Friday, June 6, 2003

Are scholar bloggers public intellectuals? Or do I just write for myself?

Via Invisible Adjunct, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a look at Scholars Who Blog.

"Some have started blogging in order to muse aloud about their research. Others want to polish their chops at opinion-writing for nonacademic audiences. Still others have more urgent and personal reasons ...

Junior faculty members, in particular, want to ensure that their blogs are not a distraction from their primary research. "I try to make clear that it's not my main focus," says Mr. Healy. "I write posts early in the morning or late at night, after I've come home." [Kieran Healy adds "Although I have considered listing my posts as publications on my vita. I mean, the ones with comments are practically peer-reviewed."]

Mr. Balkin offers similar counsel. "My advice to junior faculty is to write on your blog only when you think you have something to say. You shouldn't allow this particular tail to wag the dog of your academic career. For some people, however, blogging itself is a direct form of career development."

Hmm.

Obviously I see the value of blogging - it helps me keep track of my dissertation research and has allowed me to get brilliant inter-disciplinary feedback. My blog also serves as a type of open field journal, allowing myself, and anyone else who cares to read, access to my broader intellectual and personal interests and influences. This type of activity became hugely appealing to me after reading Malinowski's A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term - the posthumously published field journals of an anthropological icon. Some anthropologists said that his personal notes should never have been published, not least because they revealed Malinowski to be more than a bit of an asshole, but subsequent scholars have found great merit in these writings for understanding the history of anthropological thought and the production of scholarly knowledge. While I have no desire to either compare myself to Malinowski, or to suggest that my research and personal thoughts are utterly compelling, I do think there is value in exposing myself as I think and work. (As an aside, my research is funded by Canadian taxpayers and I think they should have every opportunity to see what I'm up to. This provides one way, although I remain rather skeptical as to how successful I have been in this regard.)

But blogs are not field journals in the sense of Malinowski's journals; he quite obviously never expected his notes to be published, let alone read by others. They were written as private documents. My blog is not. Many others have noted that one of the primary differences between blogs and earlier forms of personal publishing, like Usenet, is that blogs are inherently moderated by the author, allowing content, tone and general voice to be controlled. In other words, I get to choose which parts of me are made public in my blog. To some extent I can control my image, and those readers who have met me in person are probably better able to judge the "truthfulness" of my self-representation, while others might, after reading my posts over time, decide how much (or how little) they trust me.

The answer to the questions I posed in the post title is "neither and both". Scholar bloggers are not public intellectuals in the same way that French academics, like Pierre Bourdieu, write for national newspapers, or American scholars like Noam Chomsky, make documentary film. A part of me thinks that for a scholar to be a public intellectual, she must be able to offer social and cultural criticism that has the ability to reach the masses and change their minds. But maybe that is too much to ask. Yet, scholar bloggers are public intellectuals in the sense that they may offer access to research that has long been kept from non-academics, in places like journals and closed conference settings. Scholar bloggers are public intellectuals in the sense that they may allow readers to publically comment on their work in progress. And both activities have the potential to change traditional power relations in academic discourse.

But scholar bloggers also write for themselves. Some even claim that their blogs are private (although I've never really understood how that can be so if they are publically available online.) At the same time, they perform particular personas and positions not entirely for private consumption. But, most scholar bloggers do not write detailed accounts of their private lives or deepest, and perhaps darkest, thoughts. And, at least in my case, I do write for myself. I chose early on to sacrifice mass readership (as if that were an option!!) in order to write about what interests me and furthers my research goals ... (And honestly, since my position is inherently selfish, I have always been rather amazed that anyone else finds what I write about interesting.)

To wrap up, I have to admit I'm not quite sure where I'm going with all this. I will be presenting a paper on blogs and autoethnography at the AoIR conference in the fall, and I guess I'm just starting to think out loud ... But what do you think about all this?

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