Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Why I Blog

Blogito, ergo sum.

OK, not really. One of the reasons I had blog posts about blogging is that meta-blogging leads to an over-inflated sense of one's self importance, something that I'm already far too inclined toward. Still, I was tagged on one of these memes (so long ago that I cannot even remember who the tagger was), and I'm so guilty of neglecting memes that I vowed to actually respond to this one. I hope all will be tolerant of the self-importance this sort of post exudes.

The reason I began blogging isn't exactly the same as the reason I continue to blog. As with all things, it has changed over time. I began blogging because a colleague wanted to blog, but didn't want to start doing it alone. I had a pretty negative attitude toward blogging, and was pretty much concluding that blogs were the medium of political crackpots, or academic preachers-to-the-choir.

My colleague, though, made an impassioned plea for the public intellectual. He argued that every scholar has a responsibility to reach out beyond the classroom, and that a truly healthy intellectual environment doesn't cede the responsibility of the public intellectual to a few publicity-mongers. I found his position so persuasive that I adopted it as my own, and still continue to hold it to this day.

Alas, my colleague changed his mind. We each created different blogs, but after a short time he became disillusioned with his blog and eventually abandoned it, while I kept plugging along. In the early days, in keeping with my new philosophy regarding public intellectuals, I blogged on almost any intellectual issue of the day. The Wordhoard tended to focus on literary stuff, but I had all sorts of other content too.

My original goal was to have 50 hits per month, which I made in my first month of blogging. That might not seem like much -- after all, I've cracked 100,000 hits -- but I still think that's a good minimum. People worry too much about their traffic, but my attitude is this: Fifty people is a good-sized class. If you're hitting 50 people per month, you're essentially "teaching" another class in the public. Those of you out there with light traffic shouldn't feel like you're somehow deficient. I've got a lot more respect for the smart niche blog with low traffic than the blog-whore who's just out for a few more hits.

As the number of posts grew and the number of hits increased, though, I began to feel unhappy with the content of the blog. Too often I felt like I was inhabiting the persona of someone I call "Professor Awesome, PhD." Professor Awesome (PhD) is so brilliant, so dazzling, and so self-confident that he feels comfortable pronouncing on any subject regardless of how ill-equipped he is to make a judgment -- in other words, he's a pompous, arrogant jerk. I can't stand Professor Awesome, PhD, and he is me.

To reduce the Professor Awesome factor, I began limiting my blogging to medieval and literary topics, and eventually only to medieval topics. Prof. Awesome (PhD, mind you) still occasionally decides to take control of my keyboard, but for the most part limiting my topics to things of which I have at least a basic understanding prevents me from exceeding a certain level of stupidity.

I assumed that as I limited my topics, my traffic would fall off -- but the funny thing was, it actually increased. I started looking into it, checking links and comments leading back to this page, and I was surprised to find that there was a nascent medieval blog community (though folks like the Digital Medievalist had been blogging for years), and that I had somehow wandered right into the middle of its town square.

After all this evolution, why do I blog now? As I watched this nascent community form, I noticed that the popular (amateur) medievalists and the scholarly medievalists had very little traffic between them. The scholarly medievalists weren't really functioning as public intellectuals; they tended to use their blogs as ad hoc insta-publishing of their ideas for other scholars to see. The popular medievalists, on the other hand, weren't interested in reading a bunch of posts that they couldn't understand. The situation reminds me of a passage from "The Voice of Saruman" chapter in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers:
So great was the power that Saruman exerted in this last effort [negotiating with Gandalf] that none that stood within hearing were unmoved. But now the spell was wholly different. They heard the gentle remonstrance of a kindly king with an erring but much-loved minister. But they were shut out, listening at a door to words not meant for them: ill-mannered children or stupid servants overhearing the elusive discourse of their elders, and wondering how it would affect their lot. Of loftier mould these two were made: reverend and wise. It was inevitable that they should make alliance. Gandalf would ascend into the tower, to discuss deep things beyond their comprehension in the high chambers of Orthanc. The door would be closed, and they would be left outside, dismissed to await allotted work or punishment. Even in the mind of Theoden the thought took shape, like a shadow of doubt: 'He will betray us; he will go -- we shall be lost.'

Then Gandalf laughed. The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.

This blog today is my attempt to make Gandalf laugh again, to dismiss the fantasy that medieval scholars are so lofty, reverend and wise that we should have no intercourse with popular medievalists. Scholars might fear (and with reason, I'm sorry to say) that public intellectualism could be interpreted as a sign of unseriousness, and that blogging anything without occasionally tossing in medieval arcana (the dropped name of a theorist, the untranslated passage of Latin, the impossibly obscure reference) will be seen by their colleagues as reason to doubt their scholarly writing.

Popular medievalists, too, need to understand that their energy and enthusiam drives this community. No doubt popular medievalists know less than someone who devotes his career to the study of his field, but that doesn't mean they should be shut out of the conversation. Popular medievalists have something to contribute too, even if it is just an unashamed sense of excitement about medievalism.

So that's what I hope the Wordhoard is today, and why I blog. Maybe in a few more years, I'll have a different motivation. For the moment, however, the Wordhoard is open to all comers, popular and scholarly. The comments will continue to be displayed on the front page (instead of "below the fold," as it were) as part of my commitment to maintaining a happy public space for all sorts of medievalists to mingle. I'll still work to publicize other new medieval blogs and send traffic to individual medieval posts through the Morning Medieval Miscellany, and treat other bloggers as fellow-travelers rather than rivals.

As far as I'm concerned, you're welcome in our community.


  1. Nice post. I'm happy that you blog as well...

  2. One of the nice things about In the Middle is that it gives the wizards a place to gather.

  3. Anonymous10:06 AM

    Generally I lurk on your blog as well as other similar ones, because who am I, some ex-SCA member who read The Canterbury Tales and The Pearl in college? I don't feel the need to be condescended to, though I may be assuming that would happen when it would not.

    But I appreciate your sentiments about the (lacking in the US) role of public intellectuals and the value of everyone's contributions. Personally I think that scholarly activity loses its force for making a true difference in the world if it is kept hidden away within the tiny elite who can "truly understand" it. I really like your image of 50 blog readers being like a class of 50 students.

    I am happy to acknowledge your Professor Awesomeness in your chosen field!

  4. Anonymous10:28 AM

    ... and some of us have been reading along with you the entire way (sadly though, I don't think having you in my Google Reader feed registers a hit).

  5. This post is a great reflection--it's a nice embodiment of what I've been reading and following for the last few months.

    I look forward to reading more in these same intentions!

  6. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Well, whatever your reasons, please don't stop -- thinkers have such a small place in popular culture today. It's depressing.

  7. I appreciate your blog and others like them. I'm one who for yadda-yadda reasons contemplated higher academia in medieval studies but have never taken the plunge. I decided a few years back that this was no excuse not to pursue study in the field with as much concentration as a desk job and "normal life" would allow me. I read, but I have very few outlets for discussion or interaction with medievalists. The notices I get from the nearby university history departments are usually for events I can't attend because they're during business hours.

    All this to say, there is a "target audience" for what you blog about and I'm happy to be in it.

  8. Google Reader recommended this blog to me- probably based on all the Tudorian/Shakespearean/Austenian searches I've done of late.
    I quite enjoy it!

    Although I must admit I probably am one of those blog-whores that are so reviled...

  9. A classicist friend of mine recently expressed amazement at the breadth and collegiality of the medieval blogosphere. I had to concur: The quality of the communication between professors, grad students, novelists, reenactors, Tolkien buffs, etc., defies many long-held assumptions about how different types of medievalists are inclined--or supposed--to view each other.

  10. A classicist friend of mine recently expressed amazement at the breadth and collegiality of the medieval blogosphere.

    Yeah, I wonder about that, and I seem to remember a conversation with JJC about it last time I saw him. This question is going to sound too precious by half, but: Is there another blog-community like that of the medievalists? There's the community of theory people, of course, but while I would say it's vibrant and interesting, I wouldn't exactly say it's friendly. But what about other disciplines? If there's not, d'you suppose it's, at least for academics, a reaction to the tendency for the medieval(s) in departments to feel marginalized by the rest of the folks, who are often convinced what we do is just dusty, marginal, weird stuff? [example-cum-self-horn tooting dept: I've had two teaching observations since I started this job, and both times, the non-medievalist observer said something "I didn't expect this stuff would be so fun." Well, duh! Of course it's fun!] LIkewise, I would imagine that amateur medievalists--SCA'ers, gamers, readers and fans and scholars of all sort--aren't often made to feel that their passion is anything less than peculiar. I don't want to fall into a post hoc ergo propter hoc mistake here, but....maybe we have our cause here?

    Nice post, btw, RSN. I do think the 'comments on the front page' is a great idea, now that you've called attention to the theory behind it. Maybe we'll take it up too.

  11. Here's to many more years of the Unlocked Wordhoard -- bridging the gap between popular and academic medievalism!

    Nitpick: "My original goal was to have 50 hits per month" -- a "hit" is technically "a request to a web server for a file" -- a number far larger than the number of visitors to a site.

  12. Anonymous8:36 PM

    Gandalf has laughed many times with your blogs! Great blog.