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21st Reading: Blogademia (this is an very long and tangentful response)

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Blogademic is an awkward, fugly duckling neologism, the kind that would have to have pork chop tied around it’s neck to get the dogs to play with or even eat the damned thing. Yet, it seems to be accepted in some blogging circles, though I had never come across it until today. This may be because I have had only the most cursory interest or knowledge of the blogosphere, another ungainly portmanteau. (Full disclosure: I did not know the word “portmanteau” previous to my word searching web surfing and in all likely hood would butcher its pronunciation). Blogosphere, with its very own Wikipedia entery, seems to be accepted enough to no longer technically be called a neologism, while blogademic (like its kissing cousin blogademia) is a new pair of shiny patent leather shoes that hasn’t been worn enough to be broken in enough to earn the right to be charted in Wikipedia’s definitional content constellations.

If that paragraph did not give you a sense of what you, dear reader, are in for then I now will take a moment to warn you, “Here be rhetorical dragons.” Or perhaps I should warn you of the patches of quicksand found in this bog of a blob about blogs.

I came across this word in Douglas Harrison’s article Scholarly Voice and Professional Identity in the Internet Age, written for the otherwise overwhelming poking your eyes out would be a more interesting and useful way to pass the time, NEA journal Thought & Action.

Perhaps, I am being just a tad hyperbolic. Southern Hyperbole is an important, misunderstood and understudied rhetorical device. Yes, it is going to be that kind of entry, full of digressions, over the top descriptions and long, winding road sentences. Boring academic journals bring out the borst- best and worst smashed together- in me. Ooh, back to the subject of neologisms, borst is a nonce word, perhaps my favorite type of neologism. There is a method to this madness which will become clearer many train wrecks of words later.

I can across Harrison’s article while sitting on the can, otherwise known as the library, so there is an extra special, dare I say, flavor about this being in my sh*t to read folder. My use of the bathroom as a reading room might make many English folks feel quite at home there, at least according to my reading of Watching the English by anthropologist Kate Fox.

Unlike many of the articles in Thought & Action, which I have been reading despite their narcolepsy inducing properties because I actually am interested in pedagogy and unions, (this is why the journal and one of my husband’s godawfully dense mathematics theory books are the only reading materials in the bathroom, so I will be desperate enough to read/skim the articles, anyway, as I was saying, unlike many of the articles, I enjoyed Harrison’s piece.

I enjoyed his piece, not only because the writing was refreshing brisk compared to the other articles I had forced my way through, but more importantly because it stirred up more than a few trains of thought for future writing projects. I have begun to strategize my project in lieu of thesis, which includes a laughably short theoretical essay to frame the project (I wrote more for my undergraduate thesis, which included a creative project, than they will require for the MFA project in lieu of thesis). I also am in the woolgathering stage for the proposal for Book Works.

The most interesting train of thought that pulled out of the station to chug around my mental tracks was about the norms of academia, the things that make academics a noticeably distinct class of people. Academia assumes an ideal of an unemotional intellectualism that speaks in a distinct language that often only other academics (in the same field) can understand. I found his discussion of the ways that blogging academics partially subvert the power of rank within academia, to focus on the ideas, interesting. He quotes Robert Boynton’s suggestion that blogging “makes real the very vision of intellectual life that the university has never managed to achieve.”

But despite the power of the subversive “carnival of ideas”, as suggested by Harrison’s reading of Henry Farrell, this in between space, not fully following the class codes of academia or the norms of pop culture communications, causes “status instability” and no small amount of anxiety for academics like Harrison who spend time blogging. I’m willing to argue that the chattering class, which includes people of all sorts of political persuasions from left to right (my slight contempt is all inclusive), is a distinct class with its own codes and norms within the unacknowledged class system in the United States. Breaking those codes makes committed academics uneasy.

Often the entries or posts that generate the most readable comments threads or the most rewarding reader responses are also the instances in which I am farthest from my scholarly comfort zone—territory where I have to convey not only an intellectual command of my subject (no discomfort there), but also an emotional authenticity that will resonate with that segment of my regular readers who experience the world through the prism of evangelical religious affect. At this point, things start to get more uncomfortable. In these cases, I am unnerved to some extent by the depth of my own psychospiritual connection and response to this artistic tradition. For example, I wrote a while back about “moments of grace” I’d encountered through the works of a popular group of gospel performers. With Wordsworth’s spots of time in mind (but not explicitly referenced), I wrote of moments “of understanding or feeling that sweep over us in and through a given artist’s work … moments that merge intimations of faith and feeling and beauty in a way that gracefully verifies what the apostle so famously described as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Hoped for because felt, unseen but intuited.” Genuine as these sentiments are, I can’t escape the feeling of publishing them at my own professional peril in an academic culture that is often skeptical of certain expressions of affect or sentiment.

I think there is value to insider speak, which most industries and fields of specialization have, as long as acamedics remember that knowing a specialized language does not make them smarter than people who do not speak that particular language. Most academics wouldn’t understand two airplane mechanics on a roll. This insiders’ language is critical in minutely specialized fields with science, which is why we desperately need good science writers to interpret the esoteric jargon and present the research findings in comprehensible English that does not claim that those findings are fact. Something written in an academic style is not truer than something written for a popular audience. Academic writing is just as prone to error, bad rhetoric, false assumptions and twisted logic; what makes it distinct is that it takes readers longer to figure out whether or not a piece of writing is a crock of shit. Academic discourse, despite its stated distain for emotion and sentiment, is on a constant low boil. Emotions and subjectivity bubble under the protective coating of faux objectivity.

Objectivity is best understood as a form of fruitful intellectual play; let’s pretend for a while that we really and truly can be objective and see what that turns up. This pretense is useful; it does provide information that is meaningful. But it is not the only way to generate knowledge and it has limits. If we looked closely enough, we could find cracks in the laminate of objectivity covering pretty much any piece of academic writing.

I’ve waxed on and on about this because one of things I dislike about academic discourse is how emotion is devalued and denied as a tool for generating knowledge. Emotion, often gendered female and/or working class, is suspect. I am not advocating that emotion is a better or truer way to uncover knowledge, but that is part of even the supposedly objective processes of the academic. This denial of emotion’s place in knowledge production is responsible in some part for the anxiety and ambivalence that academics like Harrison feel about the intellectual work they do blogging.

From one point of view, my uncertainty bespeaks the success of my training as an academic; I am on guard against sentimentality lest my own emotional investments erode the intellectual integrity of my writing.

I find troubling the notion that an emotional investment erodes the intellectual integrity of a piece of academic writing. If this were true, then all academic knowledge is suspect and lacks integrity. I have yet to met an academic without a significant emotional investment in their field of study. A truer statement would be that the appearance of an emotional investment causes uptight, emotional repressed academics to judge that piece of writing as suspect and less true than a piece of writing that tries to erase the traces of emotion that generated a particular understanding. Academic writings are palimpsests; the emotions that bring an academic to the page are scraped off leaving only ghosts. Those of us who see these ghosts can be written off as superstitious.

Harrison does suggest that commitment is vital to the production of knowledge.

And I continue to believe that real learning and civilized discourse do not take place without the ability to make oneself vulnerable at times—without, as James Baldwin notes in the quotation with which I began, “risking oneself.”

Despite this statement, I wish Harrison had a little more chutzpah, was a little less apologetic about his blogging and the more varied rhetorical styles he allows himself in that space. Harrison’s annoying ambivalence points to how powerful the norms of academia are. For once, I would like an academic to bravely say that emotions- commitment is an emotion by the way- played no small part in how s/he came to understand something and that writing that points and uses those emotions can be just as rigorous as writing that denies the emotions that helped produced a particular understanding.

It’s not especially surprising that higher education has yet to comprehend and respond coherently to the comparatively recent changes that new media has introduced. But the academy must find a way to account for new kinds of intellectual labor as organically related to professional identity as academic blogging. Otherwise, it will likely continue to be mistaken for a dirty little secret waiting to be discovered and used against the blogging academic.

I’d suggest that academic blogging will continue to be a dirty little secret as long as academia is unable to acknowledge the old kinds of intellectual labor that it denies.

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