Sunday, April 24, 2011

On Academic Blogging

How Public Like a Frog: On Academic Blogging
By Natalia Cecire 04.20.2011

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

An Arcadian who shall remain nameless asked me a few weeks ago, "Wait, how come you don't blog on Arcade?" My first thought was, "Because I'm the Transactions editor, dummy,"* but because I'm socially well adjusted and have an appropriateness filter, what I said was, "Dude, I have my own blog."

Upon reflection, that statement warrants some unpacking. I've given a fair amount of thought to why I blog as an academic. Many of the reasons are outlined in Dan Cohen's now-classic post "Professors, Start Your Blogs," published in 2006, which is a million internet-years ago. (I would Instapaper it--those margins are brutal.) In blogging, I've come around to the idea that academics need to do a lot more thinking in public if we want said public to have a clue as to what it is that we actually do. It really only seems fair.

Thinking in public is a difficult habit to get into, though, because public is the place where we're supposed to not screw up, and thinking on the fly inevitably involves screwing up. Blogging with any regularity in essence means committing oneself to making one's intellectual fallibility visible to the world and to the unforgiving memory of the Google cache. This is particularly a problem for academics, who are, after all, professional thinkers; we have a culture of making it look easy, and of concealing as much as possible "the raw material of poetry in all its rawness."

Two things cause me to recur to the difference between blogging on my own blog and blogging on Arcade. First, there's been a posting lull on the Arcade blogs recently, a natural effect, I suspect, of the spring semester hurtling toward its crisis of grade-submission deadlines. (Stanfordians, Davisians, and others on the quarter system, I don't know what the hell your excuse is.) And second, there's our Conversations editor Meredith's reflection back in February on the gender dynamics of Arcade and of other online collaborative spaces.

In response to Meredith's post, Cécile Alduy quoted Virginia Woolf's expression of unwillingness to expose the messiness of thinking: "When will come the day when I will be able to read my own writing printed on the page without blushing with shame?" This is a fear that afflicts all writers, but is nonetheless gendered as well; those of us trained in literary studies are familiar with the trope of the publication substituting for the author's body, making the circulation of the text into a highly immodest act for a woman in particular.

So when I say, "Dude, I have my own blog," I am in part acknowledging that having A Blog of One's Own (as it were) is a more comfortable proposition than thinking in public on Arcade, a sort of private room in contrast with Arcade's more public, well, arcade, where traffic is orders of magnitude higher and passers-by peer into your glass windows.

One Arcade feature that has incited debate in the past is our username policy--real, full names only.Passage des Panoramas, Paris, 1910; source: Wikimedia This policy puts into practice the theory that academics should be able to think in public and stand behind their ideas, even the ones they formulate on the fly. Here's how Dan Cohen puts it in the above-mentioned post:

Another factor that has distanced professors from blogs was anonymity. Most early blogs, and especially the ones the media liked to cover, were anonymous or pseudonymous. But I would say that the vast majority of new blogs are clearly attributed (even if they have odd monikers, unlike the boring Attribution and its associated goods, such as responsibility and credit, should make academics feel better about the genre.

Responsibility and credit sound great, and reassuringly academic. I've certainly come out in favor of responsibility and credit in the past. Yet as Marilee Lindemann points out in the Journal of Women's History, eschewing anonymity is gendered (among other things), not neutral. Moreover, Lindemann observes, less authoritative genres like blogging are often the scene of anonymity precisely because they are the places where the disempowered--those who need to be anonymous, for one reason or another--have access to authorship. For these reasons, she celebrates the construction of pseudonymous online identities:

There is a lot of Emily Dickinson in this postmodern Madwoman, playing fast and loose with identity, reveling in the space opened up by declaring oneself a delighted "Nobody" rather than a dreary "Somebody." Dickinson offers the Madwoman more than lessons in the ironies of non-identity, however. With her homemade books and the hundreds of poems circulated to an audience of intimates, she also provides an enabling example of self-publication. Dickinson's careful insistence to Thomas Higginson on the distinction between "print" and "publish" ("I had told you I did not print," she writes, when she wants to explain to him that "A narrow fellow in the grass" appeared in a Boston newspaper without her knowledge or consent) has new resonance in the postprint era that brought today's academic feminist bloggers into being. (210-2)

Indeed, the post-Web 2.0 tendency toward real names has serious privacy implications, and what seemed like an innocuous enough comment from Cohen in 2006 looks a little more troubling juxtaposed with later pronouncements against anonymity by Mark Zuckerberg and others, which my colleague Aaron Bady has ably demonstrated very frequently amounts to good old-fashioned privilege. Certainly a graduate student is less free to post under her or his real name than is a professor with tenure; ignoring power differentials does not make them go away. In requiring real names, Arcade enforces a particular kind of publicness that is in some ways riskier than print publishing.

How dreary to be somebody!

And yet, it's often as somebodies that we reveal ourselves as scholars and teachers. One of the bees recently in my proverbial bonnet is the notion that students have been misguided into thinking that academic thought is neither applicable to nor motivated by "the real world." It's in blogging that I've found this notion most profoundly refuted, as trivial posts on the minutiae of everyday life eventually link up with larger theoretical concerns, casually strung together by the idiosyncratic tagging taxonomy in my head. The humanities in particular are aimed at developing theoretically supple ways to answer questions that we seriously want answered. I'm not going to lie: when I heard I was going to be an aunt, I went and read Eve Sedgwick's essay "Tales of the Avunculate." (Recommended, by the way.) To me, revealing those connections is part of the point of thinking in public.

Sometimes a glass arcade is more of an "admiring bog"--but that's okay, I think.

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