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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I got plenty of nothin’

. . . and so I’ll just post a few excerpts from my Midwest MLA keynote address, “Professors at Work,” a good deal of which had to do with blogs.  The theme of the conference was “High and Low,” you see, so I thought this might be a good time to talk about academic blogs as a genre—as a subset of blogs in general, and as a form of scholarly exchange.  So I said a bunch of fairly obvious things, as is my wont.  I’ve since learned that one part of my talk may have been misheard or misremembered, thanks to someone named Stella Artois.  So perhaps academic blogs can help to straighten out these little misunderstandings that arise when academics go to hear other academics talk about academic blogs!  All of society will benefit, I’m sure.

At least I accomplished this much:  the MMLA keynote marked the first time I have gotten a chance to cite, in public, to a ballroom full of people, Fafblog’s famous “State of the Internet Address” for 2005:

The state of the internet is strong an fiesty! It’s bigger an better an quicker than ever an can skeletonize a buffalo in under sixteen seconds! But be careful: the internet can be dangerous. If the internet starts walkin up to you with its ears down makin growlin noises please back away from it slowly an find a grownup or a Communications Decency Act right away.

The internet has done so much in the last year! This year brought us the Blog Revolution, which wasn’t that big but moved so fast it went from Blog Bastille Day to the Blog Reign of Terror to the Blog Buncha Ol Fat Guys Talkin About Blog Bastille Day in like a week!

Then I made the obvious point that way back in 2002, when I first started reading blogs regularly, most academics did not blog and did not think much of most of the people who did.  Then I said:

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These days, I find that the general attitude of academics toward blogging is a bit more diffuse.  Most senior eminences do not blog, though a few well-established theory and/or poetics types, from Jodi Dean to Steven Shaviro to Ron Silliman, have very good blogs.  By and large, though, the senior members of our discipline tend to look upon academic bloggers the way they might look at ham radio enthusiasts—as engaging in a curious and somewhat self-aggrandizing hobby that matters only to other curious and self-aggrandizing hobbyists.  Part of that attitude is generational, no doubt, and speaks to a certain kind of generational cluelessness about the Internet—as evidenced, for example, by the job placement advisor who (in)famously told Ph.D. candidates to use the Google and remove any online information about themselves that might prove damaging in the eyes of prospective employers.  [Feel free to insert your favorite Ivan Tribble memory here.] Clearly, this placement advisor had no idea that the Internet does not accommodate the necessary Winky-Dink Kit that would enable readers to alter websites by writing directly on their computer screens; for in reality, the Internet is a series of tubes, and in order to change what’s in them you have to call Virtual Roto-Rooter or actually crawl into the tubes yourselves.  I’ve also run across a number of colleagues who think of blogs neither as a debased medium nor as a weird hobby but as something more like a pet ferret—you know, maybe it’s edgy and intriguing in some ways, but then again maybe it’ll run around all over the place and eat your shoes.  And then there are those among us who actually consider blogs cool, and wish we had one, if we only had the time to keep it up.  For those few, blogging is a little like becoming fluent in another language—something on the list of remote desires, things we can’t squeeze into our busy lives right now but would love to.

The fact that academics’ attitudes toward blogs have changed is not merely a function of the fact that more academics are bloggers.  (For one thing, more everybody are bloggers.  When I fired up mine in January 2004, and I thought I was doing it late in the game, there were 3 million blogs in the world.  Now there are 55 million.) It’s also a function of the related fact that blogs themselves have become more substantive: many of them feature original essays rather than mere links to news items and brief commentary. 
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See?  That was pretty obvious.  Here’s more:

There’s one line of thought—with which many of you are no doubt familiar—in which blogs are understood by way of analogy to the emergence of print culture in the early eighteenth century.  It’s not a bad parallel, insofar as we’re talking about relatively new media being opened to the masses—or, in this case, every member of the masses who has access to a personal computer.  But a more precise analogy, with regard to the phenomenon of blog readership, might be the emergence of popular periodicals in England in the early nineteenth century—the range of journals and reviews and fortnightlies that carried out the Wordsworthian imperative to create the taste by which they were to be enjoyed.  I wish I had come up with that analogy all by myself, but in fact I developed it in the course of a conversation with two of my fellow bloggers, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who also happen to be science fiction writers.  We met at a blogger meetup in the summer of 2005; this was one of those odd social events in which bloggers get together and talk about . . . uh . . . blogging.  Anyway, I had asked the Nielsen Haydens what I thought was an innocent question about whether they’d had any trouble merging their blogs into one; their answer, in brief, was “oh, don’t get us started.” When I asked why I shouldn’t get them started (I am very thick when it comes to certain social cues), they launched into a discussion of blog styles and claimed, plausibly enough, that blogs could be thought of as successors to zines—that low popular genre of the 1980s—and that each blog, like each zine, creates a very specific fan base and mode of discursive exchange. I thought that was a fascinating line of thought, so I brought up Jon Klancher’s 1987 book, The Making of English Reading Audiences, which argues that English literary and political periodicals did pretty much the same thing from 1790 to 1832.  The Nielsen Haydens were familiar with Klancher’s work, and we eventually agreed that even though Klancher made a heroic attempt to yoke together reader-response criticism and reception theory in order to argue that these periodicals actually created reader formations and Bourdieuian habituses in the very fabric of their prose styles, he never pulled off so audacious a formalist-historicist claim as all that.  But he would have had a better argument, the Nielsen Haydens and I agreed, if he had just waited seventeen or eighteen years and tried to make the same argument about blogs.

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But you blog readers knew all that already.  OK, so let’s skip over a lot of stuff and get to the big finale:

Finally, blogs serve as networks.  In some ways, I’ve left the most obvious point for last.  But at some point last year I tentatively suggested that there was a difference between “cooked” blogs and “raw” blogs, that is, between blogs that publish more or less complete, polished essays and invite commentary and debate, and blogs that are more like diaries or journals in which people discuss not only their work but also their private lives, their hopes and fears, their families and children and quotidian adventures.  I was of course evoking Robert Lowell’s distinction between raw and cooked poetry, elaborated in his National Book Award acceptance speech of 1960, and to more or less the same purpose: as Lowell said, cooked poetry was “marvelously expert and remote . . . constructed as a sort of mechanical or cat-nip mouse for graduate seminars,” whereas the “raw” was “jerry-built and forensically deadly . . . often like an unscored libretto by some bearded but vegetarian Castro.” Most blogs are somewhere between raw and cooked, perhaps half-cooked or medium rare.  And I intend no pernicious hierarchical evaluation of the raw and the cooked, either, though it’s probably worth noting that rawer bloggers tend to be anonymous, they tend to be junior, and they tend to be women.  (One semi-raw anonymous blogger, commonly known as Dr. Crazy, responded to my citation of her blog as a raw blog with a post titled, “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Raw Like Me?” and followed this with a fascinating series of posts on the purpose of blogging for anonymous junior female faculty, to which a number of mostly anonymous apparently junior mostly female faculty bloggers responded.) I don’t think that raw blogs are any less substantial or important than cooked blogs when it comes to demonstrating what professors do all day.  On the contrary.  They combine serious reflections on teaching and writing with questions about how to cope with academe, with being single (male or female) in a small town, with having a stack of papers at one’s elbow, with juggling conference presentations and committee assignments and complicated families and vaguely unsettling department chairs.  The early blog by the professor known only as the Invisible Adjunct was a pioneer in this genre, and inspired literally hundreds if not thousands of tenured professors and adjuncts and graduate students to follow in her bloggy footsteps.  As a result, many young scholars have established online networks and clusters of virtual friends with whom they exchange career advice, teaching suggestions, and sympathetic commentary on how to balance one’s life and work in a profession that usually keeps one well off balance.

About those blogs all I can say is boy, am I jealous.  We never had anything like that when we were the new kids on the hallway.  And I’ll end by emphasizing the blogs that are not all criticism and political commentary and theory all the time—the blogs that combine, say, questions about how to compose a new syllabus in one’s rhetoric and theory course with sharing suggestions on where to look for good clothes in a conference city.  Because to the objection that those blogs are little more than academic diaries or online coffeehouses, I would say, well, yes—that’s precisely the point.  For all academic blogs, the big ones that get twenty thousand readers a day and the ones that get twenty friends stopping by, serve as representations of what professors do, in our variously high and low registers: we write introductions to “Signature Event Context” for our students, we ask each other about our courses and our students, we curl up with a good DVD now and then, and then we get online and we toss out a few thoughts, almost as if we’re at a dinner party or something.  Some of us blog, as I do, about an hour or two a day; others, an hour or two a week.  Some of us don’t take time away from our real work to do meaningless blogging, and some of us don’t take time away from important blogging to do other meaningless drivel.  Because we think that in the end, academic blogs just might serve the useful function of representing to any interested Internet passerby just what it is we do with our time and our skills.  For in all their high and low manifestations, our blogs depict professors at work.

Posted by Michael on 11/15 at 09:46 AM
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