Monday, May 01, 2006

Starting the Conversation...

The folks organizing the Kalamazoo Roundtable on blogging medievalists sent around a list of questions we'll most certainly address. I thought I'd start the conversation early by responding to them here first:

Starting the Conversation…

Who are you?
What an existential question! I’m the bald guy with the bowties, a tenure-track assistant professor of English at Troy University.

How did you get started blogging?
It began with a conversation I had with Glen Gill at Logo Kai Erga about the role of the public intellectual. I detail much of that start here. Dr. Gill has since stopped working on his blog, but I still update mine regularly.

How did you get started blogging about things related to the Middle Ages?
My first posts weren’t much about the Middle Ages at all, focusing on general intellectual stuff and art. My first post on the Middle Ages came pretty quickly, though (only four days into the life of the blog), being a post on the 2007 Beowulf movie and Seamus Heaney’s translation. Despite the title, I didn’t really intend the main focus of the blog to be on medieval literature, but it has naturally drifted that way, since the bulk of my own intellect is hard at work in that field anyway.

What is your goal in blogging?
That’s a good question; every so often I re-assess to make certain I’m not still blogging out of inertia. My goal is to create a space for use of the public intellect, where academic-types (like me) can talk about things in a smart way without the barrier of academic cant, and where smart non-academic types can enter into a conversation that is perhaps above the level of the water cooler at work, but not restrictively professionalized. We’ve got e-mail lists (like Medtext and AnSaxNet) for purely professional discussions, but I want a space where the public and the academic interact.

What is the focus of your blog?
Primarily anything medieval, medievalist, or literary. I like to write about popular culture because that is a good arena of engagement between the public and the academic. In the final analysis, though, I focus on whatever interests me at the time.

I do have one forbidden topic: politics. I’m sick of blogs that are people screaming vapid, thoughtless, political slogans at each other; indeed, I’ve become convinced that political blogs, while the most popular blogs on the ‘net, tend also to be the stupidest. Occasionally, though, the blog ends up hitting on political topics tangentially, but politics is never the focus. Since I’ve had people accuse me of being both liberal and conservative, I guess I must do a good job at keeping the politics out.

Why is blogging important for the field of Medieval Studies in particular?
Medieval Studies has a strong “geek” factor. Yyou find a lot of medievalists who had really precocious intellects as kids (I suspect science-fictiony fields like rocket science probably have similar geek factors). As a result, there are a lot of frustrated medievalist-wannabees in the world, people who love the medieval and medievalism, but whose lives have followed other paths. I’m often surprised at how many of my dedicated readers are non-academics who are just in love with the real medieval and fantasy medievalism. I find that they appreciate having a place where they can think about and comment on these things without the fear of being shut out by the professionals.

What does the medium of blogging do better for Medieval Studies than forums, discussion boards, and other types of web-based interaction?
It opens the discuss up to non-academics. If my favorite listservs, like AnSaxNet, started to be dominated by non-academics, I would be miffed, since that is a great forum for scholarly, professional discourse. I’m among those who get irritated when those discussion boards get posts that read:
Hi, I’m writing a research paper on Chaucer. Can someone recommend any
sources for me? Thx!
Luv ya!

On the other hand, the Middle Ages aren’t the private property of the academic world, and so blogs offer a better space for public discourse.

Does blogging provide an effective form of personal publicity?
I’m not sure, since I’m not really sure how people who don’t know me perceive me through the blog. Sometimes I’ll have a friend tell me that, if they didn’t know me, they would have understood a particular post a different way. I’m sure I must have developed a public persona, but I’m not sure what it is, or if it is effective (or even what “effective” means in this context).

As for publicizing my work, I've had a lot of people ask for off prints of my articles since I started blogging.

Do you wish you'd chosen to blog anonymously instead of under your own
name? Advantages vs. disadvantages

Some people have a real problem with anonymous blogging; I don’t. If people are jerks, I won’t link to them regardless of whether they are blogging under their real name or not. People worry about professional retribution, but I actually think that concern is an advantage to blogging under my own name. The knowledge that everything that is said here remains public encourages me to blog courteously. There is only one blog post I’m ashamed of, in which I savaged the research of someone else in another field – while I stand by my assessment of that research, my tone in the initial post was unfair and cruel. That person wrote to me politely, and I learned my lesson. Nowadays, whenever you see me writing something nasty about someone, it is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and is usually someone I know well enough to be sure they will get the joke.

Another advantage is that I don’t have to hide my identity, so I can do things anonymous bloggers can’t. For example, during Hurricane Katrina I temporarily turned the blog into a clearinghouse for announcements of service opportunities in this community, something I wouldn’t have been able to do anonymously.

Of course, openness has its disadvantages. I rarely blog about my university or my department, out of fear of someone misreading my posts and thinking I’m talking nasty about them in a public forum. If I were anonymous, I wouldn’t have to worry about such things.

Has blogging had any positive impact or influence on your career?
Positive, I think. Of course, such things are hard to measure, but as I said above, I’ve had more requests for off prints of my scholarly articles from people who “met” me through my blog than from people who met me at conferences. My university has been encouraging blogging, too; I’ve been interviewed twice by University PR organs for puff pieces.

Has blogging had any negative impact or influence on your career?
If there has been any, I haven’t noticed it. Every so often someone will misunderstand a post (such as when, through sloppy writing, I made it sound like I’m against teaching medieval women writers), but the nature of the blog allows me to correct such posts later.

Why are there so many medievalists bloggers compared to other fields?
I addressed that already here.


  1. Anonymous11:09 PM

    a "puff piece?"

    An interview in which one must puff out their chest the whole time? :p

  2. Anonymous5:07 AM

    "There is only one blog post I’m ashamed of, in which I savaged the research of someone else in another field."

    Did Baudrillard really write you a letter?

  3. My motive for blogging is a little different. I often run across something I'd love to mention to my students, but will never remember to; indeed if I did mention, it might break the flow of the class. Similarly, I am often asked to pass on info to classes, on special events or available money, that I will never remember to do (focusing on the course!); if I did, most students wouldn't pay attention or write it down.

    The blog's a place for all that, plus things that friends, colleagues and perfect strangers might be interested in. Or not.

    I think for my blog to work like that, I can't be either too personal, or too impersonal. It's got to be grounded in what I am actually thinking about, but not everything I am thinking about.

    I have very strong political opinions, for reasons that ought to be pretty obvious -- the stakes are very high -- but what would be the point of putting them in my blog?

  4. Anonymous1:58 PM

    Or Heaney?