Some time ago one of our own, David Sehat, started a series called “Blogging Academic Knowledge.” His series lasted for only a couple of posts, but he covered the general nature of online communities, professional authority, fostering discussion, and the perils of online communication (i.e. mobbing others, comment misinterpretation, anonymity, etc.). Our discussion of David’s posts was rather limited—probably a disappointment to him, but also perhaps a consequence of the fact that he echoed our questions and none of us had answers. In any event, I will extend David’s discussion in a narrow way to blogging about U.S. intellectual history. In other words, let’s talk about what we do here at a meta level—go epistemological on blogging USIH.
After three plus years of posting and observing posts here, when it comes to writing directly about intellectual history I have observed some paradoxes.
All of us—here at least—are generally committed to disseminating knowledge about USIH through paper and electronic media. However, the profession, particularly our subfield, values books most of all. They’re the currency of the realm. This works against a professional doing any heavy lifting on either articles (refereed or no) and other shorter pieces. It makes the historian feel guilty for committing too much time and energy to ephemeral(?) media—precisely the kind of media that reaches the most people. That feeling and the book-as-currency issue prevents historians of the intellectual life from disseminating knowledge in reader friendly, affordable formats. This is paradox #1.
I have also come to believe that many intellectual history topics are not conducive to blogging. There are two reasons for this. First, USIH topics often require adequate depth in order to explain nuance. In a blog format this opens one up to the charge of treating complex topics too lightly. No intellectual historian wants to be accused of shallowness. Second, no one wants to read long posts! But USIH topics seem to often require lengthy treatments. So the “topical problem” is paradox #2.
Solutions? I’m not sure I have any for paradox #1. The profession is what it is. No regular USIH blogger will succeed in the profession if blogging is all the historian does. Period. However, an answer to paradox #2 goes some way toward helping with #1.
I believe that more intellectual historians need to see blogs as book and article laboratories. This works in the early stages of drafting because all good writers know that draft #1 never, never, never (yes, I’m partly emphasizing this for myself!) really looks like the final version. Writers who transition straight from drafts to final copies are the exception, not the rule. Because of this no one should fear posting early ideas for an article. And if this blog-as-lab approach applies for articles, it applies to book projects triply. Think of all the things that are cut from chapter drafts. Using the leavings from the cutting room floor for blog posts seems like a fruitful line of thinking.
Over the past year or two I have noticed that many authors are posting early drafts of material in order to solicit comments for revisionary purposes. This is no different than passing around chapter drafts to colleagues. Why not do it on a smaller scale, with chapter sections? And what better audience for revisionary-comment purposes than USIH blog followers?
I also think that blogging involves a commitment to professional service on the part of the historian. We must place a higher value on brief discourses and the simple underscoring of ideas in order to popularize the subfield. Indeed, one can ponder without being ponderous or pedantic. Intellectual historians should be content to post shorter pieces and be happy with longer comment sections—and participating in those comment strings. Indeed, posting shorter pieces prevents one from being ponderous on a topic before the audience gets on board. In fact it’s probably best to post only 1/4-1/3 of a longer post one has drafted and leave the rest for comments if your audience feels your momentum.
Although this post applies of course to my USIH colleagues immediately as well as broadly, it also adds to the conversation about ~how~ to blog academic knowledge.
What are your blog strategy ideas, for intellectual historians or speaking broadly? Has this post hit near the mark in identifying the problems with blogging on USIH topics? – TL
PS: My title comes with apologies to Joan Wallach Scott. I can’t say, however, that my title has much to do with the main thrust of that book.