If you ever wondered if blogs and blogging were controversial in academia, you’d only need to look at the extremely diverse range of opinions on the topic in higher ed publications to get the idea. The Chronicle has published a story called The Blogosphere as a Carnival of Ideas, clearly written by a blogger in defense of the medium in light of all the attacks it’s endured recently.
Properly considered, the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today. Academic blogs, like their 18th-century equivalent, are rife with feuds, displays of spleen, crotchets, fads, and nonsenses. As in the blogosphere more generally, there is a lot of dross. However, academic blogs also provide a carnival of ideas, a lively and exciting interchange of argument and debate that makes many scholarly conversations seem drab and desiccated in comparison. Over the next 10 years, blogs and bloglike forms of exchange are likely to transform how we think of ourselves as scholars. While blogging won’t replace academic publishing, it builds a space for serious conversation around and between the more considered articles and monographs that we write.
Of course I think he’s bang on, and I’m thrilled to see such a glowing, positive article about blogging academics in light of a the rantings of a particular (ahem) soon-to-be-past ALA president. But I wouldn’t have made the leap to the Republic of Letters. While classy and romantic, and appealing because of it’s historical conotations, I would have backed away from that particular metaphor.
It’s something of a crisis of imagination; when we see something written down, we can’t help but link it to books, articles, letters, publications in general. We see the written word and link it in our minds to other written words. They are of a kind, in our minds, and we can’t seem to get past the medium. We see blogs and think of diaries, which is true, but also not; we see online discussions and think of letters to the editor, but also not. The reality is that blogs and back and forth that comes with them are not comparable to articles and monographs, or to letters, or to any other form of traditional written communication, not really; blogs and the blogosophere is more like conversation. If everything we said were recorded and transcribed for our later use, how would we classify it? Would we correct our own grammar? Would we make comparisons between our transcripts and the Republic of Letters? Would we have transmogrified ourselves into speakers of text, or would we acknowledge that this is merely conversation turned into readable form?
I’m always a little surprised when people mention that blogging is not academic publishing. Well, of course it’s not. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any academic value. There’s a lot of value in going to conferences, listening to what other people in your field have to say, and engaging them in discussion. There’s lots of value in sitting back and listening to a variety of viewpoints, going to listen to other, completely unrelated talks, and finding commonalities between the discussions. Finding links, thinking outloud, interacting with others and refining our ideas. Telling people what we think as we’re reading, getting their feedback on our thoughts. We accept that students learn best when asked to present their ideas to their peers, elaborate on them, and defend those ideas against questions and doubt. We seem to have a harder time imagining that professionals might be able to do the same thing using online technologies. Somehow, the moment we move to a keyboard, our ideas about how our communication functions completely reverts.
It’s a cardinal rule of cataloguing that a change in medium marks a completely new item, but the history of technology is also littered with imaginative failures. We are so stunned and awed by new advances in communication technology that we keep putting them in special boxes of their own. Sure, DVDs are fancy, but they’re still just movies in a new format. IM reference is nifty and cool, but it’s still just a new way to conduct reference interviews. Blogs likes the ones we’re keeping, the ones we prize in our fields, need to find their metaphor. I hope it’s not the Republic of Letters, though I’m sure it would indeed be a wonderful thing to resurrect. The blogosphere’s focus on connection, communication, feedback, and community-creation speaks more to what we get from verbal dialogue than any number of letters to the editor.