October 20, 2004

Academic Blogs

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:18 pm

I’ve been thinking about a few things related to academic blogs, but rather than roll them all into one mega-post I think I’ll post them one at a time. For starters, I was struck by some reasons for academic blogging noted by Liz Lawley and a group of social software all-stars:

Part of what struck me about this list is that is doesn’t include some of the main reasons we had for starting GTxA.

I won’t attempt a comprehensive list here, but I think these were some of the primary motivations for starting our semi-academic blog:

Nick, Scott, and I saw Jill Walker recently (1, 2) and she pointed out that the list reported by Lawley positions blogging relative the peer-reviewed academic journal. Maybe that’s where the difference lies. I think the academic structure we’ve thought of in relation to GTxA has been the conference panel, rather than the journal.

I wonder if we could learn something interesting about other (semi-)academic blogs by asking their authors if they see their work in relation to another accademic form — and, if so, which?

17 Responses to “Academic Blogs”


  1. Virtual Humanities Lab » Academic weblogging conversation on GTxA Says:
    [...] nity — vika @ 12:26 pm Noah Wardrip-Fruin (over at Grand Text Auto) posted a response to Liz Lawley et al.’s thoughts on academic blogging. Noah asks whethe [...]

  2. jill/txt » social and scholarly Says:
    [...] t such discussions will be the exception rather than the rule. Blogs are messier, I think, more like the often productive conversations that happen in coffee breaks at conferences t [...]

  3. Ian Wilson Says:

    I spoke to Liz Lawley about doing this while she was in Tokyo earlier this year. Here is a link to a recent comment I made about it:

    http://joi.ito.com/archives/2004/10/04/i_am_now_academicenabled.html#comments

    I think the points listed above are all very worthwhile. However I think a blog like GTA compliments that type of effort which would involve other elements outside of a blog I believe.

    If emergent aggregated research dissemination is “the lab” then a blog like GTA is the department “water cooler” (no reference to Water Cooled Games btw).

    Ian

  4. noah Says:

    Ian, sorry, I was unclear. I didn’t mean to suggest that the list posted by Lawley pointed toward the idea of starting a blog replacement for academic journals, but rather the list seems to assume journals as the default mode of scholarly communication and positions blogs in relation to journals.

    There are certainly good, open, online journals being developed (by the PLoS and others). And one can imagine a role for blogging in such an effort.

    But there’s also the question of why people participate in (semi-)academic blogs now, without peer review or other official academic blessing. I think both lists above consider that question.

  5. vika zafrin Says:

    Well, the Virtual Humanities Lab blog was certainly conceived as a way for us to get feedback from colleagues on a project that is very much a work-in-progress. Having been blogging for a while, I was pretty excited about it, and tend to not be worried about reception.

    But that’s not how everyone with an author account on VHL views it. Repeatedly now people have expressed to me a hesitation about putting their thoughts out there. At first glance, this may look like drawing a parallel between weblog and journal publication: there seems to be a heightened sense of responsibility, given that one’s words will be etched… somewhere… for a good long time.

    But I think it goes deeper than that. Odd though it may be, humanist scholars don’t tend to sit around in coffee shops talking shop. We might talk about teaching, or paper proposals we’ve submitted, or the very general thematic strokes of our research; but unless we’re specifically getting together for a work session, we don’t idly discuss the minutiae of, say, approaches to text analysis.

    I am hoping that this will soon be changing, that the tradition of polished scholarly discourse in the humanities (especially, I guess, in literary studies) will expand into a more fearless exchange of ideas.

    To that end, I think blogging is indispensable. But it’ll take some time to re-program ourselves to both give it sufficient attention regularly, and do so fearlessly. The problem of never-enough-time is a serious impediment to the first of those goals; I’d wager that even fewer literary studies departments look at one’s weblog articles during tenure review than would be willing to consider electronic projects in general. But for weblogging to be viewed as a valuable tool it has to be used as such first; and this is one of the principal reasons that the VHL project has a weblog.

    Editing one’s posts is, of course, an option, but we are not there yet mentally. It’ll take time. So, I don’t know that I’d draw a wholesale parallel between blogging and other modes of academic expression, Noah; to me, it’s more of a general-mindset issue.

    I wonder if non-humanist and non-new-media scientists view and use weblogs differently, more or less than the groups mentioned above?

  6. mark Says:

    Perhaps it’s my egalitarian biases, but one of the most interesting things I find about this “web publishing” sort of thing is actually the other direction: not just academia moving to more informal things, but non-academics pushing into (at least the edges of) academia. It’s generally difficult for a group of artists, hobbyists, or self-employed people to get taken seriously by major journals and conferences (the “where’s your PhD?” phenomenon), but it’s much easier to break into the blogosphere. Sure, some people won’t read your blog if you don’t have a PhD, but most people will decide whether to read it based on whether you write interesting things.

    (Not that the other direction isn’t also an interesting trend; just thought I’d point out the part that really motivates my interest.)

  7. noah Says:

    Mark, I heartily agree. Only two of GTxA’s authors have PhDs — and we’re not all in academic employ. I think one of the exciting things about blogging is that those inside and outside the academy (and from different disciplines) can discuss and develop ideas together.

  8. noah Says:

    Vika, thanks for your thoughts about the humanities idea development process. I have to admit I’ve never been in a pure humanities context — I did an interdisciplinary undergrad degree, then worked in a media/technology research lab at a university, and now hang out at a writing program (with a strong digital media interest). I wonder if the same is true of Jill, Matt Kirschenbaum, and other academic bloggers we know. Did any of them come through the normal humanities channels?

  9. mark Says:

    I haven’t been in a strict humanities program either (I’m a CS/philosophy person accidentally tilting over to the CS), but many of my undergrad friends were straight-ahead philosophy types, and in that area there *did* seem to be a lot of sitting around in coffee shops and/or bars hashing out ideas, and a lot of the professors had coffee-shop groups they regularly hung out with as well. One of my friends is a masters’ student in medieval studies, and he says the medieval studies professors regularly discuss ideas in progress over beer, or when they can find it, mead (as the latter is more fitting to the subject matter).

    I’m sure it varies greatly by region and particular field, but there does seem to be a longstanding tradition of the intellectual coffee house and/or bar chat. The blog might be an outgrowth of that, but IMO has much different dynamics and social aspects.

    As far as straight-ahead humanities academic blogs, my favorite is probably Roderick T. Long’s blog; he’s a philosophy professor at Auburn with an interest mostly in applied ethics (for example, one of his recent essays was an argument that the US military’s current policy on civilian casualties is morally indefensible). I will warn that he’s quite staunchly libertarian, to the point of sometimes appearing damn near insane, and his 1996-style web-design skills could win him an award for Least Aesthetically-Pleasing Website Ever. But his comments are always at least thought-provoking.

  10. Jill Says:

    Goodness, I hardly know anymore. Yes, I come from a pure humanities background (comparative literature), and as students we certainly sat around discussing literary theory and novels and so on. Now – well, yes, much of my hanging around discussing things does happen in blogs and online. And at conferences – locally I don’t have any colleagues working in close enough areas to me, and though I certainly could be discussing broader issues with them, we rarely do. We hang out and talk about teaching and whine about administrative chores and talk about things that have nothing to do with academia.

    I talk shop with people in my field though. Certainly not all the time, but regularly.

  11. scott Says:

    Some observations:

    * I’ve never once decided to read or not read a blog based on whether or not a person has a PhD.

    * One of the virtues of blogging vs. traditional academic journals is that people actually read blogs in a casual “enjoyment” way. I do read articles in traditional academic journals, but rarely and usually only when I’m looking for something specific. I think we do a lot more “browsing” on the web, at least I do, and I run across more surprises in blogs than I do in those journals. Blogs inform my current (academic and non-academic) thinking more than the latest issue of the PMLA.

    * I think I’m sort of between Lawley and Noah. While I agree that the academic journal comparison probably isn’t the right one, I do think there is some virture in the spontanaeity, the speed of publishing, and while I wouldn’t call it “distributed peer review,” the fact that I can bounce ideas off of interested others, in a medium that actually encourages them to reply, is very appealing.

    * I agree with all Noah’s points, especially the first. I almost think of this as a kind of “intellectual intimacy.” GTxA gives me a window into what Nick, Noah, Michael and Andrew are thinking about. Maybe that’s like a conference panel, or maybe it’s more like a coffee shop or bar where we can talk shop. I think of Moti Mahal, an Indian restaurant in Chicago where Rob Wittig, Joe Tabbi, Kurt Heintz, Andrew, myself and others used to gather every month or so. Grand Text Auto is kind of like that, but more continuous, and without food.

  12. andrew Says:

    If WordPress allowed us to insert images into comments, I’d upload some samosas right about now.

  13. zombiegluesniffer Says:

    yeah for the most part blogs get rid of the elitism. i think academic blogs leak out some of the thought going on in these institutions. i’m unimpressed, really. it’s made me not want to go to grad school. no need to be professional. when i can wake up whacked out and look forward to a low paying job in the brutal economy of a corrupt society. a lot of different types of thought are excluded in academic discourses. pretty much a waste of time when all the texts are free at the library. then blogmouth in the streets. i got a homeless man to read the phenomenology of perception. knowledge is free. you guys drive around in thought-Lambourghinis (expensive degrees). it’s cozy and flashy, but watch out for car thieves lurking in the only field that matters- (reading) pissing in the snow- deinstitutionalized and free. “it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to to do it” not that i don’t read the new media reader, first person and such. i like them. it’s the money and the incurious, privileged lame brains that have made universities an unpleasant environment. they want status and stats. snails + salt. at least blogs don’t read like academic journals. not that i read them much. just attempting to get by, feel creative and be productive. the rest is bullshit.

  14. noah Says:

    Zombie, here’s a piece along those lines that I remember enjoying.

  15. Matt K. Says:

    Noah asks:

    ” I wonder if the same is true of Jill, Matt Kirschenbaum, and other academic bloggers we know. Did any of them come through the normal humanities channels?”

    I have no formal computer science background other than two courses I took as an undergraduate to fulfill my “symbolic logic” requirement and thereby get out of calculus. Boy do I regret that now. I wish I had a lot more compulsory math *and* cs in my education. I got interested in the internets (as we now say) as a direct result of an extraordinary English prof, Don Byrd, at SUNY Albany. Don knew what VR and cyberspace was back in the late eighties, and he had us writing in MUDs and reading Sterling and Gibson. I wrote a bad senior thesis with him and then figured I needed to get real, get serious, so I went to UVa to do a PhD in American literature. Two years later, bored with my coursework, I drifted into a then-new shop in the library called the Electronic Text Center. Next door there was a funky research institute that put humanities profs arounhd the table with software developers and markup experts (this was IATH). A guy named Unsworth arrived from NC State. I took a course with a Jerome McGann (Byrd had urged me to work with him). Lo and behold, I discovered I was in exactly the right place at the right time to pick up where I left off at Albany (some 30 credits of literary history to the better–still no cs or math).

    The reason I never got turned on to my college programming courses (and my high school math) was, I believe, largely pedagogical. For more on this, see the list I’ve collected at a blog entry called the Pedagogy of Programming:

    http://www.otal.umd.edu/~mgk/blog/archives/000548.html

    As to why I keep a blog: in short, I think of it as my public desktop. My workbench. I use the blog for feedback, for visibility, and, hopefully, occassionally, as a way of giving a little back to the internets.

    Noah, thanks for asking.

  16. noah Says:

    Thanks Matt. That gives a slightly different spin to the concept of the “humanist workbench.” And, in terms of the thread reaching back through Jill and Vika, it does sound like the desktop is a place to get more specific than the coffee shop.

  17. Academic Blogs Says:

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