Academic blogging: break-dancing for scholars?

As I previously noted, “digital humanities” was the topic du jour at this year’s Modern Language Association conference, but no one seems to be quite sure what precisely is meant by that moniker.

Stanley Fish took a stab at the digital part of the equation in his NY Times column on Monday, promising to come back again next time to explore burning questions such as: “Does the digital humanities offer new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals? Or does the digital humanities completely change our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be?”

Professor Fish, being someone from the “great white north” (ie, a white male of a certain age–I only wish I could claim to have invented this pithy expression), is cautious in his official embrace of digitality, though he does take the leap of reluctantly admitting, in paragraph one, that he is technically writing a blog post, rather than a column.

Should this matter?

Well, in my profession, it does.  In fact, a column is only very slightly more palatable, officially, than a blog post, since both are classified as so-called “public scholarship,” as opposed to “real scholarship.”

Although nobody puts it quite that baldly, that’s what they mean.  In other words, as one academic put it recently, blogging is never going to get you tenure, even if thousands more people read your work on a blog than will ever read that monograph you finally published with an academic press.

All I can tell you is that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt as intellectually engaged as I do now that I’ve started blogging again.

Blogging–and publicizing my posts via Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media outlets–has allowed me to connect with people I never would have been able to reach in any other way.

I’ve tried the more traditional other route, publishing academic books and articles, and for the most part it was like sending my ideas out into the ozone.  I got very little back, either in the way of praise or disparagement.

In contrast, with my blog I get virtually instant feedback, almost every time I post.  It may not be more than a thumbs-up, but I can tell by looking at my blog stats whether or not people are intrigued by what I’m writing; and if they are interested enough to post a comment in response, I glow with the warmth of human connection, however mediated it might be by keyboard and screen.

Blogging suits my current lifestyle, which is hurried and harried to an extreme.  I am doing much more than I reasonably should be, stirring all kinds of pots and responsible for sustaining all kinds of programs, from classes, to festivals, to summer programming, to various and sundry committees–not to mention serving on boards, parenting my two children, writing piles of  letters of recommendation, applying for grants, sending in conference proposals, etc etc etc.  It’s endless!

How, given my life at the moment, could I ever steal away the focused, quiet, concentrated time necessary to produce “long-form scholarship”?  Maybe my colleagues at prestigious research institutions can manage it, but they don’t have the teaching, advising and service load I do, not to mention a life. 

For me, the hit-and-run blog post is just the right form: short, sweet and to the point, allowing me to express my ideas on a range of topics without having to be weighed down by footnotes and exhaustive surveys of existing scholarship.  In blogging, I can be light-footed and fleet, rather than plodding and thorough.

I do cherish the hope that eventually I will be able to find the time to gather my swiftly penned thoughts into a more sustained discourse that could be published in a book–though an e-book might be just fine.

But in the meantime, I wouldn’t give up my free-wheeling blogging lifestyle for anything.

Sure, a blog post may be to a book like a hook-up is to a marriage.  But you know what?  Having tried nearly a quarter-century of marriage, I’m ready for something new.

How Did I Get Here?

Letting the days go by….

If there’s one thing that I can point to that landed me where I am today, it’s the fact that I chose to put my parenting ahead of my career.

Should I be feeling guilty about this?

What does it say about our society that I have to even ask myself that question?

I had my first child when I was 30 and two years away from finishing my doctorate. I wrote my dissertation while he napped as an infant.  When I finished, I half-heartedly went on the job market, but knew, even as I made the rounds of MLA interviews, that I was not willing to subject myself to the rigors of the tenure clock while also caring for a small child.

I ended up at my undergraduate alma mater, Simon’s Rock, teaching as an adjunct.  I thought it would be temporary, a way of “keeping my hand in,” and that when I was ready I would be able to get back on to the tenure track.

If I had known then what I know now–that making the leap from adjunct to tenured faculty is incredibly difficult, even if you have everything going for you–would I have chosen differently?

I don’t think so.  I wanted to work part-time so I would have time to mother my sons the way I myself had been mothered–carefully, tenderly, in a relaxed and open-hearted way.  I did not want to subject them to long hours at day care.  I didn’t want to have to commute long distances, making family dinners impossible.  I didn’t want to have to move far from their grandparents, my parents, who sustained our growing family in so many ways.

Still.  I didn’t realize how much of a stigma would be attached to a professional like me making a decision like that. I didn’t realize how even at Simon’s Rock, moving from adjunct to regular fulltime (the school has no tenure track) would be difficult, to say the least–notwithstanding my impressive publication record, teaching prowess and evident commitment to the institution.

And so I took on a second job, working two-thirds time at Simon’s Rock and half-time at SUNY.  Finally I was making a real living.

But over the nine years that I did both jobs, while also parenting, publishing, making the rounds of professional conferences and organizing my own major annual conference and now month-long festival, my marriage deteriorated.  I thought that as I made more income and had more responsibilities outside the home, my partner would step up and do more parenting.

If anything, he did less.  The more successful I appeared, the more insecure and irritable he became.  This is apparently a common pattern among husbands who are less professionally successful than their wives.

And so I got more and more burnt out.  I remember coming home one day after a full day of teaching, with a car full of groceries, and just being in tears carrying the heavy bags into the house while the boys and their dad looked on, apparently unmoved. It was too much.

Eventually my body said NO MORE and I had a major back spasm, forcing me to do less, and the boys to do more.  Not long after, my husband checked out.

I would never have chosen to give up my second job, but one month into this situation, I have to say that it feels like a blessing.  What a luxury it is to have time to properly prepare my classes, instead of being constantly on the run, playing catch up!  What a pleasure to have more time to visit with family and friends!

Apparently I’m not alone in feeling this way.  As Juliet Schor reports in this month’s YES Magazine, “people who voluntarily start working less are generally pleased. In the New Dream survey, 23 percent said they were not only happier, but they didn’t miss the money. Sixty percent reported being happier, but missed the money to varying degrees. Only 10 percent regretted the change. And I’ve also found downshifters who began with a job loss or an involuntary reduction in pay or hours, but came to prefer having a wealth of time.”

It’s been nine years since I’ve had this kind of luxury of time.  I want to use it wisely–making new networks of friends, being a kinder, less snappish mom, putting time into pleasures that cost nothing, like writing, weeding my garden, walking my dog.  Or just sitting still in the slanting afternoon sunshine, dreaming up another world.

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