OPEN UNIVERSITY JUNE 5, 2007
by Eric Rauchway
A while back, my department hosted a panel officially titled "Historical Scholarship and the New Media," but everyone called it "the blogging panel" anyway. Partly, I think this was only natural, as people have come to recognize that term; partly, I think, this helped safely to marginalize scholarly Internet discourse, keeping it in the world of lolcats--which is a natural reaction to the more evangelical pronouncements made on behalf of scholarly blogging.
For myself, I don't think that scholarly debate on the Internet will radically change the academic world--but I do think it will probably change it a little, and maybe significantly. So we held the panel, to hear what some academic bloggers had to say about the extent and character of such a change. You can download it here or watch it on a bootlegged streaming videocast here.
In brief, though: Scott Eric Kaufman is a doctoral candidate. As a blogger, he's developed for himself a much higher profile than a non-blogging doctoral candidate. Some of it has constituted notoriety, some has constituted real value; on the latter point, he mentions, he posted a chapter of his dissertation, soliciting advice, and received 66 commentaries on it from people of various disciplinary specialties.
Tedra Osell took the Habermasian argument about what blogging can do--i.e., open up a public sphere, to which more and different kinds of people have access, and materially change the terms of serious discussion. Thinking particularly but not only of the gendered borders to this new public sphere, she acknowledges its limits. But she also argues that the idea of a public sphere, even if it's not a true one, serves as an "enabling fiction," i.e., it produces a truly better debate. (This strikes me as a little like Peter Novick's point that the bit about all men being created equal may be nonsense, but it is salutary nonsense, which is vastly preferable to pernicious nonsense.)
Brad DeLong delivered an argument in three vignettes, whose protagonists were Frederick II, Machiavelli, and my colleague Greg Clark. DeLong suggested that the basic point to understand with respect to the Internet is that the cost of scholarly communication has decreased dramatically over time and that this can't be bad.
My colleague Ari Kelman delivered a comment. Ari observed that the basic assumption underlying all pro-blogging argument was that academia, and maybe specifically historical academia, is in a bad spot: Its practitioners often do not communicate ideas that matter to people who matter. Blogging is supposed, on many of these "public sphere" kinds of interpretations, to help solve the problem. But, Ari asks, is blogging really a cure or merely a symptom? Despite some signs of hope, he remains skeptical.
Many of the questions (which do not appear on the podcast because we did not secure the permission of all questioners) reflected an even deeper skepticism than Ari expressed. Can't the things you say on the Internet hurt you in your career? Can't your ideas get stolen? I think these are real and legitimate fears--but it's worth noting that the things you say in print and in person can hurt you in your career, and your ideas are probably better protected if you publish them online--which provides them a date and an assertion of authorship--than if you express them, for example, in a conference panel whose proceedings do not get published.
I note that Brad DeLong in particular found such fears nonplussing, which I expect derives from the difference in scholarly discourse between History-Department historians and Economic-History historians: History-Department historians tend to operate individually, cooking up ideas slowly over time, until we can publish a book bristling with defenses, counterarguments, and qualifications; Economic-History historians tend to work with each other, to toss ideas out in working papers, conference papers, and articles long before they get committed to books (if indeed they ever do). Ideas in the latter form of discourse enjoy a more experimental status; one need not fully commit oneself to their defense; one can even play with them, scattering them like paper boats to test the wind and currents.
In this respect, History-Department historians, and practitioners of other disciplines that emphasize books over articles, may be especially unsuited to derive benefits from blogging. We don't do brisk give-and-take. We lay the keels of large vessels slowly, load them with our ideas and evidence, and launch them deliberately. Thus projected, they rarely meet direct objection. A review cannot supply a counterargument of sufficient weight to scuttle them (and, perhaps acknowledging this, few reviews really try for a fair fight). Other historians' books follow their own paths, and normally avoid direct contact; engagements if inevitable usually occur briefly and inconclusively.
Of course, when we do step out of this mode, when we move into the world of online discourse, we meet people we might not otherwise have known and garner ideas we might not otherwise have had. But Ari, I suspect, has the right of it: These advantages cannot by themselves change what we do. What can? Well, that would take another panel to answer.