what’s a blog for?

Matt once asked, “Will blogs kill listserv?” I don’t think they will, but clearly academic blogs have an openness to them that academic listservs, journals, and monographs do not. Over dinner one night at SHARP 2004, someone said “Who would want to read that?” with the trace of a sneer when my blog came up in conversation. Well, I get about 400 hits a day on my blog. How many people on any given day read an academic article that you’ve published? This is not to say that my blog represents anywhere near the amount of scholarly effort that an article does, but the fact is that more people will read what I publish myself here than in any other forum where my work will appear.

As a result, I think I’ve realized a pretty serious goal (one among many) that I will pursue for this blog: making clear to people who are not scholars of language and literature what scholars of language and literature do for a living. A number of other things have gradually led me to this realization.

  • Attending the KC Bloggers meetup on June 24 and meeting people from a variety of backgrounds who were, like me, as interested in literature as they are in technology (and other topics, of course). These people are readers of my blog (and I of theirs), so why not write about what I do in the same way I would if we were talking at an informal gathering?
  • The responses to this entry at Erin O’Connor’s Critical Mass. I asked O’Connor’s readers what they think English professors do and what they think we should do; their answers reveal that many of them don’t like what we do, but that they also don’t really know what we do. I say this solely because of the answers to my “How did you come to your conclusions?” question.
  • The comment threads on this entry regarding Tupac Shakur on the summer reading list and this entry on the NEA’s “Reading at Risk” report at Joanne Jacobs’ site. The comments that are most hostile about the state of literary studies reflect the most ignorance.

I am not about to turn this particular entry into a magnum opus containing my take on the current state of literary studies. However, as I wrote last December, those who say that the study of literature is dominated by approaches that are silly, trivial, over-politicized or un-necessarily theorized are dead wrong. For reasons I will explain in a later post, I am unpersuaded by anecdotal evidence, no matter how voluminous, that seeks to support this point of view. If you want to make an argument about the influence of certain theorists, then get serious and do something systematic; information technology is your friend.

Well, if you’re still reading this long post, I’ll just close with what I wrote at the end of the comments thread on O’Connor’s site.

Wow, thanks to everyone for their responses to my questions! I am struck by the diversity of opinions; clearly this is not just a two-sided issue.

A few things occur to me after reading through these responses:

First, while there are many assertions about what English professors should not be doing, not many have articulated in any detail what they should be doing. It’s one thing to say, for example, that we should inculcate a love of literature, but it’s quite another to explain how to do that.

Second, no one explains that they came to their conclusions concerning research based on exposure to the one outlet where the overwhelming majority of that research appears: journal articles. Have you read many of them in the major journals? There’s a great deal of interesting, sophisticated but accessible stuff there. I have my students at all levels research and read at least one recent article in every class I teach. It is a grossly inaccurate assertion to say that it’s all heavily influenced by theory in its various flavors (or by “political correctness”). You can always find work that you don’t agree with (and I challenge you to name one discipline in which this is not true), but this does not mean that most of it has no value. (Note that I am not saying that theoretically-inclined work has no value.)

Third, aside from some vague references to “the Classics,” no one here or over at Joanne Jacobs’ site (in the discussion on Tupac Shakur) actually goes into much detail about the classic literature that they love, which I find curious. What is it that you love about your favorite author? How did you develop that love?

Finally, there seems to be a general sense that a definition of “the canon” or “the classics” has always been around and that we are only just now tinkering with it. This is patently and demonstrably false.

I am not attacking the value of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton (or Aristophanes or Sophocles, for that matter) when I say that we can find specific points in history when readers and critics did not place them high upon the pedestal of great literature. Opinions have always shifted.

To take one example, in England, the genre of the novel (including those we now consider classics) was initially greeted with the kind of disdain that some reserve for gangsta rap or videogames today. Or to take another, in the early twentieth century, T. S. Eliot resuscitated the critical fortunes of the seventeenth-century “metaphysical” poets after they had been held in low regard for generations.

More generally, opinions on what constitutes great literature have always been in flux, as a reading of the early sections of any textbook survey of literary criticism will reveal. Contrast, for example, the attitudes of eighteenth-century critics with those of the Victorians in the following century.

And works of literature have been entering and exiting the list of “classics” for centuries. Although it was written as long as 1300 years ago, Beowulf was not taught regularly (or even made available in a contemporary edition) until after transcriptions were made in the late eighteenth century. A poem titled “A Funeral Elegy” was attributed to Shakespeare by Don Foster in the 1990s and added to the collected works editions typically used for teaching; then scholars decided this poem was not by Shakespeare, and it was taken back out again. The Interesting Narrative of Afro-Briton Olaudah Equiano, an eighteenth-century bestselling autobiography every bit as engaging as Ben Franklin’s, is now attracting a great deal of scholarly attention and is taught with much more frequency than it was even ten years ago; this is in large part because of a meticulously researched Penguin edition of the work (full disclosure: done by my dissertation advisor), which by the way you can find in just about any bookstore, evidencing its appeal beyond the “ivory tower.” These are three examples among many. Scholarship matters: it affects what we do or do not read.

I’m heartened that so many people are concerned with the fate of reading and writing, and I’m going to work on doing a better job on my own ‘blog of explaining what it is I’m doing in my research and teaching.

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5 thoughts on “what’s a blog for?

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    George Williams has posted one of his goals for his blog . . . George is right that the rest of us who blog do have an opportunity to claim part of the conversation by representing what it is that we do.

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