Reflections on Blogging

It’s now been over a year since I started history-ing and over a month since my last post, so I thought I’d ease back into writing by reflecting on a year in the blogosphere.

1. Intellectual stimulation

One of the most jarring changes going from a college lifestyle to the workforce was the lack of academic stimulation on a daily basis. and problem-solving transitioned from a classroom to the office. Having a blog gave me an impetus to really think about issues. It forced me to write (semi) regularly, to think about issues, to engage in at least a limited conversation on intellectual topics I cared about. Instead of being a passive consumer of ideas, posts, articles, essays, and books, I became an active one.

The knowledge that my writing would be open and available for anyone to read and judge made me think even harder to develop my own ideas and opinions. If you write a shitty paper in a college seminar, the professor gives you a shitty grade and you file it away. If you write a shitty post, it’s out there for anyone to read. Employers, colleagues, professors, admissions people – all of them now have a growing body of my writing to read, disagree with, and critique if they’re so inclined. For an unestablished scholar like myself, this provides some major motivation to really think and work at what I write.

2. Joining a community

Blogging also let me jump into a vibrant online community of digital historians and humanists. Instead of being something of a sideline observer, I laced up and joined the fray. Doing so not only exposed me to a wide range of new ideas and possibilities, but also introduced me to a number of fascinating and inspiring people – many of whom I met in person at the AAHC and THATCamp conferences. Especially for a younger scholar like myself, having a blog gave me confidence in my credentials and allowed me to participate in a wider dialogue.

Moving forward, the connections I’ve made through blogging (and on a noisier level, Twitter) will serve me for a long time to come. I’ve been lucky in that before I’ve even stepped foot inside a graduate classroom, I’ve have had the opportunity to interact with so many people who I (hope) will be my future colleagues and collaborators. In the insular world of traditional academics, this is a relative rarity.

3. Feedback

I’m a firm believer that there’s no point in writing into a void. While much of my blogging was “for myself,” in that I wrote about what interested me, the most rewarding part by far is the response I’ve received. There is certainly an egotistical and superficial element to checking  site-visit stats. But there is some validity to the point that my writing has already reached a larger audience in a year than all of my undergraduate writing put together. By a long shot. For example, my most popular post, by almost a 2:1 factor, is a rudimentary text analysis of Venture Smith’s narrative. As of today, it had been viewed over a thousand times. This metric might be a tiny drop in the blogosphere bucket, but it will certainly eclipse any audience I’ll have for my traditional academic research, at least in the near future.

One of the more rewarding episodes occurred recently, when a local Connecticut writer contacted me through my blog because she was interested in  Venture Smith. She had stumbled across my posts talking about my undergraduate research on Venture Smith, and had been inspired to do some truly remarkable research on her own. We met yesterday, and I was thrilled to find that not only had she uncovered a fascinating new development, but that it directly related to work I had done. I was humbled to hear that my blog had been an impetus for her to get involved in the Venture Smith community. It served as a great reminder of how blogs can increase transparency and lower barriers between academics and the wider public.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for history-ing. There are bad as well as good aspects of maintaining a blog, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive the time-drain of graduate school. Regardless, blogging at history-ing has been, and I hope will continue to be, an enriching experience.

AHA-ing (Friday Recap)

I managed to find some free wireless in the lobby, which I count as a major success. The past 24 hours have been somewhat of a blur, but in a good way. After taking a bus from DC to NYC, I made my way to the Hilton hotel and was promptly overwhelmed at the number of history types with AHA badges filling the hotel. The first session I attended was The Promise and Pitfalls of Writing for Readers beyond the Academy, at which I was that guy who embarrassingly enters late and bumps into people while finding a seat (in this case, on the floor). It was a relatively informal panel, with none of the typical reading of papers in a monotone voice, and with a lot of back-and-forth with the audience. I found it interesting that for the first part of the session, blogging was never touched upon. Then an audience member brought it up, and the panelists began to fervently speak about it for a fair amount of time. What surprised me was the relatively positive attitude many of the panelists carried towards blogging. This might be a kind of self-selective mechanism, as panelists for a session on popular writing are probably not the stuffy academic types that look down their noses at blogging. On the other hand, I got the sense that blogging as a whole has become much more mainstream and accepted within the academy. The panel also reminded me of the kind of “exercise” aspect of writing on a blog – in that it forces you to write and is a great tool for experimentation and self-improvement.

After dropping my bags off at a friend’s apartment, I returned to the Hilton for the evening session. Being a hopeless history nerd, I made sure to arrive to the opening ceremony roughly half an hour early, snagging myself a prime-time, fourth-row seat directly in front of the podium. The first portion was a presentation to Adam Hochschild for the Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award. Hochschild proceeded to speak thoughtfully about the award, and I thought did a great job of highlighting the recent Russian police raid on the offices of the history/human rights group Memorial. He used it as a testament to the fact that, in many parts of the world, history still remains a perilous and radical practice, and that governments and regimes are wary of its power.

The night’s plenary session was a murderer’s row line-up of historians speaking about The Pleasures of the Imagination – Linda Colley, Natalie Zemon Davis, John Demos, Jane Kamensky, Jill Lepore, Robert A. Rosenstone, and Jonathan D. Spence. I felt a lot like a giddy sports-obsessed kid at an All-Star game, the difference being that instead of saying, “Wow, Chris Paul is a lot shorter in person!” I was saying “Wow, Jane Kamensky is a lot taller in person!” Like I said, I’m a hopeless history nerd. The panel itself was impressive, as each historian spoke briefly about the role of imagination in the historical process. For a more content-based recap, take a look here. Even more interesting than the content, being so close to them, I found it infinitely fascinating to study them all as they and their peers spoke. I decided I’d record those observations here, as one of the most valuable aspects of the conference so far has been being able to put faces, voices, and personalities to these famous names.

I often look at speakers and try to imagine what my impression would be if I couldn’t hear a thing. All of them took the podium with a degree of confidence and charisma that was startling – everyone seemed quite obviously comfortable with commanding attention and engaging a room. During the entire two-hour panel, Natalie Zemon Davis sat perched on the edge of her seat and 100% locked in to the speaker. I don’t think her attention wavered for a single second, and she continually looked like she was ready to leap up and offer her thoughts on the subject. Jane Kamensky spoke in down-to-earth, but carefully measured words that seemed meticulously planned and polished, and also ended with a casually stated, “Thanks,” which I found interesting. Meanwhile, Linda Colley picked up considerable steam as she progressed, and by a couple minutes into her talk, had completely hit her stride and ceased to look at her notes, sweeping her thoughts along with expansive gestures and a rising cadence. John Demos spoke in a more anecdotal and unhurried style, and did a great job of incorporating a couple of physical artifacts into his talk when speaking about material objects. I had absolutely no trouble picturing him in an intimate Yale seminar, telling stories and asking questions.

All I can say about Jill Lepore is that she spoke almost exactly how she writes, with a degree of accessibility and eloquence that lulls you into contentedly listening, until you realize with a jolt that she just said something incredibly important and intelligent. Robert Rosenstone was thoughtful and forceful, and it was fun to picture him in a CalTech classroom getting hardcore science and math students to think about story-telling and history. Finally, it was interesting when Jonathan Spence took the podium. At this point, I felt attention lagging a bit both in the room and on the panel itself. But there was a noticeable change when Spence began speaking in a remarkably soft voice. Everyone seemed to straighten up (besides NZD, whose attention never flagged an iota during the two hours), and many of the panelists began taking notes as if they were back in a lecture hall. Again, if I were watching a video of the panel with the sound turned off, I would still be able to assert with complete confidence, “This guy is important.”

That’s it for now, I look forward to recapping the rest of the weekend.

Scattered Links – 10/26/2008 (Writing Edition)

“Why I Blog” by Andrew Sullivan is a great overview of one blogger’s story. I think he articulates a lot of viewpoints that I share. For one, he talks about the inherent risk of blogging, with the lack of a safety net and vulnerability that comes with voluntarily making your thoughts and words open to the world: “But blogging requires an embrace of such hazards, a willingness to fall off the trapeze rather than fail to make the leap.” I occasionally wonder whether mentioning my blog in grad school applications would be seen as a positive or a negative. Like it or not, there are still a lot of academics who mistrust blogging.

Happy two-year blogiversary to Claire Potter at Tenured Radical. In another “Why I Blog,” she recently posted a wonderful piece about the rewards and challenges of academic writing. One of my favorite excerpts:” Blogging also allows me to write short pieces, work on form, voice, and getting complex ideas across to an audience that I need to entice in order to keep them reading. I sometimes compare it to a pianist playing scales: to the extent that blogging is not, perhaps, the most serious scholarly form, to take it seriously is to become a better writer.” Although comparing blogging to playing scales certainly dampens the enjoyment of the process, it’s certainly encouraging to think that it’s actually good for me as well.

Ian Kershaw wrote a breezy article in the Washington Post musing about how he approaches writing history. He follows a very meticulous routine, which apparently allows him to produce around 2,000 words a day. Impressive stuff. The article also makes me wonder what percentage of academics are regular coffee drinkers. 90%? More than the population at large? Less? Coffee seems to be the true backbone of American higher education.

At Edge of the American West, Scott Kaufman has a great post detailing a talk he gave on a “Blogging and the Academy” panel. The post is noteworthy for both its strong content, but also his choice of posting the paper as he used it to give the talk. As such, it does not read as a typical academic paper: “when I write a talk, I write a talk. I don’t write an essay that just so happens to be read aloud.” Great words of advice, and ones that I wish more academics would take to heart.

Finally, at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Thomas H. Benton’s “Yearning After Books” discusses academics’ increasing anxiety over the supposed disappearance of the written book. Benton articulates a common nostalgia for the tactility and tradition of a book, especially compared to increasing digitization efforts. At first I rolled my eyes at this antiquated notion, but then realized (after stopping at a used book sale and giddily leaving with four of them) that despite my best efforts, I haven’t yet eradicated the snobbish academic reverence for the bound volume.