I Am Not Blogging

This post is likely little more than a bit of ritual throat-clearing, designed to help me get past a stage in the trying-to-write-again process in which I simply cannot get myself to focus on what it is that I need to write (promised articles coming due in very rapid succession) and yet cannot find a way to noodle around with something new, either. The result is that I find myself looking guiltily at this space, thinking I should be writing something here, that it might help get me going again, but finding myself with nothing much worth writing about.

It’s not as though I’m not writing, though, all-day-every-day: memos and reports and email messages and proposals and even one very big important project for the day job. It’s just that all of that has taken a tremendous amount of energy off the top of the thing I persist in thinking of as “my own writing.” But deadlines are pressing, and I find myself flailing around a bit, looking for that magical point of entry into these articles.

And so, I’m back into my too frequently forgotten strategies: sitting down at the computer first thing in the morning, before the day’s demands get the opportunity to make themselves known; doing whatever freewriting I need to do to get myself loosened up; consulting the notes I’ve made about the projects in front of me.

This post is a moment of knuckle-cracking before I set fingers to keyboard, hoping that the loosened-up hands will magically tap out the answers. Wish me luck.

Advice on Academic Blogging, Tweeting, Whatever

Over the weekend, something hashtagged as #twittergate was making the rounds among the tweeps. I haven’t dug into the full history (though Adeline storyfied it), but the debate has raised questions about a range of forms of conference reporting, and as a result, posts and columns both old and new exploring the risks and rewards of scholarly blogging have been making the rounds. Last night sometime, Adeline asked me what advice I have for junior faculty who get caught in conference blogging kerfuffles – which I take as standing in for a range of conflicts that can arise between those who are active users of various kinds of social media and those who are less familiar and less comfortable with the new modes of communicating.

This was far too big a question to take on in 140 characters, and I didn’t want to issue a knee-jerk response. I’m still piecing together my thoughts, so this post will no doubt evolve, either in the comments or in future posts. But here are a few initial thoughts:

1. Do not let dust-ups such as these stop you from blogging/tweeting/whatever. These modes of direct scholar-to-scholar communication are increasingly important, and if you’ve found community in them, you should work to maintain it. (And if you’re looking for better connections to the folks in your field or better visibility for your work and you aren’t using these channels, you should seriously consider them.)

2. Listen carefully to these debates, though, as they will tell you something important about your field and the folks in it. If there are folks on Twitter who are saying that they are less than comfortable with some of its uses, or if there are blog posts exploring the ups and downs of blogging, you might want to pay attention. There’s a lot to be learned from these points of tension in any community.

3. Use your blog/twitter/whatever professionally. This ought to be completely obvious, of course, but the key here is to really think through what professional use means in an academic context. In our more formal writing, we’re extremely careful to distinguish between our own arguments and the ideas of others — between our interpretation of what someone else has said and the conclusions that we go on to draw — and we have clear textual signals that mark those distinctions. Such distinctions can and should exist in social media as well: if you’re live-tweeting a presentation, you should attribute ideas to the speaker but simultaneously make clear that the tweets are your interpretation of what’s being said. The same for blogging. The point is that none of these channels are unmediated by human perspective. They’re not directly transmitting what the speaker is saying to a broader audience. And the possibilities for misunderstanding — is this something the speaker said, or your response to it? — are high. Bringing the same kinds of scrupulousness to blogging and tweeting that we bring to formal writing are is key. [Edited 12.55pm. Bad English professor!]

4. Make your tweets and blog posts your own. As I understand it, some of the concern about the tweeting and blogging of conference papers has to do with intellectual property concerns; does a blog post about a presentation undermine the claims of the speaker to the material? The answer is of course not, but if you want to avoid conflict around such IP issues, ensure that your posts focus on your carefully signalled responses to the talk, rather than on the text of the talk itself. This is the same mode in which we do all of our work — taking in and responding to the arguments of others — and it should be recognizable as such.

5. If somebody says they’d prefer not to be tweeted or blogged, respect that. Whatever your feelings about the value of openness — and openness ranks very high among my academic values — not everyone shares them. While I have a hard time imagining giving a talk that I didn’t wish more people could hear, I know there are other scholars who are less comfortable with the broadcast of in-process material. And while I might like to nudge them toward more openness, it’s neither my place nor is it worth the potential bad feeling to do so.

And finally:

6. Relax. People are going to freak out about the things they’re going to freak out about. If you’re working in a new field, or in alternative forms — if you’re really pushing at the boundaries of scholarly work in the ways that you should — somebody’s not going to like it. Always. The thing to do is to make your argument as professionally as you can, to demonstrate the value of the ways that you’re working — and then to get back to work. Doing your work well, and being able to show how your work is paying off, are the point.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment. What am I missing?

Last Season, on Planned Obsolescence

One key problem with the blog as a platform for serial scholarship is that it’s much too easy to find yourself interrupted, to lose a train of thought.

Then again, this is a key problem with having a day job in general: that train of thought, whatever it was you were working on outside the bounds of the day job, always runs the risk of getting utterly derailed.

Oh, I’ve just got to get caught back up with what’s going on in the office, you say, and then I’ll get right back to that series I was working on.

But there’s that one upcoming deadline that has to be met yet, and that’s got to take priority. And there are the other many small details that manage to create a very convincing set of distractions.

One great thing about non-serial scholarship — the feature release, perhaps — is that its process of production, its fits and starts, are hidden from public view.

On the other hand, nobody’s really waiting for that feature release. And one can at least hope that gaps in one’s serial production — a little between-season hiatus, perhaps — might help to build anticipation.

I am hoping that this doesn’t require cliffhanger endings.

Reader Response, in Theory

In my last post, on blogs as serialized scholarship, I noted that a colleague of mine had posted a link to a prior post on Facebook, resulting in an interesting conversation that I regretted not being able to share. That inability is in fact two problems, not one: first, a technical problem, and second, a social one.

The technical problem has everything to do with Facebook’s hoovering action: it’s very easy to share material into Zuckerberglandia, but very, very hard to share it out. This is on the one hand a good thing, given concerns about privacy and the personal nature of a lot of what gets shared on Facebook; things people post there often spread further than they expect, given the friends-of-friends phenomenon, and if those things were easily able to leave the FB platform, they would have the potential to do even more damage to their unwitting posters.

On the other hand, the closedness of Facebook has produced some significant problems for folks who are trying to produce open discussions of ongoing work. Bloggers who have been at it for a while have noted a recent decline in commenting, and while that decline may have begun with the popularity of RSS feeds (which abstract the content of blog posts from their web presences, encouraging reading without interaction), it has accelerated with the privatization of discussion on platforms like Facebook. When a friend shares a link there, it’s only natural to discuss the link with that friend, in that environment, rather than discussing the text with the author, on the author’s site.[1]

This is, of course, not exclusively a Facebook issue; links posted on Twitter often produce tweeted responses, and other platforms like Google+ (yes, there actually are some people active there) have similar effects. While this proliferation of platforms has enabled many internet users to find the right spots for the discussions they want to have, and the right groups with which to have them, it’s had a diminishing effect on the kinds of discussion that, at my most idealistic moments, I continue to believe that blogging can produce. The problem is that in order for blogs to be the fruitful platforms for serialized scholarship that I imagine, their authors need to engage — and need to be able to engage — with the responses that their posts produce.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that all responses must be contained within any given blog post’s comments; if you look at the comments on my last post, you’ll see that most have come in from Twitter, and a few others are pingbacks from other blogs. Twitter’s relative openness (an openness that is extremely fragile, and that Twitter has recently begun to close off in various ways) and the extremely porous design of blogs allow their conversations to be aggregated in ways that both support small communities of practice and engage related groups in a dispersed and yet connected network (hey!) of conversations. So there’s a link on my seriality post to Collin Brooke’s fabulous post on “surreality”, generated by a link on his post to mine; similarly, the link in my last clause will produce a link on his post to this one. We can sustain a conversation with one another in this way, while nonetheless keeping our own contributions on our own preferred platforms.[2]

Facebook, again, disrupts that ability, both technically and socially. There’s no mechanism through which my blog post can aggregate FB links or comments, and there are no real norms for when and how it’s acceptable to reproduce FB discussions in other spaces. Frank Kelleter, the colleague who linked to my post on unpopularity, encouraged me to share the discussion that it produced here, but without getting similar permission from his interlocutor, I’d be uncomfortable responding to comments other than his own. That interlocutor would probably grant permission if I asked, but the need to ask highlights some of the issues that new platforms create for the flow of scholarly discourse. We do not need to ask permission to respond to one another’s publications, but assume that it’s okay to do so as long as appropriate credit and citation are given; linking to one another’s blog posts has followed this pattern. It has generally been considered good form to ask the author before citing unpublished work, however, including personal communications, and referring to comments on privatized platforms like Facebook appears to fall more into that model.

This all seems fairly obvious, as I write it, and yet it’s important for the development of networked platforms for scholarly communication that we think together about whether the norms we’re working within, and the mechanisms supporting those norms, are in fact what’s best for the work we’re doing.

Blogs as Serialized Scholarship

Over the last two installments of this series, I’ve thought a bit about the relationship between scholarship, seriality, and the unpopular, all of which thinking has been headed toward a consideration of what the blog can contribute as a mode of serialization for scholarship.

There’s been a fair bit written over the last several years about the blog as a return to serial form in publishing, particularly connecting recent political blogs to the periodical essays of the 18th century, including those in publications such as the Tatler and the Spectator.[1] Similarly, a bit of research has been done on potential connections between the blog as a narrative form and early novelistic modes such as the epistolary narrative.[2] There’s clearly something in these kinds of connections that it’s worth noting: the more our technologies change, the more, it seems, we return to familiar patterns in many of the things we do with them.

And so it is with scholarly communication. Many commentators look at what’s going on with digital scholarly publishing today and focus on transformation, even revolution. Now we have computers, and networks, and everything will be different! And of course the digital does bring with it some quite particular affordances, but many of our engagements with it seem to return us to an incunabular mode that resembles the experimentation that resulted from the adoption of other, earlier media forms. It’s not just that the more things change, the more they stay the same; rather, the more things change, the more we’re driven back into a set of first principles that help us figure out what the new things are.

So one might look at a new forum for scholarly communication like In Media Res, for instance, in which groups of scholars post brief media clips and commentaries as a means of opening discussion about issues in contemporary media in something a bit closer to the time register of the media itself. In this, of course, there are profound differences from the modes of scholarship that have become conventional: in print and its analogues, quotation from the media has to take the form of ekphrasis; the analysis of a given text is expected to tend toward completion rather than provocation; and the passage of time between the circulation of the primary text and the composition — not to mention publication — of the study of it provides room for careful contemplation. A forum like IMR brings the primary text and the commentary on it much closer together, both in format and in time, producing an emphasis on the contemporary that only digital networks can fully support.

Like the blog, however, IMR isn’t a wholly new form, but rather one with precursors and precedents. In its focus on direct, ongoing scholar-to-scholar communication, this kind of forum might bear something in common with the seminar. In the seminar, we present a text and argue about it, and then present a related text, arguing about it and its relationship to the first one. The explorations we conduct across multiple sessions are additive; we know not to foreclose the discussion of each text or topic, but instead to let each resurface and linger throughout the series of conversations.

In contrast with the conversational structure of the seminar, we tend to think of scholarly writing as working toward conclusions, and by the time we present those pieces of writing to our colleagues, we expect them to have achieved some kind of resolution. This wasn’t always so, however. The divergence between the direct, communal kinds of exploration we undertake in a seminar and the discrete, closed form of the journal article mask their common origins in the letter-based correspondence among scholars in the early Enlightenment. The first modern scholarly journals came into being as a means of broadening and systematizing such correspondence, and in the process, gradually replaced a sense of ongoing exchange with one of formal conclusion.[3]

In this sense, today, when a scholar with a blog writes a bit about some ideas-in-process, receives some feedback in response, returns with further ideas, reiterates, and so on, we can glimpse once again the seriality that has always been at the heart of scholarly production. That seriality has lingered in the progression from more informal to more formal modes of communication through which scholars develop and share their work, moving from discussions and working groups, through conference papers and drafts circulated to colleagues, to publications, which are themselves sometimes revisited and revised as journal articles develop into longer projects.

So is the blog merely an everything-old-is-new-again eternal return? One thing that might make the scholarly blog different is the shift it produces from an implicit, buried acknowledgment that scholarship’s serialization practices are based on multi-directional exchanges to an explicit emphasis on such exchange. Letters, after all, are meant to be responded to, just as seminars are meant to facilitate discussion. Journal articles bear traces of their history as turns in an ongoing, if slow-paced, conversation, but forms like blogs and forums like IMR allow us to foreground again the conversational aspect of scholarly communication.

If we’re going to reap the benefits of such foregrounded conversation, however, we’ve got to be prepared for some unintended outcomes. Some of our established ways of doing things might not mesh perfectly with structures that emphasize open exchange. We might find, for instance, unexpected participants in our conversations, and we might find those conversations taking directions that we can’t entirely control. We might find pieces of writing that we think are concluded instead being re-opened and held up to unexpected kinds of questioning. We might find ourselves revisiting and revising work well after we thought we were done with it.

My last post, for instance: a colleague shared a link to the post on Facebook, and the conversation that took place there included a comment about my too-casual shorthanding of the Frankfurt School’s at times elitist understanding of the popular. The point is an excellent one, and indicates the kind of issue that often surfaces in the speed and compression of a blog post (which its detractors love to note), but also gestures toward the ways that our thinking about the critical past might shift and develop over time. Discussions like that one push me to think through what it was I was actually after in my reference, and why I automatically grabbed for the Frankfurt School in labeling it.

Of course, there is a problem with that Facebook discussion: I only got to see it because I’m friends with its initiator. For all of the obvious and extremely important reasons having to do with privacy, I can’t share that conversation as it actually took place with you. And because it didn’t happen here, it won’t be part of the record of this series of posts, or part of the official genealogy of my thinking about scholarship, popularity, and seriality.

All of which is to acknowledge that these new forms, as they proliferate, present us with some serious challenges. How do we gather and represent the conversations through which scholarly ideas develop? How do we decide when pieces of writing should be revisited and when they are successfully, or even unsuccessfully, concluded? And — always the 64-thousand-dollar-question of scholarly communication, this — how do we credit ideas that arise from these discussions?

The question of credit is a pressing one for many of us, and particularly for those of us who value open discussions in new scholarly forms, as we are likely to find ourselves spending increasing amounts of time responding to others, leaving less time available for our own stuff. As we are all too aware, we still work in an academy that emphasizes the singular, and in many fields the solo, contribution to scholarly discourse; we get credit for the things that we produce that are original, that are ours alone, rather than for our responses to the work that others do, or the things that are ours in a collective sense. Even in the seminar, participants receive only marginal credit for their ongoing discussions; what counts is the seminar paper, the single-authored (and, usually, single-readered) end product.

If newer forms of serialized scholarship are genuinely to succeed, these forms will need to be accompanied by modes of academic evaluation — not to mention valuation — that fully appreciate multi-vocal, ongoing exchange.

I expect that my next forays in this series will begin to turn toward such questions of evaluation. That I’m not entirely certain about that — that some other thought may interpose itself along the way — is part of what excites me about the contribution that serialized forms like blogs might make to scholarly communication. Forms such as these — much like the seminar — begin to provide us with means of capturing thought in the act of being produced. Paul Krugman has famously suggested that by the 1980s, the circulation of working papers in economics had already transformed the field’s journals into the “tombstones” of scholarship [4]; while I don’t want to argue that humanities journals are similarly becoming mausoleums, I would agree that they increasingly contain the markers of thought that once took place. We need forms, and values, that capture thought in the process of happening, recording thought’s own seriality.

The Unpopular

This post revolves around two jokes that I’ve heard of late, each of which has been stuck in my head since I heard it. The first joke, as I noted in part 1 of this series, surfaced in a fantastic workshop on “popular seriality,” discussing television series, film sequels and remakes, and serialized novels, against which scholarship was nominated as the key form of “unpopular seriality.” Conveniently, I was at the workshop to discuss forms of serialized scholarship, but this joke raised what seemed to me a few pressing prior questions: Need scholarship be unpopular? What kind(s) of popularity might scholarship attain? What might popularity do for scholarship? And what might such a scholarship do for our notions of the popular?

That at least a couple of people in the workshop in Göttingen made the connection between unpopular seriality and scholarship — and that so many more found the association funny — indicates the degree to which we feel unpopular as scholars, producing work that we feel passionately about but that no one else seems to want. That sense of being unpopular carries for many of us haunting undertones of our nerdy adolescences, as if we were doomed to find ourselves yet again the smart outcasts in a culture that only values athletic prowess, or better still, money. And we are, at least in a broad sense, unpopular: the much-discussed crisis in scholarly publishing is at least in part a crisis of audience, as too few people buy the stuff for it to have a market sufficient to make its distribution a profitable enterprise.

It’s not without reason, then, that the initial discussion of what an unpopular seriality would constitute circled around questions of marketability: what keeps scholarship outside the realm of the popular, from this perspective, is precisely its uncommercial — even anti-commercial — orientation. In its unpopularity, it was suggested, scholarship finds protection from the pressures of the economic.

My initial response, however, was to resist this sense of scholarship as being somehow protected from the forces of the market: just because the work we produce as scholars may not have commercial value does not mean that it exists outside economics. What we do may not be conventionally lucrative, but it does operate within a realm of exchange that remains unquestionably material: it doesn’t pay off in money from direct sales, but it does produce salaries, paid lecture invitations, and the like. It’s a peculiar market, but it is a market, and as in most markets, the (attention-)rich get richer, and the (attention-)poor are faced with varying kinds of declining support.

Our unpopularity, then, isn’t a badge of economic purity, or a marker of freedom from caring what the world thinks of us. We have embraced it as if it were such a marker, however, as if popularity would somehow taint the work that we do. And much as many of us claim to seek the role of public intellectual, we too often sneer at the popularity of those who achieve this stature. Popularity, this suggests, requires a dumbing-down for the masses; work that is popularly consumed cannot conceivably be good.

This tie between the popular and mass consumption bears with it resonances of the Frankfurt School; popular culture in this sense — that culture which is popularly consumed — must of necessity contain within it an element of mass deception. And perhaps there is good reason for scholarship to avoid such associations with popularity; criticality requires rejecting what the majority wants to hear. Scholars must be willing and able to say the unpopular thing.

On the other hand, as post-Frankfurt media scholars have argued, the association of the popular with mass consumption overlooks the sense in which popular culture should be considered to be that which is popularly produced — that which arises from, rather than that which devolves upon, the “people.” In more recent media scholarship, the culture that is so produced is assumed to be less the texts themselves — the “people” are in no literal sense running around producing blockbuster movies or television series — than the meanings and pleasures that derive from popular engagement with those texts. Culture is less the texts themselves than what is made from the texts. And popular culture becomes popular not because it’s forced onto the masses, but because actual people have found some kind of connection with it.

That we hold our work back from this latter kind of popularity, from the potential of popular connection to it — and that to some extent, at least, we do so intentionally — strikes me both as selfish and misguided. It serves us, on whatever level, to believe the public, however construed, to be incapable of responding to our work.

This belief is the unspoken base layer required in order for the second joke with which this post is concerned to be funny. The second joke runs like this: at another conference I recently attended, a speaker discussed the broadening possibilities that should be made available for humanities PhDs to have productive and fulfilling careers other than those on the tenure track, in the course of which the phrase “public humanities” was used. After the talk, I overheard a couple of senior academics discussing the possibility, with some bemusement.

Senior Academic 1: I take the point, but I don’t think it works in all fields. There’s long been a “public history.” But can you imagine a “public literary criticism”?
 
Senior Academic 2: Chortle. The very idea.

I’m still not sure why the idea of public literary criticism is laughable. It has, after all, long existed, not just in the work of several of academia’s more visible and vocal figures (excuse the autoplay in that last link; excuse also the elision of many others who might have been linked to as well), but also in publications both long-standing and more recently developing (not to mention this or this or this or this or often this). If anything, public literary culture — including criticism — seems to be experiencing a period of extraordinary fertility. Is there money to be made in it? Probably no more than there is in public history, no. But is there work to be done? Unquestionably, yes.

If we reconsider the question of the popularity of scholarship from this perspective — in which there is perhaps not a market to be sold to but instead a public to be engaged with — we might begin to think more seriously (as Anne Helen Petersen has recently done) about what we might gain in the creation of such a popular engagement for our work.

I do not mean to suggest that everything we do should be done in public, or that everything we do needs to be universally accessible. There is a time and a place for experts to engage with one another, in formats and languages that are peculiarly their own. But there is also good reason for us to think seriously about doing more of our work in public, and even more importantly with the public, to understand that some portion of what we do not only can be but must be popular.

Next up in this series: how that popularity might be supported through the form of the serial.

Ten

I nearly missed it. Again.

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first post here at Planned Obsolescence. 1484 posts later, I’m still here, and I’m thrilled to say that, given the renewed energy of things around here over the last month-plus, I think this thing might have a future.

I’ve been thinking a bit about where I was ten years ago, where I am now, and the many amazing things that have happened inbetween. I failed to publish a book, and then not only published it but wrote and published one that grew out of the difficulties of not publishing that first one. I mumbled something about founding a digital scholarly press, and then actually wound up co-founding a virtual scholarly society of sorts, and then found myself working on the digital contexts of a very actual scholarly society. I worried about getting tenure, then not only got it, but got promoted a second time, and then — well, I’m not sure I’ve entirely walked away from the whole shebang yet, but I certainly find myself at that particular crossroads.

It’s been an astonishing ten years. I’ve accomplished way more than I thought I ever could. And the thing that’s clearest to me is that none of it would have happened had I not acted on that weird impulse to start a blog. It was an exercise in immediate gratification, trying to get work in front of an audience sooner rather than later, but its rewards have extended much further than I would have believed.

Unpopular Seriality

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on “Popular Seriality” put together by Jason Mittell, Frank Kelleter, and the Popular Seriality research unit at the University of Göttingen. The workshop was relatively small, and so it produced a great set of conversations among scholars working on contemporary television series, twentieth-century film sequels and comic book series, nineteenth-century serialized novels, and more.

In a panel discussion at the end of the first day, someone asked, if the workshop was focused on aspects of “popular seriality,” what would constitute unpopular seriality?

“Scholarship,” someone immediately joked.

Needless to say, this struck home. I’ve written some about the blog as a return to serial form in publishing, focusing on its relationship to early forms that the novel took. Others have connected blogs doing public, political work to the periodical essays of the 18th century, including those in publications such as the Tatler and the Spectator.

In both cases, these arguments address the conventional notion of the popular, exploring the comparatively new platforms for unfolding narrative or argumentation in direct engagement with a public, however broadly understood. And in some ways, these arguments acknowledge the more politically inclined senses of popular culture as encompassing less that distributed to the people (which is more properly “mass culture”) than that arising from them; in both the blog as periodical and the blog as serial narrative we find authors able to make their way around entrenched mechanisms of production and distribution in order to get their writing directly to readers.

So I’ve been pondering what it is that makes scholarship “unpopular seriality,” and the role that blogs might be playing, and might continue to play, in helping us begin to rectify this situation. I’m going to write a bit more about this over the next few days — serializing the process of thinking through the question, because I can imagine several different directions for this exploration, and I want to give each of them enough time and space to play out.

That’s one of the ways that the blog can support serial scholarship, right there.

Annals of Comment Spam

A few days back, I tweeted an amusing bit of comment spam I’d received that morning:

But there’s amusing comment spam and then there’s amusing comment spam. I’m not going to reproduce it here, but yesterday I received a comment that could conceivably have slipped past me, had Akismet not caught it. The comment was left on a recent travel-related post, and it related a travel anecdote, asking for advice on how to handle a somewhat bemusing interpersonal issue. And while my post seemed a strange place to ask that particular question, the story was well-enough written, and the concern seemingly sincere enough, that I might have let it get through. Akismet, however, flagged the address that the commenter left in the URL field, and so into the filter it went.

I find myself both relieved and troubled. While it would be great to get fewer comments telling me how helpful and brilliant and pretty and useful my blog posts are (or alternately that I should really work a bit harder on them), those are quite easily spotted and dispatched. If spammers start actually taking the time to ask substantive questions and post them in plausible places, will it become increasingly difficult to recognize spam when we see it?

It occurs to me that in fact I probably wouldn’t have missed the spammish nature of this particular comment, precisely because I didn’t recognize its author — even if I had been taken in by the tale, I wouldn’t have been ready to engage with the teller. Something in that leaves me both relieved and dissatisfied. On the one hand, I’m glad that relationships and the communities they create can help us weed out bad actors in networked spaces. On the other hand, if we find ourselves in a situation in which we close folks whom we don’t (yet) know out of our conversations, how can those communities continue to develop?