Academic blogging: break-dancing for scholars?

As I previously noted, “digital humanities” was the topic du jour at this year’s Modern Language Association conference, but no one seems to be quite sure what precisely is meant by that moniker.

Stanley Fish took a stab at the digital part of the equation in his NY Times column on Monday, promising to come back again next time to explore burning questions such as: “Does the digital humanities offer new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals? Or does the digital humanities completely change our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be?”

Professor Fish, being someone from the “great white north” (ie, a white male of a certain age–I only wish I could claim to have invented this pithy expression), is cautious in his official embrace of digitality, though he does take the leap of reluctantly admitting, in paragraph one, that he is technically writing a blog post, rather than a column.

Should this matter?

Well, in my profession, it does.  In fact, a column is only very slightly more palatable, officially, than a blog post, since both are classified as so-called “public scholarship,” as opposed to “real scholarship.”

Although nobody puts it quite that baldly, that’s what they mean.  In other words, as one academic put it recently, blogging is never going to get you tenure, even if thousands more people read your work on a blog than will ever read that monograph you finally published with an academic press.

All I can tell you is that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt as intellectually engaged as I do now that I’ve started blogging again.

Blogging–and publicizing my posts via Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media outlets–has allowed me to connect with people I never would have been able to reach in any other way.

I’ve tried the more traditional other route, publishing academic books and articles, and for the most part it was like sending my ideas out into the ozone.  I got very little back, either in the way of praise or disparagement.

In contrast, with my blog I get virtually instant feedback, almost every time I post.  It may not be more than a thumbs-up, but I can tell by looking at my blog stats whether or not people are intrigued by what I’m writing; and if they are interested enough to post a comment in response, I glow with the warmth of human connection, however mediated it might be by keyboard and screen.

Blogging suits my current lifestyle, which is hurried and harried to an extreme.  I am doing much more than I reasonably should be, stirring all kinds of pots and responsible for sustaining all kinds of programs, from classes, to festivals, to summer programming, to various and sundry committees–not to mention serving on boards, parenting my two children, writing piles of  letters of recommendation, applying for grants, sending in conference proposals, etc etc etc.  It’s endless!

How, given my life at the moment, could I ever steal away the focused, quiet, concentrated time necessary to produce “long-form scholarship”?  Maybe my colleagues at prestigious research institutions can manage it, but they don’t have the teaching, advising and service load I do, not to mention a life. 

For me, the hit-and-run blog post is just the right form: short, sweet and to the point, allowing me to express my ideas on a range of topics without having to be weighed down by footnotes and exhaustive surveys of existing scholarship.  In blogging, I can be light-footed and fleet, rather than plodding and thorough.

I do cherish the hope that eventually I will be able to find the time to gather my swiftly penned thoughts into a more sustained discourse that could be published in a book–though an e-book might be just fine.

But in the meantime, I wouldn’t give up my free-wheeling blogging lifestyle for anything.

Sure, a blog post may be to a book like a hook-up is to a marriage.  But you know what?  Having tried nearly a quarter-century of marriage, I’m ready for something new.

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10 Comments

  1. Just regarding your last note for blog to book..

    Terry Tao (professor at UCLA and Field’s Medalist) writes a blog that has been turned into 3 books so far one of which is a textbook.

    Some of his stuff is opaque to the public eye, but I must say I admire the idea of putting such content into the blogosphere. Perhaps we are prone to underestimate the moderately educated but highly inquisitive and motivated public.

    Just a thought. Thank you for taking time to blog!

    –Unthought

    Reply
  2. Though I fear that the following words may be too personal I feel compelled to write this comment:

    I just wonder, when and how long do you sleep? And I wish for you that your sons are well behaved (as well behaved as children can be after the traumatic experience of a divorce) and old enough not to need too much guidance.

    I for myself try to simplify, disentangle, clear up my life again and again. Sometimes the only possible way out is to make a break.

    Your friends and your blog readers will do their best and help you to avoid a burnout!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 12, 2012

      Ha! Thanks Mato! Once the semester starts, a week or so from now, I may have to slow down on the blogging somewhat….regretfully…..

      Reply
  3. I go to your blog almost every day. And I almost always find something to chew on, think about, that challenges me in some way. Or just plain interests me. As a poet, I’m certainly aware of the ways in which the U.S. academy holds “scholarly publishing” up as the only route to tenure (i.e. security). You could publish a poem in the most revered literary journal (or, god forbid, in a feminist or left publication) but that didn’t help at all. In fact, it could hurt. You needed to publish in one of a handful of scholarly journals–often it seemed the more pompous and boring the better.
    This grading of outlets is so fictitious! I wonder if the world’s first mass-circulated printed materials seemed as suspect to those monks and others still penning original manuscripts by hand as digital publishing seems today to those who jealously guard the gates of hard copy book publishing. We live in the digital age, and for better or for worse on-line publishing offers all the glorious and demented material any other sort of publishing embraces.
    Perhaps someday we will be able to look less at the package and pay more attention to the content.
    Please keep blogging!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 12, 2012

      “Perhaps someday we will be able to look less at the package and pay more attention to the content.”

      Absolutely, Margaret! Those “great white north” gatekeepers are worried about this, I think….But the younger folks today are all about free and openly accessible content. The question remains, how does a writer support herself if people expect their content for free, as in blogging? Haven’t figured that one out yet….

      Reply
  4. Martin_Lack

     /  January 12, 2012

    I very much agree with you, Jennifer. I too would like to write a book (as my various blogging enterprises – both past and present – demonstrate). I would also like to do a PhD but I have just found out that, even tough it is now over 25 years ago, the fact that I did not get a good honours degree at undergraduate level is going to make that very difficult (unless I offer to self-finance the whole thing). Altogether, today has not been a good one.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 12, 2012

      Ridiculous! Whatever happened to life experience as a credential for higher ed?!
      PhDs may be overrated, but they do get your foot in the door, I am glad I got mine in my 20s, I have to say. Would NOT want to undertake it today!

      Reply
  5. Your description of the contrast between the sanctioned channels for academic publishing (print journals gated by the old guard) and the amazing new outlets for creative expression (digital and social media instantly accessible to anyone with an Internet connection) reminded me of the contrast I described in my blog post about traditional vs. new publishing in the context of fiction (http://audreykalman.wordpress.com/2011/10/07/the-new-tradition-of-publishing/). Both the academic and literary establishments are, naturally, clinging to the old way of doing things while trying to embrace the new, with varying levels of success. I believe it’s only a matter of time before the new ways supersede the old. Let’s hope we can all last until then!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 13, 2012

      Yes, but then as you’ve also been writing about a lot, the question is: how does one support oneself, aka make money, in this brave new world of digital publishing? I plan to write about this some more, I think it’s important for all of us creative types these days–

      Reply
  6. Ahhh, but you have been very thorough here with spelling and grammar.🙂

    Forget the idea of an eBook. Think it might be better for you to try creating a Kindle book, and then a hardcopy through CreateSpace. That way, you would gain income …and a reputation that you can build on.

    Just a thought,
    Trish

    Reply

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