New year, back to this blog, and more reading

It’s been nearly a year; the excuse for absence has been presence elsewhere. But elsewhere turned into several elsewheres. and elsewhos, and the original poor single self found itself stretched rather thin.

There may be something appearing on here about that whole experiment with pseudonymous blogging out in the Real Non-academic World. It’s been interesting and heartening to see how discussion with non-academics works, and very productive to write for non-academics, and with the silencing of one’s academic identity and credentials. Just to see if the message can carry, regardless of the identity of the messenger.

What I wrote was read by more people per week than read most academic blogs in a year. Certain posts that have been read by hundreds more than would read an article in a small-field scholarly journal. Maybe thousands, sorry I wasn’t counting very exactly and it’s a tricky approximation to extrapolate. In the last year, the post I think was the best-written and most important in terms of ideas had just over 600 separate readings (i.e. by different people); the post read the most often had nearly 7,000; and this is a small hobby-blog, without ads or any attempts to market and sell itself and otherwise sell its soul to buy numbers. It’s still under the 100,000 readers/year mark, let alone that number per month. But still: at any rate: that blog as a whole and many of its posts individually have seen more readers than most academics—good academics mind you—will have had in their lifetimes.

Surely, this was a better use of me than having an insy-winsy piece in a small journal, for the few people who understand what I’m talking about there, people whom I know already and speak to and would have talked to about said insy-winsy anyway.

Yes, there is the important matter of quantity vs. quality: of the writing and of its readers. Unquestionably. But this important matter is all too often set up in simplistic terms, by parties at both extremes. There seem not to be too many of us in the iffing and butting middle; maybe I’m wrong, or being presumptuous in making assumptions, and there are many more moderates sharing a middle ground of complication, complexity, and compromise.

This other writing started out being about matters unrelated to this present blog and/or my work; some more contentious, some possibly controversial, but mostly harmless. And with no conflict of interest for professional purposes (no money changed hands), nor for this present online identity, except in that activities elsewhere detracted from activities here; there is a limit to one’s time and energies. My own are further hampered by a need to sleep: not being inconsequential or facetious or flippant. I have a physiological, medically-certified need to sleep for at least eight hours a night. Ideally nine. Ten at least once a week.

Intersections arose, and some general trends in the other online activities will be useful for my “proper, named” stuff and nonsense on here: reading and writing; discussion and discourse; explanation and persuasion; ideas and reasoning; the point and purpose of communication. About how writing works and what it’s for, assuming of course it’s writing that is indeed for someone else, and for and about something: one can’t assume that for academic writing. One should. Clearly. It is of course clearer if you’re writing for and in the Outside World, and a revelation to be wished upon every scholarly sort who has never ventured Out. Writing about civility and manners, urbanity, courtesy; putting it a more old-fashioned and perhaps elderly way, tolerance, toleration, decency, propriety, and mutual respect. Or: the small-scale ethics of human interpersonal social interactions. How communities work. Small-scale, individuals in networks. Anti-hierarchical. Gynarchist.

There will be more on some of that. More, especially, on issues of writing and identity: with a feminist angle (unexpectedly, given I am a human with a pulse and a brain), and the maintenance of the compulsory meta-business by dealing with inter-trans-para-nationalism, multiple identities, and the ridiculousness of what still seems all too often to be an assumed status quo, of one single unified being.

All of which sounds either too Vancouver New Age or a poor imitation of the good Sokal.

On which subject: with a bit of luck, there might be something on here on parody. And anything else that ties in with what’s happening on the teaching front and the “other business” of research, reading, thinking. Mine being predominantly a teaching job, those other pursuits and any communication thereof are not part of my everyday existence. Sometimes they happen to be direct spin-offs from teaching, which is nice. Something older research feeds into teaching. And, very rarely, I’ll actually have the time to sit and figure something out properly in a leisurely fashion. Scholarly life isn’t that bad, though; brain activity has not ceased, just changed. Might be age too. Of recent R&D tangential work: much has been in relation to teaching; a fair quantity of that has been fitting together teaching and earlier research, and seeing how seemingly disparate areas of interest intersect and, if in luck, interweave. One example being what I like to call “applied medievalism,” including some rethinking about Flamenca. Notebooks continue to fill up with observations from the sublime to the ridiculous, mainly of course the latter.

Some of those notes will be transcribed here. I’ll also be putting up bits and pieces of work in progress; some of them antique, some juvenilia, some of them sketches and possibly sketchy. There may be useful material there for other people; be that ideas to take and run with, or stuff to bring into other work–new threads to interweave–or simply some references to other texts that aren’t immediately on the radar.

My main reason for posting writing up on here is, as with the other pseudonymous writing, because ideas can only be ideas if they are alive, communicated, in movement, and open to change through sharing and discussion. If stuff isn’t worth reading, let it lie dormant online rather than dead and fossilised in a drawer or on a hard-drive; it might be useful to someone else, for some other repurposing, one day. If stuff is worth reading, well and good: let it be read. I’m in the fortunate position where I can afford not to care (for the moment, touch wood) whether or not I publish anything. This is good, because it means that I can write if and when I think I have something to say, rather than because I have to “publish or perish.” I can care about the actual writing. I can shut up when I have nothing to say. I can, seriously, even if the present 1000 words of not actually saying anything might suggest otherwise… A job that permits me to not publish (or at least, not the kind of writing I’d published before, and in those kinds of venues) afford me the luxury of freedom of thought. I continue to read the usual Medieval/ist journals, the odd book, the odd odd book, TLS reviews, and so on. Some is well and good. Much is boring, badly-written, of little content or interest, on a tiny nitpicky item. Far too many articles I’ve read recently would make an outsider to the field–be that the man in the street or an academic from a different field–unsure whether this was a piece of parody or not, and how to tell the difference. It’s worse at conferences. Having had a neck injury and spent half the summer dealing with it made me very aware of my attention span when sitting down for hours on end is no longer possible, and when pain distracts. A talk has to be good to get through that. I’ve developed a deep love for round-tables, and my fondness for the Pseudo Society at Kalamazoo has turned to adulation. And a talk has got to be damn fine to be better than many a non-academic talk. Content, pace, delivery, beauty, use of every rhetorical tool in the box.

The issue is that too many academics have forgotten that what they are doing, in speaking and in writing, is talking to someone. Sorry: talking with someone. They need to have something to say, and a desire to say it, to share it with someone else. It could be of the form “here’s this really cool thing.” It could be “no-one reads this text and it’s amazing, please read it, here are some reasons why.” Or “everyone has misread this / got the wrong end of the stick: let me put you all right.” Or, heaven forfend, once in a very long while: “here’s a new idea. What do you think?”

That communication isn’t just to fill air-time, to tick a box on a bean-counter’s form that defends your existence by having given X talks at conferences and published Y papers. It’s communication. Explaining and informing. Sure, communication can be pretty too, and it wouldn’t hurt (and it wouldn’t hurt your audience) to be engaging too. Education and entertainment, sentence and solaas. Why not be persuasive, beautiful, elegant, attractive, and alluring if you can? Hell, be bewitching, merveillos. This is not art for art’s sake (with a guffaw to academics with creative envy); it’s only doing your duty to those precious thoughts you’re throwing out into the world to see what happens to them next. If what you had to say is any good, it’s disrespectful, rude, and wrong of you not to give your idea its freedom, and its best chance at survival away from you. Let it loose. Do the best you can by it, to send it out to a welcoming audience, and increase its possibilities of finding good homes and continuing its life away from you, out in the wild, changing and evolving, hooking up with other ideas, doing its own thing. It’s also a lot more fun to have fun with what you’re doing.

So I’ve been rather disgruntled with there being less and less of that sort of thing going on. To be fair, it might also be because I read a lot of speculative fiction and watch a lot of comedy, so the bar is set high.

If you need to remember that communication has a point; to reconnect with your inner geek and their happy love of knowledge; if you need to renew your sense of marvellousness: Josie Long, All of the Planet’s Wonders (BBC Radio 4, 2009).

See also:

  • Hugh Gusterson, “Want to change academic publishing? Just say no” (The Chronice of Higher Education, 2012-09-23)
  • Jennifer Ruth on the problem of adjunctification (Social Science Space, 2013-07-16): adding this as I’m not an adjunct, but many of the work-balance factors in a teaching-stream faculty job are shared by adjuncts and relevant to the topics of this present post; also, every opportunity should be taken to remind people about adjuncts and to express solidarity with them

There are two other reasons for my lack of publication, neither of which is going to change this year, and neither of which would change even if I were to change from a teaching track to what passes as a “research” track in the humanities.

The first is not fun but rather gloomy. Right now I don’t have the time or energy to deal with proper publication anyway. And I honestly don’t know if I can cope with the angst and anguish attached. There were a couple of crises last year, with weeping and swearing, at which times I concluded that I can’t handle the psychological stress which seems, for some weird reason, to be attached to academic publication. I loathe and despise the whole process.

Two. The way academic publishing works goes against its purported purpose and very essence. It does not disseminate ideas, let alone fast. Everything that I’ve written that’s been published has been read by exactly the same people to whom I’d talked about these ideas already. That’s not disseminating knowledge. Sure, it fixes an idea in space and time: but so does any sort of recording and sharing publicly. YouTube and the blogoverse are full and oveflowing with ideas. The internet Archive fixes them nicely in time for you, very useful in case what’s not a good idea now becomes a good one in ten years’ time; or if your good idea appeared in a place of limited access and readership and had a “meh”-ish sort of reception, but then hits a new audience differently. Medievalists and people in any other field that deals with historical matters see this all the time. We meet works that are hugely popular and influential, but unreadable, crap, and/or wrong (a fair square-mile-age of gung-ho epic and chivalric romance. And I have fond memories of teaching Rousseau’s Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloise. Hilarious.) Works that are unread, unpublished, self-published, not appreciated. Freakish, even. Mark Twain. If such patterns and problems of reception, transmission, and audience occurred in the past; what arrogance makes you think they’re not happening now too? and have already happened to everything you’ve already published?

I have serious qualms about whether or not academic publishing actually has a point. Or any role to play in 2014. If and when I do publish anything “properly,” earlier working versions will have been on here anyway as is usual in other academic fields: so as to insist on the distinction between “ideas that were worth expressing in writing that’s worth reading” and “publishing.” And it will be published as it should be, as should be the norm in this day and age: online, freely accessible, and in open venues that do not practise daylight robbery.

That’s all nice neat and tidy rationalising. The bottom line is that even thinking about academic publishing is bad for me. It makes me rage and rant and rave. Or quiver in a corner.

So, for the time being, **** “proper” publishing. Up to the industry to decide whether they’re going to adapt and evolve or die out. I’m not going to help support a terminal decline which is killing millions of trees in an age of global warming. That’s perverse. Condoning the world of Institute Benjamenta.

Focus on writing.

The good stuff.

And let’s put a pre-modern and post-modern squeeze on this antiquated post-medieval “publishing” relic. Tsk.

On which, my New Year’s resolution was to write and post less and to read more. Famous last words. The inspiration for that decision–not a light one, I disapprove of New Year’s resolutions–was this:

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