Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Guest Posting: Katrina Gulliver, "In Olden Days, A Glimpse of Blogging"

A French blogger, circa 1900. 
Katrina Gulliver is a historian based at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Her current research focuses on urban identity in colonial cities. You can see her website here, or follow her on twitter @katrinagulliver.

I have been blogging in various venues for over ten years. Aside from some early experiments, it has been under my own name. In that time, the history blog world has changed plenty.

The chorus used to be: "Not if you're on the market!", "Be careful if you're untenured."Some departments are toxic, and people are right to be afraid of some things. But to fear having a life online is merely to perpetuate the paranoia. Academics seem more paranoid than others about being unveiled online, and yet seem compelled to create such forms, tempting fate that they are discovered. Perhaps the solo lifestyle of academic research (particularly in the humanities) lends itself to this outcome. The panel on blogging at the 2006 AHA meeting featured audience members who were willing to stand up and be counted as bloggers, but unwilling to name their sites. Since then, the prospect of being "outed" has over the years led some to shutter their blogs, and others to self-reveal (as Tenured Radical herself did.)

Now, in this post-Facebook age, attitudes to online privacy have changed rapidly. The idea that googling job candidates is unethical or nosy (yes, people thought this) is fading away. Among blog authors there is a greater willingness to own their online identity, and see blogging as a useful adjunct to their professional, public lives (rather than a private hobby or potentially embarrassing secret). As Jennifer Ho has suggested, the blog process may not be a distraction or detraction from academic work, but assist with the drafting process. By the same token, a blog is not a private space you have a right to feel invaded if it is found by your boss, a hiring committee, or anyone else.

Therefore, Rachel Leow's notion of blogs featuring half-formed thoughts “whipping round in surprise” is disingenuous. A blog is not a personal notebook. It is a form that exists for the purpose of broadcasting one’s thoughts (fully-formed or otherwise) to an audience. It's now fifteen years since Jennifer Ringley first showed us how a woman could perform "herself" online, for a blog author to frame this (desired) audience as voyeurs invading a private space is like a stripper on stage, coyly saying “oh, silly me, I’ve dropped my clothes”. And it's a particularly disempowered imagery for a feminist blog.

Blogging has increased the profile of women historians, and helped create networks internationally. Sharon Howard was a pioneer in blogging for history, and building not just a personal blog but a web portal for resources on Early Modern history. As she has progressed through her academic career, she has offered advice to grad students, links to job ads - the kinds of career mentorship that more recently Tenured Radical and Historiann have also offered. This aspect has been an under-examined element of academic blogging: in a field in which women are a minority, and aspiring academics may lack senior female mentors, these women sharing their wisdom online has been crucial to the development of the history blog community.

Few bloggers have provided such a comprehensive service to the field as Sharon, who also initiated the History Carnival - a monthly compendium of the best history blogging. But these kinds of things are also in a transitional phase. With the immediacy of twitter, the relevance of a monthly showcase is perhaps diminishing, although the Carnival model does offer a wonderful archive (and historians LOVE archives!). And she did it all under her own name.

I don't think online pseudonymity is inherently wrong or cowardly - it can serve a purpose, of which I have availed myself occasionally. Ann Little has discussed in the latest Common-Place some of the strengths and heritage of pseudonymous presentation. But the pseudonymity of the internet allowing for gender imposture is not one much explored (for all of Marilee Lindemann's dogvoice blog). Are these bloggers really female, and does it really matter? On some level it does. Voice appropriation is not mentioned in the framing of pseudonymity as a shield, by presumably honest brokers of the blog world. For every online Silence Dogood or Currer Bell, there will be a Forrest Carter, Binjamin Wilkomirski, or Helen Demidenko. The persistence of pseudonymity in some cases seems more like an egotistical pose: much like someone who is in no danger hiring a bodyguard. And it only serves to perpetuate the (irrational) fears in academia about the dangers of the newfangled interwebs.

I perform a persona on my blog too, although it is "me", my blog identity is obviously unidimensional. I only write about my work, or history topics. Twitter however is a different beast. In its stream of collective consciousness form (which I find intoxicating), I drop comments about a variety of aspects of my life, or my thoughts on current events. Is the persona I perform there "me"? In some way - although I think I present a sunnier disposition online than I do in the flesh. Since joining Twitter, I have met many more historians, the vast majority using their real names. I have found conference contributors, editorial board members for a new journal, and made real friends through my online roles. Because I have lived in several countries during my academic career, I have found the online realm an invaluable network.

Yes, operating under my own name perhaps puts the brakes on some of the things I might say, but it also means I am operating without a net, without the retreat path of deleting a pseudonymous blog, with plausible deniability. Partly because I came away bruised from early rough and tumble in the electronic sandpit, I am pretty conflict-avoidant. I just don't have the patience or stamina to be fighting with internet idiots. I weakly confess I leave that to stronger broads like Sady Doyle. But I am proud to add my voice to feminist issues online, and to participate in debates that would not be taking place if it were not for the internet.

Kevin Levin wrote about the importance of having an online identity, asking Can you afford not to use social media? and for academics the answer is increasingly no.  His description of building an audience has been my experience too. I know that people have become aware of my work through my blog, I've received emails and tweets about my research, which would not have happened had I not been open about my real id.

Nothing exemplifies the value of social media to a historian more than the case of Lucy Inglis, who created Georgian London. An independent scholar and consultant, she went from starting a blog to being offered a book contract in under a year - having been found by agents and editors on twitter. Lucy conveys a breezy style (which is true of her in person) - and her blog would not have found such an audience if she were not also drawing readers on twitter. Perhaps because she is freed from ivory tower politics (or job anxieties) she is able to interlink the personal and professional on her twitter feed, and give people more of an insight to the life of someone engaged in historical research than any "academic" historian I know. That she was engaged as a "blogger in residence" by the Museum of London, the perfect outreach position for someone with such a desire to share history with the public.

The democratic levelling of blogs is something we should reach out towards, rather than shy away from. As Tony Grafton described the challenges faced by history as a discipline, being able to explain ourselves to the public should be a key focus. And as someone who works on transnational as well as gender issues, I am keen to discuss themes and ideas from historians working all over the world. Any historian who works on society should welcome a readership outside academe, and for feminist historians: I am woman, read my blog.

Want to be a guest poster at Tenured Radical?  Write with a suggestion to tenuredDOTradicalATgmailDOTcom.

22 comments:

Katrina said...

Thanks, TR! For those who came in late, what I wrote here was in response to the round-table on women's history blogging hosted by TR in the latest Journal of Women's History

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This is a very interesting and well-written post, but the snide passive-aggressive pseudonymity bashing is a steaming load of fucken bullshitte.

First, there are very good reasons for people to adopt a pseudonym beyond "in some cases seem[ing] more like an egotistical pose". Is this author aware of the actual fucken death threats that some bloggers have received and the disgusting violent verbal sexual attacks many bloggers receive on a daily basis? Is this author aware that the vast majority of bloggers who report this shitte are women? Who's "posing egotistically" when the first sentence of a blogge poste points out that the blogger "is a historian based at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich"?

Second, if anything, it is the *eponymous* bloggers who are "cowardly" and refuse to operate "without a net", hiding behind the cloak of their real world credentials instead of allowing their writing to stand on its own and risking finding out that their blogge suckes asse and no one wants to read itte.

Third, as far as the "retreat path of deleting a pseudonymous blog, with plausible deniability", more fucken bullshitte. There are numerous pseudonymous bloggers who have been blogging for fucken *years*, and have established a reserve of credibility and expertise with an extensive audience based solely on the reliability and excellence of their writing. Deletion of one of these blogges is done with no more or less plausible deniability than that of an eponymous blogge. And, anyway, is this author aware that *nothing* on the Internet can really be deleted and that there are publicly accessible archives of pretty much everything?

Finally, what could possibly be the fucken *point* of bashing pseudonymous bloggers like this, other than to attempt to deny them credibility and silence their voices? Is it a cowardly fear that someone might build a large audience that treats them as a voice of credibility without having to wave around degrees, CVs, and institutional affiliations like a fucken bludgeon? Is it the cowardly fear that in a competition for audience that includes pseudonymous bloggers, degrees, CVs, and institutional affiliations might not be worth jacke shitte?

Gah, what a ridiculous pompous display.

reassignedtime said...

I was just going to say that some of us with pseudonyms have them because they don't want their blogs to operate as professional documents. That's why I remain Dr. Crazy, long after lots of people know who I am in real life. Or I was going to say something along the lines of "Are we REALLY still having the conversation about pseudonyms vs. "real" names? Seriously? Because I thought I dealt with this in 2004, when I started blogging, and I seriously think rehashing it is a waste of time."

But having read CP's passionate and thoughtful defense of pseudonymity, I will say that he said it all better than I felt like spending the time and energy to do.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, if FSP ever comes out of anonymity, I'm in some serious sh!t. I've been claiming to be her for years!

Anonymous said...

I found your blog about a year ago and I LOVE IT. Not only for the insights into the weirdness of academic life, but also for your efforts to connect theory and reality and to show that what we do actually matters and has relevance.

I am a political scientist, not a historian, but much of what you write about crosses disciplinary bounds. My area of specialization has always been one that attracted far more men than women. Historically, there has been a strong disciplinary message that topics involving women/"others" aren't all that relevant and won't translate into a solid career, no matter how important they may seem to the likes of me.

As a youngish grad student straight out of college, with no serious clue about either the academic or the "real" world, trying to figure out how to balance the competing intellectual, professional and societal demands of being an academic and a woman (and a mother), I felt I was practically begging for some kind of mentoring. And it wasn't there. Not even from the few women in the field, including my former adviser (a well-known woman of formidable ability, for whom I have great respect, but who was in many ways worse than the men).

TR your insights, career advice, and modeling of how informed dialog can bridge "real" and "academic" worlds to further one's research agenda would have been a huge help to me 15 years ago. I wish I'd "known" you then, but I'm glad that voices like yours are out there now.

Carlos Oliveira said...

I liked the text and the point of view. I am a Brazilian historian. I realize here that the professionals also have difficulty in using tools like the Internet and the blog for various reasons such as those raised by Katrina Gulliver.
I believe that, especially as historians, ownership of tools for knowledge work is essential today.

Leslie M-B said...

I never intended for my blogs to be tools in my search for academic jobs, but my blog about museums landed me a teaching gig in an excellent museum studies M.A. program where I was seriously considering applying as a student, even though I already had a Ph.D.

Last year, after five years on the job market, I finally landed my first interview for a t-t job. (I have an apparently unattractive interdisciplinary Ph.D. and was looking for a job inside a discipline.) I fessed up to having a large internet presence because I figured they'd Google my name anyway. To make them feel more comfortable reading my blog without feeling like voyeurs, during my initial interview I informed the search committee I'd posted a letter to them on my personal blog. It appears that letter helped me considerably in getting the on-campus interview, which then led to my current job (in a history department).

As you might imagine, then, I'm a huge cheerleader for blogging.

nicoleandmaggie said...

We would not be able to rumble grumpily if it were not for anonymity.

lucyinglis said...

Thanks for the mention Katrina - everything you said is exactly right. I certainly could not have gained the traction I did without Twitter, and the blog has definitely become more than the sum of its parts.

I chose not to blog anonymously, and in the end I pretty much had to flip a coin to make that choice. Of course, I did not have a job to lose, or colleagues to rankle - but then my blog is about basic social history, not how I feel about my colleagues or prospects. Still, the urge to stay beneath the parapet was there.

My first post on eighteenth century homosexuality brought plenty of freaks out of their closet and my inbox was full of niceties about what a putrid whore I must be - but who cares? These people are googling 'gay brothels london' according to the stats.

I can, and have lost both speaking engagements and jobs because of my er, liberal stance on the blog. I'm an independent scholar and I treat it as a business; I can't afford to lose any job. Yet nor will I deny the blog or what I've written there. Most of the time it works in my favour, but falls way behind the other work I have produced when it comes to finding employment.

The world is ever more dynamic and the window in which to be seen, recognised and given a chance getting ever smaller. Love your blog. Be proud of it under your own name or whatever name you choose. If you don't feel it's good enough to put on your CV at an apparently confidential interview, then perhaps it's time to give it up and do something else.

Historiann said...

It looks like a comment of mine got munched--so apologies in advance if this ends up looking like a double-post.

I think Katrina's post, and some of the reactions to it, are indicative of just how much the academic blogosphere has changed in just 5 or 6 years. Back then in the early- and mid-2000s, my sense of the academic blogosphere is that it was full of people experimenting with a new medium for intellectual and professional connections, especially since so many of us seem to have jobs outside of major metro areas and without anyone in our fields to talk to. Women and/or scholars of color were especially cautious about their real life identities, and I think for all of the good reasons CPP mentions in his comment. Again, given that many of us are the only ones who look like us in small departments and rural colleges and universities, it seems like blogging pseudonymously was only prudent.

At this point, blogging under one's own name versus pseudonymity is largely a matter of personal choice. I no longer think tenure is as much of a dividing line w/r/t online identities, and as Leslie M-B's comment notes, there are wonderful examples for how people have effectively used their blogs and blog personae for professional advancement.

Bloggers like Katrina and me owe our courageous pseudonymous pioneers a debt of gratitude, for navigating new technologies and helping us see the possibilites of digital communication outside of e-mail. I appreciate Katrina's provocative feminist challenge for others to go bravely under their own names into the blogosphere. But I appreciate the pseudonymous bloggers (not to mention commenters!) because of the things in our professional lives they can address better than those of us who blog under our own names.

Knitting Clio said...

Ooh, may I guest blog too?!
I'm pretty sure you have a lot more readers than I do!

Seriously, this is a great post. Thanks.

Tenured Radical said...

KC: You may -- I like guest blogging!

Laura said...

More than most things, the internet is there to be whatever we want it to be. You have shown how, at a time when having an online presence is a positive rather than a negative, a blog can be used for career advancement. There are all sorts of reasons why people might not want to use their names, and some very good blogs are written under pseudonyms. The very idea of blogs is fascinating; there are more worthwhile blogs in the world than there will ever be time to read them.

Katrina said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Comradephysioprof: wow, this excited you enough for you to post about it on your own blog too. Thank you for demonstrating one of the benefits of pseudonymity: right now if someone googles me, your invective-filled screed is on the first page of results.

But nomatter. It’s clear you have no idea where I’m coming from (and little interest in thinking about it). Yes, it’s easier to take the ad-hominem attacks of the internet with a pseudonym as a shield. And easier to dish it out, if one is so inclined.

Read this part again:

"I don't think online pseudonymity is inherently wrong or cowardly - it can serve a purpose, of which I have availed myself occasionally. Ann Little has discussed in the latest Common-Place some of the strengths and heritage of pseudonymous presentation. But the pseudonymity of the internet allowing for gender imposture is not one much explored (for all of Marilee Lindemann's dogvoice blog). Are these bloggers really female, and does it really matter? On some level it does. Voice appropriation is not mentioned in the framing of pseudonymity as a shield, by presumably honest brokers of the blog world. For every online Silence Dogood or Currer Bell, there will be a Forrest Carter, Binjamin Wilkomirski, or Helen Demidenko."

Perhaps you don’t know who some of those people are – and therefore the historical context for what I wrote – which is something the commenters at your blog seem to be particularly interested in. My own research deals with the idea of voice appropriation and if you don’t know what that is, I suggest you look it up.

When I first started blogging, I used a pseudonym: everyone did. It was a pseudonym I used in a number of different places online, maintaining a consistent identity. Heck, I knew some of you back then. I had my own (real name) domain for a professional site, and made a conscious decision around 2004 to bring my blog across to that site and continue it under my own name. Gradually, I dropped the pseud. almost everywhere, although it still remains in a couple of log-in group memberships.

I have been stalked (online, and on the phone after someone traced my number), had my email hacked, and just last year was threatened with sexual violence because someone didn’t like something I wrote online (not on my blog, but in a comment on another site). That had nothing to do with my role as a historian, and everything to do with my being a woman voicing a feminist opinion.

I have never said to any particular blogger that they should “drop the veil”. People have their own reasons. I am saying that right now, in academic history – which still suffers from sexism don’tcha know? - there is a risk of perpetuating a system where women are silenced, or made to feel they can only speak out from behind a pseudonym.

If you’re really interested, I can post something in more detail at my site (so you can b!tchslap me further there, if you like), rather than taking up TR’s real estate.

Anonymous said...

Comrade does not appear to have read this properly. It must be a sore spot. With that much pent up aggression, it's no wonder they use a pseudonym. One does not need to defend oneself against non-existent attacks. Take a deep breath, re-read & move on (as the original poster suggested, in a less patronising way than myself).

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