Friday, January 18, 2008

Old English, New Media: or, Friday Night Meta-Blogging

As everyone knows, blogging isn't really academic blogging unless somewhere along the line, you start "meta-blogging": indulging in that art of writing blog posts which theorize about blogging. Recently, I was asked to write an essay for the Old English Newsletter about blogging and Old English -- more specifically, perhaps, about what is to be gained through academic blogging. Although the essay itself has not yet been published, I wanted to post a bit of it on ITM and Old English in New York -- both to get some reactions, as well as to share what has kept me away from blogging so often in the past few weeks.

Of course, we all know that this particular issue has been done -- some might argue to near-death -- on the blogs. However, I do think I managed to get somewhere when it came to defining my blog-work in terms non-bloggers or those new to the blogosphere might understand. Of course, the usual suspects were among my early inspirations -- Scott Eric Kaufmann, Adam Kotsko, and Joseph Kugelmass are all cited in the portion I'm copying here...however, I also am indebted to posts by Doctor Virago, Bitch, PhD, and of course, the usual suspects here at ITM (Eileen, Jeffrey and Karl). I may still have time for revisions -- but even if I don't, I look forward to hearing from you, dear readers, on things I could nuance, clarify, change or get rid of entirely. Also: my apologies to DTK, who had not yet begun his series of guest posts here at ITM when I wrote this (and so doesn't yet appear in the litany of guest and co-bloggers on ITM that I list in footnote 8).

Excerpt from Old English, New Media: Blogging Beowulf
[The essay from which this excerpt comes begins with a consideration of my own beginnings in the blog world, along with questions of pseudo- and anonymity, before segueing into the conversation that took place, both at Inside Higher Ed and The Valve, between Kotsko, Kaufmann, and Kugelmass. I begin here with the consideration of Kaufmann's article on academic blogging.]

Scott Eric Kaufmann, on the other hand, sees a brighter future for the prospect of blogging in the academy. Maintaining a fairly high readership with his blog Acephalous has given Kaufmann a certain visibility within the scholarly community, but the real pay-off is in the experience he has had not only as an academic but as an academic author, because blogging has given him the experience of learning “what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience.” [1] Furthermore, he poses a particularly challenging question to specialists: “Why not write for people who don’t already [know] how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?” [2]

Kaufmann’s questions here are ones I routinely pose to my first year writing students, encouraging them away from what the Rhetoric and Composition specialists call “writer-based prose” and toward the far easier to engage “reader-based prose.” It is a fine line to walk; what academic blogs can do, however, is allow all of us an opportunity to write for the non-specialist, to attempt to make complex arguments without being obscure. In responding to both of these authors, Joseph Kugelmass makes the point (one I hope will be well taken) that blogs allow an interface between the academy and the “public” in a way more traditional scholarly outlets such as journals, edited collections and books seldom do. Moreover, he claims that “[h]umanistic blogs are one way of restoring the connection between scholarly tradition and the new plenitude of culture.” [3] In short, they allow the humanities to be accessed by their subject – humans.

Kugelmass concludes his meditation on the use of blogging in the formation of academic communities with a possibility many might be familiar with: the idea (though not explicitly stated) of the workshop. Conversations on a blog, he suggests, might function as “stepping-stones to mainstream work: ironing the kinks out of a journal article, gathering sources for a dissertation, drafting a keynote address or the chapter of a book.” [4] Blogging, then, allows a lower-stakes audience for a work-in-progress, and thus allows for the author to take risks he or she might not otherwise take, and benefit from readers’ comments and responses. In line with Kaufmann, he highlights the development of the author in the writing of a blog, arguing that “the opportunity exists to turn blogging into something more than an interstitial occupation, for the lonely times, and the idle times. It can be the practice, as vital in scholarship as in friendship among equals, of discovering a voice.” [5] The idea of a practice inherent in blogging – a practice which should be highlighted as a process rather than a product – is key, for Kugelmass and for many academic bloggers (myself included), in the formation of “voice.” [6]

I would argue that the idea of developing academic “voice” is what makes academic blogging so valuable in general. In May of 2007, after numerous conversations with colleagues at Kalamazoo about the possible ramifications (positive and negative) of letting go of my pseudonym, Old English in New York’s “Anhaga” was relieved of her duties of authorship, and I “claimed my voice.” [7] In the time since, I have used the blog as a forum for promoting the activities of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium, as well as posting interesting calls for papers and descriptions of conferences in the New York area. After having been a frequent commenter on the medieval group blog In the Middle (founded by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in 2006), I was asked in August 2007 to join the collaborative project there as the resident graduate student blogger. [8] In the Middle, and the community that has formed around it, is a forum in which I share my own ideas and projects, to be certain. However, and perhaps more importantly to the development of my academic voice, it has allowed me to be an active commenter and interlocutor for the work of other academics.

Through Old English in New York and now In the Middle, I have found a community of scholars with similar interests, who want to provoke and participate in discussions about the work we do. I would suggest that a part of what is gained in the blogging community is not simply a chance to think aloud on one’s own topics, but to be affected by each others’ work. Even when topics range outside our own areas of expertise, we can still comment usefully and intelligently on each others’ ideas. Moreover, I have found that the ideas and questions raised on the blogs linger with me, and hold a purchase on my imagination which can only enlarge my breadth as a scholar. This kind of interaction often encourages imaginative juxtapositions in what I call a “Forsterian” scholarship, drawing on the epigraph to the E.M. Forster novel Howards End. Our work is to “only connect”: to connect ideas, people, cultures and texts in a network that might, in the end, be best described not only as human but also as humane:

[W]ithout conversation, especially among those who seek, not to tear down your ideas, but to help you make them better and more theoretically rigorous, I really don't believe there is much traction for really good work to develop its highest potential, or else whatever ‘victory’ you do achieve with your work is, again, kind of lonely, maybe even empty. [9]

Here, Eileen Joy picks up on my Forsterian theme, suggesting that scholarly work at its very best is always a process of collaboration. Blogs are becoming a fruitful way for us, as scholars seeking to create a community of thinkers, to reach out across the distances that separate us to form a kind of “global classroom” in which we can all benefit from each others’ expertise early on in projects that can be made more astute through the interaction.

In reaching out in a format that is readily accessible to a culture that is increasingly engaging the texts we study, we have a chance to let intellectuals and enthusiasts who are not “academics” see inside the “ivory tower” a bit more. Perhaps in the process, that tower might be dismantled, allowing the study of medieval cultures and texts a place in a society that often finds it inaccessibly remote. All we need do is connect.


[1] Scott Eric Kaufman. “An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogging.” Inside Higher Ed. 1 November 2007.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joseph Kugelmass. “Academic Blogging Revisited.” The Valve. 1 November 2007.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Here I would like to thank the director and assistant directors of the University Writing Program at Columbia – Joseph Bizup and Nicole Wallack – for introducing me to the theoretical aspects of writing, and in particular this focus on process, which is one of the key components of the course.
[7] “Claiming my Voice” Old English in New York. 16 May 2007.
[8] Although In the Middle began as a single-author blog, Cohen has hosted a number of guest bloggers during the two years of its existence, including Jon K. Williams and Michael O’Rourke. The first In the Middle “book club” event featured contributions from Susan Kim, Heather Blurton and Asa Mittman. Karl Steel and Eileen Joy, who are now co-bloggers with Cohen, also began their work on the blog as guest bloggers.
[9]Eileen Joy. Comment on “Scholarship and Blogs part 54656” by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. In the Middle. 21 December 2007.

cross posted at ITM.


K. A. Laity said...

I whole heartedly agree. Although I blog primarily as a writer and only incidentally as a medievalist (ah, those tricky questions of identity), I think the more we open up the scholarly process, the better. Not only to avoid that loneliness of the long-distance research, but also to take advantage of the input of which you speak so warmly. I detest scholarship which speaks only to a select few and usually answer my students' questions about "why they write like that" with "because they can't do any better."

I used "only connect" as the theme of my job letters and finally found myself in a position where that approach is valued (and consequently, I am quite content). I think it's a concept that should not only reach across boundaries of genre but also disciplines, and all too seldom does.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to contact you this way but there was no contact email.
I’m going around to all the bloggers/freelancers to let them know about our new book by a local author, Wealtheow by Ashley Crownover. This title is an extension of the famous classic Beowulf told from the female perspective of Wealtheow, Queen of the Danes. We’d love to send you a complimentary copy for possible review consideration on your blog of this book. We’re trying to get the word out to folks who might be interested in this fantastic version of Beowulf, so I hope you don’t mind me dropping you a line to let you know about our book! If you would be interested in receiving a complimentary copy, please let me know the physical address where I can send it to and I’ll drop it in the mail today! I appreciate the attention you’ve given to my note and I hope to hear from you soon!
Liz w/ Turner Publishing

K. A. Laity said...

I'd review a copy! I might be able to do so in print as well as in blogosphere. If you'd like, you can send a copy to me at the English Dept, College of Saint Rose, Albany NY 12203.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Liz: you can contact me at mk[dot]hurley[AT]gmail[dot]com . I'd love to review the book. I'll send you a physical address over email, but you can also send things to me through Columbia's English Department:

602 Philosophy Hall
Columbia University
NYC, NY 10027