t+1: a reflection on blogging

When I booted up Taxomania! last June I set three simple (perhaps unsurprising) goals for maintaining a blog: to professionalize and establish an scholarly identity, to practice composing and tinkering, and to connect with other folks. While I was blogging fairly regularly over the summer, the real question, I thought, would be how I’d sustain it when the semester workload kicked in. “Will I be able to keep up on my writing between doctoral classes, teaching, and being a dad?” I asked, “or will Taxomania! go the same way as my jogging shoes?”

Strangely enough, those jogging shoes have actually gotten some use this fall. Since school started in August, I’ve managed to run several times per week. Part of the reason I’ve been able to sustain the regimen (not to mention a better diet) has to do with a shift in my material conditions. After (finally) rejecting a 12-month, 9-5 routine that increasingly depressed me, I can now schedule runs when my body best responds to them, which is typically early or mid-afternoon. More honestly, though, the change in my routine has served as an occasion to re-imagine my values. I’ve tried to jettison the unhealthy parts and account for those that have been missing since moving to Syracuse more than six years ago. And part of what’s been missing is time to write.

Incidentally, I’ve self-published in one form or another for 20 years, but only when I’ve been in school. When I produced eight issues of my print zine, Mud, I was in high school and college. Later, when I edited the webzine The Onanist, I was working on my MA in Nevada. And although I started each project myself, they have always fairly quickly evolved into a collaborative. So the idea of putting my shit out there isn’t as intimidating as the invention process itself (which, I admit, has always been an issue for me). What should I write about? What do I have to say? Should posts be about academe only, or any facet of my life that I feeling like writing about? How long should they be? How often should I be posting? No doubt I have struggled and continue to struggle with these questions.

And yet another part of the trouble is working within a form that so closely braids authorship to identity. There’s something about blogging that feels like the perzine’s digital doppelgänger. The blog is me | glob eht ma I. Some writers have handled this by distributing their work among various spaces: a blog for academe, another for cooking, one for travel, etc. I imagine this works well for invention and for audience. If a blog has a specific function, then there is probably less existential crisis when it comes to writing. You made French lentil soup last week? Post the recipe on the food blog. You went to NYC? Post your adventures on the travel blog. You read Derrida? Post your summary on the doc blog. I know my friends would appreciate such compartmentalization; I could spare them my arguments on multimodal writing and they could just read about my weekend in Ithaca, or my thoughts on parenting.

Another strength to that approach is that it permits the author to treat a project as contingent — product as process — instead of permanent (product only). As Jason Jones argued a few weeks ago on ProfHacker, perhaps the blog’s vulnerability is actually it’s key affordance, a reminder of the tenuous moves writers go through as they work on a project or line of inquiry. “When folks blog about their research or their teaching,” he writes, “they can make that work visible, even if it’s work they either can’t or don’t intend to sustain forever. To at least some extent, then, even abandoned blogs are sometimes a perverse illustration of the platform’s strengths.” That partially explains why so many bloggers write earnestly in graduate school, but abandon their blogs once they enter the professoriate.

Ernesto Priego and others blame the failure of the professor’s blog on a lack of recognition in tenure and promotion. The genre and the work are not valued. On one hand, I have a hard time understanding this; if a professor is given sponsored (i.e. given time and space to conduct research), what is so difficult about making the blog part of that process? That is, how do these authors get from the kernel of an idea to a monograph? Why isn’t that work-in-process made more transparent? Some scholars, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick, seem to make this her mission alongside fighting for more recognition for online publication among MLA and T&P committees. She has argued persuasively in Planned Obsolescence that the culture of academe has constructed the author as someone who both researches, reads and tests ideas in physical and virtual isolation. The only thing rewarded is the product. Nothing else matters.

So I give my blog permission (admission?) to be temporary — and wrong. And even though I struggle with the authorship/identity thrust of the blog, I appreciate the challenge to balance it all here. Lord knows I’ve failed at it (porridge, anyone?), but at this point in my life not only could I not sustain more than one blog, but the blog has to be more than a cookbook, travel journal, or a database; it has to allow for a space to practice the hard part of being an academic: summarizing, synthesizing and translating complex ideas while maintaining a healthy work/life balance. In short, the blog is exercise for the day-to-day need to think like a writer. As Derek Mueller and Krista Kennedy have also argued, the blog is a laboratory (see “Every Mad Scientist Needs a Tower, a Monster, and a Telegraph Wire”). And having accountability to this laboratory means forcing myself to regularly wrestle with rhetorical choices with respect to invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

Finally, because a reflection should be about looking forward as much as it looks back, I want to establish as few goals for the blog next semester:

  • Get in a rhythm. At one point this semester I went a month without writing. It was at that point when I picked up Paul Silva’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, a breezy, helpful approach to writing. In chapter 1 he writes about allotting time to write (Kennedy & Mueller also talk about as “mak[ing] a commitment to rhythm”). I’d like to commit to that rhythm — and to finishing Silva’s book.
  • Write more. Speaking of regularity, this semester I wrote 20 entries, or an average of 1.3 per week. Since I have a lighter teaching load next semester, I think it’s reasonable to write 2-3 per week, or aim for 30-40 total. I’ll also blog during the break.
  • Write shorter pieces. I recognized (and thanks to Collin for this) that when I take it upon myself to write longish pieces they would either: (1) take too much time to post or (2) prevent me from write soon after (this principle also applies to jogging). The other problem with this approach is that it didn’t respect the medium: I’d write, encounter something that would impact that composition, then revise.  If the purpose of an academic blog is to track the evolution of an idea, it’s probably better to write in shorter bursts that add up to something bigger.
  • Design assignments. Speaking of short bursts, I’d like to think of some short, simple prompts or memes to revisit when I’m feeling bullied by the white space. Threat + Constraint has always been great at this.
  • Network. Thanks for Google Analytics, I know you’re reading this. I can’t tell who you are, per se, but I know you’re there. That said, there isn’t as much conversation happening here as I’d like and from what I remember in the zine days: if you give love, you receive love. So in addition to writing more on my own blog, I’ll also try to write on other folks’ blogs as well.