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The Radical Goes To A Genteel Academic Conference (Disguised As A Blogger Meetup)

October 5, 2008, 7:14 pm

I just got back from the Little Berks, which is a weekend conference composed of the group of people who organize the Big Berks every three years. One of the things we do in the meeting immediately following the conference is elect the new President. I am happy to say that the results of the election can now be revealed: the new President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians is Kathleen Brown, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She replaces Ruth Mazo Karras, Professor of History from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Ruth has done a great job, and Kathy will too.

There were many highlights of the weekend, but Yours Truly had the pleasure of being on a history blogging panel with Clio Bluestocking and Knitting Clio. It was a real pleasure to meet both of them, and Knitting Clio really does knit. She was working on what looked like a baby blanket while she was there, and braved a cold to participate. About Clio Bluestocking I cannot write, as she is pseudonymous, but suffice to say it is always a special pleasure to find out who someone “really is.” Heather, at least, I had googled some months back. Both women have a dry sense of humor, and the panel was a great success.

(By the way, one of the big topics after the panel, when we were all sprawled on queen-sized hotel beds waiting for the new Tina Fey sketch on SNL was: who is Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III? You may be gone, but you are not forgotten, old man. I was grilled as to whether I had ideas as to who he might be: I do, indeed, have ideas — good ones, I think — but explained that it is not only against the Blogger Ethic to divulge names, but that it is equally wrong to provide clews in the form of speculation as well.

My contribution was entitled Tenured Radical Speaks; or, What the Historian Learned When She Went to the Blogosphere, and it should be thought of as both an early blogiversary post, and a big, thankful shout out to all the real and virtual friends who have encouraged me along the way. I reprint excerpts below:

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 and 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 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 Library, is currently working with her staff 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 they would not otherwise be told….

….Not inconsequentially, my persona as the Tenured Radical (who also calls herself TR) was launched during a period in my life that I would characterize as a moment of 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.

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 was 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 Lamott’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 diff
iculties 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!); 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 (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) in a funny, and not a tragic, way. 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 everyday.

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 Zenith, 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.

What blogging allowed me to do primarily, however, was to 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. Most important, 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 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 dicey 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 whom 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 at 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.

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