I don’t know what’s more sad: the image of thousands (if not millions) of abandoned blogs, laying by the side of the digital highway, carrion for web vultures; or the fact that, after more than a year, I myself may have forgotten the finer points of constructing a blog post.
Either way, sometime at the end of October, I was reminded of the venerable tradition of Nanowrimo, the increasingly popular use of the month of November to join a community of writers in the pursuit 50,000 words–a draft of a novel–in 30 days. I’m no would-be novelist, for sure, but I couldn’t help but admire (and envy, a bit) the challenge and sense of camaraderie that I imagine has to develop over the course of Nanowrimo. I imagine that it’s akin to the moment in a triathlon when you find yourself chatting with the person running next to you. You may be strangers, but you have everything in common for this measure of time. But what is a non-novelist to do with November, I ask you? Thankfully, the good people at Marylhurst University in Portland have come up with an answer for the rest of us: Digiwrimo, a month of digital writing—in all of its manifestations (see “What is Digital Writing?” for more details). November=50,000 words, novel or no; and by no, I think I mean no excuses, and no reason not to address the sad of the abandoned blog, the loss of blogging skills. All right, Digiwrimo. Let’s do this thing.
When I stop to consider why this kind of challenge is worth the commitment, I don’t have to dig too deeply. First and foremost, I should note that I’ve been requiring my students to keep class blogs for almost 10 years. It’s a practice that I believe promotes a sustained engagement with their coursework, asks them to think of their writing and thinking as public acts, and knits them into a community of thinkers who are considering similar questions and approaches to texts. Over time, I’ve come to applaud the students who develop their blogging and commenting as a sustained and dependable practice. “It’s hard to be consistent, and consistently thoughtful,” I recently wrote on a student’s midterm. And it is. Life for students, for professors, for parents, for people is complicated; it’s the easiest thing in the world to put off the complex cognitive work of thinking and writing. But the payoff can be wonderful, and there is a set of pleasures that develop both from the practice of writing as well as from seeing an ever-growing archive of your work over time. What patterns emerge? What persistent concepts, questions, ideas appear across a number of posts? What do these reveal about your own predilections, and how do you intend to follow those? Fine questions for my students, but for myself as well. No one wants to be the professor who embodies the “do what I say, not what I do.”
A year ago, I put together a list of links for a colleague who was sorting through the complicated questions that surround contemporary scholarship. What does it look like in the digital age? What counts, and what doesn’t? If we are reading, writing, and thinking differently with and through the internet, then how do scholars and intellectuals begin to identify the practices that matter to them, and consider the ways that these practices can occur in new forms? The argument for the scholarly use of blogs has been building for some time; it may have reached its fever pitch in and around 2011. A cavalcade of prominent intellectuals in a variety of fields had been blogging for years by that point (any list of these will be perspectival and incomplete, but I’ll just throw out a few here. You have The Leiter Report in philosophy; Pharyngula in the sciences; Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell in film; Henry Jenkins in media studies; Michael Berube’s now sadly defunct blog, which covered cultural studies and politics). These, of course, are just the blogs by individuals, and leave out the impressive blog collectives.
Out of this history of practice, then, came a debate (now much rehearsed and rehashed) about the place and value of these blogs. One flashpoint in the “conversation” occurred during the 2010 MLA convention, when then-graduate student/adjunct professor Brian Croxall was unable to attend the conference because of financial constraints and instead posted his paper on his website. Dave Parry’s post sums up the conundrum that resulted:
Let’s be honest, at any given session you are lucky if you get over 50 people, assuming the panel at which the paper was read was well attended maybe 100 people actually heard the paper given. But, the real influence of Brian’s paper can’t be measured this way. The real influence should be measured by how many people read his paper, who didn’t attend the MLA. According to Brian, views to his blog jumped 200-300% in the two days following his post; even being conservative one could guess that over 2000 people performed more than a cursory glance at his paper (the numbers here are fuzzy and hard to track but I certainly think this is in the neighborhood). And Brian tells me that in total since the convention he is probably close to 5,000 views. 5000 people, that is half the size of the convention.
And, so if you asked all academics across the US who were following the MLA (reading The Chronicle, following academic websites and blogs) what the most influential story out of MLA was I think Brian’s would have topped the list, easily. Most academics would perform serious acts of defilement to get a readership in the thousands and Brian got it overnight.
Or, not really. . .Brian built that readership over the last three years.
Parry’s take on the brouhaha that emerged is a useful one; it identifies the kinds of markers that scholars use to identify the value of their work (here, translated into eyeballs and influence). But Parry goes on to note that the dismissal of Croxall by those who were devoted to a strict view of the historical means by which scholars captured eyeballs and built influence: presence at conferences, publications in peer-reviewed journals, etc. Parry refutes this model, citing the kind of careful work that Croxall had done up until this point, utilizing social media to forward his scholarly and pedagogical interests. He ends his piece by linking this kind of work—the mobilization of a number of digital media forms and their attendant functions to circulate research—to “public intellectualism.”
I now ask my graduate students to read Parry’s blog post before they create their own blogs and start tweeting for our class. It’s the narrative, I think, that brings home to them the way that the world of scholarship is changing, and the ways that they need to consider how their own work might circulate both in long-standing print formats and also online. In addition, I hope that it encourages them to think carefully about how they want to straddle that divide. For me, however, the argument about social media as public intellectualism is compelling, particularly at the moment when colleges and universities are imperiled by their rising costs, shrinking state and federal budgets, and perhaps most troublingly, their inability to make the case that what they offer is worthwhile. Better scholars than me are making the argument that the self-same media that some view as chipping away at the foundations of education (e.g., social media will be the death of reading and bring on the zombie apocalpyse, etc.) may actually be the grounds for re-invigorating it. Dan Cohen, director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, is such a believer that he’s posted a draft of his book chapter dedicated to this argument on his blog; meanwhile, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the Director of Scholarly Communication at the MLA addresses the complexities of academic publishing (in both print and digital forms) in her most-recent book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy.
It goes without saying, I should hope, that both Cohen and Fitzpatrick are consistent bloggers, and by Parry’s definition, public intellectuals.
Quite frankly, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid on this one; I’m convinced by the arguments that, while academic publishing in journals remains an important way for experts in academic fields to talk to each other, we also have a responsibility to make our interests and passions and discoveries known to other audiences, and to model forms of engagement with the objects that we love the most. And for that kind of work, nothing beats a blog. (I’ll save my thoughts about Twitter for another day.)
So, thank you, Digiwrimo, for reminding me why I believe in digital writing, and why I need to make room for it, to develop and practice the same habits that I ask my students to develop every semester. Let November begin. (It’s going to be a long month.)