Scholarbloggers and kettlechoppers

by John Holbo on February 7, 2005

Scott McLemee ‘s new column at Inside Higher Ed. The ethics and aesthetics of kettle chopping. Plus this bit about our kind:

For every scholar wondering how to make blogging an institutionally accredited form of professional activity, there must be several entertaining the vague hopes that it never will.

I am the former sort. But let’s consider. The concern might be that blogging will drag down the tone of scholarship. But clearly Scott has in mind the reverse concern that scholarship will drag down the tone of blogging. It is clear enough how the dynamics of obligatory overproduction – among other common, cruel disfigurements – can produce hollow but noisome artifacts such as Scott laments:

And so the implicit content of many a conference paper is not, as one
might think, "Here is my research." Rather, it is: "Here am I,
qualified and capable, performing this role, which all of us here
share, and none of us want to question too closely. So let’s get it
over with, then go out for a drink afterwards."

Let’s grant the problem (I do.) The question is whether serious, dedicated scholarly blogging – if it became the sort of thing for which one claimed a sort of steady, low-grade service credit – could avoid slipping down the same slope. The old evil: to reward x is to teach the art of simulating x. Still, I think blogging could hold its not terribly elevated ground pretty well; this is a major point in its favor.

Yes, a stampede of accredited newbie blogscholars padding CV’s with daily posts might be an unseemly spectacle. In many ways it would inevitably recapitulate all the old routines of academic comedy. Certainly there is nothing about blogging that prevents stupidity, ignorance, bad argument, inanity, bullshit (via Matt). But I think the bloggish compulsion to win and hold an audience – an audience that is presumptively a mix of academic and non – would almost inevitably breed healthy respect for teleology. And this would be likely to rub off on scholarship. (Perhaps with other bad habits to go with it, but life is complicated that way.)

Not that blogging can be scholarship, let alone supplant it. (Parellel to a popular fallacy about the capacity of blogging to replace journalism as we know it. If you’ve got no facts, the ass you check may be your own.) And, admittedly, if it became the norm for all scholarship to be shaken in brisk, brusque, bloggy fashion all manner of bruises might be inflicted on sensitive, slow scholarly growth. But I think individual injuries would heal. I think in general scholarship would not respond by studying the black arts of infotainment. No, it would go off into a huddle with itself, find something to be the point – several somethings: no doubt there would be lively disagreement – and report back to the toe-tapping bloggers.

What do you think? Would accredited scholarblogging enliven the life of the mind, saving civilization; or just spread the stain of misery, as twilight engulfs the West?

A passage from Nietzsche’s essay, "Schopenhauer as Educator" – which I taught today – seems vaguely relevant. Whatever can be the motivation for academic life?

It can hardly originate in any supposed ‘desire for truth’: for how could there exist any desire at all for cold, pure, inconsequential knowledge! What it really is that impels the servants of science is only too obvious to the unprejudiced eye: and it is very advisable to prove and dissect the men of learning themselves for once, since they for their part are quite accustomed to laying bold hands on everything in the world, even the most venerable things, and taking them to pieces. If I am to speak out, I would say this: the man of learning consists of a confused network of very various impulses and stimuli, he is an altogether impure metal. First of all there is a strong and ever more intense curiosity, the search for adventures in the domain of knowlege, the constant stimulation exercised by thte new and rare in contrast to the old and tedious. Then there is a certain drive to dialectical investigation, the huntsman’s joy in following the sly fox’s path in the realm of thought, so that it is not really truth that is sought but the seeking itself, and the main pleasure consists in the cunning tracking, encircling and correct killing. Now add to this the impulse to contradiction, the personality wanting to be aware of itself and to make itself felt in opposition to all others; the stuggle becomes a pleasure and the goal is personal victory, the struggle for truth being only a pretext. Then, the man of learning is to a great extent also motivated to the discovery of certain ‘truths’, motivated that is by his subjection to certain ruling persons, castes, opinions, churches, governments: he feels it is to his advantage to bring ‘truth’ over to their side.

What follows is a list of less essential but still frequent characteristics. ‘Eleventh, the scholar from vanity,’ so forth. Most edifying, this chemical demonstration in which a cocktail of several colorful ingredients is stirred and shaken – and the product appears so deceptively transparent!

I love that bit about the huntsman’s joy. (Scott concludes his piece with a line from a friend: "Do you think
there’s any way that intellectual life in America could become less
lonely?" Ah, perhaps the brain is always a lonely hunter.) Adapting Isaiah Berlin, it seems to me some scholar-huntsmen are fox hunters, others hedgehog hunters. That is, there are some who delight in showing the many things their prey do not know; and others who delight in showing the one big thing the prey does not know. Each method has its agonic satisfactions. (At Berkeley when I was in grad school Sam Scheffler and Barry Stroud used to do a sort of fox-hedgehog tagteam thing to any visiting speaker. Thing of beauty.)



Henry 02.07.05 at 5:50 pm

There’s a bit in Suzy McKee Charnas’s _The Vampire Tapestry_, which I don’t have a copy of anymore, that speaks to this (it really is the most cerebral of vampire novels). If my memory isn’t deceiving me, the vampire, Weyland, is masquerading as a professor of anthropology; he draws an explicit comparison between the joys of scholarship and the joys of successful predation – the former, in his eyes, is very similar to the latter.


Jonathan 02.07.05 at 5:59 pm

I’ve never understood the “overproduction” argument. What’s the basis for being offended by too much scholarship? Is there a lingering sense that it all should be read when it’s published? Does it mean that the critic of overproduction’s own work gets intolerably diluted? Is it that one set of standards are being violated, everyday, and in ever new and increasingly hard-to-discover ways?

Perhaps an “overproduction” squad could be established; examples could be found; stern emails could be sent. Indignant blog posts might follow.


M. 02.07.05 at 6:10 pm

Blogging should definitely *not* be accepted as “an institutionally accredited profesional activity,” and if it is, the measure should definitely *not* be the popularity of a blog. One purpose of peer review is to try to overcome hidden biases (e.g. sexism and racism) by anonymous review of work. The non-anonymous nature of blogs would reinstate the power of these biases. Moreover, as has been noted previously, the blogworld is heavily skewed toward white men, for all sorts of complicated reasons, so it would be just another way to let the white guys get out of doing the actual committee work that runs institutions. I’m afraid you’ll have to save civilization on your own free time.


scott mclemee 02.07.05 at 6:12 pm

Perhaps I should just express gratitude for the link and call it a day. But John Holbo’s gloss on the first passage he quotes from my column is puzzling. That’s really not my point, on either score.

(1) The reference to those who do not want blogs to count for professional credit was meant to hint that there might be a lot of people in academic life who would appreciate the idea of a space for serious discussion that would not end up colonized by the bureaucratic logic of the university as institution.

(2) I certainly don’t think “scholarship will drag down the tone of blogging” — and in fact do not even know what that means.

Of course, some people do make a de facto equation of “scholarship” with “research and publication sanctioned by a specific institutional arrangement.” At times they do coincide, and perhaps more often than not, but the terms are not identical.


Adam Kotsko 02.07.05 at 6:15 pm

I think blog posts are overproduced. I used to be able to read every blog post in my field (politico-theologico-philosophico-literary studies). Now — who can keep up any more?


Kingsley Amis 02.07.05 at 6:23 pm

Example of the overproduction of scholarship:

“The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485,” by James Dixon.


Joe O 02.07.05 at 6:48 pm

The blogging hierarchy heavily favors those who started blogging two or three years ago. Think glenn reynolds.

There is the illusion that anyone could break into it and be popular (who couldn’t write as well as glenn reynolds?), but it isn’t the case.

On the other hand, those high in the blogging hierachy would probaly be susceptible to bribes. A few iPods could go a long way.


joel turnipseed 02.07.05 at 7:09 pm

Interesting. I was reading Davenport’s “Scholar as Critic” again the other day & it seems like problems there–of small discovery put in context by knowing community; unrooting further nuggets of fact and insight–is one aspect of scholarly blogging that would count as an unmitigated blessing (tho’ list-servs have served that function for a fair while).

In the main, I think the “bullshit” factor is the much greater distraction than that of “overproduction” — good work can be hard to find, especially good work whose provenance/hidden prolepsis is transparent (oh, to know the roads people got LOST on…).

Maybe a scholarly wikipedia w/area & article blogging would be the trick to maintaining what we most love about peer-reviewed scholarship & the immediacy/personality of blogging? Also: one GREAT feature of academic blogging would be to open up discourse/interaction beyond the walls of academe (the idea, for instance, that I might have been able to read Nozick’s or Williams’ or Davidson’s or Vlastos’ blog, especially if it were in context of their posted work & its peer review/discussion, is tremendously appealing to me).

Of course, if you’re teaching 2/2 (or even, 3/3) & trying to get that book done (while wondering whether competing scholar is cribbing your blog–and publishers are as bad as venture capitalists in their desire for monopoly), all this might sound like a lot of wishful… bullshit?


RS 02.07.05 at 7:12 pm

At the risk of offending our hosts – isn’t blogging simply a written form of the sort of high falutin common room pontificating that academics get up to anyway? If you rewarded it with institutional accreditation they’d do even less work than they do now!


djw 02.07.05 at 7:30 pm

Let me just disagree with Kingsley Amis. I’m not going to defend the article in question any more than I’m going to read it, but apparent obscurity isn’t overproduction. Important insights can emerge from attention to that sort of minutiae, and even if it won’t or doesn’t, I appreciate (as, I think, many do) that if my own investigations should ever point me in that direction, someone’s already done this work for me. And anyway, can you come up with a substantive reason why the study of the impact of 15th century shipbuilding techniques isn’t worthy of study, other than it sounds really obscure?

I think of the overproduction problem like this. Scholar A develops an interest in topic X, and starts reading and researching in earnest in that field. Over the course of the next couple of years, she learns an immense amount about that field/topic, and comes up with some ideas about what to say about it. Problem is, similar ideas are already out there, recently published by like-minded folks. In some alternate universe, she could simply move on, content to have expanded her knowledge and expertise, which makes her a more well-rounded scholar and teacher. In this universe, she damn well better have some refereed publications to show for those last couple of years if she wants tenure, promotion, or the respect of her peers, so she’ll have to try to come up with something ever-so-slightly different to say about X from what everyone else has already said.


Louis Proyect 02.07.05 at 7:47 pm

I think that blogging is the essential medium for the academic who wants to pretend that he or she is interacting with the masses, but it is not really what the CCNY cafeteria in the 1930s was about. Those tables were filled with face-to-face, free-wheeling confrontations that let the chips fall where they may. My experience with high-profile academic and journalist blogs is that they are anything but free-wheeling. I have been forced to use a pseudonym on Marc Cooper’s blog because he objects to what I am saying basically–same thing with Doug Ireland. It seems like many of these blogs, including that of the stuffed shirt Timothy Burke at Swarthmore, don’t even have a comments feature, as does Crooked Timber to its credit. Frankly, the idea of setting up a blog without allowing comments from the readers strikes me as somewhat onanistic.


Jasper Milvain 02.07.05 at 7:49 pm

The idea of scholarship as predation belongs to a Medieval Irish poet. And his cat, of course.


Jasper Milvain 02.07.05 at 7:53 pm

The idea of scholarship as predation belongs to a Medieval Irish poet. And his cat, of course.

(I got an internal server error, so this may be a repost. If so, apologies.)


joel turnipseed 02.07.05 at 8:06 pm

Ah, Pangur — brings back memories of an old friend, who performed Barber’s version.

…and yes, if you are reinforcing the point, the predatory/competitive aspect of scholarship seems biggest hindrance to best possibilities of academic blogging.


Richard Cownie 02.07.05 at 8:13 pm

Surely blogging is most likely to replace or enhance the “let’s go have a drink” part of the academic experience, rather than the “here’s my research” part ? I would expect the ultimate outcome is that more ideas can be informally thrashed out and shared between geographically separated groups of people, producing better research more quickly, but that research will end up as conventional papers and articles, albeit probably with more collaborative and co-authored papers than has usually been the case in the humanities.

Valuing the individual contributions to those collaborative efforts may be a challenge, but that’s a problem which other fields (e.g. physics) already deal with.


Richard Cownie 02.07.05 at 8:31 pm

“The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485,” by James Dixon.

Actually that one sounds pretty interesting to me, even as a layman: given that Columbus sailed in 1492, I’d be fascinated to find out whether ship design was the enabling factor.


Jonathan 02.07.05 at 8:41 pm

You get the Dixon article via Uqbar-Stor.


Steve 02.07.05 at 9:01 pm

Jonathan, I think Mr. Gaiman’s library also contains a copy.

Let me just disagree with Kingsley Amis. I’m not going to defend the article in question any more than I’m going to read it…

Oh, I highly recommend reading it.


djw 02.07.05 at 9:09 pm

Jesus Christ, I’m an idiot.


Matt Weiner 02.07.05 at 9:56 pm

If my blog became an accredited form of scholarship either:
(a) I would get scholarly credit for a ridiculous post comparing referees of philosophical papers to football referees
(b) I would have to stop making ridiculous posts comparing etc.

Both outcomes, I think, would be highly unsatisfactory.

I also might feel obliged to post regularly, which would be disastrous as you’ll see if you click through.

I might be interested in getting credit for some of my more substantive posts, but only of the same sort of credit I’d get for a self-published, non-reviewed thing–if it turns out to be cool, maybe it’ll have some impact.

And, allowing comments on my blog as I do, I’m not absolutely positive that “without allowing comments from the readers” in Mr. Proyect’s comment isn’t redundant.


Cheryl Rofer 02.08.05 at 1:41 am

On the one side, I have seen academic cv’s that included everything up to having been a crossing guard in sixth grade. CV’s could be padded still further with every blog post and comment. This may not be a positive.

On the other side, blogs could encourage clearer writing in the academy. Commenters can puncture a windbag. Bloggers might even habituate to writing so others can read, and the habit might carry over to their books and journals.


jholbo 02.08.05 at 2:20 am

Hi, all. Sorry I was a bit unclear. When I suggest someone ought to get academic credit for blogging, all I really mean is that someone who does something like what Brian Weatherson does at TAR – truly dedicated academic blogging – should be recognized as doing something that is perfectly legitimate. A bit like publication, a bit like editing, a bit like organizing a small conference. So of course give it a spot of service credit. I didn’t mean that you should pack your CV with blog posts. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

Scott, I don’t think I misunderstood the point of your essay, I just wrote unclearly. ‘Scholarship dragging down the tone of blogging’ was meant to indicate, in somewhat paradoxical terms, bureaucratic requirements (scholarship as we know it) just ensnaring something that is pleasantly free of that at the moment.


Amardeep 02.08.05 at 3:18 am

Amidst the seemingly never-ending anxiety that academic bloggers feel about the time they (we) waste doing our brilliant feuilletonist blogging, the concern is almost always something to the effect of “does this count? how can I make this count?”

But the burning desire (quickly extinguished by the realists amongst and within us) to make blogs count as scholarship occludes a more interesting question, which we could be asking, namely:

how to make scholarship more like the blogosphere?

How about a journal which requires comments, and where every possible reference point is hyperlinked/verified?

To make it more scholarly, it might need to limit itself to just one article per issue (i.e., one per month). And each article would need to be ‘peer reviewed’ (though how one defines ones “peers” is an inevitable problem).

This model shares a good deal with the Wiki idea mentioned above. It is potentially a actually much harder thing to write for than a journal.

So: Anyone want to start a bloggy, peer-reviewed, “scholarly” journal?


RS 02.08.05 at 10:51 am

The BMJ rapid responses acts as this sort of model, where responses to an article can be published online very quickly (24hrs – only vetted for obscenity and libel) – although I think it treads a fine line between facilitating scholarly debate and givng credibility to the objections of fringe loons.

The journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences publishes target articles followed by extensive invited open peer commentary – this often opens up the kind of debate that goes on behind closed doors in the Academy, but can also be long-winded, redundant and self-obsessed.


Ray Davis 02.08.05 at 8:22 pm

I’ve pointed to B&BS in the past as an indicator of how blogging might evolve into a cheaper, faster, more public academic review process. “Long-winded, redundant and self-obsessed” sounds like a pretty good blog description to me.


RS 02.08.05 at 8:31 pm

Can you imagine how much blog-like follow up comments would multiply the time taken to read every article?

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