I know how much everyone loves meta-blogging, so I've decided to dedicate a couple of days exclusively to it. All meta-blogging, all the time. I may even refer to points already presented, thereby engaging in the even more beloved practice of meta-meta-blogging. I aim to please ... and organize some ancillary thoughts for the MLA presentation, which I esteem finishing sooner than later. Now, on to the post:
Can blogging derail your career? The Chronicle wants to know. As someone currently without one, I'm probably not the best person to ask. (May account for why they didn't.) But I want to echo and expand on some of what was said.
When I was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, a senior colleague once told me his secret to academic success: One bad article equals five great ones. His point was that the worst thing a scholar can do is to publish too much, as opposed to too little. Any substandard publication creates a black mark that is difficult to erase.
As someone who has worked through disciplinary issues on his blog, this worries me. The implication is doubly worrisome, as it suggests that people who consider your blog unacademic—unworthy of mention—will read it, discover inchoate ideas or undigested commentary, and consider it reason enough to dismiss your published work. If blogs as a medium are incapable of producing serious work, then the obverse—that they not be treated a serious work—should also hold.
But we know this to be untrue. Careers are made and destroyed in the faculty lounge, the staff meeting, and five minutes of idle conversation while waiting out a storm. Scholars should base their impressions on more, but as human beings, we can't fault them for basing them on less. So what are bloggers to do with this online archive they've created?
As I scan through my archives, the first thing I notice is that I ought to revise many, many posts. Stop boxing your ears. I said it. Revise many, many posts. Stylistic infelicities abound in even the best posts. You could chalk up such mistakes to means and pace of production. I blog on a timer, for example. I start writing at 6 p.m. and I stop at 7 p.m. If there's no chance I'll finish the post before the timer chimes, I stop generating new prose and start working over old. I polish up some little something I'd half written already and put it on display. Why fixate on the polishing?
Because blogging is about paying attention to writing-qua-writing. The same cannot be said of academic writing. A successful academic must produce so much material in such a short amount of time, she must be born with or have already acquired a style prior to enrolling in her graduate program. The traditional outlets for stylistic development have disappeared. We no longer write letters—and we all know email rarely scales the epistolary heights of previous generations. Nor can we all be former creative writers turned scholars. So when are academics supposed to learn how to write? In seminars when the content-crunch of the quarter or semester buckles knees? During the dissertation process, when deadlines loom and there is always, without fail, more research to be done?
I know, I know, this isn't the familiar account for the declining standards of academic prose. Why hold complex post-structuralist thought responsible for the "quality" of our prose? Why not hold the rigors of contemporary academic life responsible instead? Granted, Derridean thought hot-dogs in Derridean prose and Judith Butler claims revolutionary intent drives her willful obscurity—but the Derridean hot-dogger and Butlerian revolutionary are exceptional cases. Most academics don't wrestle with Derridean philosophical complexity or share Butler's revolutionary commitments. They may appear to, but only because they lack practical experience in communicating abstruse thought to non-specialists.
When—as is the case in English deparments—everyone seems a specialist unto themselves, expert only in the subject and idiosyncratic method of their expertise, the inability to report their findings to colleagues hinders the development of the entire field. Wouldn't time spent slogging through hastily assembled essays be better invested elsewhere? A discipline-wide commitment to clarity—to the creation of a generation whose prose is as masterful as its thought is adroit—begins with the establishment of something not unlike the current blogosphere. A space in which difficult ideas are hashed in a language which does not, which cannot, partake of the excuse that its difficulty is inherent to the difficulty of its subject. As Derrida himself demonstrated, supple thought can be communicated in graceful prose.
Or it could be, if the person writing it had time and incentive enough to polish it.
So what? Blogs encourage experiments in, and the daily practice of, prose style. Why do so openly, archivably? Why not gather up your fellow graduate students and create a small, private online community instead? These questions are interrelated. A small, private online community possesses all the drawbacks of being a small, private online community. The extant familiarity means you wouldn't have to navigate uncharted intellectual waters. It would replicate, online, the already parochial quality of graduate life. You know the people you interact with, their ideas, opinions, and the strength with which they're held. You risk nothing in communicating with them.
They wouldn't be what blogs currently are—namely, an environment in which thought is ventured without benefit of knowing how it will be received. The possibility of a stranger encountering your work alters the manner in which you present it. You renounce some favored shortcuts and impart your work with the explanatory apparatus it should've probably had anyway. You forsake your professional tics. You could keep them, but gaudy reminders of presumed professional superiority won't win you many readers. Speaking of which ...
A lot of a university's long-run success depends on attracting good undergraduates. Undergraduates and their parents are profoundly influenced by the public face of the university. And these days, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed Web logger like Juan Cole or Dan Drezner is an important part of a university's public face. Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty. Yale loses from not having an equivalent.
Since I've been blogging, I've been approached by no fewer than 40 prospective English graduate students who want to know more about UCI's English department. When their interests fall far afield from mine, I forward their email (with permission) to graduate students better able to answer their questions. Think about how strange that is. The department spends thousands of dollars to impress the top students, convince them that UCI is the best—should be their first—option. I interacted with some of these students during the application process, after they'd been accepted, and while they were visiting. They kept me apprised of their wavering, then tentative, and finally firm decision to attend one graduate school or another. To them, I am an advertisement for the department with whom they feel comfortable interacting. I played a vital (if unacknowledged) role in the wooing of some of the top prospective students in the country. In the departmental ledger, that should count as a positive contribution.
Not that its absence bothers me. Official recognition would entail the burdens of official recognition. But no one can deny the increased visibility even a relatively obscure blog like mine brings. (This is the part when I mention that lots of people who were thinking of applying to Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and UCLA wrote to say that they'd never even heard of UCI before reading my blog. Unless I'm mistaken, one of them will matriculate here in the Fall.) All this despite—perhaps even because of—the fact that I'm not a public intellectual of the DeLong or Drezner variety. No one should look to me or my body of work before deciding their opinion about national policy.
But a person could do worse than to seek out what I've had to say about historicisms old and new, the validity of psychoanalysis as cognitive or literary theory, or definitions of realism in American literature. The audience for my expertise may be more narrow than DeLong or Drezner's, but blogs are working to expand it. Witness the popularity of someone like Michael Bérubé and see how the expansion of our narrow niche works to the discipline's benefit. People who have no clue what happens in English departments read his blog (and mine) and are disabused of the notion that we sit around appreciating literature on government dole. They acquire an accurate picture of the discipline and its foundational debates, and leave with, at the least, a more nuanced strawman to beat, behead and burn in effigy. With English departments increasingly under attack for having the audacity to be English departments, the value of such emissaries couldn't be higher.
To be continued ...