Leonard Cassuto said in the Guardian: ‘If a graduate student asks me, “Should I blog?” my answer, at least right now, would still be, “Probably not “’. Just weeks ago I gave a talk at the British Library saying very much the opposite. Cassuto is a more established academic than myself, but I still think I have a point – and so did the people who invited me to give that opinion.
To discuss the fact that I came across Cassuto’s article and talked about it on Twitter would be to open another – if related – can of worms. Suffice to say that engaging with twitter for this type of academic commentary is the way I work. I’ve said time and again that Twitter and blogging allow me to usefully interact with so many academics – and non academics I hasten to add – whose opinions I value. I stand by this method of working as it helps me find great new people and ideas on a daily basis and this regularly directly informs my work.
I do recognize that my subject area lends itself particularly well to this type of information exchange. I’m currently writing a book on art mailing list culture and social media and my area of expertise is in art forms that thrive in these networks of sharing. I have had many people point out to me that they themselves aren’t working in a field where social media is considered appropriate and/or they are handling sensitive data that can’t be shared. However, I still take issue with much of what Cassuto says and I still think online discussion platforms have their place in academia.
Like Cassuto, I will divide my response into two sections. The first deals with form because I would argue that he doesn’t credit blogging or any other type of online communication with being anything other than ‘unpublished’, ‘unedited’, ‘unofficial’ writing. There is much about his tone that indicates he sees it as a lesser form of writing and I take issue with that.
Cassuto says that he ‘prefers to read published work’ and generally avoids blogs. Good writing (with good editing) is good writing, and I’m not for a second going to dispute that, but can we really be so sure that there aren’t emerging styles of writing that can be considered good in their own right. It’s wonderful to read a well written and edited book, but I know countless people – myself included – driven and inspired by an interesting blog which is rich precisely because it is filled with the voices of its readers, is more immediate and also more fluid than print.
Language and writing aren’t frozen in time, they evolve, and one of the things that’s so exciting about the era we’re living in is that we’re witnessing the emergence of new types of communication along with the development of the types of skills that go with them. So I’d say that good blogging is good blogging too! It isn’t often edited writing, but it doesn’t claim to be, and so we shouldn’t judge it on the same terms.
And just because it’s sometimes difficult to follow threads of discussion on social media platforms doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. As Jessica Pressman of Yale would explain better than me, digital platforms often thwart close reading, but that is not to say they don’t offer their own type of valuable engagement, or that their challenge to close reading isn’t useful in moving disciplines forwards.
My second focus relates, like Cassuto’s, to visibility. If blogging isn’t being recognized as a reputable form then it should at least be recognized for the role it plays in the wide dissemination of information as well as in allowing academics to network more broadly. I believe that blogging has already been extremely powerful in helping me build my own career, but in case I was wrong in this assumption, I asked Richard Grusin, the Director at the Center for 21st Century Studies, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwuakee where I have just taken up a post-doc for his opinion. This is what he said:
In my own experience as an academic administrator blogs have definitely played a constructive role in some of the personnel decisions I have made. Two examples will suffice. First, in 2003, as chair of the English Department at Wayne State University I was leading the search for our department’s only endowed chair. The candidate who was selected for the position, Steve Shaviro, was chosen not only for his published work but also for the quality and importance of his blog, The Pinnocchio Theory. One of the things that made Shaviro so attractive to the department was the online reputation and following he had developed through that blog. More recently, as Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I was leading the search for an international post-doctoral fellow. Charlotte Frost, the candidate we chose for the position, was selected in large part because of her extensive academic blogging and online presence. As our Center seeks to define the future of 21st century studies in the academy we are convinced that 21st century modes of publication like blogs and other web-based platforms will become the norm rather than the exception. Like Shaviro, Charlotte Frost gets this–and her work to develop new digital publishing platforms is playing a key role in bringing the world of academic publishing into the 21st century.
So there you have it, quite simply, blogging helped me nail this fabulous job.
However, blogging hasn’t helped me just because it suits my subject area. In 2010 I set up this very website – a BLOG – to allow me a way of gathering and sharing information on publishing. This site is a good example of how a blogging is still useful to academics even if their topic doesn’t lend itself to such free exchange because it has allowed me to gain greater visibility with publishers and generally build a much wider academic network.
There are many more points I could make but what I want to clarify is that blogging and online discussion are absolutely present in academia and I’m a little shocked at having to defend this approach in this day and age. I want to assert that online communication platforms do have their own form and style and just because we lack some solid ways of understanding and critiquing their form at present doesn’t make them somehow less important than other types of literature. And finally, blogging absolutely totally and utterly has a role to play in helping you gain visibility.
Cassuto says he doesn’t recommend blogging because ‘Graduate students and junior faculty need to make room for themselves in specific kinds of conversation.’ It’s true, if we want to get a foothold in academia we do still have to jump through some predetermined hoops. However, what’s special about the era we’re living in is that digital technologies offer us a real opportunity to rethink those conversations and our places within in them. That, if you ask me, is precisely what we should be doing!