U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Blogging USIH: Only Paradoxes to Offer?

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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting post, Tim!

    I actually think that your first paradox is less a paradox than an opportunity.

    As you say, history is unusual in that books are really all that count. We get credit for refereed articles, but AFAIK, unlike in, e.g., the literary fields and some social sciences, no historian is getting tenured or promoted on the basis of them.

    But I actually think this opens up an opportunity for blogging to be taken more seriously. We already have an accepted and acknowledged category of scholarly work–the refereed article–which is both taken seriously and cannot, by itself, lead to promotion. While I have a hard time imagining (nor would I want) blog posts to get anyone tenure or promotion, I don’t see any reason that they shouldn’t (in principle) count for something. The way most history departments credit refereed articles (which, obviously, ought to be taken more seriously than non-refereed blog posts) suggests that we are used to dealing with categories of scholarship that are simultaneously taken seriously…yet not too seriously. This bodes well for academic blogging to eventually be given its due.

    FWIW, my department (which is an interdisciplinary unit, but a book-based one) counts blogging as service, not scholarship.

    As it happens I was about to write a post on a similar topic; your post gives me an excuse to wait a bit (so as not to step on your post) and procrastinate on my blogging by doing some grading ;-).

  2. Nice post, Tim. I agree with Ben, regarding your first paradox, that the trend will be for tenure and promotion considerations to include blogging in some fashion, probably as service rather than scholarship. In terms of scholarship, for historians, the book will remain the gold standard. Of course, to those many scholars who don’t have tenure-track jobs, the only professional incentive blogging offers, other than the chance at name recognition, will be more intrinsic, and this brings us to your second paradox.

    When we first started this blog over three years ago–which is incredible!–I was hesitant to contribute very often because I felt that my posts needed to be serious and up to the standards of intellectual history, and such posts required time that, I felt, took me away from my research and teaching. But I’ve since taken on a new attitude, and think of the blog more as a laboratory for both my research and teaching. It complements rather than competes with my other endeavors. My recent post on the Dissent symposium is a good example of this. It allowed me to think and write about the significance and relevance of the book I’m researching on the culture wars.

    As to your second paradox

  3. My thought of the blog was yet different. I thought that community building was one of its principle goals. The aim was to provide a forum where historians scattered around the academia and identifying themselves with various already well established scholarly communities, could come and learn what it meant to be a US intellectual historian—an identity which we were trying to define. That kind of task, at least in my eyes, seem very different than the goal of academic journal articles which is continuing already well established scholarly conversations. The latter seems better suited for created a subspecialty, the former for creating a new community bringing participants from differing backgrounds.

    Using the blog as a lab for experimenting with ideas and arguments seems it could serve the goal of creating or strengthening an intellectual community. Presenting in public our thinking paths and our assumptions, the questions we ask, the sources we examine, and receiving feedback on those, seems like an ideal way of forming a community, because it forces development in common of the assumptions and expectations that we have of each other as US intellectual historians, rather than as Americanists, or historians of science, or generic intellectual historians.

  4. Ben: I think it’s nice that your department at least considers blogging as professional service. That’s progress. The thing that bothers me about the professional book fetish is not so much that it hurts blogging, but that it also hurts refereed articles. When it comes to important decisions like tenure, you would think that quality trumps both length and medium. But it seems that we in the profession would rather see mediocre books than well-thought-out articles. What a shame.

    Andrew: What was the point you were going to make at the end, after your “As to your second paradox…” fragment? It looks like Blogger cut off your thought.

    Sylwester: Community building was most certainly one of our principle goals. Absolutely. You allude to this in your second paragraph, but that endeavor is augmented, or partially accomplished, by presenting ideas and scholarship such that we can all participate in the furthering of our individual projects. And article composition can be a lonely process—writing and research by yourself, usually on a topic about which your colleagues (near and far) know maybe 10-15 percent. And then there are long gaps between article submission, review comments, acceptance, and other changes. So USIH gives people outlets. I see USIH as a gathering place for both individuals and ideas.

    For all: I intentionally put a question mark by my assertion that USIH posts are “ephemeral.” But are they? Or rather, how ephemeral are they? Isn’t the current fear about the internet (a point mentioned in one of David’s posts) that our comments and thoughts never seem to die—that they hang around in both unwelcome and welcome fashions? It seems to me that the “ephemeral” nature is a function of the will behind the person or persons putting up content. So long as we want USIH to survive, we’ll make adjustments to keep our project going. In other words, what we’ve done here may be around for a really long time. – TL

  5. There is another way to interpret ephemeral, again going back to the different goals of writing. When we write books or even articles, we hope that our words will be relevant and used long into the future. When we are writing a draft it is ephemeral, because we know it serves a particular purpose here-and-now and will be replaced by something more permanent. That is, even though the record of both may survive into the future there is the intention of the author: is the text addressed to present readers (and is expected to become irrelevant in the future), or is is addressed to future readers (with the expectations of continued relevancy).

    The blog then can also serve the two function, the ephemeral function of community building, and “permanent” contributions to knowledge.

    Not sure if this helps to resolve either of Tim’s paradoxes.

  6. There is another thing we do quite often–comment on current events through a U.S. Intellectual lens.

    When I first joined the blog, I worried that my style was too breezy for a more formal site. (I still worry that at times, but that’s a different story). The year and a half I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a little of the formality lessening.

    I definitely think that if part of the point of a blog is to start a conversation, I would rather see more posts that are thoughtful, but not strenuously worked over than fewer posts that are carefully constructed. I often take the stance of trying to start conversations, rather than stating my opinion in a definitive post. But then I enjoy it when you all share posts with long, thought out ideas.

    Maybe that is one benefit of a group blog–we bring a lot of different styles and opinions.

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