January 17, 2009

Second Anniversary Musings

My first post here went up on January 18, 2007.

A two-year anniversary seems as good a time as any for some reflections on my experience of blogging so far. I've written fairly often already about blogging and my interest in it as an extension of my academic work, my pedagogy, and my desire to find common ground between academic criticism and 'common' readers. So what else is there to talk about?

Well, for one thing, I have found that writing this blog has made me very aware of the things I can't (or at least don't) talk about here--this is a feeling enhanced by my recent reading of the anthology Dropped Threads (from the cover: "A beautifully woven tapestry of perspectives on the silences women still keep"). Now, I've never been a convert to the highly confessional version of blogging, not just because it seems at once solipsistic and exhibitionist, from the writing side, and voyeuristic, from the reading side. And even if I were inclined to blog about myself in a more personal way, because I use my own name rather than a pseudonym, self-disclosure risks impinging unfairly on others' privacy. Of course, there are no external inhibitors here, only my own sense of propriety and reserve. But maybe because the format of a blog makes it feel like writing in a diary, the gap between the (usually) calm, reasonable tone of my postings and my currently rather vexed and complicated life can sometimes be disconcerting. Blogging for me is another version of my calm public face. I certainly prize and respect self-control, but as the wise narrator of Middlemarch observes, "behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control." It's tempting, sometimes, to launch an anonymous blog in an attempt to tap into the same reservoir of kind, thoughtful people I've discovered are "out there" ready to contribute generously to conversations about books, to see what answers they might have to some questions about life. But don't worry: I'm never going to turn Novel Readings into naval gazing. I've been reading too much Carlyle recently to be tempted into that kind of self-indulgence!

Even as an expression of my public or professional personality, my blogging has seemed to me lately to have become a bit bland. Not that it ever was particularly edgy! And by some, I know, my approach has always been dismissed as 'middle-brow' at best (that's not, by the way, an epithet I'm altogether averse to). Still, in person, even at work, I think I'm a bit more acerbic and prickly, or funny and irreverent, than I have been here, where of late "a common greyness silvers everything." Also, I've become more inclined to avoid topics on which I feel snarky and know I might generate some controversy (however small in scale). In some ways it is responsible to think twice about statements which, thanks to the wonders of electronic memory, you can't ever really take back. I also believe reciprocal courtesy and avoidance of cheap ad hominem slurs should be the standards for blogging as much as for any kind of intellectual exchange. Still, one of the initial attractions of blogging was the freedom it offered to express my opinions without layers of qualifications or justifications (or footnotes). Though of course with tenure I have, officially, all the leeway I could want to say what I think, I do try to get along with my colleagues, and I have a responsibility to my students to present a variety of perspectives and to teach a range of material that is variously congenial to my own critical commitments and temperament. Being polite and responsible like this can sometimes feel intellectually dampening, that's all, and for a while, I felt relatively uninhibited here, and so took a few more risks than usual. I don't want to seek controversy or be contrarian just for the sake of it, but I don't want my commitments to remain wholly implicit here: I'd like to define myself more sharply as a critic and make Novel Readings stand out more distinctly as a source for a more particular kind of commentary. We'll see how that goes.

On another topic, since I started putting time in as a blogger I have inevitably asked questions about the value of doing this instead of doing other things that lead more directly to professional credit or advancement. In the next year or so I'd like to discuss some of the things I've learned or considered more formally with first our departmental and then our faculty administration. I've already proposed to our departmental committee on professional development that we move towards a 'portfolio' approach to to evaluating academic publications. Given how strongly worded the MLA's recommendations on scholarly publishing were, it is a bit shocking to me how little impact they appear to have had so far on ordinary practice--or even on thinking about ordinary practice. I'm not claiming anything in particular for Novel Readings here, except insofar as exploring the world of academic blogging and electronic publication has opened my eyes to the inadequacies of our entrenched assumptions about what 'counts.'

Finally, blogging for this long starts to raise questions about the value of the archived material. I recently did some downloading and sorting of old posts, with an eye to drawing on them for some more formal writing projects. Doing so made me very aware of the sheer quantity of writing I have done here over the past two years (hundreds of pages worth, it turns out). The material varies widely in quality and depth, but I would like to do something to ensure that the more substantive posts are accessible in a useful way: one aspect of literary or academic blogging that has always bothered and puzzled me is that writing about books is not properly subject to quite the same time pressures as, say, writing about current events (or even, dare I say it, writing about pop culture). The blog format, though, persistently favours the new, always moving older posts down and then off the page as if somehow critical insights get dated like any other story. I'm going to work on setting up something like a 'table of contents' for the blog that will work better than the 'labels' function to direct visitors to what I think of as the "back-blog" of material here. There's no reason in principle why despite the unbreakable convention of 'latest first,' a blog couldn't work less like a newsfeed and more like a constantly expanding volume.


The English Teacher said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on how you view your blogging. I'm new to your blog, and I was initially drawn to it because you seem to consider your practice as a reader in relation to your practice as a teacher. As you've said, you don't blog anonymously. I've wondered what it must be like to know that your own students could be reading your blog.

At a public high school in the States, I teach struggling readers, and I sometimes use my blog to think about my own processes as a reader and how they compare to my students'. Under these circumstances, I feel I must keep my blog anonymous and use a pseudonym. Otherwise, I wouldn't blog at all and I would lose an outlet for exploring my own interests as a teacher-reader. My job is so emotionally demanding that I need to reserve some forum that is largely for me.

Anyway, thanks for your blog. I'm enjoying it.

Kevin said...

"I'd like to define myself more sharply as a critic and make Novel Readings stand out more distinctly as a source for a more particular kind of commentary."

As an unabashed lover of prose fiction and a recent convert to the value of good criticism, I heartily encourage this effort!

Of course, I'm dying to know what kind of commentary you hope to offer.

To date, my favorite post of yours is on The Chimes — an excellent model of thoughtful criticism and good pedagogy — as it sheds light on what makes a story work well (or not), what makes it compelling, plausible, aesthetically pleasing, etc.

To a happy and productive '09.


S. Li said...

- Your ideas on reformatting the blog--on getting away from its "favour[ing] the new"--sound really interesting. I read blogs because they direct me so readily to what to read--"the new"; I don't have to worry about choosing what to read, as I do if I'm looking quickly at a book of literary criticism. (In fact, it's probably fears of (mis-)choice associated with these books that have driven me to blog-reading in the past.) Nonetheless, there are interesting and useful things written in blogs that should be more readily available or presented to the blog-reader. There has to be some more balanced way of presenting 'the old' (if it ever really is) and 'the new.'

- "exploring the world of academic blogging and electronic publication has opened my eyes to the inadequacies of our entrenched assumptions about what 'counts.'"

I sometimes think there must be mixed attitudes toward activities like blogging in academia, and I wonder if that feeds at all into the "entrenched assumptions" you're talking about: there must be academics who deplore blogging and other forms of self-publishing on the internet out of a concern for the accuracy and soundness of the information and ideas being disseminated.

On a related note, given that blogging offers a ready space for ideas and can have a wide, i.e. not strictly academic, reach, I'm surprised not all professors are bloggers! I envision a battling out of the two impulses: stodgy accuracy police vs. taking lit crit back to the people . . .

Rohan Maitzen said...

English Teacher: Thanks for your comments. I can imagine that you find your job emotionally demanding! I find teaching draining too but at least my students are (more or less?) grown up. I don't think many of my students do read my blog or even know it exists. It's the rare student who has the independent intellectual curiosity to be poking around outside course requirements, in my experience--and of course they are all plenty busy just doing their assigned reading! But I wonder if drawing their attention to it more deliberately might (for some, at least) help them to see their class work in a different way, as part of a larger world of intellectual inquiry, where there are people who read things like Bleak House by choice!

Kevin: Well, I was certainly honest about my reaction to "The Chimes"! As a teacher, I am inclined to put the best face forward about any text I'm teaching, so one thing this blog offers is a chance to go with my gut occasionally (as I also did about Auster's City of Glass. Maybe it's best that my students not happen across my first reaction to that book, as I'll be teaching it to some of them before long (and putting a good face on it if I can).

Samantha: My academic colleagues show very little interest (pro or con) in blogging. I think that disengagement in itself is potentially a problem because it means they aren't even wondering about what else might count towards, or contribute to, professional development. I think you're right that suspicion about the free-for-all aspect of self-publishing is one reason some academics do look very skeptically on blogging. But academic bloggers (provided they stick to "their" subjects) are surely qualified to opine without referees--and they'll be held accountable for their statements on the internet, too, more promptly and often more stringently then in the peer-review process. Also, of course, literary academics by no means have a monopoly on the ability to read well and say smart and interesting things about literature!

Jeanne said...

I'll be interested to see what you come up with for making your blog more like a constantly expanding volume. That's something I think about, too, but I'm a year behind you.