Blogging: Will It Kill You?

Phil Ford

Drew at amusicology has written a fine thoughtful post on blogging, the gist of which is that it’s really damn hard sometimes, and will we get in trouble for doing it?

Sorry, I know, this is a pretty reductive summary. But, leaving aside matters of “academic paralysis by analysis” (a worthy topic for a blog post all on its own), Drew’s post belongs to a durable genre of writing that ask a basically (so far) unanswerable question: where is this whole blog thing heading? What are the benefits of blogging? What are the pitfalls?

As I say, I think these questions are unanswerable. It’s just so soon: when the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001, there were only a handful of blogs, but no other medium so perfectly captured the peculiar communicative logic and affect of the immediate post-9/11 era. For a while it made sense to talk about blogs the way Wired magazine talked up the internet in the mid-1990s, or the way Jerry Rubin talked up rock in the late-1960s. Bloggers were (as Glenn Reynolds put it) an “army of Davids” that would slay the Goliaths of the old “mainstream media.” Although Reynolds himself is a conservative,* the rhetoric was a variant of countercultural millenarianism: bloggers were developing a new style and structure of communication that both changed their consciousness and promised to change society itself. Bloggers now saw through the consensus ideology the Establishment promulgated to ensure its survival, and they now shared a privileged vantage point denied the squares in the MSM. The blogosphere could “fact-check your ass,” and no longer would covert consensus ideology go unchallenged. What’s more, the new insurgents couldn’t be shut down, bought off, or otherwise smothered by the weight of consensus liberalism. They were the wave of the future, and soon their privileged consciousness would spread to the masses. If you read Fred Turner’s riveting study of the technocratic utopianism of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog circle, this will all sound pretty familiar. And as usual things haven’t turned out quite the way the utopians have imagined. (This article is a great look at how the sense of unbounded possibility right after 9/11 has curdled.)

Even so, we’re still not done figuring out what blogging means, especially in academia, where it’s still early days yet. On the one hand, as Drew writes, “the opportunity to really cultivate one’s style as a writer, and voice as a thinking person, seems to be one of the ideal benefits of a blog.” This is certainly why I like to blog: you can stretch out as a writer, try different things, do stuff you couldn’t do in academic journals, experiment with new ideas, write about stuff that isn’t in your main line of research, crack jokes, post mash-ups of Charles Bukowski with Peanuts, and so on. And people will read it, too, and respond to it. It’s fun, and it makes you a better writer. As Gerald Graff points out, all academic writing takes the form of a conversation, but the conversations are virtual, and the idea of conversation is a heuristic; one of the tasks of graduate school education is to see articles and books as positions taken in a virtual conversation that stretches back through the writings of established figures in the field, and to see oneself as their interlocutor. Blog conversations literalize the idea of intellectual writing as conversation, and thus blogging is, if nothing else, excellent practice for more ambitious, longer-form kinds of writing.

Henry Farrell writes very well of the attractions of blog writing:

Academic blogs offer the kind of intellectual excitement and engagement that attracted many scholars to the academic life in the first place, but which often get lost in the hustle to secure positions, grants, and disciplinary recognition. Properly considered, the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today. Academic blogs, like their 18th-century equivalent, are rife with feuds, displays of spleen, crotchets, fads, and nonsenses. As in the blogosphere more generally, there is a lot of dross. However, academic blogs also provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison. Over the next 10 years, blogs and bloglike forms of exchange are likely to transform how we think of ourselves as scholars. While blogging won’t replace academic publishing, it builds a space for serious conversation around and between the more considered articles and monographs that we write.

But you can get yourself in trouble. Farrell’s article is part of a CHE symposium on whether blogging can hurt an academic career, a question occasioned by Yale’s decision last year not to hire Juan Cole, a Middle East scholar and prominent political blogger. (Dan Drezner’s piece is particularly sobering.) On the question of how blogging Drew writes,

. . . I am sure I’m not the only one out there who has received a pointed stare from a faculty member, and the stern words “you are critiquing the work of an established scholar.” Actually, I’ve gotten it more than once, and the primary meaning is almost always “you are out of your depth, stop talking.” There are other more subtle shadings, depending on the inflection: emphasizing respect for senior scholars in the profession, the virtues of being a generous scholar oneself, and weighing one’s own opinions carefully before, during and after their initial articulation.

The point here is that grad students – at least the ones who are interested in realizing their full potential in their chosen field – do not enjoy unlimited academic freedom, even though one of the main appeals of joining the professoriate is the freedom to explore, to question, to probe without restriction of any kind. Indeed, the prerogatives to broadly address one’s discipline, or sharply critique it, or simply speak capriciously, as one sees fit, do not seem to me truly secure until after tenure is received. The wrong feathers can always be ruffled, and grudges can be formed, often without the awareness that it is even happening.

And, as Cole’s case shows, it’s not just grad students who are taking a risk. Cole, it’s worth noting, issued a stern rejoinder: “The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic’s career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about “careers,” the tenured among us least of all.” So there you have it. Discuss.

For myself, I dunno. This blog can be a time-sucking monster, and sometimes I’m tempted to pack it in. But then I get an idea for something I want to try out, or I read another blogger’s post (like Drew’s for ex.) that just I can’t leave alone. (You might also get to meet some pretty cool people. Hey, Scott!) But it’s hard to tell what effect any of this might be having on my career. I guess I’ll find out. But there is still such a tiny handful of musicology blogs, and none of them are very old, so it’s especially hard to say where this is all heading. But I guess I wish I could find a way to say to my non-blogging musicological brothers and sisters, come on in, the water’s fine.

*calls himself a libertarian, but c’mon

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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1 Response to Blogging: Will It Kill You?

  1. Rebecca M says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and helpful post. I am also trying to figure out where blogging might fit in the academic arena.
    Once paper publishing became an obtainable reality via the printing press, “everyone” did it. And while I realize the fallacy of the “everyone’s doing it” argument, I do think that academicians have a certain obligation to keep up with the times. If we consider ourselves keen observers of culture, then we must engage with it in an authentic way. While I still enjoy and value academic journals, they limit conversation. In the time it takes for an issue of a journal to be published, facts, opinions and cultural climes can change.
    The problem (if you want to call it that) with the blogosphere is the sheer amount of information. We are forced to make decisions about what to read and what not to read. Our criteria may not always be the best. It is, however, OUR criteria. This is a liberty that should not be underestimated. I, for one, am grateful that I can read your ideas without censure or third-party approval.
    Will blogging replace other forms of academic exchange? I hope not. But I do think we’d be fools not to add it to our current modes of discourse.

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