With Malice Toward None: An Academic Blogging Manifesto

Jefferson-Providential-TwittectionOne 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.

13 comments on “With Malice Toward None: An Academic Blogging Manifesto

  1. David Sim says:

    In the spirit of point (4), this is an excellent post, Ken. I’d add that the best history-minded blogs that I’ve read have taken care to concisely explain complex concepts in everyday language – the ‘why should I give a proverbial about this’ test – which is a valuable skill for historians in and of itself.

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    A nice post. A few points, from the perspective of someone who’s been doing this for a while at the Long Eighteenth.

    a. Collective blogs are much easier to participate in than individual ones, because they offer the kind of feedback and access to audience that encourage better, more regular writing. It’s also necessary to regularly reach out to new members to encourage them to join and participate, because every blogger reaches a point where she has written informally about her most urgent or idiosyncratic interests, and her future blogging will be sustained by conversations taking place elsewhere.

    b. Agree with 2, 3, 5, because no one wants to read a long convoluted post to figure out where you stand. Argue your point as honestly, bluntly, and as lucidly as you can. This is where blogging probably does help academic writing, because so many of the pressures for “good scholarship” move us towards equivocation or excessive qualification. Graduate students probably need to remain cautious about criticizing their elders, but suitably charitable readings and if necessary open-ended questions are again good correctives to the “inside baseball” of scholarly articles, which signal their commitments through devices like the citations to authorities.

    c. However, acknowledge your own doubts or uncertainty, where those exist (this is part of scholarly generosity), and reach out to others for additional thoughts or evidence. This is the most appealing part of blogging, and what makes it useful for those who read them. What kinds of evidence, what kinds of arguments will people bring to difficult disciplinary questions? Blogs offer a reflective, conversational way to learn about the most current or persistent debates in a discipline, and perhaps the best way to learn about the conditions of teaching, learning, and research across a variety of institutions.

  3. Ken Owen says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Dave. I agree with what you say, especially about group blogging. Another reason I’m really happy to be part of this enterprise is that I simply wasn’t able to build up the same sort of audience on my own blog, as I didn’t have the energy to produce enough material to keep readers interested. And a well-run group blog will, as you say, have enough diversity and introduce enough new talent to keep the conversation energetic and fresh.

    As for point b – I think you’re right graduate students will have to be cautious about criticizing their elders, but I would hope that blogging would provide some antidote to that. After all, I’d encourage my own students to develop critiques of my work. Provided they are charitable and not shooting from the hip, blogs could be a very good way of helping to ‘break in’ graduate students in something that seems less high-stakes than peer review.

    Finally, one of the things that you emphasize really well is the community aspect of blogging. I’d perhaps taken that a bit for granted in my post, but it’s worth underlining – blog posts should be thought of as a starting point for conversation rather than anyone’s last word on a topic.

  4. Hi Ken – I like your thoughts on “post early and post often”, especially when it comes to fostering conversation about ideas that aren’t necessarily ready for, or extensive enough for a journal article. Blogging can bring more honest, yet friendly voices into the feedback loop for our work. I’m all for it.

    In a conference setting, a paper in a panel with a small audience might only receive questions and comments from 5-10 people (and even this can be an exaggeration sometimes!). A shorter version of that paper, written to be accessible to those who are not experts in the subfield, on a blog could attract many more readers and comments. It will also, as you note, encourage you to write in a clearer, more to-the-point fashion. As Dave Mazella says above, the blog is a great forum for being in touch with current debates across institutions and even oceans.

    Now, I wish we had a group blog setup for French history!

  5. Cathy R says:

    Hi Ken – This is my first time responding to a blog post. Your ideas on blogging to maintain the academics of writing are great. Too often people tend to write too much or too little in a blog post. As a Professor of English and Early American literature, I have taught online for over 14 years and have always stressed to my students the importance in creating written work that presents an argument and leaves an open-ended tone for readers to want to discuss the topic more. Never is this more important than in a blog. We can create a post that presents a point of history and leaves enough room for discussion rather than just reading and going on our merry way. A blog creates this avenue of scholarship as you point out and that I fully agree on. As a lover of American history and being semi-retired now, I can begin to read through blogs on the topic and contribute to the scholarship of the topic.

    Blog posting is what we do in our online courses in the area of discussion forums. We present ideas and focus on discussing these ideas through scholarly discourse where we can receive multiple viewpoints on any topic. In this manner, academic writing is pursued dramatically and leads to many good articles on a topic. As you stated, this enhances academic writing in the more formal areas such as journal writing.

  6. Ken–thanks for posting. The first point may be the most important and the hardest to reconcile with academic standards. I look forward to seeing how our blogging colleagues move through the promotion and tenure process. To take your song metaphor further, it seems to me blogs are the mixtapes of the historical profession–they get a scholar’s name out there, provide opportunities for collaboration, and test out new ‘sounds’ but at the end of the day, the album and the recording contract are what earn you true credibility.

    I’d like to suggest a #6–proper citation and attribution. Whether that means links, using names (real or pseudonyms) whenever possible, direct quotes, or simply being aware of Creative Commons licensing on work, I think we need to continue to emphasize that this is right up there with ‘post early and often.’ Most scuffles I’ve seen online are because of some version of bad, improper, or missing citation. It is easy to forget that the blogosphere has a hierarchy similar to academia (veterans, associates, and newbies) and everyone should credit where credit is due.

    • Dave Mazella says:

      Jessica, could you give an example of bad citation practices causing arguments on blogs? As opposed to, say, disagreements causing arguments on blogs? One big advantage of online discourse is the practice of including links that (theoretically) allow instant verification/falsification of claims. Admittedly, the divergent “authorities” they link to are another matter.

      The rise of peer-reviewed digital humanities (though still in its infancy), and the shrinking support for brick and mortar scholarly presses and print journals and monographs, make the distinction between the longevity of print and the ephemerality of online work harder to maintain, or at least to justify. Scholarly presses themselves are busy trying to promote their work through social network, blogs, etc., as are many of the scholars trying to establish themselves. I don’t claim that evaluation shouldn’t take place, but I think that the mechanisms of scholarly dissemination and therefore evaluation are getting more diverse. So how should a young scholar adapt herself to this new environment?

      • Dave: Thanks for this. To answer your first question, one example is outlined in the open letter penned by Tara L. Conley to Amanda Marcotte at the Feminist Wire which describes a situation where work was not accredited or attributed to the original authors. You can find it here: http://thefeministwire.com/2013/03/an-open-letter-to-amanda-marcotte/. Another example from closer to home, for me at least, was a situation where work was improperly attributed to a member of a collective I’m part of called the LatiNegr@s Project. As a collective, we had to make deliberate and intentional moves to make corrections in our citation, reblog, and posting policies, and to make amends. The project is here: http://lati-negros.tumblr.com/post/44060852379/apology-updates-responses

        On the larger point you are making, I agree that there is a definite tension between more traditional peer-reviewed venues and the digital media. Part of the reason I like this post is because you are outlining ways to ride that tension out without losing academic rigor. That said, when it comes to citation and attribution, I think what you’re describing is sort of a two-level issue. The first is how to replicate a peer-review process that passes through T&P or to justify the way ‘review’ works in a blogging setting (comment policies, engagement through social media, reblogs or reposts, etc.).

        The second, however, is the tension between academic bloggers and blogging and everyone else. In both situations above, the argument came down to how media-makers writing outside of the realm of (digital) academe felt their hard work was being reused by those writing and receiving all the benefits of writing as digital academics but without giving credit where credit was due to ideas, sources, topics, or media-makers who may have been writing on these topics for quite some time.

        The most exciting thing to me about blogging is the opportunity to share my work in spaces beyond academe, the classroom, the city I’m in. But that also means that, as a blogger, I’m playing in a much bigger (and quite different) sandbox, and there are a range of rules that I need to learn, relearn, and keep in mind–and be open to–if I want to engage honorably online.

        Sorry for the long comment. I’m working on a post on this topic myself that I hope I can post soon; flesh out some of these ideas. I think there are ways to have very fruitful conversations, but I do think as more academic bloggers enter into the blogosphere, we may need to consider it more a foreign country whose rules we need to learn in order to play nicely, and less a brave new world to colonize. Not that anyone here is thinking that (or that your post suggests that)–again, these are things that have been on my mind that I’m fleshing out in another space. This is the pre-share here, I suppose. 🙂

  7. A reviewer of a recent document I submitted for a conference/journal complained that the material was already published on my blog. I didn’t reference myself as it was meant to be blind reviewing, though the material would be recognisable through web search. Cutting, pasting, revising, reassembling, enhancing one’s own (short) blog posts as the basis of a new paper for peer review seems reasonable to me. What do others think?

    • Tom Cutterham says:

      Seems absolutely reasonable to me, Richard. Would an editor or conference convenor complain that you were using ideas that you’d already discussed with colleagues in the pub, or in a seminar? It would be absurd if they did. To me, blogging is the same kind of early-form conversation, something that might help get ideas in shape for other forms of publication. So to follow up Ken’s point: critique in the context of a blog post shouldn’t be much more harsh than you’d be over a pint.

  8. […] Twitter etiquette, blogs, Tumblr, podcasts, or other social media topics we’ve already covered here. I’ll leave it to you in the comments to discuss these issues further—and to point out […]

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