Why do academic blogging?

Roberta Magnani just raised the question of how people use academic blogs over on twitter, and I am mainly writing this because it’s not a 140-character answer, but also because it’s a question I’ve been asked fairly regularly, so it might be useful.

I started blogging in the dead time between submitting my PhD thesis, and getting to my viva. I knew I wanted to change direction in my research, and I knew I wanted my new research to fit together more naturally with all the feminist reading and writing I’d been doing more and more of in my day-to-day life. I already knew, at this point, that I write best when I’ve been talking to people (or, realistically, writing to people) and translating my thoughts out of academic prose (or what I thought was academic prose back then) and into something everyone can read and understand. I knew a couple of people who blogged – not academic bloggers, though – and I followed their tips to start with. Some worked, and some didn’t, but here’s what I learned along the way. All of my tips are specific to the the kind of academic blogger I am (a medievalist feminist), but you could adapt to other disciplines easily.

  1. Justify your time blogging. It has to be useful or its wasted time. So, the first pieces you write (and the pieces you write when you’re stuck) should be pieces of thinking you need to do for your other work. Maybe you need to read a particular text and you’ve been putting it off? Write a review. Maybe you need to figure out why you keep coming back to a certain passage? Do a close reading. I am still incorporating bits of early blogging into work I’m submitting to publishers, because it was useful.
  2. Get your voice out. Get on twitter, get onto facebook. On twitter, follow lots of interesting people. Talk to them (nicely). Share their interesting posts. Respond to them. Share your posts. I share 3-4 times a day for the first 24hrs after posting (when I can remember). Twitter will even tell you which tweets get the biggest response, so you can figure out what times work best. For me, it’s around 8am (morning commute) and 10pm (US readers/UK night owls). Getting lots of clicks is nice, of course, but the point is that you get responses. I never get a lot of replies to blog posts – I’ve had well over 100,000 views on the blog, and a tiny handful of that number reply – but far more people will comment on a FB link or reply or twitter, or even just email me.
  3. Make connections that work both ways. People will respond to you, so respond to them. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog which a professor I’d never met read. She asked me to work it up into a conference paper proposal (that was NCS 2016). I wrote a couple of blogs for her. One of my students saw one of these blogs, and asked me about writing an essay on the topic. I read that essay, and it helped me push my work-in-progress book in a new direction. And so it goes on. I know a big circle of academics because I blog and they blog. It’s a conversation.
  4. Write regularly. I know people write blogs they pick up and drop at a whim, but I don’t think it works very well. If you’re going to be busy, take a blog break and say so! But then, come back and say if you’ve finished for good. It looks more professional, but it also organises your mind so you don’t keep thinking guiltily ‘hmm, I used to write stuff here’. Set yourself a target (mine used to be once every two weeks and is now once a month). Achieve it. Which takes me to the next point:
  5. Use the blog to break writers’ block. It isn’t an academic paper. You can just witter. And if it’s bad, it doesn’t matter. Just do it, share it, and get some responses to cheer you up. When you’re in the depths of block-jail, even a couple of nice kind people sharing a post on twitter will make you feel less inert. If you get into this habit, it will become second-nature. Get used to blogging right now, not as something you put in the calendar to do tomorrow.
  6. Vary the types of post you do. Try a long-read style one, where you really pay attention to the way you write. Try a rant. Try playing with images or quotations. See what feels most natural and what you want to do more of. A mix of short and long pieces will get different readers interested, but it’ll also help you sort out your own academic style (mine has changed a lot since I started blogging, and I am now delighted to say that I was able to work a cunnilingus pun into an academic paper with nary a blush. It’s these things that truly move the scholarship forward, don’t you feel?).
  7. Match the blog with teaching and lecturing. Test out a new idea for a lecture on the blog. Write up that lecture that didn’t quite work as a blog post. Answer those questions that were fascinating but too big to answer in five minutes at the end. Ask other people what they do – you can do a lot of reflecting on pedagogy in a blog, but:
  8. Be kind and be professional. You cannot whinge about students on your blog. Or really anywhere else they might read it. It’s unprofessional and rude and unnecessary. And it makes you look like a really, really bad teacher. Instead:
  9. Use your blog to defend your students. Students get a lot of bad press. That doesn’t mean you have to be uncritical, but you can be dispassionate and considered about it. Use your blog to defend colleagues (especially ones you don’t know whom you’ve seen get an unjustified kicking). Use it to defend other writers outside academia. Even if those people never read what you write (they probably won’t), it’ll help you articulate to yourself where you stand. It will make you a more politicised teacher and writer.
  10. Change your mind in print. Blogging’s great for that. Get used to changing your mind, linking to the old piece where you said one thing, and tearing it down. Because it’s going to happen in other, more scholarly forms of print media, so it might as well happen here first.

I really value my blog. It provided me with the raw drafts of about 40-60 lectures I didn’t have time to write (thank god for using that dead time pre-viva!), and almost every chapter of my new book has ancestors in blog posts. Every conference paper I’ve given since submitting my PhD has had its origins on here. And yes, I put my blog on my academic CV, too.

Update:

Number 11 on the list is: know when to stop. If you can’t write a blog post in 20 minutes, 30 tops, stop. You might very well come back to it, especially if it’s a long read type of post, but don’t spend ages blogging. This is something I have got much, much better at – my early posts took hours – and I am still bad at it when I’m writing for someone else.

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Blood, Sweat and Tears: Medieval Literature, Cambridge, and Leonard Cohen

 

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London, British Library, Egerton MS 1821, ff. 1v-2r

I was thinking, this morning, how there is never enough time for some things. 82 years, for instance, feels like far too little time – even though I had been expecting to read that Leonard Cohen had died every time I saw his name in the depressing little facebook ‘sidebar of 2016 shitshows’ that has evolved over the course of this year.

The image above – the opening pages of a medieval prayerbook made in the fifteenth century – came up in my teaching today. We were reading Julian of Norwich and talking, amongst other things, about the grotesque, weirdly solid droplets of blood she visualises – like the scales of a fish – dropping down Christ’s face as he dies on the cross. Medieval literature is very keen on blood, sweat and tears, as the image demonstrates. They flow, drip, trickle, spurt, smear and gush from text to text and (revoltingly, but historically and scientifically verifiably) across the pages of stained, damp-puckered, grimy manuscripts that have plainly caught the worst of human effluvia over the centuries. Such tears can seem both overwhelming, and off-putting. Margery Kempe weeps so often and so loudly that (she proudly records) onlookers frequently presume her to be drunk in church. Piers Plowman‘s Will wails so prolifically that he exhausts himself into deep sleep. Chaucer’s Troilus experiences what should be temporary sexual frustration as a fully realised episode cardiac and sanguinary gushing.

But blood, sweat and tears are also, depressingly, part of the experience of studying medieval literature at university. Echoing both medieval imagery of tears and the medieval love of sensory contact with books with impressive authenticity, a student describes how

‘[Y]ou open the book you’ve probably borrowed from the library. You are hit by the smell of the tears of thousands of other[s] … who have had to endure the same pain.

This idea of being caught in a tradition of academic suffering is not unique to Cambridge. When I started my Masters at Oxford (which is, admittedly, not a million miles from Cambridge in ethos), I read a helpful guide to the process, written by an academic. It mentioned – with no apparent hint of irony or humour – that a likely consequence of nine months of intensive study of English Literature was (I kid you not) ‘the dark night of the soul’. Both pieces of writing reminded me of an article by Mary Carruthers, which begins with the bizarre religious writings of the medieval theologian Peter of Celle. Peter wrote a book called On Affliction and Reading, which sounds suitably negative. By ‘affliction,’ Carruthers explains, Peter means:

examination of conscience … oral confession, flooding tears, mortification, kneeling in continuous silence, psalmody, and lashing.

Peter goes on to describe what the ‘reading’ part of his topic requires: not only mind-numbing repetition, carried out in the lonely narrowness of the monastic cell, but also something akin to physical torture. It is reading that lacerates the flesh, strips skin and muscles from the underlying bone, and tears at the body until the blood flows. It is like being in:

a market, where the butcher sells small amounts of his flesh to to God, who comes as a customer. The more of his flesh he sells, the greater grows the sum of money he sets aside. Let them, therefore, increase their spiritual wealth and fill their purse by selling their own flesh and blood, for flesh and blood will not possess the kingdom of Christ. 

As Carruthers comments, what is even more distasteful is the rhetoric of commodification, for the process is a lucrative transaction with God. However – having established this unsettling tradition in medieval theology – she acknowledges that medieval writers seemed to believe it was, at least, a kind of suffering that was necessary to gain benefits. She concludes, ultimately, that Troilus’ incessant weeping in Chaucer’s poem – weeping that’s often seen as absurd, comic, or pain annoying – is actually part of this tradition:

in Troilus, as in a great deal of medieval art, there is a deep connection between the grief and the argument, indeed, in some way the grief sets the arguing in motion … in this psychology, arguing needs an emotion like grief in order to come fully into being, to be invented and fruitfully intended in the first place, or else it remains dry and without fruit. 

Plainly, Peter of Celle – and all the other medieval writers who seem to glory in the experience of thoroughly miserable, painful, and excessive reading – must have believed they actually did stand to gain something from the experience, whether we believe that gain was actual enlightenment or, more cynically, the status achieved through a virtuoso performance of suffering. But should reading hurt?

In my favourite of Leonard Cohen’s songs, he teaches his listener to:

… leave no word of discomfort
And leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like a rose on its ladder of thorns

I love this image of tears as a structure, a process that solidifies into a scaffolding that gives you the support to be silent. I love the epithets he uses to describe body and soul, including the gorgeous phrase ‘tangle of matter and ghost’: words that echo back to the King James Bible and to medieval English. And finally, I love the lines with which Cohen ends the song, with a litany of images of renunciation and farewell that end:

Bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh.

I have listened to these lines, and this song, a lot of times. I’ve puzzled over that image of the word ‘stuttering’ as it turns into flesh – which is an image I love, but also a profoundly weird image of creation, and an image of creation that is startlingly accepting of brokenness and what we might see as impairment. I’ve listened to it all so many times, while I was speed-reading a particularly boring, un-poetic translation of the Roman de la Rose, that the image of the rose on its ‘ladder of thorns’ has seeped, irrecoverably, into my mental map of that text. I’ve never actually looked up what the song means (or is ‘supposed’ to mean). I could have looked it up for this post – but I really didn’t, and don’t, want to. And I didn’t enjoy putting into words even the tiny little bit of a response that I’ve managed in this post. I can’t help seeing me writing (clumsily) about Leonard Cohen as something a bit like that process of tearing off one’s flesh strip by strip in order to make money: a transaction that’s excruciating and simultaneously extremely crass. I’d like to write really beautiful, crafted, self-effacing sentences that somehow let Cohen’s poetry speak for itself, unimpeded, while also saying something. I don’t have the time.

What I do have, is the mental equivalent of muscle memory. I had the experience of writing two essays a week, eight weeks a term, for three years. A lot of those essays were awful. Some of them never got handed in. Some of them weren’t complete. But they pushed me to write a lot of words, and to think about a lot of words. They pushed me to read a lot. So, I know that – if I want to, or if I ever need to – I can sit down and write 1200 words to compare the images of blood and tears, flesh torn and flesh stuttering into Resurrection, across texts written eight centuries apart. I can learn to understand those texts I love better – even if I never really think about them in an academic way – because there’s an ingrained habit of writing out, testing out, building up, new responses to every text I ‘have’ to read, however little time there might seem to be.

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RIP

The Window

Why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side
Lost in the rages of fragrance
Lost in the rags of remorse
Lost in the waves of a sickness
That loosens the high silver nerves
Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

And come forth from the cloud of unknowing
And kiss the cheek of the moon
The New Jerusalem glowing
Why tarry all night in the ruin
And leave no word of discomfort
And leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like a rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love…

Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendour
In the arms of the high holy one
For the holy one dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter’s death
Oh bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love…

Gentle this soul

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Horcrux Theory of Chaucerian Manuscript Transmission

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Adam Scriveyn

To those expecting that famous writers occupy their time with lofty, noble and improving thoughts, Chaucer’s shortest surviving poem must come as something of a disappointment. In fine British tradition, it’s a moan elevated to the level of an art form:

‘Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle,
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.’

The poem – Chaucer’s account of his working relationship with his scribe – strikes an authentic note of irritation I can relate to today, especially considering that the third line translates (approximately) as an imaginative wish for the scribe’s annoying hipster beard to be afflicted with chronic flaky dandruff.The gist of the message is that Adam, the scribe employed by Chaucer to copy out his genius literary output, is constantly introducing errors. Chaucer is forced to spend his time doing corrections which, clearly, he feels are beneath his dignity.

For us, readers accustomed to print culture and to digital culture, to copyright laws and to fairly frequent news stories of authors jealously guarding their work against the distortions of film adaptations, TV versions or, even, internet fanfic, this seems a natural attitude for an author to take. We may snigger at Philippa Gregory – who now ‘insists’ on a clause in her contract prohibiting film makers from changing what the novelist, well known for her flexible relationship with historical fact, calls ‘the history of the novels’. But we broadly understand what she means.The accumulated changes and variations of generations of scribes represent a progressive ‘corruption’ of the original text that wrongs the author. Editors of medieval texts, from Caxton to George Kane, represent themselves as diligent correctors, wading through the scribbled masses of badly-copied manuscripts to weed out scribal errors. And it’s easy to imagine that this process is a process of restoring the author’s reputation, repairing damage done to his work and his reputation. Scribes and authors are thus natural enemies: the former weakening and chipping away at the work of the latter.

But I wondered, did medieval authors really feel this protective desire to control their words? Despite his poem to his scribe, Chaucer often seems oddly keen to exploit the potential for scribes to come up with different, and variant, readings. I’ve argued before that his Legend of Good Women is a suspiciously error-prone text, almost begging for the inclusion of predictable scribal variations. I’ve shown how the name of one male protagonist – Theseus –  gives way immediately to the oddly similarly-named Tereus, at exactly the point in the text at which Chaucer begins to talk about the corrosive effects of words and the slippery significance of men’s names. It seems entirely in keeping with the antifeminist cynicism of the Legend to find that, elsewhere, one scribe misread the word ‘venym’ (venom, or poison) as ‘wenym’: women. Such changes seem less like misrepresentations of the original spirit of the text, and more like deputised workings from the same source that set up the potential for error in the first place.

Enter a theory from Ben Clarke, who makes analogy – persuasively – to popular culture. He argues that we might see the inevitable splitting of the work of medieval authors such as Chaucer into multiple, different versions as akin to that great invention of J. K. Rowling, the Horcrux.

Horcruxes, as you will recall, are the splinters of the soul into separate parts, which increase the power of the individual by allowing him to send his soul out into the world, diversely embodied. Each Horcrux, or soul-fragment (or manuscript) acts both subordinately to the guiding soul, and with physical autonomy. The image is one of schism and splitting of soul (authority, self) that is not merely destructive, but paradoxically powerful – and it is powerful because it accepts this inevitable pluralising of the self and this process of reduplication. With this analogy in mind, perhaps we can stop thinking of the variant manuscripts of a text such as Chaucer’s Troilus or his Legend of Good Women as a series of erratic scribal corrosions of Chaucerian authority.

Each new manuscript isn’t so much a fragmentation that disempowers the author, as a Horcrux, a split fragment of his soul that goes out into the world to carry on his authoritative work in (or on) a multitude of new bodies.

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This is not a Horcrux – though it is a split manuscript body – but rather, how I picture Dumbledore’s face, when Rowling outed him.