On Sunday, at the 2014 OAH Annual Meeting, I was part of a roundtable discussion entitled “Is Blogging Scholarship?” Several other participants have posted their thoughts on the subject; there was also a great deal of live-tweeting, and our own Joe Adelman has also joined (and developed!) the conversation. The discussion itself was fantastic, and was videotaped for later broadcasting. But in reflecting on the panel, I’ve found there are some points I wish to re-emphasize, and some problems I have with the way the entire roundtable was framed.
1) What is Blogging?
The five bloggers on the panel all blog in different ways. John Fea pointed out that his model was that of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish; Historiann’s type of personal commentary is different and more regular than Mike O’Malley’s The Aporetic. USIH and The Junto, both group blogs, take different approaches to generating content, with USIH assigning their bloggers more specific assignments.
When categorizing content, we should note that blogging is not one thing. Fea’s style engages a different audience from The Junto’s fare, yet both clearly fit under the broadest category of ‘historical blogging’. The real innovation of blogging lies in the ease with which people can access the means of publishing, and the hope of generating an audience.
That is necessarily disruptive of a process of recognizing “scholarship” through very narrow channels indeed. And really, the amount of scholarly activity we all do as historians that doesn’t fit neatly into a dissertation/article/review/monograph model should be accounted for in a review process.
2) What Sort of Blogging is Scholarship?
In my contributions to the roundtable, I tried to advance some examples of how blogging produced new forms of scholarship. I offered two areas that seemed particularly obvious from The Junto’s output: firstly, commentary on journal articles; secondly, more interactive engagement with books or an author’s body of work. We’ve already done this with our roundtable on James Merrell’s recent article in Early American Studies and other group discussions–clearly, this is productive and reflective scholarship on academic subjects.
That’s without mentioning many other potential ideas. I floated the idea of reflections on primary sources that were interesting but didn’t quite fit into bigger projects as another potential area where blogging could be scholarship. Not every primary source deserves a “Sources and Interpretations” piece in The William and Mary Quarterly. And if it was simply a single, interesting source–why would it need the rigmarole of peer review?
3) Peer Review
Ann Little’s introductory comments essentially argued that because blogging is not peer-reviewed, it does not fit the profession’s current definition of scholarship (Ernest Boyer’s model notwithstanding). Thus, while blogging brings significant benefits if used to generate momentum towards peer-reviewed research, it isn’t, in and of itself, scholarship.
I respectfully disagree. Work on The Junto is peer-reviewed. Not in the formal, traditional sense. But we all write here under our own names, in a very public forum, that is well-known in our field. If we write something ill-considered or slapdash, we get called out for it. Sometimes, we are called out for crimes we didn’t even commit. But the idea that we are not trying to fulfil high standards of scholarly work is simply not true. There’s a reputational gamble in historical blogging under your own name; that is incentive enough to keep scholarly standards high.
Likewise, the idea that peer-review should be the start and end point of discussing “scholarship” is a poor starting point for debate on new forms of scholarly production. That’s a debate for another place, but a profession that values a system of anonymous peer-review to the absolute exclusion of publicly engaging and actively discussed writing is a flawed system.
4) Academic Gatekeepers
There were two big takeaways from the discussion. One, blogging is not scholarship–or that if it is scholarship, it is only under very limited conditions and not really applicable to the job market and promotion decisions. It’s useful only insofar as it builds good scholarly habits and a scholarly identity. The other, expressed mostly by Mike O’Malley, was that if professional standards of evaluating blogging as scholarship would develop, then it would ruin the creativity of blogging.
Yet later, some on the panel expressed surprise that graduate students didn’t, as a whole, seem to have much interest in blogging. O’Malley in particular said that he had to egg them on.
Why should this be remotely surprising, given the tenor of the preceding discussion? Academia is a profession that socializes its new recruits through graduate school. The job market is really tough, they say. You need to have a scholarly platform of research to be hired. Unless you’re rigorously focused on your teaching and writing and service, tenure will be a struggle. And even the positive panelists reinforced the drawbacks or cons of considering blogging as scholarship. That, from a panel of active bloggers!
With friends and supporters like that, why would any graduate student take up blogging?
That is what lies at the core of my misgivings about the panel. I was very conscious, participating, that I was the only junior/untenured scholar speaking. Academics who have reached tenure are considerably more likely to place investment in the standards they were forced to meet, even if they recognize some of the faults and the flaws in the system they worked their way through.
Much of the interesting innovation in blogging, though, comes from the rank of the untenured, the alt-ac, and the amateur enthusiasts. Discussions of whether blogging is scholarship shouldn’t make it seem like blogging is a scholarly indulgence.
Blogging may be more informal and have different structural demands and pressures to the peer-review model. But it’s providing some of the most interesting historical commentary out there right now, and with the right encouragement, it might start leading to some of the most original research, too. Taking that outside of peer review, though, threatens the gatekeepers. And if a discussion on engagement on blogging, by bloggers, attended by bloggers and blog enthusiasts, is going to be dominated by the tenured, that’s a real problem.
I can’t help but feel that the structure of the roundtable–as interesting and as informative as the discussion was–didn’t adequately convey the ways in which blogging actively enhances the quality of scholarship. And if a medium that enhances the quality of scholarship isn’t reflected in personnel processes? Quite frankly, that means the personnel processes are redundant and inadequate to the goals of academia.
5) Positive Advice
Point four turned out rather combative. And I try to live up to the panel’s maxim of not being a jerk. So I want to conclude by offering some thoughts on how blogging can be more easily integrated into scholarship, and how junior historians should approach blogging.
First, to junior historians:
a) Start a blog. As Little pointed out, writing begets writing, and blogging helps you generate a sense of community that is different from your immediate circle of peers. More than that, it makes your work accessible to those who may have an interest in what you’re doing, and it is a much more detailed way of establishing a scholarly identity than other digital media such as Twitter or a personal webpage.
b) If possible, start or join a group blog. The process of conversation, and establishing a blog identity, will be one of the most invigorating experiences you have in graduate school–especially because it helps break down other barriers that exist within the academy, be they strict definition of field, or geography, or whatever.
It also has other benefits–you won’t feel under pressure to produce as much content; individual blogging, while fun and free of some of the constraints and obligations of a group blog, also tends increasingly towards personal and political commentary, and that does carry greater risks than occasional, more in-depth pieces.
c) Don’t stress out about bleak warnings about blogging. The chances are, that if someone rates your work less highly because of your blogging, they were probably not that sold on your work in the first place. (I’m trying to imagine a world in which the production of thought-provoking writing would make someone less attractive to a potential employer). It will open more doors, and more conversations, than keeping the thoughts bottled up solely in your head or in early dissertation drafts.
To personnel committees:
a) Don’t go overboard. Regular blogging output isn’t the same as a monograph or a journal article. But the evaluation of only two types of production as scholarship stifles innovation and prevents the development of better historical work. In the same way that outside experts write letters to evaluate tenure applicants’ scholarship to non-experts, so letter writers could be asked to address the quality of scholarship displayed in a blog.
b) Recognize blogging as an avenue of scholarship. It clearly is. And with the right encouragement, it will become increasingly valuable to the profession.