Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The 400 Posts: Tenured Radical Speaks; or, What the Historian Learned When Ze Went to the Blogosphere

And what do I ever do but frikkin' speak, you might ask? Well, in honor of the 400th post on Tenured Radical I thought I would post a talk I gave as part of a panel on blogging the fall meeting of the Little Berks, October 5, 2008. I had the honor to have two distinguished co-panelists, Clio Bluestocking and Heather Prescott of Knitting Clio.

Almost two years ago, I started writing a blog called Tenured Radical. This means that today I am fast approaching what is known among my kind as my second blogiversary. In that first post, on October 17, 2006, I assumed that every academic would understand the title of the blog as an ironic gesture. Nonetheless, I explained to an as yet unknown audience that “long ago, when the new right decided to undermine the intellectual foundations of the nation, one of the big charges made by radical neocons was that universities were full of ‘tenured radicals’ who were indoctrinating the youth of America. The not so big secret, of course, is that universities and their faculties are far from radical, and that tenure is one of the features of university life that makes academics cautious at best, conservative at least. We need to change that….if you keep reading this blog,” I promised, “you will get some insight into the mysteries of the system, and what kind of people folks turn into if they don't keep ironic distance.”

“That's why I'm blogging,” I concluded. “Ironic distance…. Because frankly, boys and girls, being an academic isn't as much fun as it used to be, and I think we need to do something to change that.”

Going back to read some of those early posts, I am amazed that a forum was created in my lifetime that allowed a person to announce an agenda and begin to self-publish for free; mildly embarrassed at some of the things I put up in those first months (and at the reasons I put them up, although some of the same things are wicked funny), and more than a little proud of what I have accomplished as a writer and a public intellectual over the last twenty-four months. I have learned a great many things that I never would have learned had I not started blogging, including how to sit down and knock out a piece like this in a few hours, do a couple quick revisions, and feel pretty good about putting it out there for a lot of people I respect to critique.
I also think a great deal more than I used to about how technology alters public culture and provokes democratic change, as well as about what it means to create accessible literary arenas where people can disagree about important ideas. I read about technology, video games and robots. I think about what it means to compile an electronic archive that one can re-write almost indefinitely (in fact, Nancy Cott, Director if the Schlesinger, is currently working on a project to archive feminist blogs permanently, which will cause a blog like mine to ultimately be “fixed” in a way it never will be while it is up on Blogspot.) I think about anonymity, since most bloggers and many people who comment on blogs, are anonymous. I myself began blogging anonymously, and then stopped, something I will say something more about later if you are interested – and while I have a strong position about the dangers of anonymity, it also has an important place in academic life in allowing senior people to hear things from students and from the untenured that they would not otherwise be told.

My life as a blogger was launched about two months after having switched to an Apple MacBook Pro, a machine that I am having a prolonged and happy relationship with. So in love was I with my Mac that blogging led easily to a whole set of other skills that have caused me to fantasize about asking for a transfer to Zenith’s IT Department should I, by some grisly and vicious twist of fate, be elected chair of anything in the next three years. I have learned Photoshop. I have learned to steal code off other people’s websites. I have learned to write HTML script so that I could link to sources in what is now – because of blogging mainly – called the MSM, or Mainstream Media; and I learned how to re-program my computer to account for the various glitches and bugs that appear in Blogspot. I know how to fight an infestation of spam bots. I learned how to configure an RSS feed so that all the information I need to start a fresh day of blogging appears as if by magic. I learned a whole new language (for example, that there are things that are part-human, part-fantasy personae called “trolls” and “sock-puppets,” who are somewhat like banshees, and can cause a lot of trouble until you get them under control.)

I can trace your IP number.

I learned that there is a whole cadre of right-wingers and libertarians out there, many of who do not have their own blogs but who shift the same conversation that they are having with each other from comments section to comments section. These people believe that the blogosphere is a radical free speech zone governed by a complex set of principles about democracy, truth, and what one pest that inhabits my blog recently called “truthiness.” (A self-proclaimed foe of mine, who calls himself Right Wing Professor, and is drawn to me for obvious reasons, recently went on a prolonged rant in my comments section about Obama fundraiser and former Weatherman – now tenured UIC education professor – Bill Ayers – having “confessed to multiple murders” in his memoir, Fugitive Days. That this is not true, but a moral extension of the truth – in other words, something that could happen when you set off bombs in public places -- should give you a sense of what “truthiness” is.)

Not by accident, my persona as the Tenured Radical (who also calls herself TR) was launched during a period in my life characterized by professional crisis and self-doubt, a time that I happily no longer feel any need to dwell on. But my flippant call in my inaugural post for “ironic distance” and “fun” was as close as I could get at the time to saying what I really felt, which was that if I couldn’t resolve my anger and frustration at how my writing had been purposely trashed as part of a departmental political struggle, I would need to do something else for a living that did not require publishing or writing, and fast. I can hint at the extent of this existential crisis by adding that, in addition to exploring the blogosphere, I was also having lively conversations with the dean of admissions at the Yale Law School, and snuck off one Saturday morning to take the LSAT.
Now, some of you are going to say “Aha! Just what I thought! Blogs are not writing, or scholarship. They are therapy!” Well, no. I was in therapy, and lots of it. What I needed to do was to learn to write all over again with confidence, grace, authority and wit. I needed, in short, to learn to have fun again. And that was one of the most important things this historian learned when she went to the blogosphere.

Blogging is, first and foremost about writing, and writing in a way that foregrounds play as well as intellect. This makes blogging fundamentally different from how we were all brought up to write in history school, which is that writing is first and foremost “our work.” Think about it: one of the earliest conventions we learn as graduate students is to greet a person we don’t know, not by asking “what are you writing?” but, “What are you working on?” In a book I would recommend to all of you, which I read shortly after I began blogging, Ann LaMotte’s Bird By Bird, Lamott (who is not a blogger, but sort of writes like one) goes on at often hilarious length about the difficulties of taking on a writing life as one’s work. They are all difficulties that are very familiar to historians and, I would wager, often accentuated by the general condition of being women working in institutions that are sexist to a greater or lesser degree (something by the way that we don’t talk about much any more except by sharing anecdotes.)

Among the difficulties addressed in the book are being simply unable to write because of an incident, or incidents, of writing trauma in the past (check!); ordinary forms of attention deficit disorder that cause you to interrupt writing to feed the dog, do the laundry, watch TV (check!); rejection (check!); the problem of getting useful, accurate, and swift feedback so that you can tell whether what you have written is good or bad (check!); wanting to have fun instead (check!); and difficulty in keeping a continuous focus on one’s work, a focus that cannot be achieved if one does not write every day (check! And check!)
Now, part of why this book appeals to me is that Lamott talks about very difficult things in a funny, and not a tragic, way (like having someone tell you for malicious reasons that what you have written is a horrible book when in fact you are fairly sure it is a good book that needs another set of revisions.) That was very helpful to me because it wasn’t just that I had been traumatized by such an incident, it is that there is virtually no academic script that doesn’t relate obstacles in one’s writing career as having a tragic and permanently damaging outcome. Such outcomes might include the indefinite delay of a well-deserved promotion, as in my case; but there are also worse outcomes: people lose jobs, or –worse, if you really imagine yourself as a writer – you never write again, even if you do keep your job. And what Lamott argues is that there is no way to solve this problem but to write.

Write every day.

Blogging helped me do that. As I did I began to write little essays about the condition of our lives and the work we do, and people responded to them: essays about teaching, about the dilemmas of the twenty-first century university, about what it meant to be a good senior colleague, and most of all – some of my most popular posts – the evils of the tenure system and a job market clogged with good people who can’t find work. One result of these essays was I got something from blogging that I never anticipated: new colleagues! For surely, part of the trauma of my temporarily derailed professional life was discovering that there were a small number of people I worked with who were really willing to take the time to really damage my reputation as a writer and scholar if they could – not just take the time, but commit to that project. Then there were the bulk of my colleagues at Wesleyan, who really came through for me, but over a period of years, paradoxically became yet another reminder that I lived in a world that was perhaps permanently divided between friends and enemies.
The blogosphere is divided up between friends and enemies too, of course, although unlike me, because my essays about politics and culture have drawn a broader audience (including a group of military wives, an oil man in Dubai, some sock puppets who live in Brooklyn and a manic woman who writes practically in poetry and calls herself The Diva.)

Many academic bloggers simply have a devoted cadre of like-minded followers who advise and encourage them. This can be particularly helpful to many who are assistant professors, adjuncts or graduate students when they must cope with bad news. For example, one young historian, New Kid on the Hallway, did not have her contract renewed at third year review (having already left another job for her own reasons.) She shared this news with the rest of us in a short, dignified post one day. Similarly, I have come to know well and take regular counsel from a younger group of bloggers which includes: an English Lit prof named Flavia (who was the first blogger to link me), a historian named GayProf, who refers to his cheating ex-boyfriend as "My Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies)," Oso Raro (who blogs at Slaves of Academe and is a truly gorgeous writer), the fiercely feminist Historiann (known to Early Americanists as Ann Little), Moria who I knew when she was a Mouse, and so many more. Not only did New Kid receive an outpouring of sympathy – the kind of thing I can say, by experience, that you are not likely to get from your actual colleagues (both because it is awkward and because you are hiding in your office weeping), but as she worked out her final year, moved to a visiting job and then went on to law school, was able to draw on a substantial network of junior and senior people about how to navigate her professional transitions.

Another category of academic blogger for whom virtual reality is almost universally positive is the network of Mom-bloggers in academia, who have certainly opened my eyes to how problematic it still is to be a mother, or someone who intends to be a mother, and also have a professional academic career. Notice I did not say parent: it is quite clear from reading these blogs that the husbands and partners of female academics are not subject to the intrusive questions, unwanted advice, and sheer prejudice that women who are wish to be, or are, simultaneously on a tenure track and planning a family.
Which brings me to the question of anonymity, something that we could explore further in the discussion. Anonymity allows people, many of who are untenured, to write about volatile and contentious issues, or who, for professional reasons, want a clear boundary between their academic writing and their blogging.

As I said earlier, I began anonymously and “came out” about six months into my career as the Tenured Radical. I came out for a variety of reasons, but principally because I had been unmasked at my own institution (and had been for at least three months before I discovered it), and because I came to believe at that point that remaining anonymous made my ethical position as an observer of academic life quite dicey.

Coming out gave me an advantage in other ways as well. Since I have gone public, I have been invited to join interesting group blogs, write articles for print and internet publications for actually quite good money, be on panels about blogging, do a cluster on feminist blogging for an academic journal, and I have interesting people. I have been linked to and written for a variety of prestigious publications on the right and on the left such as National Review Online, the Village Voice, American Historical Association Perspectives online, History News Network, the American Federation of Teachers web log, Inside Higher Education, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. In other words, I am read. So in addition to making me think harder, write more and – I think – write better, I have, in conventional and unconventional ways, acquired what every academic and every writer wants: an audience.

What blogging also allowed me to do was think seriously and productively about what brought me to this profession in the first place, and work specifically to make that thing happen in a new way. For me, what I have referred to elsewhere as “my second career at the same institution” has also caused me to think seriously about how I got to this point and what I want out of writing. Because of blogging, I write every day, something that makes it possible to be a writer all the time, not just on weekends or on sabbatical, as I often did when writing was the “work” that came last because it required so much more focus than everything else. And this has reshaped my writing habits substantially. Time spent doing other things (teaching, say, or chairing) is time when I am taking a break from writing, not the other way around. Even if large projects are completed slowly, to write every day is to keep continuity in my creative habits that nurtures a sense of connection to my writing as primary work – not work that gets done when my work for everyone else is finished.

As a blogger, I also get to be a historian who engages regularly with contemporary history, which is a messy and exhilarating business. Those of you who follow Tenured Radical know that in addition to writing about the past, I get to be a cultural critic, essayist, unrepentant goad to right-wingers and faux Dear Abby for young historians. That said, this kind of cultural work on the internet is considered highly suspect by many scholars I know, in part because there are virtually no rules that govern blogging, and the university world is obsessed with rules and the respectability that comes with following the rules. Blogging is also an activity associated most strongly with the young, which makes a middle aged scholar-blogger even more suspect as a serious intellectual. I have had conversations with some of my colleagues in which you would have thought they were talking to someone who had taken up competitive skateboarding at the age of fifty.

It is the best kind of middle-aged crisis, I think. While blogging has involved me in some unpleasant interactions in the university world, it has also included me in a diverse intellectual circle of people, most of them younger than I, and many of who are graduate students or working adjunct. In other words, my new colleagues are people I really wouldn’t know otherwise, and I have to tell you, I learn a lot from them. This, in turn, has allowed me to re-engage with my old colleagues in a freer, and sometimes pleasantly detached, way, and with a sharpened sense of consciousness about what higher education ought to be doing.

Blogging also allows me to write short pieces, work on form, voice, and getting complex ideas across to an audience that I need to entice in order to keep them reading. I sometimes compare it to a pianist playing scales: to the extent that blogging is not, perhaps, the most serious scholarly form, to take it seriously is to become a better writer. But best of all, I am read every day and my readers write back. They tell me what they think, and sometimes they tell me that my writing made a difference to them. Sometimes they get angry with me, and because of that I have become a keener listener and also grown a tougher hide. I have come to terms with something that is often difficult to face in the scholarly world, particularly given our systems of high-stakes evaluation: that sometimes there are people who really hate what you think is your best work. This, I will say in conclusion, has made me a braver writer.

And it has made me a historian who is once again having fun.


Elizabeth M. said...

Welcome to "The 400 Club." As a relatively new reader I find your blogging "arrival story" to be particularly interesting. Your posts continue to help me think about how historians can be a part of public history in a larger sense of the term than usually invoked. And as a future job seeker and historian on my terms or someone else's (if I find a job) I think it's important to consider why we are historians and writers and most importantly engaged historians and writers. Fun has got to figure more prominently than it does in more official places.

And I'm so glad you didn't go to law school.

GayProf said...

His official moniker was actually, "My Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies)." Well, when it wasn't something more profane. Bad times, bad times.

I liked this post. I have been thinking of writing something similar -- if I ever get back to my little bloggy.

I hope to see another 400 posts here at Tenured Radical.

Janice said...

I'm sorry that you came to blogging in such a crisis (and endured a number of nasty episodes along the way in blogging), but I'm so glad that you've been here for these four hundred posts and many more to come, I hope.

You're right that blogging gives us a good venue for writing and in a way that's still valuable to the profession, our colleagues and those interested in our subjects. Blogging provides a fresh blank slate every day, too, which is pretty exhilarating. Thanks for sharing the text of this talk although it makes me even more wistful that I've never been to the Berks!

Bavardess said...

Thanks for an inspirational post. Your comments about blogging as a way to develop and reinforce the daily writing habit certainly ring true for me. I'm also interested to see the ways blogging and related technologies are starting to change public culture, and perhaps enable a less monolithic and more democratic mainstream media. As a former professional journalist within the 'MSM', I find the transformation exhilarating but also somewhat destabilising.

Susan said...

Congratulations on making it to 400! As a reader, I'm glad you are here. And like you, I love Bird by Bird. For me, what has really helped is her chapter on "Shitty first drafts". When things are going really badly, I'll just mutter it to myself over and over...

Robert said...

Happy blogiversary! Keep on keepin' on, TR, because you have many avid followers out there!

Tenured Radical said...

Thanks all, for your lovely comments! And GayProf -- I made that change, because as historians, we both adhere to the accuracy of the record. I had the sentiment write, but he's your ex, and every time I see that your Lying Ex in one of your posts I feel that you strike a blow for all who have suffered from being led to by the heartless.

Get back to your bloggy! We miss you.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Hi TR,

I realize this totally isn't the point of your post (which is great), but I didn't leave my first job when I was told to expect the worst - I was very much on track to get tenure there and was very happy with the institution (and it with me); I chose to leave that position because it was in a town I couldn't see myself living in for the next 30 years. (Not that it really matters, but I have to comment anyway.) But you're absolutely right about the value of the blogging community to me when my contract wasn't renewed.

Anyway, congrats on the 400th post!

Anonymous said...

I don't read TR religiously, though I try to drop by regularly. But when I am here am I am consistently been impressed by TR's level-headedness, honesty & bravery, traits that all academics, bloggers & thinkers would do well to emulate. Congratulations on 400 posts.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear New Kid,

Ditto to GayProf -- I'm changing that as per your correction because not only is history important, but the capacity to tell one's own history and be heard is important.

But re. your second point -- I would the importance of *you* to the blogging community, on both points, because at each transition you made a decision that was hard to make, and more people need an example of a person who makes sane decisions and finds a *good* way to go on with her life at a moment when some people spin their wheels in sorrow and/or rage for too long and compound the damage.

I've always liked you for that.

Historiann said...

TR, I'm glad you didn't go to law school!

When I was first thinking of starting my blog, your blog (and its archives) were really helpful in guiding me in making my own decisions. What I have always liked about your blog is your transparency and honesty about the process and the pitfalls, and how you have learned and made changes about how you run your blog. So, thanks for bravely venturing into the void and letting many others see how on-line space works.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Thanks, T.R. - you're very kind. I love it that you were considering law school!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

(And I'm honored to be featured in your talk/post!)

Digger said...

Congrats on 400! I haven't been reading a terribly long time, but have heavily rummaged the archives. Thanks for your insightful, grounded, funny, engaged and engaging posts.

Anonymous said...

A bonzer blog. Sometimes, witty and stimulating, sometimes infuriating and batty but always worth reading. Good on yer, Sheila.

benjamin aldes wurgaft said...

I wanted to leave a note of appreciation as a "frequent reader/first time commentator." Not only do I learn a great deal about US history from your blog, it's also become a useful model for the potential relation between academic history writing and the public world. Having just finished my doctorate in European intellectual and Jewish history (at what we'll call the University of California, Sunnydale) I've found your commentaries on academic life extremely instructive. While I don't blog myself, I do conduct research on the nature of public intellectual life, and wonder where you think the line falls, between blogging and trying to function as a public intellectual?

In any case, number me among your fans.

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