April 11, 2009

The Blogosphere

I went to a brownbag talk by historian Ray Fouche this past week. He commented that he’d like to find more ways to communicate with “everyday folks,” rather than addressing academics all the time. So I asked him if he blogged. Then I inwardly laughed at myself, because I blog, but I don’t do it in order to “communicate with everyday folks” or many people at all. There are so many fascinating blogs out there that I don’t read, even occasionally. I can barely find time to write here; I think about blogging more than I do it. This blog serves as a sort of placeholder for thoughts that I might want to develop further, but I’d like it to be something more than that. Ray’s discussion about his own personal shift in the last year, prompted me to reflect on my changing habits as well: he now reads online rather than printing out documents; he now collaborates more online with other scholars; he feels less proprietary of his intellectual property. Many historians have been superceded by Wikipedia, he noted, and amateur historians or folks who have a deep expertise in one technology (like railroads) have erased a lot of academic “authority.”

As for my own changing habits: I edit online almost exclusively; I never use a pen and paper to write longhand if I can avoid it; and a lot of initial drafts of ideas end up in email “conversations” that have unrelated subject lines! Still, I am very attached to books and articles: somehow e-journals and wikis are uninviting to me because they force me to read or write onscreen and I spend hours and hours in front of a screen everyday already. I want to take a book and lie on the couch. I want to see what I write in published, hard copy. Blog rolls, wiki updates, and digital bookmarks–there is too much e-information out there for me to absorb during screentime. There’s a kind of materiality I need.  I find highlighters, sticky notes, marginal comments, and colorful bookmarks very satisfying. Indeed, some part of myself finds print, or stone, or steel, or clay as validating and real. Virtuality is unembodied and ultimately ephemeral.

Ray also talked about using binaries–what he calls analog-digital synergies–to explore interstitial spaces. In these spaces, we can query how we invest ourselves in technologies, in terms of our identities and cultures. Ray said that technological change is also a crisis of identity. Clearly, giving up books would be a crisis for my identity, in so many ways. I’m sure there are hybrid ways of being; the whole point of binary oppositions is to bust them. Books AND blogs, not books OR blogs.

2 thoughts on “The Blogosphere

  1. Hi Sharon,

    This is a small point, but I wanted to clarify a point you mention. When Ray was talking about amateur historians I believe his point was that this amateur historians have ALWAYS amassed an enormous amount of data out of love of the topic (e.g in Railroads, Civil War, History of Cooking, Local Histoyr of a given community etc.), but it is only now with digital technology and the ease with which amateur historians can network up and post their research that they represent a formidable threat to the academic historians’ and university press’s claims to be the final arbitrers of historic truth. A similar phenomenon has ocurred with the worldwide community of genealogists.

    At least this is the point I think Ray was referencing. I thought the “crisis in history” he foresaw related to the need for academic historians to approach all people interested in history on equal ground and not presuppose privilege or superiority.

  2. Hi back Noah,
    Point taken. I think we are saying the same thing, but you clarify it.
    Another aspect that I have been thinking about is that “professional” historians are perhaps necessarily tied up with standards of historical information in ways that a large number of amateurs are not, at least when it comes to the reliability of information on the web. That’s where peer review comes in, along with revising and resubmitting articles, and jumping through hoops for academic presses. In my own work, I rely somewhat on others to push me to excel, to be as clear as possible in my arguments, and not to be hasty in my conclusions. Perhaps if I had readers like you for my writing, this would obviate the need for professional publications. But I find that blogging is hard for me because my thoughts don’t feel finished or refined. Thus I am reluctant to put them “out” because this is so casual and relatively spontaneous. But if I blogged like I write for publication, there would be no entries! At the same time I am writing this, I realize that my thoughts NEVER feel finished, and that even my books are only parts of conversations that I hope contribute to an ongoing dialogue. So I guess I am still in “crisis” about specialization and professionalism!

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