Monday, May 28, 2007

Scholarship and the New Media

(cross-posted at BlogHer)

NOTE: Interesting discussion about anonymity in the comments of this post. I'd love to hear others' opinions on the issue, especially bloggers who have "come out" in some venues but not on their blog itself. (Note that this is my situation. Google "trillwing" or "The Clutter Museum" and you'll get my real name, but you won't find my real name on this blog. It's a thin, sad little veil of pseudonymity, but it's what I'm comfortable with.) Anyway, comments and debate are welcome! If popular consensus is I should remove the link between a particular blogger's pseudonym and real name, I will, but I'm not yet convinced it's necessary.

Does academic blogging actually broaden the public sphere and democratize intellectual discourse?

That was one of the many questions raised at a panel discussion last Wednesday at UC Davis. Panelists included Tedra Osell of Bitch Ph.D., Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephalous and The Valve, and Brad DeLong of Grasping Reality with Both Hands. The topic? Scholarship and the New Media, with a special focus on history. I'd like to share some of the highlights of the talk.

Kaufman explained that The Valve has less do with literary theory and practice than with forging a sense of scholarly community with its own code of ethics and sensibility. He and others wanted to see an online forum where humanities scholars could discuss shared interests and concerns unhindered by the bureaucracy and politics of the average university department.

In the parts of the academic blogosphere I frequent--mostly blogs written by women, since that's my beat here at BlogHer--few writers discuss their work directly because it would compromise their anonymity. It was interesting, then, to hear Kaufman talk about how much support he has received for his work when he discusses it online. He even offered to share a manuscript with those who would be willing to read it, and he had 66 people offer to comment on it. The response, he says, was "interdisciplinary in the best sense of the word" and an indication of the birth of a new kind of intellectual culture. At the same time, he said of sharing his work, it "can seem like the worst-ever dissertation defense, going up against the entire university, all of whom have a quibble with something you're saying."

Osell countered that Kaufman "had it backwards. I have a really utopian view," she said, "of what blogging and the web can really accomplish. One of the things I love about online communities and blogging and commenting is that it recreates what can happen in an online seminar, only on a much bigger scale."

She continued: "Despite the fact that everyone pisses me off, I still have an optimistic view of being online as a way of creating a public sphere. Does it get realized? No. Does everyone have access to a computer? No. Does everyone have time? No." But there are, she said, agreeing with Kaufman, signs that academics have created, at least among themselves, an "enabling fiction" of a truly democratic public sphere. She historicized her discussion of pseudonymous academic blogging by discussing 18th-century essay periodicals, which were also published pseudonymously. (She writes about the connections between these periodicals and blogging in her article Where Are the Women?
Pseudonymity and the Public Sphere, Then and Now

DeLong went even further back in history, back to Emperor Frederick II and his founding of the University of Naples Frederick II. In so doing, he set up scholarly communication in 13th-century Naples. DeLong also discussed Machiavelli, who, when he was banished to the Florentine countryside, spent four hours a day reading from the books which, three generations after Gutenberg, were becoming more readily available and serving as a conduit of scholarly conversation.

But books in themselves aren't enough, DeLong said. So "we go on our rounds" through classes, working with our advisers, departmental meetings, disciplinary conferences, going to the library, etc. But we still want more channels of scholarly communication.

DeLong told the story of a professor of economics who gets a phone call at 3 a.m. The caller says, "I want to dispute your calculation of the weight of the 12th-century Scottish ox." Three possible responses from the professor: 1) Does this guy know what time it is? 2) Doesn't this guy know who I am? 3) Finally, here's someone I can talk to.

But, DeLong points out, the caller isn't next door, isn't in the department. Thanks to the Internet, such conversations have become broader, geographically and disciplinarily.

UC Davis history professor Ari Kelman commented on the session. He pointed out that there's an article of faith among most of the academic bloggers he reads: humanities scholars and social scientists are in the midst of a crisis. We communicate our ideas in a way that no one can understand except for our very closest colleagues. He pointed out that many in the (largely history department) audience may not accept that premise, but added, "I invite you to read the books that cross my threshold for review or the journals we're supposed to be reading--or, at your very great peril, go to a conferece and actually attend the sessions." Exceptions to this mediocrity, he argued, are rare.

Kelman said the panelists seemed to agree, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that academic blogging may be a cure for this failure to communicate in a way the public understands. It's "a piece of conventional wisdom in the blogosphere: We are undergoing another structural transformation of the public sphere. Academic blogging democratizes scholarly discourse. It invites more people into the coffeehouse."

He continued: "There is something remarkable about being able to share one's ideas with a potentially massive audience of interested readers." The members of this audience need not be credentialed, though blog readers tend to be white, very well educated, and certainly affluent enough to be able to afford both a computer an internet access.

Perhaps even of greater value than a blog's large audience, Kelman said, is the reciprocal relationship between blogger and reader. And "this conversation takes place in seconds instead of the glacial pace of academic publishing." very quickly, he pointed out, someone can say, "You nitwit, you haven't read my book!" Kelman added wryly, "You don't need to wait for the review."

In the end, however, Kelman said he was unconvinced. "The energy that goes into blogging isn't rewarded--yet, at least--in a university setting. It may make your writing better, raise your profile, refine your ideas. But I don't yet know if the cost-benefit analysis works out. I don't know if blogging actually makes for better writing and better thinking."

Overall, it was an interesting discussion, and one that gets continued every day, in venues large and small, online and off. I, of course, tend to be on the side of the panelists: blogging is a way of fabricating a new public sphere for intellectual discussion, and one need not pay university tuition or have a Ph.D. to participate. Yay for that.


Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that Bitch Ph.D. is anonymous - there's no link to any identity on her site. Given your previous post on academic anonymity (and her posts on similar subjects) I have to say I'm surprised to see you connect a "real" name to the pseudonym. True, anyone who really cares might be able to figure it out, but why draw them a map?

If she hasn't expressly "come out", it seems collegiality would require removing her name from her pseudonym.

trillwing said...

Anonymous, I understand your concern, but she has come out. Just to be safe, before I linked to her name, I Googled "Tedra Osell" and "Bitch Ph.D.," and indeed her name has been linked to her site several times by other sites much more prominent than The Clutter Museum, including Inside Higher Ed.

I'm not in the business of outing bloggers. I take anonymity seriously because I understand the stakes.

Since she was talking about blogging, it's relevant that she's a prominent blogger. In addition, this is not the first time I've seen her speak in public in a venue because she is Bitch Ph.D. In the case of this panel, *both* her blogging identity and her scholarly identity are important.

That said, if *she* is concerned that I'm going to blow her cover any higher than it has already been lifted, and she asks me to remove the link, I'm more than happy to respect her wishes.

trillwing said...

Anonymous, I hope I didn't come across as strident in that last comment. I am open to others' opinions--see my new preface to the post itself--and will take down the link if enough people think I'm in the wrong here.

That said, I have linked her pseudonym and real name on a previous post on BlogHer when I was reporting on an earlier talk she gave at Emory University, and didn't hear a peep from anyone.

Still, I'm all ears.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your new introduction to the post! I expressly came to this post from Blogher, because I didn't want to comment there and draw more attention to it. I hope people comment here about the issue you've raised.

I do apologize for not doing the google-thing myself before writing here. I just remember the big todo in 2005 about her identity, and the somewhat threatening issues about outing that surrounded her at that time. Obviously she's decided to make her name known, albeit within specific circles, and likely so that her scholarship and her previous work as Bitch will be received as the academic work that it is.

I met another academic blogger at the first BlogHer who was careful about protecting her identity at that time, but who has also become a bit more open in the ensuing years. The thin veil you speak of seems to be increasingly employed of late - are people becoming bolder, do they wait until getting tenure (or leaving the academy), or does it become just too troublesome to maintain multiple identities over a long period of time? I'm still choosing anonymity, but doubtless there's a breadcrumb trail someone could follow, if they really cared to. I don't think about it much, but you're right - it's there.

Phantom Scribbler said...

My husband is an academic who blogs under his real name. He blogs about policy issues rather than academic topics, but what has fascinated him most about the blogging experience is the way that he has been embraced by the people who are most directly affected by those policy decisions. It's not that they agree with him -- in general, they violently disagree -- but they are so grateful to be invited to participate in a discussion that was previously confined to restricted-access journals and conferences.

Anonymous said...

Bitch PhD wears red hats to conferences. You'd never know her power bird would be a crow!

Gotta be careful no!


Anna said...

Interesting discussion. I myself have been wondering lately about "out-ing myself" - though I am thinly veiled. I am an academic - well, almost - to be honest, I'm a PhD languishing on the job market and worried about being googled - I read in The Chronicle for Higher Ed about schools doing this. I think when this hiring season ends and I am, most likely, again unemployed and moving on from academia I will probably not care if I am completely out-ed as a blogger.

I have never known any academic bloggers personally in my field so I do not know the impact that being "found out" would have on my candidacy. Admittedly, I am perhaps erring on the side of caution a bit more than necessary but when one needs a job, every thing counts.

Not sure if any of this is adding to the conversation, but it's another aspect of mixing blogging with academia.