Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Philosopher's Proemium

This is the beginning of my commentary but is not of my commentary: A meta-post that will set out my goals and ground rules in blogging the life medieval.

I have long been fascinated with the academic blogosphere. At a gut level, it just seemed like a very cool community of people who talk informally about literature, history and teaching because they genuinely care about those things and about increasing their horizons with respect to them. But cool isn't necessarily a very professional response to anything. So to put it in more considered terms, the academic blogosphere intrigues me in that it seems to prolong and extend what is sometimes the most beneficial part of attending conferences, namely the chance to talk informally with colleagues about one's own ideas and theirs. And in a profession that can so often be a long, solitary slog, increasing the opportunity for colloquy seems largely positive.

But many of the bloggers I've read blog pseudonymously, and that is one aspect of academic blogging that I have been wrestling with as I have been finding myself nudged inexorably towards joining the twenty-first century. Some do blog under their own names, but it seems that a majority do not, making it difficult for them to discuss their work and leaving them instead to write about the process of submitting articles to journals, of procuring book contracts and of navigating life in an academic department. These kinds of posts have been interesting and valuable to me; but I do not want to emulate them in this respect. I want to be able to write substantively about what I am thinking about in my professional life rather than giving my field a pseudonym and desperately trying to make sense while speaking in delphic metaphors that substitute "underwater basketweaving" for Arabic translation in al-Andalus. (To be fair, I do really like some of the blog-pseudonyms I've seen for various academic fields; "kazoo studies" and "complexification studies" come readily to mind.) And I don't want to have to worry about inevitably getting found out. So I have decided to blog under my own name, which you will find in the sidebar at the right, and at the bottom of each post.

That's how I don't want to use this space; so what do I want to do here?

1) Think about and rethink how I present material to students.
I already keep a teaching journal. Posts that fall under this category will, more or less, come from the same source. I find it useful to make notes about what worked and didn't in any given class session or with respect to any given text, as well as about ideas for how to try things differently in the future. I am hoping that by opening up both triumphs and doubts in the classroom to discussion, I will be able to gain additional insights and strategies into teaching and share my own.
2) Think 'aloud' (ablog?) about challenging and interesting spots in my research and professional writing.
This one will be a bit tricky, I think. The potential for an academic blogger to undermine herself seems great. The goal will be to write substantively about what I am working on without sounding half-baked, but also without writing in a way that is so close to something publishable that I would inadvertently scoop myself and, in the process, make the idea unpublishable for having already appeared in another form.
3) Exercise the writing muscles.
Fairly self-explanatory. I find it helps me get my head into my work in the morning if I do some low-stakes writing first thing; I'm hoping that by doing that low-stakes writing with a specific purpose, the benefit will increase.
4) Practice writing for a more general audience.
I assume that my audience will, for the most part, be other medieval Hispanists, Mediterraneanists and Islamicists. However, I hope occasionally to write a post that explains some aspect of my research to a lay audience. At some point I think I might like to write a book for such an audience, so this will be a good trial run. Additionally, by practicing the kind of clear exposition that is required to write for non-specialists, I hope to keep my proper academic writing relatively clean and free of the jargon and academese that can sometimes creep in when that is all a person writes.

5) And (finally, and perhaps necessarily) consider and converse about the use of technology in medieval studies.
Also pretty self-explanatory.

But connecting this blog with my professional face does raise the question of appearances, in two respects:

1) The first is the question of the frequency of posts. I'll admit that I myself am guilty of reading some of the most-frequently updated academic blogs and thinking to myself, "When does this person have time to get his/her work done?" Far be it from me to judge another's work schedule, since it is a very personal thing how and when one can work productively; and ultimately as long as the work gets done it doesn't really matter. But there are still two issues at stake here: One is the fact that I'm writing for an audience of my colleagues and so even if I am contemplating about how best to present material to students or just musing about some aspect of my research, I'm going to polish my posts pretty highly. And knowing my own work habits, I don't suspect I'll be able to do that more than once or twice a month. I like the idea of working on lower-stakes writing in the mornings to get into the game, a sort of appetizer for the high-stakes stuff, but I certainly don't want to let it take up all day. And the second issue at stake is the fact that appearances count. I don't want to look like I'm skiving off, especially since I'm not. So in general, I expect that on average I'll post here around twice a month. As I get more proficient at and comfortable with writing for this audience, it's possible that I'd start posting weekly, but certainly not more than that. And there's a better than outside chance that I'll only end up writing one post a month and hope that such a schedule won't dampen the opportunity for opening up conversations.

2) And the second is the question of comments. In part to avoid spambots and in part to prevent discussions from getting out of control, I have enabled comment moderation, which means that any comment that any reader posts will go into a queue until I have a chance to review it. I see that many bloggers have very liberal policies of what kinds of comments they will approve with respect to tone and content. That is another norm that I do not intend to adopt. Again, because this is connected with my professional face to the world, I will have a fairly high threshold for what constitutes acceptable discourse. I will absolutely post comments that disagree with me and challenge things I write here; that's part of the whole point. But any post, whether it agrees or disagrees with what I've said, that is unprofessional in tone or content will disappear (at the risk of mixing metaphors, or at least geospatial constructs) into the abyss of the queue. I'm optimistic that this will be less of an issue on a blog written under the blogger's own name and about a very specific topic than it seems to be on pseudonymous blogs that are more general in their discussions of academic life.  Short summary: I'm not going to let people comment on my blog in ways that I wouldn't let my students express themselves in class or in ways that would make me cringe if they were said by someone sitting next to me during Q&A at a conference. It's not that I don't want to foster spirited debate; it's that I want to foster spirited debate that concerns relevant topics and that conforms to some basic rules of civility.

Wa-amma ba'd.

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