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Is Blogging Scholarship? and Other Questions

I wasn’t able to attend this weekend’s OAH conference in Atlanta, but followed several panels with interest, in particular the session on blogging and scholarship (marooned, sadly, to Sunday morning). Featuring several prominent blogger-historians such as John Fea, Ann Little (aka Historiann), Ben Alpers of USIH Blog, Jeff Pasley of Common-place, Mike O’Malley (The Aporetic), Claire Potter (Tenured Radical), and Ken Owen of The Junto, the panel discussed a range of issues about blogging as a historian (you can find a Storify of tweets about the panel here, courtesy of Michael Hattem). The conversation sounds like it was fascinating, and many of the panelists have already (or plan to shortly) post their comments. (See, for example, Historiann, John Fea, and Mike O’Malley.)

For me, several thoughts lingered as I’ve read about the panel.

First, the question is impossible to answer, or requires one to say “sometimes.” For some scholars and some blogs the answer is “of course.” Claire Potter’s book blog, Caleb McDaniel’s open notebook for his project, the USIH group blog, and everything Ben Schmidt writes at Sapping Attention come immediately to mind, but there are dozens of other examples. Other blogs don’t aim for “scholarship” in the narrowest sense (John Fea had interesting thoughts on how to construe the term) but do wonderful service to the profession by highlighting books of interest, topics that deserve coverage, and connecting history to the present. And some blogs do a little bit of everything. John Fea is my best example of this. In a single day, he will post interviews with authors and book reviews, highlights of research projects, notes about teaching, and Springsteen concert clips. Go ahead over and read The Way of Improvement Leads Home and then tell me how you’d classify it. I can’t—and I like it that way. In other words, the framing question led to an interesting conversation, but I’m also not sure what the point of the question was.

Second, we still need to have this conversation, even if it’s frustrating. However certain we may be in our own public writing, many of our colleagues don’t really know what blogging is, don’t know how to classify it, and find it confusing or hard to classify. I think that position would in some way describe the majority of history faculty, who at this point don’t actively oppose blogging as a writing form but just don’t know what to do with it. Every time we have a public conversation at OAH, AHA, SHEAR, the Omohundro Institute, and other subfield conferences, we educate a little bit, talk about what we do, and perhaps distill fears. That at least is the positive spin. But it’s important to remember that most historians don’t blog; it just seems that way when you’re on Twitter. We still have to convince others that it’s a worthwhile activity with scholarly value and thus be attuned to a skeptical (but “winnable”) audience within the profession.

Third, I wish we could stop having these existential conversations and just talk about what we can do with blogging. Instead of a panel framed around the question, “Is Blogging Scholarship?” that forces us to defend blogging, why not a series of panels that feature the work that bloggers do as part of the profession. Make it three parts for the legs of the “stool” on which faculty are evaluated. A panel called “Blogging as Scholarship” might highlight the work of historians who do use the blogs for scholarship of various sorts. “Blogging as Teaching” could examine how scholars integrate blog posts as reading assignments, to supplement and extend classroom discussions, and to invite students to do more public writing. (Note that I’ve written on this issue for The Junto.) The point is probably clear, but a hypothetical third panel would think about “Blogging as Service,” inviting scholars to consider ways to make blogging part of their service to their departments, universities, the profession, and local communities.

To put it more abstractly, I want to transcend the existential questions about whether blogging is scholarship, or scholarly, or service, or research-oriented, or part of a professional portfolio, and instead presume that the work does count for something so that we can talk about what we’re doing, how to improve it, and what it means as part of our spectrum of writing and engaging with publics. There is enormous value in face-to-face conversations (as I was reminded as I struggled to read back through tweets on Sunday) but we should make the most of the opportunity.

This does not cover all of the issues that the panel raised, and leaves several important ones hanging, most notably that raised by Anne Whisnant that much historical blogging occurs outside the population of academic, tenure-track faculty. I’m glad that OAH hosted a conversation on blogging, and hope that it will continue in the summer conference season, at AHA next January, and beyond.

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5 Comments

  1. […] posted their thoughts on the subject; there was also a great deal of live-tweeting, and our own Joe Adelman has also joined (and developed!) the conversation. The discussion itself was fantastic, and was videotaped for […]

  2. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    “Existential” conversations about blogging at scholarly conferences provides a means for those who engage in the practice to educate other historians who did not grow up with the medium or who do not engage in blogging. It also offers a route to legitimizing the practice, if that’s what bloggers want.

  3. Rosemarie, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I know I and others deeply appreciate your work and support on behalf of blogging over the years.

    I’m also happy to stipulate again that my absence from OAH means that I’m commenting based solely on what I’ve read of the panel from Twitter and various blog posts. That gives a limited picture and cannot capture the fullness of the discussion in the room.

    I very much agree that conversations at conferences are a key part of legitimizing blogging as a practice (as I noted in the first half of my post above). The community of bloggers too often falls into the fallacy that “Everyone who blogs with me also blogs, therefore all historians blog.” Having face-to-face conversations of the sort you organized at OAH is a vital way to expand the conversation both for those who write for blogs and those who don’t. The conversation on the blogosphere is useful, but is necessarily limited to those who are already convinced of its usefulness.

    What my post is intended to do is to find a way strategically to move the conversation forward from “is blogging legitimate?” to instead ask how we use it in our professional practices. In so doing, we—that is, bloggers and blogging supporters—presume the legitimacy of the enterprise as part of the profession. At worst, it seems to me, the pro-blogging folks would get to have conversations about what we’re doing, and at best, we would show that what happens on a blog is simply another means to the end of pursuing history as a profession. But as someone who has included blogging on my CV, touted it in my job application letters (for better or worse), and plans to include it among my activities for tenure, I am absolutely committed to the project of legitimation.

  4. […] be honest), but reading about it from afar can be fun. Kudos to John Fea, Ann Little, Ken Owen, Joseph Adelman, Mike O’Malley, Ben Alpers, Michael Hattem, and Caleb McDaniel for the reportage and […]

  5. […] of incarceration). Here at DH the Blog, I don’t have a clear answer to the question (I’m not alone), but I’d hate to limit the definition of scholarship only to what counts to tenure and […]

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