Birth of a Blogger

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 This is the introduction to chapter 1, parts of which were first published as “Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor,” Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques vol. 38. no. 2 (summer, 2012). Portions of chapter 1 will appear on this blog: please feel free to comment on these pieces, and when the whole chapter is assembled, it will appear in the bar on the left for open comment. If you want to know the outline of the whole book, click on the Table of Contents.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 7 My own digital turn occurred on October 17, 2006, an evening when I would have been sitting alone working in our newly renovated house in New Haven, CT. Sitting at my laptop that evening, I was at a turning point in my career as a historian that I had no description for at the time. In retrospect, I would now characterize myself as stalled and a little heartbroken in the aftermath of a grueling and unexpectedly complex promotion to full professor. Although I would not say I had a writer’s block, since I wrote a lot, at almost fifty years old, I was not yet the writer I wanted to be. Which was why I was opening an account for a blog I had decided to call Tenured Radical.
Fifteen years earlier, when I had accepted the kind of job that many people envy at a selective liberal arts college (SLAC), I could not have anticipated feeling as directionless as I did on that fall evening. In fact, most of the years I had spent on this campus had been very happy. My hope that I would be embraced by the department that had welcomed me during my interview, and the students who my partner and I had observed when we walked around campus prior to accepting the job, was mostly fulfilled. I wrote a successful first book, and was promoted to tenure in a large history department full of active scholars who took pride in their teaching, and where those of us in large subfields like United States history had the opportunity to teach specialized courses. Because we ran searches almost every year, either on our own or as part of a joint appointment, we were a truly cross-generational department; although I was the only out gay colleague, we were about a third women. Our students brought ideas and creativity to every class; an astonishing number of them went on to graduate school in history, and upper level seminars simulated the rigor, and the goals, of early doctoral work. I had a low teaching load, excellent research support and frequent sabbaticals. The relative distance of the campus from major cities (two hours and change to to Boston or New York) was balanced by the vibrant intellectual life of a campus where there was at least one talk, concert or seminar to attend everyday.
So why was I sitting at the computer that fall evening looking for virtual community? What — and who — did I hope to find by plunging into the digital world?
The immediate answer to that question was that my real, or as I would learn to call it, “meat world” or “IRL (in real life)” community had become an alien and often hostile place. Although I had ultimately been successful, I had just completed a soul-sapping, two-year struggle for promotion to full professor. It had left me wondering for the first time since I applied to graduate school in 1982 whether I really wanted to be a historian any more. One casualty of this professional crisis was my writing: I was unable to work on the book manuscript that had been at the center of my promotion case. I had been told that it had been the object of deep criticism from a few members of the department, but promotion procedures are confidential: therefore, I had no idea what those criticisms were, whether they had merit, or how I might ever be promoted. The secrecy of what was being held against me — I had done phenomenal amounts of committee and administrative work and won a university teaching prize — was a public rebuke that had the added, and unintended, effect of sabotaging my writing further. Every time I returned to the manuscript to work on revisions, I was seized with an anxiety so severe that I experienced ocular migraines for the first time in my life.
The remedy I chose was to moonlight as a virtual historian, writing publicly to an undifferentiated audience, something I had not done since my years as a college journalist. The virtual world gave me an alternative to the real world where I had lost my voice. Like so many others, the ability to jump in, start publishing myself, and find a writing voice that wasn’t vulnerable to gatekeeping and months-long publishing delays. So on that October evening, I — who had actually never even read a blog before — launched one. In what I would later learn was “mashup” style, and what at least one person close to me at the time pointed out was lifted from not one, but two, more famous authors, I named the blog Tenured Radical and wrote my opening post.[1]

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 5 After a week of the normal spam comments — “Great blog! Did you know you could make big money stuffing envelopes at home?” — I wondered if perhaps I commented on other blogs, I could begin to build a virtual community. I put “academic” in the search box and presto! I discovered Dr. Crazy, Flavia Fescue, The Combat Philosopher, Dr. Virago and New Kid on the Hallway. I discovered that Michael Berube, and my former American Studies colleague Siva Vaidhyanathan, blogged. I stumbled upon a literature scholar who blogged in the voice of a dog, and a queer Latino historian who channeled Wonder Woman. I started reading, and being read by, Dean Dad, and Lesboprof. There was Margaret Soltan, whose posts consisted of excerpted newspaper reports of academic scandals, bracketed with a few lines of acerbic commentary. And a few years later I got an email from a young scholar, with whom I had once shared a cab to the airport after the American Historical Association, who asked if I would take a look at her blog, Historiann.[2]
Some day someone will write an intellectual history of academic blogging in these early years, a decade in which the archiving of electronic sources was not being developed quickly enough to save a great many of the blogs whose authors were anonymous, whose work was too short-lived to be widely read, or neglected web addresses were purchased by someone else.[3] In fact, as I revised the portions of this chapter that appeared in an earlier version as an article, I discovered link rot, and sites which had vanished, their only traces perhaps being what appears in this chapter and that earlier article. The first part of this essay revisits that material, and is a discussion of what these “virtual communities” of historians looked liked in my first decade of blogging, why they produced a conversation that was a new development for the historical professions, and a summary of what I learned from them. The second part of the chapter goes beyond that initial investigation to look at the institutional role history blogs are playing in a profession under pressure from the poor job market where writing for a broader public has become a desirable, if not fully rewarded, method for raising one’s professional profile. The final section asks what the place of blogging is in the larger scheme of digital humanities practice. Tenured Radical unexpectedly brought me into digital humanities as a practitioner, but as blogging has become a routine feature of nearly every website, and as it becomes part of our professional practice,under what conditions does blogging hold out possibilities for innovation, change and networking across lines of institution, generation and status?

[1] Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (New York: HarperCollins, 1990) and Cary Nelson, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical (New York: New York University Press, 1997).
[2] “Blowing’ in the Wind: Reflections on the First Week of Blogging,” Tenured Radical (November 4 2006).
[3] The Chronicle of Higher Education continues to archive the six blogs it imported as “The Blog Network” in 2011, including mine, which migrated the week of June 11. The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute has archived a small collection of blogs written by women at http://wax.lib.harvard.edu/collections/seed.do?lang=eng&primColl=61&coll=61&cameFrom=collection&seed=32. As of the summer of 2016, the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine claims to have preserved 487 billion web pages, many of which are blogs, but which are archived incompletely.

Source: https://digitalulab.org/2016/06/22/birth-of-a-blogger/