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Bloggers in the Flesh

December 30, 2004

Blogging may be too young to have a formal MLA caucus or scholarly sessions. But if you are a blogger, you don't rely on establishment organizations. You post something on your blog and see what happens.

What happens is that six humanities scholars at the MLA meeting get together. Some are long-time friends or admirers. (One of those refers to another as one of his "blogparents.") Some had never met or even seen one another's blogs. And when I show up, the bloggers -- being people deeply committed to sharing information -- don't object to a reporter listening in and asking questions (as long as I agree not to out those who don't use their real names on their blogs).

It's hard to draw too many conclusions about these blogs. They haven't been around that long (the oldest one in this group started in 2002). And it's hard to know what impact the blogs will have on these academics' careers (the oldest is 38 and none have tenure).

But as you would expect of humanities scholars, these bloggers spend time thinking about what they write, how their words are read, and the context in which their blogs operate.

"I assume that my department chair may read anything I write," says Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park, whose blog goes by his name. If that makes him a little cautious on some issues, he also sees it helping in relations with his students, who he knows find his blog because they tell him about it, and respond to it.

"I think it's a real ice-breaker," he says.

But student readers can also raise ethical issues. Charles Tryon, whose blog is The Chutry Experiment, is a film studies scholar and postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He taught a course on the election this fall, teaching students to analyze speeches and advertisements as "argumentative texts," and during the semester he avoided politics on his Web site (although he normally will include political comments) to avoid making students feel uncomfortable if they disagreed with him. (In the end, one of his students found an anti-Zell Miller diatribe in Tryon's archives, so his cover was blown, but he still stayed away from politics while teaching the course.)

The academic blogs, like most blogs, mix personal and professional interests. Thanks for Not Being a Zombie, by a literature professor in the Midwest who prefers to remain anonymous, has recent entries on holiday gifts, a trip to New York City, the death of his cat, the role of mentorship in academe, and a grant program of the U.S. Education Department.

"I like that the blog says, 'here's what we do,' " Zombie says. "We're interested in 18th century literature and indie rock." Too many academics interact only with academics, he says. But his blog has brought him into contact with other bloggers in his local area, and he tries to write about his scholarly research in ways that they can understand -- and about his music and other interests in ways that round him out to other scholars.

Miriam E. Burstein, author of The Little Professor, agrees. "The format forces clarity. You can't use jargon."

Burstein is an expert on Victorian literature who teaches at the State University of New York College at Brockport. While she writes about her area of specialty on her site, she's as likely as not to review books outside of her area, or to comment on other developments in her life.

Because of that mix, she doesn't expect that her blog will come up in tenure or promotion discussions. "It's professional-related, but outside my field."

But that doesn't mean that these bloggers don't see their blogs directly contributing to their work.

Kirschenbaum has posted sections from his book in progress on his blog and received helpful advice. Tryon's film commentary would probably fill a book.

Dave E., a Ph.D. candidate, is more ambivalent about the role his blog plays professionally. "It's where I do naïve and reckless things," and much of its focus is on his personal experiences and feelings. But just as he finishes saying that, one of the other bloggers points out that his scholarly work focuses on autobiography, so maybe this is relevant.

Of the bloggers gathered here, all have their own blogs except for Nick Montfort, a doctoral candidate in computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the contributors to Grand Text Auto, which is produced by five people and describes itself as "a group blog about computer mediated and computer generated works of many forms: interactive fiction, net.art, electronic poetry, interactive drama, hypertext fiction, computer games of all sorts, shared virtual environments, and more."

The five authors are both theorists and developers in the field.

The group nature of the project encourages "focused conversation," Montfort says.

Of the six bloggers at this meeting, five are men and the gender inbalance (not just here, but online generally) is a topic of much discussion in the academic blogosphere. Burstein and others say that there is much speculation that many female bloggers in academe use male or gender-neutral pseudonyms. She says she has done so herself in some comments on other blogs. "If it's not clear, people assume the author is male, and that's not necessarily true," she says.

(Other academic bloggers think that the gender gap is moving in the other direction. Bitch Ph.D. reports that she finds more and more of the academics who are blogging are women: "Why don't men keep academic blogs? Is it that their verbal skills are less developed, so they are less likely to write as a hobby? Is it that their natural hunting instincts make them less interested in forming communities? Is it that their competitive nature means they are less likely to put their thoughts out in a public forum?")

Politically, these bloggers are left-leaning, which isn't shocking in the context of a gathering at the MLA. While commenting on political matters -- those involving governments and the academy -- is a part of many of the blogs, the commentary on these blogs is quite civilized, especially compared to some of the venom online.

Zombie does get angry sometimes. When Jacques Derrida died this year, a conservative blogger commented that there would be "a little less drivel in the world." Zombie says he was so angry that he wrote an "obscenity laced" entry attacking the conservative columnist. But a few days later, he went back and took out the obscenity, wanting to focus on his argument.

The bloggers here do read humanities blogs that don't correspond with their politics. Several cite Critical Mass as a blog they respect, even if they don't agree with it. That blog, which offers commentary on the state of American higher education, is by Erin O'Connor, who teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania.

None of these bloggers earn any money off their sites, and they pay for any technology they need (although that's usually less than $100 a year). Their commitment is evident when they laugh at the question of finances with regard to their blogs. They view the blogs as just part of life.

Says Montfort: "When someone gets a new car, you don't ask, 'And are you going to make money on the car?' It's just something they need."

 

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