One of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about being a member of The Junto is that I have long thought blogging provides an excellent opportunity for the development of academic writing. While the typical forms of academic writing are highly formal, blogging (and other forms of digital media) provide a semi-formal arena in which historians can discuss and develop their ideas, taking advantage of an extended virtual community whilst simultaneously providing some structure and order to their thoughts.
Of course, it’s scarcely original to ponder the virtues and values of digital media within the academy. Nor would I want to be prescriptive about what sorts of blogging work and don’t work. After all, even in our own field of early American history, we have a variety of examples of how to blog – from John Fea’s diary-keeping style, to Historiann’s more political content, to J.L. Bell’s treasure trove of research notes. Indeed, it’s the informality and immediacy of blogging that provide the greatest opportunities for enterprising historians.
But as with many forms of virtual communication, blogging can show off the academic profession in a less than perfect light. The Internet is a well-known breeding ground for all kinds of uncivil discourse; while academic blogging avoids the worst excesses of comments threads, blog posts can incite reactions that showcase the divisions in the historical community, rather than the excellent work done by historians of all kinds. This post, then, is intended as a starting point for discussion on how, as academics, we might develop some informal rules that help harness the creative energy of blogging in a positive way; and that by keeping to these ‘rules’, it becomes easier to establish the place of blogging within an academic’s career.
1) Post early and post often. About 18 months ago, I was at a workshop where a well-known historian pointed out that one bad article or book can stall a historian’s career. By contrast, songwriters can record and publish numerous tracks of dubious quality without suffering a serious dent in their reputation. Despite the advent of digital publishing, the currency of academia is still the peer-reviewed article or the scholarly monograph. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself; after all, there are standards to uphold.
At the same time, though, maintaining narrow channels of publication can stifle creativity. There’s a certain kind of research that lends itself well to the form of a journal article. But it’s certainly not the only form of research that is worth publishing. Similarly, as historians we take great care preparing articles, refining arguments through conference presentations and peer reviews, and editing our work many times before it is officially ‘published’. By which time, of course, a large number of those in our immediate fields are already familiar with the basis of our argument. In other words, there’s a rather slow official feedback loop; the greater immediacy of digital publishing may provide a means of establishing a semi-formal way of developing academic articles.
But given that greater immediacy, blog posts can only be a supplement to traditional forms of publication if they aren’t judged as harshly as the jewels of the profession. And ultimately that will only happen if historians are encouraged to share their ideas early and regularly – so that blog posts, in effect, become the equivalent of writing individual songs. In providing for greater historical creativity (and wider feedback), the possibilities for furthering historical research could be tremendously exciting.
2) Write as honestly as possible. It’s not possible to be as thorough in a post of 500-2,000 words as in an article of 8,000. Nor is it really as possible to be as considered in a blog post as in a journal article. There’s an immediacy about the medium that provides great opportunities, but at the cost of control over the minutiae of research. The biggest potential cost of this comes when authors use the immediacy of the medium to deliberately cut corners. Sometimes this takes the form of ‘trolling’ – deliberately provoking a reaction from certain sections of the readership. At other times, it comes through making a general case when referring only to specific subsets of evidence.
In any case, the straightened nature of the blog post shouldn’t be an excuse for avoidable sloppiness. It is incumbent on the author of a blog post to recognize the limitations of an argument as well as the strengths, and not to try and use the semi-formal nature of the medium as cover for intellectual laziness or dishonesty.
3) Read as charitably as possible. The flip side of the previous point is that it is also incumbent on readers to accept the limitations of the medium. Caveats that would be necessary in a journal article would get in the way of a good blog post. Controversial topics may be addressed in a manner more glib than is ideal. Nevertheless, the historical profession is at its best when it works collaboratively, and on the principle of constructive criticism. And so just as authors should treat their audience with respect, so readers should read blog posts with charitable intentions. The historical police should save their most forensic investigations for peer review.
4) Respond to blog posts through comment threads. The worst blogstorms that I have seen tend to erupt on Twitter. By contrast, while debate in comment threads on blogs can certainly become heated and aggressive, they also provide greater opportunity for nuance and explanation. This is not surprising; it is easier to substantiate an argument in open form compared to a 140-character limit. The character limit of Twitter also encourages a snippier, more direct tone, which leads to confrontation and misinterpretation.
This problem could be ameliorated if discussion of a blog post was carried out through comment threads (or, alternatively, through similar blog posts in response). There is a place for Twitter – I’ve learned a lot through tweeted discussions. But it’s more like a conversation in the pub than a place for serious reflection; if we’re going to be reading each others’ blog posts charitably, responding to them in an appropriate form is also important.
5) Avoid anonymity. When I was heading on to the job market, I had a difficult decision to make – what sort of things did I want to appear under a Google search for my name? Ultimately, I decided that academia was about the exchange of ideas, and if I had things to say, then I should attach my name to them. In a similar way, I also wondered about the value of my ideas if I didn’t wanted to put my name to them. Clearly, there is a place for anonymous blogging. But (as we know through peer review) anonymity can act as an unpleasant shield, providing cover for mean-spirited comments that would never be made in a face-to-face environment.
My choice, then, was to always use my own name when posting things online. That’s been a useful discipline for me – I’ve taken greater care over expressing my thoughts; and I’ve had to think carefully about whether I want an opinion associated with my name. To me, that’s another way of getting around some of the problems of the immediacy of blogging. Someone attaching their name to a comment or a blog post evidently has more to lose than an anonymous commenter; they also have a greater need of being consistent.
One final consideration – if we want to establish blogging as an acceptable means of scholarly discourse, then it should have similar conventions to, say, presentation at a conference. We wouldn’t expect to use pseudonyms when presenting a work-in-progress; we shouldn’t expect to use pseudonyms if engaging in academic discourse online.