Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why I blog, or, Why you should blog

Not only have I not posted in nearly a month (sorry!), I've missed my own blogiversary! That's right, Wynken de Worde has been up and running for over a year now, which in blog years might mean we've hit cranky adolescence. Because this is a celebration, I'll try to keep the crankiness to a minimum, although some of it is to my point.

I started this blog largely because I wanted to be able to direct students toward an example of what studying "early modern book history" might entail. In order to get students into my courses, I have to reach out to them and get them excited enough that they want to apply for it. I can't always rely on their teachers conveying what it is that they might get out of the experience of studying rare books, but I can get some of that across by sending them to a blog. (This is where the generation gap starts to come in, with some colleagues saying "hunh?" and some students already, I suspect, wondering if blogs are already been-there-done-that.) I really hadn't thought through what my intentions or much else beyond that.

Here are some of the things that I've discovered as I've figured this thing out:

1) Whoo-hoo this is fun! One of the best compliments I've gotten about this blog is when a early modern professor friend told me that he liked it in part because it really sounded like I was enjoying myself. The funness aspect has in part to do with the genre (I would never say "funness" in my other forms of academic writing!). It has something, too, to do with the fact that I blog about a subject that is still relatively new to me. One of the great joys of starting a new field years after researching another field is that there's really not a lot of pressure to make big discoveries or to formulate big theories or arguments. I don't mean to say that I don't make arguments about books, or reading, or editing, or any of those other things. But trust me, if this was a blog about writing about Shakespeare and performance, I'd feel much less permission to do a post that says, essentially, "Isn't this neat?" Remember those embroidered bindings and the Folger and BL versions of the same pattern of David and Goliath? How cool was that?! Or those pointing fingers? Those were pretty neat, right? It's not that there is more funness with books than with performance, just that I'm more aware of it since my intended audience is not other people with books on this subject, but those who think it's cool.

2) People read this thing! I realize this sounds obvious, but it's true. I hadn't really thought much about the blogging community or about who might be reading the blog aside from the potential students who would be coming this way. As it turns out, potential students do read this thing, if only to coach themselves for their application essay. But so do people I've never met. Some of you are other book historians, some of you are book collectors, some of you are librarians. Some of you are friends of mine, which skews you towards being former grad students, if not current faculty of something at somewhere. Some of you are people who have blogs that I now read. The vast majority of you are utterly unknown to me, and I'm especially grateful for your comments and links and attention. You're not reading this because you have to, or because you know me, but because there is something in this subject matter of books and/or early modern culture that speaks to you. And that thrills both the nerd and the educator in me.

3) (Warning: this is where I start to get both cranky and ultra-earnest, a truly adolescent combination.) There are some great early modern blogs out there. But there are not nearly enough! You can see my sidebar for some of my favorite early modern and bookish blogs. I love the ones that teach me something new, or that make me care about something it might not have cared about before. There are some great blogs out there, on all sorts of subjects, that do exactly these things. But when I hosted the early modern Carnivalesque a few months back, and was trolling through the blogosphere looking for posts to include, I began to realize what I had previously been reluctant to conclude: blogs on early modern literature that meet these criteria seem to be few and far between. I came across a bunch of history blogs, and lots of medieval blogs, and oh-so-many blogs about academic life. But where was the blogger writing about teaching Paradise Lost? The excitement of Jacobean revenge tragedies? The struggle to recover early modern women's writing? The costs of the pressure to study Shakespeare over almost all other early modern English writers?

I'm just coming up with topics off the top of my head--almost anything could make a compelling post about early modern literature. The problem isn't that the subject matter doesn't lend itself to a post, it's a larger failure to understand what we have to gain from blogging about it.

Over the years there's been a fair amount of conversation about the worthiness of blogging. Some disparage it as a bad move professionally, especially for job seekers; some defend it. Outside of academia, it has been seen as the redemption of journalism (Andrew Sullivan's post on Why I Blog is a nice example of someone touting the power of an immediate connection to readers in a way that print can't replicate). There are countless stories about how blogging can be your key to fame and fortune (the New York Times's recent story on the disillusionment of blogging serves as counter-example).

All of those stories are beside the point for my purposes. You will not become rich and famous blogging about early modern books. You will not save journalism from its current state of disrepair. You will not get yourself an exciting new job.

But you can do something important: you can help people understand why it matters. Why do we read these old books? Why do we study old things? What can we learn from events that happened nearly half a millennium ago? Why should we care about lives that are long long over? I have answers to these questions. And I bet you do, too. If you didn't, you wouldn't be studying what you study, teaching what you teach, doing what you do. Show me a librarian who doesn't care about books and information and I'll show you a pig flying over the moon.

Here's my point: Early modern stuff matters. Books matter. The humanities matter. In a time when money is scarce and stupid ideas about universities and the humanities are flying about like nobody's business, we should be speaking up and making the case for the value of reading and teaching and thinking. You can do this in a blog. See my points above--it's fun, and not only will people read what you write, they will be people with whom you might not otherwise get to converse. (Seriously. I've gotten more feedback on this blog than I have on the last article I wrote.)

Forget writing about the horrors of your graduate exams or complaining about your colleagues and administrators. Don't write about your research in terms that only other specialists can understand. Push your boundaries beyond pictures of your pets and garden and latest vacation. Tell me about the research and teaching that excites you. Tell me about the latest book that you read. Tell me something that will teach me something new and make me think about something differently. Please. I don't know that I really achieve these grandiose aims in my posts. But I try to. That's why I blog. And that's why I'd like to see you blog, too.

Thanks for sharing my blogiversary, folks! And many, many thanks for reading. I'll be back soon, with pictures and words on early modern books, and lots of funness, I promise.


Rachel Lee said...

I don't think I've left a comment before, and I just wanted to say hello! I'm a PhD student studying c18 literature, Romanticism, editing, and media history. This past semester I co-taught a media studies class with my advisor (via the history of the book and the future of reading) and we used a few posts from your blog in class (where you discussed the fact that digitization doesn't actually mean accessibility, especially with early modern books) For our purposes, it was important (and fun) to show academic conversations taking place in a variety of media: university press monographs, op-ed pieces, (online) journal articles, blogs, and blog comments. (Your blog worked perfectly because it was compelling and accessible to undergraduates.)

Also, speaking of the role and importance of blogging, Scott Rosenberg just published "Say Everything," a history of blogging which also speaks to its significance.

(I just found out about it, so I haven't read it yet.)

Anyway, thanks for blogging!

Sarah Werner said...

Thanks, Rachel, for your kind feedback! It's interesting to hear how my blog has been used, and I'm very pleased that it worked for your purposes. And thanks, too, for the links--I've just gone through a fabulous rabbit hole following them from one to the next. Rosenberg's post from his own blog on why bloggers blog is good reading, especially the comments:

And I love the Blake Archive (who doesn't?) and the blog is a great discovery. So, thanks right back at you!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Happy anniversary! I for one am very glad you blog; I've learned so much from you that I am now willing to state that it isn't just manuscripts that are cool. That's a big step for me.

Jennifer said...

Okay. I'm probably going to regret this--especially when I start teaching again at the end of August--but you've talked me into it. You can now be in on the ground floor of a blog that's just starting up!

Think of this as a thought-that-counts kind of thank you for your great blogging, if you like. :-)

Here you go:

(Hey, what do you know? Persuasive writing works!)

Sarah Werner said...

Jeffrey: In return, I'll confess that I'm actually now willing to state that medieval lit isn't totally boring. Just one small thing In the Middle has done for me. Along with, of course, introducing me to Tiny Shriner.

And Serendipity! I'm so glad to hear news of the new blog. You won't regret it (it's an excellent tool for grading avoidance!). I'm looking forward to your first posts convincing me to spend more time reading Fletcher...

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Sarah. I'm just about at the 2-year anniversary of my blog and I'd agree with pretty much everything you've said here. For me, the additional benefit is that as a part-time postgraduate who works full-time and has to squeeze early modern study into what's left, I don't get as much of a chance to participate in scholarly communities as I might. Seminars at the Institute of Historical Research, for example, are at 5pm and I can't get away from work in time for them. Similarly I don't spend my days on campus amongst other postgraduates. So blogging has been a great way of engaging with another community of scholars and enthusiasts. I'm amazed more postgrads don't do it, to be honest - I can see there might be concerns about reputation and tenure, which I don't have given I am (unfortunately) not in a position to make academia my career - but still, I think blogging has seriously improved the quality of my work. There are lots of papers I've written that have started out as idle drafts on the blog, turned into a post, then blossomed from there. Other blogs have also exposed me to a great deal of work I'd never have come across otherwise.

Sarah Werner said...

Thanks, Nick. That's an excellent point about blogs enabling an academic community that might otherwise be out of reach depending on your schedule, or location, or mobility. (I have a pet peeve about end-of-day seminars, too: even for people in academic jobs, the end of the day is often unavailable for meetings or seminars. Try having small children and managing that schedule! So much of the schmoozing aspect of scholarly life depends on very out-of-date assumptions about the needs of working and families and all the other things that get juggled along with doing scholarship. And it's not just schmoozing, of course; it's real learning and making connections that are important.)

I do think it can feel risky for graduate students who are still finding their bearings or who are anticipating being on the job market. Matt Kirschenbaum tries to counter some of those fears in his response to the Chronicle column (there's a link in the post), and cites many of the exact points that you do: it allows feedback and participation in a community that will strengthen your work. And there are lots of ways in which being a student is the perfect time to do a blog--you're discovering new things, you should (ideally) have some sense of excitement about what you're learning, you're keeping strange hours anyway...

Michael5000 said...

I'm firing up an amateur Shakespeare & Co. blog, even as we speak.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I've publicly asked the same question, although I guess I don't want posts about teaching Paradise Lost - just posts about reading it.

Just going through the comments here has led to some good discoveries - thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,

Let me say straight off that you've produced a wonderful, unique blog, so happy blogiversary. I hope you continue to do this, even if the rewards are essentially "off the books" and informal.

Having said that, I'm not sure I agree with the distinction you make between "early modern blogs" and the more confessional subject-matter of academics' everyday lives. I, too, wish that there were more 18th century blogs out there, though a few new ones have just popped up and are doing splendidly (Early Modern Online Bibliography, for one. But I absolutely agree that blogs on our kinds of subject matter are important because they tell people why our stuff matters.

At the same time, I wonder whether we should compartmentalize the issues we talk about on the blogs, since they are not experienced that way in our lives, or at least not in my life. The real trick is to transform the everyday stuff (what I taught last night, the obstacles I encountered, the obstacles I always encounter etc. etc.) into genuine matter for reflection.

So I think the issue here is not really about subject matter, but the unreflective uses of such material on many so-called academic blogs. And I think that the best blogs are about the convergence between the personal, the professional, and the intellectual in those writers' daily lives and work. But that's a tall order, and hard to sustain in a single-writer blog.

Best, DM
The Long Eighteenth

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the Full Year in blogging, I'm reaching the rather less impressive two month anniversary this week, and very much enjoying it.

As someone who has been outside academic study for a number of years, but who was trying to find ways to re-engage with studying history, the discovery of blogs such as yours and generally the early modern blogging community has been a real inspiration to me.

The key for me is the window that I get into other peoples research and the enthusiasm for source material. My own study comes in fits and bursts so in the 'down-times' I find the questions posed and ideas thrown around in blogs really keeps my interest up.

I wholly agree with 'the long Eighteenth' above, I think there is room for many different types of blogs on historical source matter, that's what makes the community so rich. There is definitely a place in the early modern blogosphere for those monographical sites that focus in on one set of material and those, such as my own blog, that are more sporadically about history and how it weaves in and out of our lives. Personally, I'd love to see as much early modern material out there as possible.

Sarah Werner said...

@long18th: You're right--it's not necessarily the subject matter that makes the difference, but the need for reflection. Our lives are not compartmentalized, nor should our blogs necessarily be so. And I certainly agree with what The Gentleman Administrator points on in his comment: there should be room for lots of different types of blogs out there. But I still want to see more early modern lit folks taking up the challenge! Adding to that corner of the blogosphere won't crowd up the other corners. (Does the blogosphere have corners? It's probably more blob-shaped than polygon.) There's another post in here about how communities beget communities--one medievalist starts to blog, her friends pick up on it and do their own, other medievalists come across those blogs and start theirs in response. The spread of blogs is a great illustration of how reading and writing are interwoven and how both are social activities.

I'm thrilled that some of you are starting up new blogs (see the earlier comments for links) and I'm looking forward to reading them. And I'm very happy to discover some of new-to-me blogs in these comments. You might not have Paradise Lost, Amateur Reader, but wow you've got some good stuff!

Unknown said...
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L.D. Durbin said...

I've just posted something on this topic in my own blog, Marginalia (located at I feel my blog alone isn't doing the URL justice, but you've inspired me to post more and - perhaps - develop the site further :)