Saturday, December 29, 2012

Academic Blogging Etiquette Question

This has only happened to me once before. I'm having one of those "someone is wrong on the internet!" moments.

Duty Calls

The fact that I'm even casting it in these terms tells me that I should just step away from the keyboard. But instead — oh, academic training!* — I'll turn it into a quandary: How and to what extent does someone jump into a conversation on a blog where she has some expertise in a related area, and clearly more expertise in it than the people who are blogging, whose expertise is ostensibly a) in the field of the blog topic but not in the ancillary cultures, and b) masters' and early-PhD level?

It was kind of a running joke in graduate school that I was "Capital-N, Capital-A, Not an Art Historian." After my qualifying examinations (all of which I passed easily, a caveat that is worth making given where this anecdote is about to go), one of which was in Islamic art history, the examining professor commented that it was as though I was doing art history by deliberately sidestepping as much of art history as possible.

With my art history issues disclosed, I pose the quandary again, this time in more concrete terms: A blog has been advertised on one of the list-serves that I'm on; specifically, they were calling for guest posts. It's a medieval art history blog written by what looks to be a group of students mostly at the University of Edinburgh. Don't get me wrong. I'm not picking on students. I think that what they're doing is pretty cool and a great way for them to write in a low-stakes forum but for a public audience while still in grad school, something I definitely wish I'd had as a student. The kinds of questions they're asking when they write about Islamic art are definitely not the sorts of questions I'd ask, but then again, there's room for all sorts of questions in this world, and plus,  I'm a Not an Art Historian.

There's one post, though, that sort of alarmed me, but I'm not sure what the etiquette would be in commenting on it. It's funny. I'm not quite but almost part of the digital native generation, a perch that gives me the unique perspective of being totally comfortable with technology like the natives but also actually understanding pretty well how it works rather than just expecting it to work, like the non-natives, especially those who used, say, early DOS machines. In spite of this, digital etiquette is something I still struggle with. I'm as unclear on protocol for as I was when I wrote this post a little more than a year ago. And in this situation, I'm not sure whether it would be okay to just randomly comment on this blog. It's a students' forum, so I'm inclined to say I don't really belong. Plus I'm not sure whether one can just start commenting on a blog to which she has no prior connection.

And yet... there's this post about teaching Islamic art to high school students in the American south, a region where I think it's particularly important to reduce some of the "othering" of Islam and Muslims that often happens in American discourse about the faith and its practitioners, particularly in more conservative and less diverse circles. I would really want to encourage this person not to, even implicitly, teach her students that Muslims worship a god called Allah, which just happens to be the Arabic word for God and is used by Arabic-speaking Christians as well as by Arabic-speaking Muslims. I'd want to encourage her not to use to define technical terms in Islam and point her, perhaps, instead, to the Encyclopaedia of Islam and to some specific scholarship that was written less than 100 years ago.

So. I'd love to hear from some of you who write and/or comment on academic blogs: Do I weigh in or let it go?

*Well, it's being an academic combined with the fact that I'm up in the middle of the night combined with the fact that I just haven't had all that much to say here of late that's turning this into the subject of a full-on post.


  1. I don't think there is exactly a protocole, but more a personal decision of what discussions you want to be involved in, which ones are worth your time and your energy. The drawback is that it is harder to calculate other people's reactions in the virtual world.

    Regarding that post in particular, I have no knowledge whatsoever of the issue, so I can't pint point exactly what are your objections. I can imagine, though, drawing from my own experiences with Spanish high school teachers and pedagogy. The person who wrote the post writes about the fascination of the students, and that is invaluable, regardless of the accuracy of the information (up to a point, of course). I know that I ended up in the humanities and not in math (an area where I was doing college level math in 8th grade on my own, just for the fun of it), because my high school history teachers were ten times better and exciting than my math teachers.
    That being said, I see nothing wrong writing a comment saying something like "Hey, I read your post, and it is so rewarding hearing about high school students being interested in Islamic art. Do you know (whatever sources you want her to consider)? I think they could be really useful for your class"
    Regarding your objection to the way she presents the material, the writer mentions it's an AP class. I have some experience grading AP Spanish exams, and I know that sometimes the professors are very constricted by the format of the exam and the information (as opposed to knowledge) they need to present. It's just a more sophisticated form of teaching to the test, but very little creativity is allowed in those tests.
    Finally, this may be obvious, but if you decide to comment, you may want to erase this post, because if the writer follows the link to the blog, she might not like your criticisms to her teaching.
    My two cents, I hope they help.
    Happy New Year!

  2. Thanks, Spanish Prof, for your usual detailed and thoughtful comment! I definitely agree that it's as much an issue of where it's worth one's time and energy and where not. I guess this is just a bugboo of mine because I end up with students coming in not with nothing but with active misinformation that I then have to correct, and it's the sort of misinformation that gets compounded by Fox news-type echo chambers that still govern a lot of the discourse on the Middle East amongst lay people. I totally understand the need to teach "to the test" for the APs (although I had some great AP teachers in high school, especially in US and European history, who managed to teach us what we needed for the exam without failing to put their own touches in) but surely teaching to the test with a drop more accuracy isn't too much to ask.

    At any rate, I did think twice before posting this, and thought about it again in the morning, and I think I'm on okay ground, although if it becomes an issue at all, I might drop it.

    Happy new year to you, too! And I was really glad to see that you're going to keep blogging, even if at less frequent intervals.

  3. Thanks, I will!
    I understand where you are coming from, and I've had my own share of those: no, Evo Morales is not a drug lord, you need to understand Inca culture to comprehend the importance of coca leaves in Andean cultures, and by the way, chewing coca leaves is not comparable to snorting coke, etc....

    I just keep thinking about my own experience in Argentina; I went to the most academically selective high school in the nation (Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires). Both my parents are college professors and mathematicians. I was, if such a thing exists, "gifted" for math. As I said, I was doing college level math on my own from early on. While my parents were obviously encouraging it, they were not guides: every time I asked them a math question I got the most confusing answers. My math teachers were just easy, and didn't know how to challenge me. I remember one time, for example, that I missed a test because I was sick. When I went to the professor to arrange a make-up, he said: "oh, don't bother. You're going to get a perfect score anyway". He was probably right, but I would have prefered something more challenging. I eventually kind of burn out on it, I didn't know how to keep exploring.

    In contrast, my high school teacher my junior year changed my life. It was European History, from the French Revolution to WW II. His tests were hard though not in a good way necessarily: lot of memorization, attention to detail, etc. For a forgetful ADD mind like mind, it could have been hell on earth. However, he had a policy of unlimited extra credit. At the beginning of the year, he gave as an enormous list of historical movies, and said we were allowed to write an unlimited number of 5 page reaction papers explaining the historical context of the movie and how it related to the plot. We needed a certain number of sources for each paper, each paper would add this much to our final grade. Is it good pedagogy? I don't know. Is watching The Thin Drum (the movie, not the novel) the way to teach history? I don't know. What I know is that I fell in love with the field, or with the humanities in particular. I still remember: I wrote 10 extra papers that year. And decided I was going to study math in college after all.

    That's why I love when a high school teacher can make a student enthusiastic about the subject (of course, as long as it doesn't reinforce previously hold stereotypes), and can be tolerant of certain innacuracies or generalizations. I can change that, but it's so much easy to teach when a student is already interested in the subject (as opposed to: "how is this useful to my future career?? I want to be fluent in the language to be more markeatable"). A high school teacher had a great effect on me, and I know that when I run into the ocassional exceptional student and avid learner, there probably was a special high school teacher behind.

    Again, I am generalizing based on my own experiences, but I don't have the subject knowledge. If you think that this wasn't a simplification but something that ends up reinforcing negative stereotypes, I believe you.

    P.S: this kind of exchanges are the reason why I keep blogging.

  4. For this in particular, where it reinforces stereotypes is that by using the Arabic word for "God" when talking about Islam where it is in no way exclusive in its usage to Muslims, but is rather more general to Arabic speakers, is that it makes it easier for people to believe that Muslims worship some random deity. The validity of the "God of Abraham" rhetoric (that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same god, historically speaking) is definitely still in play at least to a certain degree in scholarship (there's a new book coming out by Aaron Hughes soon that should be an interesting read), but even people who aren't on board with it in the academic world don't treat Islam as anything different than a monotheistic faith with a Scriptural tradition. Certainly the way Islamophobes bandy about "Allah" as the personal name of a deity cuts at that.

    And then there are events like this:
    And obviously people should just not kill each other, but given that they do, I think there's a certain responsibility to lessen the fuel for hate and for seeing different groups of people as apart or other.

    I sometimes tell my students, if they get really hung up on it, that if they want to use "Allah" when they're talking about what Arabic-speaking Muslims believe, that they are welcome to do it as long as they also say "Allah" when they are talking about Arabic-speaking Christians and "Deus" when they are talking about Latin Christians. That actually usually gets the point across better than any other kind of explanation.

    So that's the subject-specific piece of it. And I think your point about the impact that HS teachers can have makes the same point in a general way.... Only semi-relatedly, it was my AP US History teacher, and not any of my English teachers, who got me to love literature and writing. I suspect that at some level, it is her influence that pushed me in the critical directions that I've ultimately gone in, reading history and literature in very closely allied ways.