Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

A Blog of One’s Own

I have tried to avoid the question “why blog?” here at Time to Eat the Dogs. It’s not a bad question. But it’s one that academic bloggers seem to be drawn to like seals to herring. Most non-academic bloggers do not feel so compelled. Why the obsessive interest?

The kind answer: academic bloggers, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, spend much of their time in the Academy scrutinizing the mysterious ways of human culture. As blogs become part of culture,  it’s almost instinctive for the academic to ask “why are we doing this?”

Less kind: self-interest, or more accurately self-protection, compels academics to explain their bloggish ways.  As much as the Academy is a place of learning and critical debate, it is also a place steeped (some might say stratified) in tradition. Nowhere is this more true that in writing and publishing. From their first days as graduate students, academics are trained to understand the intricacies of publishing: the hierarchy of peer-review journals, the differences between academic and trade presses, the proper format of query letters, the dilemmas of annotated footnoting. Blogs have no place (yet) in this universe of words.

Indeed, in the great publishing chain-of-being, blogs rank near the bottom, somewhere between Mad Magazine and the Hallmark card. Not that blogs inspire anger or animosity. After all, why get worked up over something that doesn’t matter? No, for the unblogged academic majority, I suspect, the “web log” connotes something trendy, frivolous, and self-absorbed (and indeed, these connotations sometimes apply).  When I mention to colleagues that “I blog,” I am met with patient smiles, as if I said “I cross-dress.” Nothing illegal or suspect, just a too little outré.

In short, I think academic bloggers answer the question “Why blog?” more for the benefit of their disbelieving academic colleagues than the general public. This is why authors asking “Why I blog?” sound as if they are answering the question “Why am I a Bolshevik?”

So what inspires me to wade into this issue now, after having avoided it for six months? I just read two excellent discussions of the “why blog” question from fellow historians of science Ben Cohen and Will Thomas. Both pieces take the question to new, interesting places.

In “Why Blog the History of Science?” Cohen maintains that academics find many motives to blog, but that they ultimately fall somewhere on an axis with broad communication on one end and novel contribution on the other:

Those who write a Web-log (“blog”) find themselves somewhere along that axis, either with the belief that they are generating and/or influencing public conversation or with the motivation to explore a given subject in depth.

Cohen concludes that his own motives are not fixed, that he slides back and forth along the axis depending on the topic and intended audience. As such, Cohen blogs with a number of different goals in mind: pedegogical, civic, and intellectual.

In Blogging as Scholarship Thomas uses Cohen’s piece as the starting point to further examine “the insider blog” which Thomas sees as a “laboratory of scholarship.” Over the centuries, universities have developed a number of ways for scholars to communicate with each other (via journals, seminars, and conferences) which do not require logging into WordPress or Blogger. But Thomas points out some of the ways that blogs extend or amplify the useful functions of scholarly communication (which he identifies as articulation, speculation, recovery, and criticism).

Time to Eat the Dogs probably rests somewhere between Cohen’s cabinet of curiosity blog The World’s Fair and Thomas’s more inside-baseball blog Ether Wave Propaganda.

Cohen and Thomas nicely cover the spectrum of academic blogs as tools of public and professional communication. Yet there is also a personal dimension to academic blogging, one that keeps me posting even when the other objectives seem abstract or distant.

1. The Blog as Writers’ Workshop. I credit graduate school with honing my critical faculties as a scholar, teaching me a great deal about historical subjects, and giving me various methods for studying them. I also credit it with distorting my voice as a writer. Not to blame it all on graduate school. In truth, my professors valued good writing and pushed me to deliver solid, jargon-free prose. Yet even this wasn’t enough to keep me from becoming assimilated into the collective, Borg-ian voice of the discipline, a voice that academics integrate into their own writings almost unconsciously.

Learning the Discipline

Learning the Discipline

Blog writing, even within the disciplines, seems to follows looser conventions. Some of this, perhaps, comes from the expectation that blogs are supposed to be more free-wheeling. I think it also comes from the pacing of blog writing. I try to write about three posts a week. This has made it easier to keep limber as a writer, especially during the semester when the demands of teaching shut down bigger projects. It also makes it difficult to over-write (as was often my problem in graduate school). My blog has forced me to write faster, to speak more plainly, and to get to the point more quickly.

2. A Blog of One’s Own. Virginia Woolfe lamented the restrictions placed upon women writers, restrictions which kept them away from the writer’s table to attend the demands of spouse and family. We live in a different world than Woolfe’s, yet the dilemma of writing vs. family remain. I wrote most of my dissertation without kids. I have three kids now and it seems impossible to think of my next book unfolding in the same way as my first one. There will be no more obsessive twelve hour days in the archives, no six-month writing fellowships far from home. But blog writing takes place in the corners of the over-stuffed life, an hour at lunch or in the late evening. These scraps of time always feel insufficient to take on the leviathan book projects that sit on my shelf, but they are enough to write 300 words about an item of interest.

3. The Great Uncoiling. As the items of interest pile up, I feel like my work is taking on a breadth that I have long sacrificed for depth. I entered graduate school with a surfeit of interests. But after taking a master’s degree, I began the long, slow spiraling-in on the subject that would become my thesis, the monograph that would eventually make me an expert in the narrow and the arcane. Blogging has offered me a way of unwinding the process, of venturing outward, testing the ground, roaming somewhere else, and testing it again. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve taken on issues that fall outside of my areas of expertise. In a sense, it feels like I am returning to 1995 and 1996, years when I read far, wide, and ecumenically as a masters student. Even then, I thought of this peripatetic reading as the means to an end rather than an end in and of itself. Still the journey was thrilling and, in retrospect, necessary. So here I am again, spiraling out, with blog as muse, dilettante, co-pilot.


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11 Comments»

  Maryann wrote @

Wow! What a clean and tidy desk to blog from!

I thoroughly enjoy your blog Michael.

Maryann

  B.R. Cohen wrote @

What a great commentary, Michael. This was very well put. And thanks too for the link and the notice. Ben

  ArchAsa wrote @

in the great publishing chain-of-being, blogs rank near the bottom, somewhere between Mad Magazine and the Hallmark card.
LOL

The most remarkable thing is that people still tend to regard blogging as something almost homogenous – regardless of whether you are a 14-year old fashionista or have a professional science blog. There are similarities to be sure, but it reminds me of the early days of writing fiction. A profession deemed so suspicious that the Brontë sisters had to hide their activities from their father initially.

A good summary of the different reasons academics fall into the swamp of online writing, with some very interesting links. Next week I’m holding a seminar at my department where I will try to convince them to organize a collective research blog on the homepage. I’m using you as part of my ammunition (“see – even published authors and respected researchers do it!!!”)

Wish me luck. ;-)

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Asa, good luck next week. Fight the good fight! Let me know how it turns out.

Michael

  Carolina wrote @

I think that blogs are really changing lots of things in the way we acquire and generate knowledge; it seems to me that we get knowledge like bombons off a platter served by the bloggers one chooses to follow/read regularly, also mixing freely leisure and work-related posts, and thus redefining the borders of the concept of leisure, history and information. I think it was Karl Popper who said that we could no longer afford to have wise men, as specialization in all fields of knowledge have become highly specialized; I reckon this prediction is no longer correct thanks to blogs, which as the authors says, are unwinding more disciplined and self-centred means of reading about a set of topics.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Carolina, an excellent point. On the surface it seems like blogs are simply an extension of the specialization impulse, but as you dig deeper, you are right, there are a number of blogs going “off-road,” dipping into a variety of subjects that express the author’s interests more than a single disciplinary perspective. I never thought of it this way.

  Gustav wrote @

Very good post with great points about blogging.

I am also a father of three, so your point about blogging providing an avenue for writing things in little spaces of time – I am writing this at the kitchen table right now with my five-year old son playing around me – that simply would not be enough for longer writing sessions rings true to me. Better some writing than none.

Also, the writer’s workshop argument is good, as is the blog giving a platform for exploration of broader interests.

Howard S. Becker told the story about how use to go round talking about his research long before starting the actual writing in order to lessen the threshold of academic writing might apply as well to blogging; as we accumulate enough blog posts on a subject, beginning to compose an academic text on it might seem less of an insurmountable task.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, that pioneer of electronic communication in history of science (I remember being a grad student in the mid-90’s, when not many of us had any substantial web presence, and finding his homepage with good advice), wrote a good post at the Red Herring blog in the spring of 2005 about why we blog. It’s available here thanks to archive.org, (the Red Herring blog seems to have erased older posts for some reason).

[...] Robinson, “A Blog of One’s Own,” Time to Eat the Dogs, October 27, [...]

[...] functions: articulation, speculation, recovery, and criticism. Historian of scienceMichael Robinson discussed the personal dimensions of blogging and how the looser conventions of blog writing have contributed to, and perhaps strengthened, his [...]

  NEX-5N wrote @

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  HPS Blogging V.2013 | From the Hands of Quacks wrote @

[...] functions: articulation, speculation, recovery, and criticism. Historian of scienceMichael Robinsondiscussed the personal dimensions of blogging and how the looser conventions of blog writing have contributed to, and perhaps strengthened, his [...]


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