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June 25th, 2013

Accept no substitutes: blogging is a valuable supplement to scholarship and rightfully challenges the status quo


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

June 25th, 2013

Accept no substitutes: blogging is a valuable supplement to scholarship and rightfully challenges the status quo


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Maitzen ProfileWeighing in on the much debated role of academic blogging in scholarship, Rohan Maitzen argues blogging is now recognised as a valuable part of the wider ecology of scholarship – not as a substitute of, but a supplement to professional activities. More consideration is needed on how different writing styles and outlets serve the profession and specific disciplines. Furthermore, senior faculty should continue to advocate for recognition of the diverse contributions made via the academic blogosphere.

About two years ago, I wrote a testy post about some things Leonard Cassuto said about blogging in an online discussion about academic publishing. One of my chief complaints was that he threw “a veil of pragmatism” over “an argument for accepting (even reinforcing) the status quo”:

Yes, it’s true: there is a “prestige deficit.” But I would have expected a discussion about ways the digital age is changing academic publishing to at least evaluate, if not actually challenge, that normative thinking. . . .

“Nobody that I know of,” I went on, “is trying to argue that blogging in general, or even particular highly scholarly blogs, should replace traditional publications.” As far as I’m concerned, the question should always be what forms of publication best serve the multiple goals and interests that motivate us to write and publish in the first place. These are diverse, and so too, I think should be our styles and outlets.

Plus ça change… The debate about blogging’s place in academic publishing not only continues but continues to stress the is over the ought.  A recent post at ‘dagblog’ explained the way things are:

You can’t blog your way to a tenure-track professorship. You simply can’t. Even a gig at IHE or The Chronicle for Higher Education is not enough. That doesn’t mean blogging is not professionally useful to you. It means you need to be clear about what it’s useful for …

What blogging never does is substitute for other academic writing. It doesn’t get counted as scholarship. It does not serve as an employment credential. (If you wish to argue that it should, I can’t help you. I’m interested in describing what is, not what ought to be …)

I don’t altogether disagree with this as a statement of how things are. In fact, I made similar points in my own post “Should Graduate Students Blog?“:

it would be naive to ignore that blogging (for some good and some bad reasons) is not yet widely recognized as a legitimate form of academic publishing . . . Graduate students aspiring to tenure-track positions hardly need to be told that for most hiring committees, the crucial measure of their competitiveness as candidates will be the number of conventional peer-reviewed scholarly publications on their c.v. — and the more prestigious the venue, the better.

I also said, however, that

blogging is increasingly acknowledged as having a place in the overall ecology of academic scholarship. Graduate students who choose to blog should by now be able to make a thoughtful and well-supported case for the value of that effort as part of their overall scholarly portfolio.

Notice that I do not say that it “substitutes” for other academic writing but that it has a place alongside what is often seen as the only legitimate (that is, countable for hiring / tenure / promotion) forms of academic writing.

Beach Blogging, after Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron aka Cassandre
Image credit: Mike Licht (CC-BY)

I strongly believe this, and I have some local evidence that such a view is taking hold: the new tenure  and promotion guidelines in my own Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (which, for the record, I had no role in developing) include, as “Indicators of Academic Research and Scholarship,”  “Other forms of publication or public performance, peer-reviewed or otherwise, in venues such as blogs, policy publications, public concerts, etc.” At the risk of the kind of “blog triumphalism” dismissed as passé in the dagblog comments thread, this development seems significant to me.

But is acknowledging blogging as a valuable supplement as far as we ought to go? As Ted Underwood noted at dagblog, “blog is a baggy category.” So too, I’d add, is “academic writing,” which comes in many flavors even within any given discipline. Of most interest to me is, of course, my own discipline, in which the bulk of academic writing falls into the extremely baggy category “literary criticism.”

In the dagblog post, the author suggests that

the distinction [between blogging and scholarship] doesn’t pose a problem to science bloggers, or to most social scientists or historians, where the difference between a journal article and a blog essay is usually self-evident. But it can be tricky for people who work in literature or cultural studies, who can be tempted to blur the distinction between writing scholarship about new media and doing other writing on new media platforms.

That makes us literary types sound pretty clueless! But setting aside bumbling confusions between content and form, I actually think that “the difference between a journal article and a blog essay”  is not self-evident when we’re talking about literary criticism, and that’s precisely because literary criticism is not a science or a social science. Our preoccupation with publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals reflects some anxiety on our part about that: it’s a kind of scientism that has been beneficial in making some aspects of literary scholarship more rigorous, historically attentive, and theoretically sophisticated, but that has also shaped our professional lives in occasionally disheartening ways. To be taken seriously, we know we have to look serious, which means avoiding at all costs what was once scathingly described to me (in reference to my own work) as “the whiff of belles-lettres.”

There are kinds of literary scholarship that have a lot in common with history and the social sciences, or that are so well insulated with theoretical implications that no such unsavory whiff could possibly be detected. But a lot of what literary academics do is not so much produce new knowledge as pursue new understandings of, or new ways of understanding, literary texts. Careful close readings lie at the heart of many more elaborate scholarly projects. It is certainly possible to do this kind (or this part) of criticism without the specialized language and complex apparatus that differentiate academic from non-academic versions of it. Academic training can be hugely beneficial for this enterprise, but such training need not be conspicuous to be effective. We are experts at reading literature in interesting ways and articulating those readings — that’s what we do.

Where is the self-evident line, then, between the interpretations of novels we find in academic essays and the interpretations of novels we can find on blogs — besides some specialized vocabulary and a lot more footnotes? In both cases we can and should look closely at the quality (the intelligence, the care, the subtlety, the persuasiveness) of the interpretation, but there is a fundamental similarity in the activity represented that is at least as important as any differences. It really is the same kind of thing, just done under different circumstances, for different audiences. Why should we value it, or consider it “professional writing,” only if we do it in a style and form that severely limits the audience for it and the conversation we can have about it?

The desire to draw a firm line between what we do in academic journals and what we do elsewhere is more reflective of our desire to defend ‘professing English’ as a profession than of any really principled or inevitable difference between the two. And the results of that effort have not been altogether salutary, for criticism or for our profession. There are good reasons for us to engage with the rest of the world. It’s not as if academics are the only ones interested in literature, after all. In Canada we have been hearing a lot about ‘knowledge mobilization’: if some of the value of conventional peer-reviewed publications is precisely their stability, the value of blogs could be said to be their mobility, their flexibility, and, in their own way, their accountability — because after all, there they are, open for anyone to read and argue with. Their basic model is coduction — again, not a scientific model, but one supremely well suited to the ongoing process that is criticism.

I understand the pragmatic issues, but if we think there is both intellectual and professional value in changing the norms of our profession, we have to keep making the argument, not shrugging our shoulders and reiterating the status quo. As I said in a further back-and-forth with Cassuto, this is a job for “senior, ‘established,’ faculty” above all:

we are the ones in a position to encourage alternative models of productivity and scholarship, and if blogging is valuable to me in the ways I described, there would be real hypocrisy in my case if I didn’t consider it valuable work for people at earlier stages of their careers and work to recognize it as such when they do it.

I will continue to advocate for this kind of recognition. And I will also continue to practice literary criticism, including on my blog. That’s what I trained for, after all. I’ve made conventional academic contributions to my field, and that specialized work informs all the other writing I do. Blogging, though, is where I have the most fun with that expertise, and make it the most freely available. My scholarly articles and books are, I hope, good of their kind — but they are no substitute for Novel Readings!

A longer version of this post originally appeared on Novel Readings.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.  

About the Author

Rohan Maitzen has a BA (Hons.) in English and History from the University of British Columbia and a PhD from Cornell University. She teaches in the English department at Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia, is a senior editor for the online journal Open Letters Monthly, and has been blogging at Novel Readings since 2007.

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Posted In: Academic communication | Academic publishing | Impact