Tuesday, January 02, 2007

How Do I Make This Count? A Post about the Value of Academic Blogging

On the 28th, when I was at MLA, I found my way into the first of the two blogging panels on which Michael Berube spoke (also with Amardeep Singh and, in a kind of "one of these things is not like the others" twist, one of my absolute favorite critics, Rita Felski, who talked about phenomenology and the role of pleasure in reading and not at all about blogging). First of all, I felt very (privately) fancy because Berube mentioned me, or, rather, Dr. Crazy. (By the way, I've been pronouncing Berube's name incorrectly in my head for years - burr-OOH-bay instead of BEAR-ooh-BAY - and yes I realize the accents -which of course I don't reproduce here because I'm too lazy - tell you how to pronounce it, but, well, all I can say in my defense is that his name was a word I'd never had cause to say except for in my head, so I didn't pay attention to the accents. Also, related to this digression, it turns out everybody pronounces "pseudonymously" as sood-AH-nihm-uhs-lee (like anonymously, I suppose) but all this time I've been pronouncing it SOO-dough-NIHM-uhs-lee, and I've got to say, while the other way does make a kind of sense, I like my way better :)

OK, that was a hugely long digression. Where was I? Oh, yes, Berube. (And should I call him Michael now? Since we've met? Probably should - and thanks again for dinner, Michael Berube! - but somehow it feels pompous to talk about him as "Michael" on the blog - like I'm trying to seem like I'm in some sort of inner circle when I'm totally not - it's just that once you meet people you generally don't call them by their last names.... Anyway for the purposes of this post, I'm going to stick with Berube, because I didn't know him when I went to the talk, and in some respects I'm using him like a critical source, so it feels more natural. I don't want to be one of those people who starts talking about critics like they're their old friends from summer camp. I hate when people do that.) Berube's paper was a version of the paper that he gave at MMLA, and so very early on, he talked about Dr. Crazy. (And how weird is it to talk about myself in the third person? All of this is really confusing.) Now, first of all, I felt really gratified by being "cited" at MLA, even if it wasn't "me" being cited but rather my blogging persona. Also, I liked the reaction Berube got when he mentioned me. But after the initial laugh-line, Berube went on to talk for a second about the title of my blog in the context of how he perceives his blogging - he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that blogging for him is reassigned time - he does not perceive it as being part of his job in a formal way, as writing books or teaching or serving on committees are.

But then, during the Q & A, a woman asked, "How do we make this (blogging) count? You know, for things like tenure?" I've got to say, when she asked the question, I thought to myself, "you just don't get it," even though I know that a lot of people are considering this question seriously and are talking about the transformative power that blogging might have in terms of what counts as scholarship. For me, though, I love that I have a public writing space that doesn't quite count - and Berube's response to the questioner was similar. He said that he doesn't at all see his blog as scholarship - if anything it would be service and public outreach - and that he's not sure that faculty members should invite administrators and those higher up in the chain of command into everything that they do. I agree with this.

The fact of the matter is that I think that my blogging would potentially be a positive if I revealed that I do so to my university (which is VERY focused on public engagement activities) but it would change the blog if I did so. As it is, this version of the blog is very toned down since the days of the Chronicles, when I really believed that people wouldn't care who I was and try to ferret out my "true" identity. Once I realized that a lot of people really do care what my "true" identity is, I did change the tone of my writing on my blog. Still, though, how much more would I have to change the blog if it was - or had to be - a professional document?

I've got to admit that I often wonder about these people who push for blogs to count as scholarship (or even for them to count in some other area of their promotion and review). Is it that they don't have enough traditional scholarship going on that they want to pad the cv with blog writing? As Berube said (either socially or at one of the panels, I'm not sure), his posts are not revised, polished pieces of academic prose, unless of course he's re-publishing his own writing that was originally produced in an academic context. The stuff that he writes for the blog might become a draft of something that he will write for academic consumption, but it's not, in itself, "finished" in the way that writing in another venue has to be. That doesn't mean that his blog is without value (some might say it has even more value, as it's not for such a specialized audience), but it does mean that it has a different kind of value than does, say, a journal article or a book.

To me, that is a good thing. I'm active in traditional scholarship, and I don't need my blog to be a vehicle for professional advancement nor do I want it to be. I like that I can put whatever I want on the blog - from silly memes and quizzes, to pics of my cat (and yes, I'll post some more of those soon), to long considerations about teaching or the profession or whatever. Perhaps the distinction between the professional me and Dr. Crazy is artificial, but I think that it helps me to feel that I have a writing space in which I'm both accountable (to readers) and in which I can play a bit (because those readers won't be evaluating my tenure file).

In thinking about it, I believe that one of the reasons that blogging is most gratifying to me is because it is "service" that is actually voluntary. I remember in a post a while ago a few people commented about the generosity of blogging, and at the time I felt sort of sheepish, like people didn't realize that I'm totally a selfish person and that I don't feel like I'm blogging for "others" in the sense of being some kind of do-gooder. But then I realized when at MLA and while talking to the bloggers I met that in fact my blog counts as the purest service I do. In my job, I've come to equate service with the following: obligation, bureaucracy, tedium, feeling burdened, pressure, and a slew of other pretty negative things. Service is the part of my job that I most resent, mainly because I feel like service at my institution is compulsory, which pretty much goes against what I think "service" is supposed to mean. Now, I'm not such a brat that I don't realize that one has to perform service activities to keep universities running, but I think that when junior faculty aren't protected from certain kinds of service and when service is construed as something that has nothing to do with one's passions and interests, that it becomes less and less likely that individuals will find "service" gratifying. In contrast, what I do on this blog? I think this is what service is supposed to feel like. I'm doing something that doesn't "count" - that isn't intended as a line on a cv and that isn't conceived as something about which I have no passion, a compulsory activity. At the same time, though, I am being a "public intellectual" - I'm putting a face on this profession (even if, ironically, that face is something most readers have to imagine), and that is a good thing for undergraduates, graduate students, non-academics, or even people higher up on the academic food chain who don't know what working conditions are for junior professors at certain kinds of institutions.

My blogging "counts" in really important ways, even if it doesn't "count" for the academic me that stands behind the pseudonym in terms of professional advancement. I suppose the fact that Berube mentioned Dr. Crazy was a testament to just how much it counts - as was the excitement that people to whom I revealed my identity expressed when they found out that I am not just a literary scholar and a professor and a teacher but also that I am "Dr. Crazy."

Will I ever blog under my own name, the name by which students and colleagues know me professionally? I think a lot about that. I suspect that when I get tenure, I might make the choice to reveal publicly who "Dr. Crazy" is. But will I give up the moniker? I don't think so. Not to give too much importance to the identity of "Dr. Crazy," but I think that "Dr. Crazy" is an important figure for a lot of people, and I think if I took away the Crazy and replaced it with my actual name that something would be lost. I think that this blog might become the kind of service that I despise rather than the kind that I seek out. That said, it was nice to let some people know who Dr. Crazy is - to be able to talk about what I'm doing as Dr. Crazy openly - if only for a few days. It was nice to be part of a community of people who are doing the same thing, in person and as people rather than as disembodied voices.

Should everybody run out and start a blog? Not necessarily. For some, the genre is constraining and creates unnecessary pressure, making them feel more pressure to write (and not a good kind) and pressure to acquire more readers, etc. For me, though, the genre has been freeing. It's taught me to write in ways that are accessible (and I hope smart at the same time). It's given me confidence as a thinker when I didn't used to have much confidence in myself in that regard. It's given me a community of people whom I'd never have met without this virtual identity.

I've got more to say about MLA and about blogging, but I think I'll sign off for now. I suppose my point at the end of this post is this: blogging DOES have value - precisely because it doesn't "count" in traditional ways. What I hope happens, as this genre expands and becomes more firmly entrenched in academic culture, is that we find a way to retain space for blogs that don't necessarily count in those traditional ways, while making room for blogs that do count in more traditional ways. I'm not sure why it has to be one or the other.


luolin said...

I like what you say about blogs and service. I can see how some blogs that focus on the less personal side of professional issues might be relevant. (If that makes sense-it's just that your blog obviously talks about professional issues, but I am thinking of how profgrrrl mentioned once that she had a different blog that was purely about her academic field. Those kind of blogs are less likely to be anonymous as well, I suspect.)

At my university, volunteer work in the community counts as service if it is related to one's field, so for a lit prof it would be Girl Scout troop leader, no, but tutoring high school kids, yes.

And the things that don't count might be more important at times (for me, at least, in keeping me sane and happy).

Hilaire said...

I love this post, Dr. Crazy! I love the way you write about the pseudonymous blog being a form of service - you being the public intellectual.. That is such a great - and accurate, i think - way to think about it.

(I heart Rita Felski, too! She was the external on my dissertation defense. Intimidating, but very good.)

Anonymous said...

It's very interesting to hear about that panel session and how in your field some people are pushing for blogs to be 'scholarly'. I am in a discipline that straddles the sciences and social sciences (I am on the science side), so nobody in my discipline would ever consider anything like a blog to be scholarship (not that MLA-people would, either but I'm trying to make a distinction between the kinds of writing we tend to do in our respective disciplines). I use my blog as more of (pseudo)public journal- a place to vent, get ideas about life in academia, discuss teaching with people outside of my own U, etc. It's been a little over a year now and I also have a few regular readers (blog friends that I hope to meet!) I find it to be fun diversion and semi-productive tool of procrastination! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Crazy.

helenesch said...

Yeah, great post! I don't have a blog (for various reasons, some having to do with not wanting people to find out, but also b/c I think I'd feel too much pressure to write). But as someone who comments on a handful of blogs with some regularity, I have to say that I'd feel less comfortable even commenting freely if I knew who the person was (and knew that everyone else knew that, too).

Especially pre-tenure, many of us are worried about what others think of us (perhaps a bit paranoid even) since so much of the profession is based on reputations. I think it's easier to create a sense of community when that worry is lessened by the pseudonymous nature of these blogs. I've said things in comments (not necessarily here) that I wouldn't share with my colleagues, but that I would and do share with my friends. It feels safter to do this in a place where I can talk honestly without worrying about what people might think (and how that might in some way impact my career). And, yeah, "helenesch" isn't anything remotely like my real name.

All this is to say that I would be much less interesteed in commenting on blogs--and maybe even in reading them--if they were something more official, written in part to satisfy a service requirement of some sort.

Of course, that's not to say you aren't performing an important service (you are!). In any case, I'll stop rambling, since I'm really just agreeing with everything you said above.

Anonymous said...

A great post, Dr. Crazy. You almost--almost--make me wish I'd been at MLA.

(Maybe it's just my ageing eyes, but I do find the stripes make it hard to read here--and that's a bummer because you have a great, great, funny blog which I am pretty devoted to.)

Happy New Year!!

Terri Porter said...

wow that is SUCH big news. I love Berube, no matter how you spell it or say it. when he sings those Sinatra songs I just go weak.

go go go dr. crazy. will your be reporting on your job interviews here soon?

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody :) And if others want to comment, please don't hesitate. (I find that when I pop in to respond, it often shuts down discussion. Don't know why that is. But I'm reading comments people leave with interest, and I'd especially be interested to hear what others who saw one or the other of the blogging panels think about what I've written here, as well as what others who weren't in attendance think.)

To Anne: I'm so sorry you find the template hard to read. I've got to say, I don't see it changing any time soon (A. because I'm lazy, and B. because I really like it, in part for its craziness, which I think is the very thing that can get in the way of readability....). Do you read at all through bloglines? That might be easier on the eyes. Another idea is to open two MS Word windows and to use them to cover up all but the texts of the posts, but that seems like a huge effort.... Another idea, also a fairly huge effort would be to copy and paste the posts into a more readable MS Word document....

Hell, maybe I SHOULD change my template :)

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and I probably won't be posting in detail about the interviewing experience. I just feel like it may not be the most auspicious thing to do at this juncture - maybe when the process is over I'll post about it? I don't know, I need to think about it a bit more. Suffice it to say for the moment that I'm happy with how things went and now it's time to wait and to stop myself from replaying how things went in my head.

Mel said...

It was so great to meet and hang out with you at MLA! The whole experience has given me lots to think about . . .

Like you I certainly don't expect, or want my blog to "count" --that's really been part of the point. I'm not sure I understand why some people want it to (unless you're one of the very small people specializing in new media communications etc, so that maybe it would be relevant).

Dr. Crazy said...

It was great to meet and to get to talk with you, too, Mel! And I agree: it makes sense if one is specializing in New Media it makes sense to want blogging to count. But if one is a lit person... and if one does not yet have tenure so can't really "specialize" in writing about the profession... yeah, I don't quite get the impulse to want blogging to "count" as scholarly activity. And if one wants it to count as service, well, I suppose I see that impulse except for I agree with Michael (Berube - I can't bring myself just to write his first name yet) on this one: I don't want my evaluators to know every detail of every bit of my life. He gave a great example of a colleague of his who does a number of community service activities, whom he advised not to "count" those things so as not to have every part of his life evaluated. This isn't just about blogging - it's about keeping some portion of one's life free of surveillance. To me, I need parts that are free of the watchful eye of those who evaluate me, parts that are just for me. Even if the choice to be an academic is a lifestyle choice, I just can't get on board with the idea that every single part of my life is about my job, or should be. Maybe this is technically about my job, this blog, but it's NOT my job, and I don't want it to be. I hope that makes some sense (not sure if it does).

Michael Bérubé said...

It was great to meet you at last, Dr. C. And would that all dinner restaurants within walking distance of the MLA were like unto Rangoon! Funny thing, but I pronounce "pseudonymously" the same way you do, because otherwise the "pseudo" gets lost and it sounds like you're talking about Sue and Don. We should start saying "ah - noh - NIHM - uhs - lee" too, just to mess people up. And I have finally decided that my name has no correct pronunciation at all, sort of like "chimera."

Anyway, great post, and good luck with the j*b s**rch! As for me, I'll be singing classic mid-period Sinatra on my upcoming "Strangers in the Night" tour.

Anonymous said...

On blogging counting: the space where I *can* imagine it counting (not that I would want it to!) is in field of "creative nonfiction writing." To give a fictional example: if I had a blog about apples, say, and wrote "cooked" (to use Berube's distinction) essays on apples and posted them there, it wouldn't be much different than if I took the same essay and submitted it to a literary journal that specialized in literature on apples. What would be different, of course, is the review/editorial process. Those same essays on apples wouldn't help my tenure case any more just sitting on my hard drive than they would on a blog but, oh, if someone agreed to publish them, even on an *electronic* publication.

Anonymous said...

Another thing that's interesting here is that "counting" means "toward tenure," as if nothing else counts. I oversimplify, obviously, but there are a lot of ways in which my psuedonymous blog does count, just not in monetary terms.

But the point you make stands: you are a public intellectual, and as a public intellectual, and an owner of a fabulous man-kitty, and as a wearer of tiaras and animal-prints, you help demystify academia, which is a service as much as anything.

Even so, things needn't always have tangible value to be valuable: we're all familiar enough with the basic premises of Marxism to know that measuring every activity against a capitalist service economy only makes us more in thrall to it's devious charms. And while I'm as bourgeois as the next upwardly mobile academic, I also don't mind opting out in tiny tiny ways.

Great post, and it was a pleasure putting a face to the pseudonym! I only wish I'd gotten to hang with the cool kids for a little bit longer (though it looks like I got a pub out of the panel I ditched you for).

Anonymous said...

Yes, great post, I heartily endorse your conclusions. This idea of things "counting" is very awful! Of course they COUNT, but they should not not to "count" in the for-tenure kind of way...

Scott Eric Kaufman said...

For what it's worth, I think most of us have more to say about blogs, blogging and academia than we're able to right now. I'm overwhelmed, to be honest. Paralyzed with how much I want to say -- much of it about Felski, for that matter, whose talk so enraptured me that I took terrible, terrible notes. That said, I think my idea that blogs help professionalize scholars straddles the official/unofficial fence quite nicely. They aren't professional per se, but the interaction (formal and informal) that takes place on them professionalizes all involved. Still, need to think about it more.

Also, I'm so happy to have found my way here. Don't know how I didn't before ... but then again, I also had to Dr. B. why everyone said "the Internets," so I'm not necessarily "with it."

Anonymous said...

I really think you hit the nail on the head with this post. I agree with your conclusion that blogging gives us a playful space, even as it puts "a face on this profession." To admit my dirty little secret...*I don't enjoy writing.* In fact, I dread it, which sometimes worries me since historians have to write (and frequently). But, I've found that blogging has allowed me to recapture some of the joy (yes...trite...I know). Somehow, I feel that having a more playful space will ideally balance out my professional work by showing me how writing can be fun again. Anyway, I digress. Its an excellent post, all around.

P.S. I wish I could've attended that MLA panel!