Weblogs and the Academy: Professional and Community Outreach through Internet Presence

I’ve decided to live-blog a blogging session at the 2008 Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. I’m not a transcriber, so I’m not in any way doing the presenters the kind of justice their thoughtful papers deserve.

The session was organized by Elisabeth Carnell, Western Michigan Univ., and Shana Worthen, University of Arkansas–Little Rock, with Elizabeth Carnell presiding.

These are the papers that are being presented:

“Do I Know You in Real Life? Building Scholarly Communities and Professional
Networks through Anonymous Weblogs”  Julie A. Hofmann, Shenandoah University

“Text in Motion: Navel-Gazing as Pedagogical Strategy”  MacAllister Stone, Independent Scholar

“Unlocking Wordhoards: Popular Medievalist Communities”   Richard Scott Nokes, Troy University

Julie Hoffman maintains Carnivalesque, and is a pseudonomyous blogger. She came to Web blogs via the now defunct Invisible Adjunct blog, and the blog of Cranky Professor, and a number of other blogs, none of them medieval. When Julie Hoffmann began commenting on these blogs, it became clear that they were colleagues, anonymous or not. Most of the anonymous bloggers were women, and junior faculty, like her.

The act of blogging under a pseudonym served to create a collegial environment, that crossed the conventional lines of academic rant. She mentioned the real-world phenomena of people at conferences who look at name tag to check an institutional affiliation. Online it doesn’t matter; the public place of the Internet creates an intimacy that creates a way to see past the c. v. and into the scholarly process. People connect not only on the scholarly level, but on a more personal level. Blogging provides an immediate way to pass the collegiality test.

Blogging under a pseudonym seems to add another set of measurements to be used by our peers. She has had real-life opportunities from blogging, from people who had never met her in real life but did know her blog.

Julie Hoffmann spoke a little about the differences between men and women blogging; men are more likely to use their real name. She notes that women who blog tend to write more about their academic lives and their teaching. Men seem to blog more about their scholarly interests and reach out to their students, but that there are sex-linked differences. These gender differences don’t seem to matter in terms of networking. She spoke about the rarity of medievalists on many campuses and the consequent isolation. She spoke about creating a protected writing group for medieval scholars on LiveJournal.

MacAllister Stone opened with a quote from John Gower, and the nature of text, digital and otherwise. She talked about the nature of fluid, deletable text, and a professor who wondered where the words went when he deleted them, and referred to a story by Stephen King in which the writer’s word processor was somehow tied to reality; deleting a name, deleted a person.

MacAllister Stone also spoke about the fluid nature of text, and the potential for outreach that medievalist have, and the support for community building. You can read her paper here.

Scott Nokes spoke about popular Medievalism, and communities built around them. He spoke about the distinction between subject and object, or perhaps in terms of Weblogs, academics/medievalists, and those outside the profession. Medievalism doesn’t have to be historically accurate, and is often mythic. Since it isn’t historical, Medievalism can’t be anachronistic. He spoke about mythic transference, with a nod at Northrup Frye. He spoke about transference from the present into the past (Twain’s Connecticut Yankee) or from the past into the present (Don Quixote).

Scott Nokes discussed the subject/object role (defined in terms of grammar as a metaphor) and supplied examples from the SCA. A movie goer watching a film about Robin Hood, and is expected to some extent, to identify with the characters—but is not supposed to believe that she is that hero.

In terms of online communities, and popular medievalist communities is the present, and not the past. He used the example of the Disney film Prince Caspian, as inculcating a popular interest in allegory in the context of the film, for however brief a period. He discussed the differences between a scholarly online community and, for instance, a community built around a medieval-inspired community, and the ways in which a scholarly community, where the community is built around the model of expert to the group, shut down conversation for the non-medievalist. In a popular medieval community, the scholar has a privileged position, but not one that allows the shutting down of the community. Scholars in the online community need to attract those popular medieval community members and encourage them to participate rather than to observe in silence; they have been given a voice and we need to listen to it. You can see some of his outreach efforts here, at MediEvolution.

Weblog Roundtable at Kalamazoo 2006

Shana Worthen did an excellent job of moderating the roundtable discussion, with fellow bloggers Elisabeth Carnell, Michael Drout, Richard Nokes, Michael Tinkler, Alison Tara Walker, (the moderator of the Medieval Studies Community), and me, as participants in a discussion that ranged over why we started blogging, why we blog now, what blogging offers that other forms of online interaction don’t, why we think blogging is important to medievalists, the value of anonymous blogging, and the uses of blogging in terms of scholarship and pedagogy.

The observations made included the following, in no particular order, and without attribution:

  • We all appear to find value in the existence of, and contributions, of, anonymous bloggers.
  • Several panelists suggested that often the anonymous bloggers were able to say things that they would say if they felt they could, but that for professional or personal reasons they could not.
  • All of the panelists spoke about the community aspects of blogging. The Medieval Studies Community is a conscious effort to create a community of medievalists to share information, ranging from calls for papers, to questions from students contemplating a medieval studies program or graduate school, to requests for resource suggestions or research help.
  • Several panelists mentioned advantages of a Web log over other digital forms of communication, like email, listserves or static Web pages.
    • Entries are published and archived and may be read when the user finds it convenient.
    • The use of categories or tags to describe individual posts in the archives makes it easy to search for a particular post, or all posts on a specific topic.
    • At least one panelist mentioned using a Web log as a way to store and annotate links, making it easy to share them and use them from any computer.
  • Several participants spoke about using Web logs as teaching tools.
    • The use of Comments on Posts/Entries allows students to communicate with each other, as well as with the instructor (the resulting conversation is often easier to follow than it would be on a discussion board, says this poster).
    • When it’s possible to make the Web log (or Wiki) public, students become engaged with their writing and take it more seriously than they might if it were merely written to satisfy a requirement.
    • Several people spoke about the value of Web logs in making scholarly contacts, sometimes leading to collaboration or, quite frequently, resource sharing.
    • The use of blogging systems (Blogger, MovableType, TypePad, Live Journal or any number of others) makes it easy to mix text and images on a page, an excellent way to teach art history or other image-reach subjects.

One of the things I found most interesting about the roundtable was that, although I had linked to, and read, and sometimes even commented on, the blogs of all the participants, I’d never actually met most of them before Kalamazoo. Meeting people I read with my coffee every day was one of the highlights of the conference, even though I missed Really Good Coffee.

I’m still very very tired, so I’m hoping that others will comment to fill in the enormous gaps I’ve left in my much truncated summary. And I’ll likely be adding links later.

Update:You can read Michael Drout on the roundtable here. Shana Worthen posted here, Cranky Professor here, and Richard Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard here. Another Damned Medievalist also comments on the panel.

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