Wednesday, February 09, 2005


The blogging graduate student

As the blogosphere turns, the question of whether and why graduate students should blog probably comes around with a fair degree of frequency. Laura McKenna suggested in December that what bloggers need is some kind of bibliography for such "recurrent topics ... so that we don't keep repeating ourselves." But a certain amount of repetition may be salutary since the demographics of blogdom are constantly changing. Graduate students (like myself) who were not paying attention to blogs in January 2004 will have missed discussions here and here about the potential professional dangers of graduate student blogging. So it may be good to spin the wheel back around to the subject every once and a while, for the benefit of those who have only recently gotten on this merry-go-round.

It seems, at any rate, a good subject to broach in my first post for Cliopatria. My joining this blog, at the very kind invitation of Ralph Luker and his fellow Cliopatriarchs, signifies that I have come to terms with being a graduate student who blogs. Feeling comfortable with that fact has not been easy, however, especially since when the subject does come up, it is often in the form of cautionary tales about "blogging from the bottom" of the academic totem pole. These cautionary tales are usually a round-up of usual suspicions: hiring committees will wonder about the work ethic of academic bloggers; they will raise eyebrows at the political or professional views expressed by their job candidates online; they will wonder about the mixing of personal and professional life on blogs. Of course, blogging graduate students are not the only academic bloggers who wonder about how their presence online affects their professional prospects. The subject of how blogging affects tenure committees also comes around the horn every so often, but rather than representing a different issue, it addresses the same basic concern: What is the relationship between academic blogging and professional security? The question is only most acute for graduate students because our horizons of professional possibility are the most open-ended.

One reason the jury remains out on that question is because the trial has only recently begun. Since blogging is a relatively recent phenomenon in academia, and because its profile in the mainstream and academic media is just beginning to rise, hard data on how blogging correlates to job hiring or tenure decisions are scarce. This means that discussions of the subject are rife with anecdotal evidence that warrant, at most, a certain agnosticism. As a recent profile of MLA bloggers (including Cliopatria's own Miriam Burstein) at Inside Higher Ed put it, "It's hard to draw too many conclusions about these blogs. They haven't been around that long (the oldest one in this group started in 2002). And it's hard to know what impact the blogs will have on these academics' careers (the oldest is 38 and none have tenure)."

It's easy to see, however, why the question continues to be of interest, even if it is hard to know what impact blogging really has on professional prospects. We do have hard data on the job market, and especially for historians, that data can be discouraging. So it would be entirely natural for history graduate students to conclude that, given the harrowing conditions of the job market, it is better to be safe than sorry. It is better not to do anything that might possibly jeopardize one's career. If the jury is still out, it's best not to disturb their deliberations by rapping on the jury room door.

But the fact that this tendency is a natural one is one of many instances in which agnosticism really serves as a thin mask for a full-fledged opinion. After all, if the evidence really is out on whether blogging is professionally damaging, then why is the most reasonable position to conclude that it probably is? Why can't agnosticism just as easily validate behaving as if the evidence might come out the other way? The problem here is not that graduate student bloggers are acting in the face of clear risk to their careers, but rather that graduate student bloggers are resolving to pursue a certain course under conditions of uncertainty.

As James Kloppenberg pointed out in his magisterial study of fin-de-siecle Progressive thinkers, Uncertain Victory, "Uncertainty can animate or disable. When certainty inhibits exploration, its loss can be liberating, but when conviction fortifies resolution, doubt can end in paralysis." In the case of blogging, agnosticism about professional implications might potentially liberate graduate students to explore new possibilities for intellectual discourse. Why, then, should uncertainty necessarily paralyze? Conversely, though, why resolve to blog in the absence of a clear conviction about its professional value?

I thought of such questions while reading Timothy Burke's recent essay on why he blogs. I find that many of my reasons for blogging are the same as his. But in a comment thread on another blog, one of Burke's colleagues asked him about the "power dynamics" of blogging for untenured professors -- dynamics that are equally relevant for graduate student. "Can they dare put out into the blogosphere what Tim (as a tenured professor) can put out there?" she asked. Burke's response was ...
... no, not unless they're unusually fearless.

It's not because the content might offend someone, but because most academics still perceive blogging (if they perceive at all) as greasy kid's stuff, as something done by marginal scholars. ...

What graduate students who blog need to remember is that even if they later abandon their blog, it will not disappear. If their name is out there and associated with particular arguments, sentiments, claims, it can be found if someone really wishes to find it. Though I think it's pretty rare that someone does: I doubt if more than the smallest fraction of academics google their job candidates' names, for example.
Those sentiments aptly summarize some of the confusing reservations that I feel as a graduate student blogger. On the one hand, I shouldn't worry about the content of my blogging offending someone. On the other hand, I should remember that my content will be forever associated with my name. On the one hand, I shouldn't be afraid of job committees finding my blog. On the other hand, to blog requires me to be "unusually fearless." My resolution to blog often founders on these vaguely incompatible shoals of uncertainty.

Does my blogging, then, in the face of such uncertainty, really require an "unusually" large amount of fearlessness? It depends. The graduate student blogger is only unusually fearless if the most fearsome possibility imaginable is failure to secure a certain kind of academic job. And surely there are much greater things to fear which are far more usual. In comparison to many things, the fear of suffering the opprobrium of a tenure committee pales. Nonetheless, blogging as a graduate student or an untenured professor does require resolution unfortified by certainty. But it would be a sad thing indeed if this kind of fearlessness really is unusual in academia.

The kind of intellectual exploration that academic life is supposed to encourage often depends on venturing into the public sphere without the assurance of certain rewards or the guarantee of approbation. Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for graduate student blogging as an apprenticeship in learning to be animated by doubt, rather than disabled. It may seem that this kind of intellectual "fearlessness" -- the courage not to be paralyzed by doubt -- is of a different sort than the resolution required to blog despite agnosticism about professional gains. But I'm not sure those two kinds of resolution are unrelated. As Kloppenberg's book demonstrated, the decline of certainty in epistemology and metaphysics coincided historically with the rise of academic professionalization in philosophy. The gate-keeping procedures of modern university life are attempts to replace philosophical certainty with professional certification.

Certification is the rough approximation that we have now for the epistemological certainty that thinkers before the nineteenth century usually possessed. It is a way of allowing us to continue to think, to learn, to teach, to adjudicate, even without the assurance of reaching solidly certain conclusions about intellectual matters. Professionalization, in other words, is a kind of intellectual therapy that keeps the modern mind from being disabled by its doubts. What would happen, then, if we allowed ourselves to be disabled by professional uncertainty? What would then fortify our convictions and keep us thinking?

By pursuing this line of thought, I don't mean to exalt the blogging graduate student as the last action hero of academic life. On the contrary, to be an academic these days is, unfortunately, to be uncertain about what the virtues of intellectual heroism would look like. The hermeneutic of suspicion bequeathed to us by Kloppenberg's uncertain philosophers makes us equally suspicious of either triumphalism or dismissiveness when it comes to blogging or, for that matter, most other social practices. But given that we find ourselves in this doubt-full position, we must at least find practices that encourage us to keep moving despite our uncertainty -- either about our convictions or our careers. For me, at least, blogging has been a practice (like the best therapy) that is sometimes uncomfortable, but that slowly increases my range of intellectual motion and keeps me from being paralyzed by doubts. I don't claim to be unusually fearless by blogging; rather, what I'm trying to acquire is the usual quota of fearlessness (such as it is) required by contemporary academic life.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Collective Improvisation:
I will show you fear in a blog full of posts.

Alas, poor blogger, I was one, Caleb.

To blog, or not to blog, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the 'sphere to suffer
The flames and errors of outrageous comments,
Or to take arms against a sea of spammers,
And by disabling ban them.

One of these days I think I'll finally write up an explanation for why I shut down my blog last December, but today will not be that day. But I do want to comment briefly about a few of the issues you raise here.

In starting my blog I think I was motivated largely by a similar desire to overcome the kind of fearfulness you describe. And to the extent that it helped me formulate arguments and organize my thoughts I found blogging quite useful, particularly as I was preparing for my exams. (And this despite the fact that I did not blog on exam-related topics.) But now that I'm in the process of planning out what is sure to be an unwieldy dissertation, I've found blogging to be much more of a distraction - although I'd have to say that it's the reading, rather than the writing, that takes up the most time.

It's enough to make me wonder if blogging works better with scholarship if you're in a more or less expository - writing, speaking, teaching - mindset than it does when you're in a more exploratory one - beginning research, for example. At the very least, I get the impression from my still-quite-limited blogging experience that most, but certainly not all, of the best grad student/post-doc/untenured faculty blogs are those kept by people who have already situated - or at least have begun to situate - themselves within their respective fields (this includes pseudonymous bloggers, too, though for obvious reasons they say less about the particulars of their research).

Sorry this "brief" response turned out so long. Maybe I should create an entire blog out of comments!

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/09/2005 02:21:00 PM : Permalink  

The above comment is mine, but there was a problem with the comment box (I guess it didn't like my attempt to insert html tags), and I ended up posting it through the usual blogger comment function (which is why it says "by Anonymous"). 

Posted by aj

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/09/2005 02:23:00 PM : Permalink  

For whatever its worth, my impression of the community of history bloggers is that it is pretty young. A blogging full professor like Juan Cole is rare. If you asked me to name dozen best history blogging sites, apart from Cliopatria, I can think of three I'd name by tenured faculty members. But there'd be three times that many by graduate students, abd's, post-docs, and pre-tenure assistant profs. If there's risk in blogging, there's also the opportunity, well, frankly, to show some talent and do what we hoped being an academic person would allow us to do, i.e., engage in the life of the mind. Do not expect that to happen in faculty or department meetings -- it doesn't. The net? That's another matter.  

Posted by Ralph Luker

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/09/2005 05:03:00 PM : Permalink  

I definitely agree that the history blogging community seems on the whole quite young. I suppose what I'm saying is that it's possible to be too young - or perhaps I'm just saying that I'm too young - for academic blogging. (By young I don't mean age, but rather place within the conventional schedule of professional development.)

There are no real shortcuts to learning history/historiography and the best blogs (judging by my own subjective standards - and I definitely put Mode for Caleb on that list) draw from a breadth and depth of knowledge that really can come only from experience. But there is a real risk that blogging before you've worked out how to balance the requirements of an academic life can actually take away from efforts to gain that much-needed experience. It all depends on how you use blogging, I guess.

I suppose this is similar to the question of whether or not it can be too early to start publishing, except that blog posts can come out every day. There's something to be said for the idea of quietly building up a storehouse of knowledge before jumping out into the world.

In any case, I really do think there's huge potential in academic blogging and wouldn't discourage anyone from taking it up, provided that they think they can keep it up. It's really the more personal and, depending on the extremity of one's views, political blogging that would seem to carry more risks in terms of hiring/tenure reviews.  

Posted by aj

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/09/2005 11:21:00 PM : Permalink  

Ralph, I do think that the history bloggers are younger as a group than certain other academic disciplines. There seem to be more established faculty members blogging in philosophy, law, and political science, for instance. I think you're right, too, that risks are also opportunities. I've been fortunate to be associated with great departments where wonderful discussions do take place at departmental functions, but there's no reason why the life of the mind must be confined to those settings. I don't see blogging as an alternative to those other, regular intellectual exchanges, but rather as additional.

AJ, thanks for your kind words about the blog. As I mentioned in my post, I often have reservations about blogging, and many of them are along the lines of reservations you seem to have as well. Being exposed to academic life means becoming aware of how much there is to read and digest -- sometimes it can seem like the amount is so overwhelming that it would be foolish to speak on any subject. But that fear, I think, stems from the idea that there will be a time when we have read everything there is to read, or thought through every implication of every thought we have. The truth is there is always more reading and thinking to do. That said, I greatly respect your own decision to take a break. But with that said, I bet you have more to say than you think. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/10/2005 02:14:00 PM : Permalink  

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