Huzzah! (OK, I’ve been reading the Aubry/Maturin series before bed) A hundred posts. A few thousand words. A few thousand hits. A whole lot of fun. I want to thank everyone who subscribes or has stumbled upon Ships on the Shore for reading, contributing and making this a great experience. Writing a dissertation, even one about shipwrecks, is a long, laborious and isolating experience. This blog has offered the perfect outlet for me to nerd-out on shipwrecks and share all the fascinating research tid-bits I happen upon that would be otherwise lost to the proverbial dustbin. I still have a chapter and a half to write (not to mention the intro and conclusion) so Ships on the Shore is here to stay for at least another 100 posts. I’m looking forward to the months ahead!
But today seems a prime time to dive into the “what is an academic blog” debate raging, more or less, across a sliver of the internet. (note: I’ve only been following the humanities/history side of things.) Nothing new here: blogs are scary to most academics. They’re wastes of times, navel-gazing, or–worst of all–unacademic. Now the irony of this “irrelevant-blog” criticism is curious coming from humanities scholars renowned for studying ever-more specialized, myopic (read: irrelevant) topics. And while a cohort of digital activists has been actively promoting the “digital humanities” since there was a viable internet, the balance of opinion still seems to side with the undigital humanities folks. I was with them until participating in the University of Delaware’s Public Engagement and Material Culture Institute (PEMCI). Ships on the Shore is the result of my digital conversion.
In the past few months a flurry of blog posts has addressed the “what is an academic blog” question (click here for an overview). This is a significant development — when I started this “academic blog” in June I had very little to go on besides Dan Cohen‘s seminal 2006 post “Professors, Start You Blogs.” Yes, there were hundres of blogs by academic historians (both gainfully employed professors and struggling graduate students like myself), but I was a blogging neophyte and finding them proved to be surprisingly difficult. Even more, the blogs I did find were hardly models of what I wanted/had to time to do. Here is what I didn’t like:
1. Posts that were way too long.
2. Blogs where every post promoted an article, talk, &c., &c. by the blog’s author.
3. Blogs devoted to complaining about the difficulties of research, writing, teaching, or being a graduate student or professor.
4. Insider blogs that only specialists would read, never mind understand.
And here’s what I did like:
1. Frequent short posts with images, preferably moving ones.
2. Blogs that highlighted the past in the present.
3. Blogs that curated a specific topic.
4. Blogs aimed at a broad audience.
The current academic blog debate has focused less on these issues of content and form than on recognition. A recent Gradhacker post offers one take, arguing blogs should count as a “legitimate publication,” a credit to one’s “scholarly accomplishments” that should be considered in departmental rankings and promotions. The author goes on to provide a five-point strategy for demonstrating “the rigor and merit of the blog as scholarship … [to] show the blog in a more traditional way.” This way of thinking misses the point–the potential for academic blogs.
Academic blogs should be about public engagement, about breaking down barriers between scholars and the googling public–not supporting the ivory tower. It should be a place for people who spend a lot of time thinking, talking and writing about very particular topics to engage the contemporary world. Want to write traditional scholarly articles? Send it to a journal or magazine (their form may change, but they’re not going anywhere). Want to talk to your field? Join a list serve. Go to a conference. Want to share the fruits of years in the library or the field or the classroom with thousands of people, many of them not “academics” but thoroughly interested in learning about the world we live in? Start a blog.
Hyperbole? Undoubtedly. Still, academic blogs represent a new type of publication that should complement, not replace, traditional modes of scholarly work. I can’t speak for tenure-track bloggers, but considering all we (graduate students) hear about the horrible/nonexistent job market for humanities Ph.D.’s–why should we (academic bloggers) shape our blogs according to the caprices of academic departments and the undigitalists? So what, then, should an “academic blog” be?
Want to read more history blogs — History Carnival, a great place to start.