If going to conferences, presenting papers, listening to questions, asking questions, comporting oneself at the wine hour and dance, etc., are important steps in cultivating a public and intellectual demeanor, so too can blog posts and comments help construct and maintain a civil intellectual discourse. In fact, the online environment might even raise the stakes (and the potential advantages) of such a process of formation.

Given the option of online anonymity, the virtual absence of voice, facial, and body cues (which are present in a real-time Q&A), and above all the available time, before posting, for reflecting, editing, and seething, the possibility for uncivil discourse is high, and the benefits concomitantly great when the community maintains a respectful and helpful tone. During the recent Ruminate/ITM kerfuffle about student demeanor at conferences, whatever one thought of the original post, I thought most of the commentators argued civilly and thoughtfully, which was a credit to both blogs. Here's a link for those who might postdate that fracas:

Karl Steel said...

and you, poor fellow, are a host.

I suppose one of the advantages of a blog is showing the process of writing, demystifying it (and us), which should go part way towards making its scary features (and rewards!) seem general to writing rather than particular to graduate students. Expecting Eileen will talk about some of this?

Karl Steel said...

"stantoro," great points, and I'll work them into my piece. Jeffrey's piece (arriving soon) treats EXACTLY some of the points you mention, so you're very prescient. thanks!

Anonymous said...

I am semi-anonymous, but I am a medievalist, and as my name indicates, I am also a Japanese movie monster.

Steve Mentz said...

A nice thoughtful post to greet me now that my power's back on. A question for Karl: do you think a departmental blog with grad student guest postings is better (b/c more communal?) than having each student devise his/her own blog as part of the Intro to Grad Studies course? I am planning to require one or the other (or both?) in a class that starts Tuesday...

dtkline said...

I always appreciate, Karl, the way ITM brings the affective and relational together with the scholarly and academic, breaking through that 'savage loneliness' that can extend far beyond grad school. I especially appreciate the comparison with empty conference sessions that take days out of one's life and cost hundreds of dollars to attend. You've nearly convinced me to let lose a draft of my cringe-inducing 'zombie hagiography' piece on the PrT, despite the humiliations galore it will bring!

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for posting a draft of your Lit. Compass essay here, and [surprise!] I pretty much agree with everything you say here, with a one codicil:

comments/conversations attached to blog posts wax and wane with regularity and I would say that, over time, at least on our blog here, commenting has lessened a little and that is partly a function of the very serious information/data/e-communications overload most of us are laboring under every day; a better measure of the impact of particular posts is readership traffic, which can be difficult to assess, of course [but: statistics *are* there, and they are fairly healthy for this blog--although, sure, we'll never reach the empyrean heights of a Larval Subjects or other more broadly-read academic blogs], but I can't tell you how many times I've been told in person about the impact of ITM posts on students and faculty within our field that may not have been commented upon but which had a community of readers "lit up"/enlivened [maybe even maddened/angered] by a post, in one way or another, so I personally don't think about the "success" or lack thereof of a post in direct proportion to the number of comments, as I think that is a little wrong-headed. Of course, I understand the impulse: we write a long, impassioned post, and then there are no comments [and we think, shucks], but people ARE reading, and they let us know about it in other ways.

I feel the presence of an audience here every day and I don't worry if there are few or no comments, and I'm just belaboring this point because a post without comments is definitively not a "failure"--I would let go of the success versus failure language altogether in this portion of your essay. This is an important point, because in encouraging grad. students to blog, whether individually or communally, we don't want them to think [I hope] that blogging "matters" in direct proportion to how many voices appear in comment threads. More importantly, and this is partly what I will be writing about, is the *idea* of an audience [palpably real if largely silent] to whom we are really writing and with whom we are sharing our work as it unfolds processurally [versus some end-product everyone sees only in final printed/published form after long years of mainly solitary agony with very few interlocutors and many of those typically placed above us professionally, thereby negatively inflecting the "freedom" we feel, or should feel, in pursuing our intellectual work]. There is something to be gained, even with an audience of one, as long as we understand that we really DO have, and should be granted, the FREEDOM to pursue and articulate our work in a public forum without fear of censure or being belittled, and with the sense, also, that by sharing our work with others as it is "in progress," we contribute to the enrichment of a collective field of thought and work.

Eileen Joy said...

And let me also add that I read blog posts EVERY day by other faculty and students that I don't comment upon because I don't have time, but I'm THERE, I'm part of the silent yet palpably *there* audience.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Eileen - assessment is tricky, and comments (and even reader traffic) don't sum up the impact a post might have. I would echo your second post here: the silent readership has an immeasurable but surely significant impact. And just as Karl notes that the issue of virtual notification/presence is really just an instance of a larger question of how to be "out there," the immeasurable impact of a blog post just seems to me like a (huger and even more imponderable) version of the uncertainty resulting from a piece of print that goes out there and garners a few responses, some positive, some negative, but (we hope) some at least advancing the conversation. Whether article, book, or blog post, I think one always wonders what the non-responders are thinking.

Emma said...

This is a really interesting piece. I like the idea about introducing blogging as a communal activity for graduate students.

One thing occurs to me which may be relevant to what you’re saying about audience. In addition to the perceived gap that others have mentioned between faculty and students, I wonder if there’s also a divide between graduate students working in different countries. It strikes me that, even if you compare within Europe, there are huge differences in the way students make use of the Internet as a resource that might be used to support and publicise their work, as well as in the expectations placed upon them to do so. I would be genuinely interested to know how international you feel the audience is for blogging at the moment and how this compares to other forums such as conferences.

Kristin said...

Grad student (ABD) here, weighing in. I love the way you reclaim blogging as a means of capturing the playfulness of what we do (because, really, isn't that what we do? transformation, re-reading, turning texts around into new shapes...).

I wanted to respond briefly to the idea of the "audience"--I am an ITM reader who often fails to leave comments, though I know I should, because I want to go away and process all the thought-provoking ideas I've just read. I might add the idea of trust here--trusting that an audience exists, trusting them to be civil, trusting them with something as personal as an open and unfinished piece of writing. It's a means of taking a stand for optimism about ourselves and our profession, really, isn't it?

(By the way, this grad student does have a livejournal account, and is on Google+, but is very cautious about what gets posted, for precisely the reasons Karl brought up.)

Rick Godden said...

(had some technical problems--apologies if this posts twice)

Karl, great post here. As someone who planned to start a blog this summer, but got buried under several and sundry things, I feel re-invigorated to make it happen.

I particularly like your idea about departments running blogs for grad students. Part of what makes ITM so interesting is that it is a home for more than one voice (that is, you, Jeffrey, and Eileen). Not to mention the robust commenting that often appears. I wonder about a similar space for grad students or recent PhD's. A communal blog (not just from a single department) would help decrease the stress of one person needing to post too often to build a readership.

Speaking just from my experience, I've experienced a lot of generosity while attending conferences as a graduate student (I do know that's not always the case). I would hope that such generosity could spill over to a grad student/young phd blog.

Karl Steel said...

Wow. Thanks for the comments folks.

@Steve: I think a group blog is better both bc it's more communal and bc it's hard to keep an individual blog going. Seems also that a communal blog would ensure that posts would be read. Students would post their own material and, in the process, necessarily discover what their colleagues were writing. The same wouldn't necessarily occur w/ a large set of individual blogs.

You could possibly have the students collectively design a blog and all be required to provide X # of contributions for the class.

@DTK: looking forward to your zombie piece!

@EJ: *great* comment, Eileen. Definitely going to rethink the 'failure' section of my piece (w/ @stantoro's comments in mind)

@Emma: I don't know about different countries. I do feel we have a kind of international readership here, but so far as I can determine, it's mostly commonwealth countries. Do you have a more precise sense of the differences? Very curious.

@Kristin: "taking a stand for optimism": love that phrase. Very resonent w/ what I'm trying to do here.

@Rick: definitely think such a project would be great. To be pessimistic here: I think what makes this space work well is that, well, none of us are bad people. So far as I can determine. Some people are, which I suppose brings us back to "taking a stand for optimism," because here's a negative possibility: can we imagine vindictive grad students etc. altering each other's posts? deleting them?

Anonymous said...

Commenting anonymously, though I usually don't:

@Jeffrey: As an asst. prof., I'm not wholly convinced the risk is worth taking. What the experience of grad school and, so far, of the TT have taught me is this: while people with power (PWP) like the results of experimental thinking, broad interests and reading, a wide-ranging intelligence, they often look down on the process that brings an intellectual to that point. I.e. if you have published in multiple fields, methodologies, and/or types of journal, great. Possibly even ok if you've done some creative writing on the side, printed in suitably prestigious journals. And if you can already read fifteen languages, also cool. But if you are seen actively to be cultivating any of these interests/vocations/intellectual passions -- the assumption is that you could be spending that time working on the dissertation/book/body of articles for mastery of a specific field. Even if we all know that's not how things really work, know that creative work often feeds into scholarship, as does blogging, that work in another field can inform and inspire one's efforts in the main field of expertise, etc. etc.

I may be cynical about this, and actually, I wouldn't even ascribe the belief to all PWP. But I suspect if you do intellectually engaging things and you have the publications in print, then you're assumed to be someone who makes it work. If you are in the lengthy, years-long process of getting your work into published form, and you do other intellectually stimulating things, well, some folks will consider, for that duration of time, that you are easily distracted. Maybe you are, maybe you aren't, but the assumption -- along with the panopticon-like observation -- is there.

I would love to be proven wrong on this. Dearly.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Karl, this is fantastic. I think one of the major problems that comes up in graduate school (and a problem I myself have fallen prey to repeatedly -- I often think of myself as the silent blogger of ITM, because I so often feel anxious about posting anything substantial, but I think about what blogs might be useful for a great deal more than I actually manage to use them) is that we stress product over process. We're expected to write conference papers, articles, dissertations and books, but only recently has there been any move (at Columbia at least--they just started offering article workshops as courses for students to take a couple years ago) to start instituting a pedagogical approach to how one goes about doing all of that in any meaningful way. Watching how thinking evolves through the drafting phases here at ITM is perpetually useful to me as a grad student, even when I'm not able to be useful, myself, in the conversation.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I don't know if it will make the cut given that you guys and, I believe, also Stephanie Trigg are likely to write more eloquently on the same subject, but I have a piece in consideration for this issue about measuring the invisible audience and how much it matters, which doesn't entirely replicate what Eileen says but faces some of the same issues as she does and as does Karl in his piece here (which is typically excellent, and nicely shaded; this is still an ambivalent thing that we do, I think).

I would say only one thing in critique here, which is simply to take my usual role as prophet of the machine apocalypse and say:

What I've done online is permanent in that even deleted blog posts will endure in the Wayback Machine or some future technology, so I should expect that what I say will continue to be said somewhere by one of my prior, but uncannily persisting, iterations.

I think it assumes too much to say `permanence' here. The Wayback Machine is fairly solidly funded (though it crawls rarely enough that not many short-lived blog-posts will be (un)lucky enough to be scooped up) but it is, nonetheless, an institution and the day may still come when its plug is pulled. Whether someone else will by then have scooped up all its files and moved them on to the next format or storage method... well, we can hope but we can't know. Websites do disappear. Persistence is a sensible thing to worry about; but permanence, of any electronic resource, is kind of a faith position. If you really want something you write to endure, do it on parchment, lock it in a nice dry steel box and bury it deep. I hear the audience figures that way kind of suck, though.