6/20/2013

Blogging Then and Now

t-shirt for sale at Target in 2006, from my flickr

When I was hired to my current job, two full professors in my department asked to meet with me on a summer afternoon to discuss expectations I would face in pursuit of tenure. My new senior colleagues encouraged me to publish my research in well-regarded peer-reviewed journals, and discouraged me from writing a blog. I don't know if they knew about my blogs (I doubt they did then); this was probably standard advice for junior faculty in 2007. If I were them, I probably would have said the same to a new hire. I remember thinking but not saying: of course I will blog, this won't stop me. But I will also do everything else I would need to do to succeed in this job.

Now I have tenure (official word came last week from the Chancellor), and here is this blog, infrequently updated and somewhat neglected. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, I've been practicing slow blogging. A sabbatical is coming in Fall 2013 and occasionally I wonder if this will be a time to get back into regular--maybe even daily--blogging. But that's pretty unlikely. I'm writing a book about video games in the 70s and early 80s and I'd rather do that than blog frequently. I know some people can mix blogging into a regular routine of other kinds of writing, but I'm not that kind of writer. If I choose to blog (as I am doing today), I am postponing something else. Once in awhile I like to write for the blog, but I like other kinds of writing more.

Another reason why I don't see myself blogging regularly during my sabbatical is that blogging ain't what it used to be. One thing people might have found unfamiliar if not offputting about blogging in the middle of the aughts when I was newly hired was that blogs were boundary-crossing in both form and content. People mixed personal and professional. They'd get first-persony and confessional even in efforts at engaging with intellectual concerns. They'd make the blog as much about process as product. No one was editing or reviewing your blog, so it had a raw immediacy missing from more formal writing. Now among media scholars, there isn't much of this kind of thing going on. Facebook and Twitter offer me more community and less permanence and official presence. A frequently updated personal blog on varied topics mixing personal and professional interests under my real name might seem weird today, and I don't know how comfortable I'd be writing this way.

***

I began this blog around the same time as I was hired as an assistant professor, at the end of 2006. But I had been blogging regulalry already; In 2006 I was not just starting a blog, but turning over a new leaf. Zigzigger was an effort to make a professional identity online apart from my earlier contributions to the blogosphere. At my earlier blog I went by MZN, which isn't exactly a pseudonym. But a web search for my name doesn't produce that old blog in the results and I still think of it as semi-secret, though lots of people know about it. Zigzigger was among other things an effort at SEO.

The impetus to begin that blog was to share experiences of cooking things I was excited about at a time when I was getting into food and its preparation. But I imagined that the blog would not focus on one topic only, so the name I gave it really on a whim was Haverchuk, after a character on a TV show. (Misspelled.)  I would never have linked Haverchuk to my full name, because then my scholarly identity and my identity who writes about cooking on the internet would become confused. My graduate school advisor might read about these personal experiences, which I didn't want to happen.

The pseudonymity and anonymity of many scholars' blogs in the mid-aughts is evidence that my way of thinking was quite common among grad students and faculty. We had something to lose in blogging this way. The blog was not official scholarly publishing, and didn't count for anything official (you wouldn't put a blog on your CV). As with social networking sites, a discourse of legitimacy surrounded blogging: spending time that was way less legitimate than spending time at work. It might actually be worse than wasting time if you were doing this while being paid to do your work. Then it would be stealing time, and your writing would make you a kind of web outlaw. At any rate your public performance of time spent blogging was potentially rebellious and exciting, but also could attract unwanted negative attention. And the content of many academic blogs in the mid-aughts could be the kind of things you'd avoid saying in public under your own name. People were fired back then for things they wrote online -- dooced. A high-profile blogger was denied tenure. Academics blogged about their teachers and students and colleagues. One popular blog of the time was called Waiter Rant, in which an NYC restaurant server dished on his customers. Dozens of academic blogs were basically Grad Student or Adjunct or Prof (most likely Assistant Prof) Rant. Bloggers confessed their insecurities and grudges. The tone was confiding and revealing.

Pseudonymity was only part of the warrant for writing this way. It also helped that your blog was not supposed to count, that it was shoptalk and scuttlebut rather than official work. If it was supposed to count, you would use your blog to publish first drafts of scholarly writing, reports from conferences, volleys in academic debates, updates on your accomplishments, etc. Your blog wasn't your personal brand or your home page or your "web presence." If it was the product of wasted or stolen time, or just your personal time, a blog had a different kind of value and function.

As for me, while I might blog about the academic life, in 2005 I didn't have that in mind very much even though I admired the pseudonymous academic blogs. I had just finished my PhD but was underemployed as a trailing spouse and uncertain about job prospects. We had a one year-old son, who I looked after half of the working week. The rest of the time he was in day care and I taught one or two classes and worked on research and writing. I had gotten into cooking partly as an escape from academic work, when I was avoiding my dissertation and feeling like I might not even finish the degree. Rather than force myself to write a few hundred words in which I wasn't sure what I wanted to say, I would bake bread from my own repellent sourdough starter. I'd experiment with Pad Thai techniques (what kind of tamarind product? what technique for cooking the noodles? ketchup, really?). I wasn't about to blog about an academic identity crisis, but I was eager to share adventures in trying new ingredients and dishes, and to have an outlet for another kind of writing. If I cooked something that excited me I wanted to show it to others. I blogged about trips to the farmer's market, and experiments making ice cream with cardamom or rice or green chiles, often while Leo napped. Eventually things started to work out in my work life and my cooking became less of an avoidance ritual and more a routine of feeding the family. I was offered a tenure-track job, got a book contract, published some essays, taught my classes, worked toward tenure, etc. I continued to cook pretty much every day, but I stopped buying new ingredients at Asian groceries just to figure them out, and I lost interest in the Food Network (which was less and less cooking-focused anyway). I also stopped blogging about food.

I also mostly gave up reading food blogs, which had given me some sense of community. I got to know some interesting people through Haverchuk, including a handful I have met IRL and who continue to be friends online. They're also academics, some of whom engage with food as a topic of study, and others like me who maintain multiple interests. I haven't made friends like these simply through Zigzigger, though I suppose there are people who have become friends who have gotten to know me partly through the blog and partly through other encounters.

I never had a pseudonymous blog about academic life and issues related to teaching and research and the academy, but I read many of them, such as Bitch PhD (gone, it seems) and Dr. Crazy. They were inspiring and influential, and their authors were like celebrities. It seemed like you could say whatever you want and people would pay attention to you at the moment you said it.

***

Nothing stays the same for very long on the internet. Blogging changed for many reasons, for better and for worse. This isn't meant to be a naive lamentation that the good old days are gone and forgotten, never to return. But here are some changes I don't feel entirely positive about.

1. Academic blogs, particularly in film & TV & media studies, became established as important, official ways of circulating ideas. While avoiding sounding too academic (the original guidlines for writing for Antenna, for instance, specified this avoidance), they're still writing in a way that obviously cares about being taken seriously and seeming legitimate so that they can count. Some of the influential senior scholars in the field took to blogging, and rarely used the format for the kinds of first-person, confessional writing that was part of the mid-aughts blog style. I'm thinking for instance of Jenkins and Bordwell & Thompson, but there are many others. As blogs become more legitimate and serve these more official functions, they seem less appropriate for the more casual, sloppy, first-drafty ponderings that made the format seem vital in the first place. I do value the blog as a way of circulating ideas quickly to a potentially broad audience and without the filter of peer review. I like the community that scholarly blogs offer us. But let's recognize what kind of writing this is and is not, what is gained and lost with the legitimacy of academic blogging.

2. Personal blogs by academics are more rare than before. The outlets for this kind of online writing are now much more often Facebook and Twitter. In these places, writing can seem more private (Facebook) and less thought through and developed (Twitter). We think of Twitter as particularly brief and fragmentary, but Facebook statuses are  quick and dirty too (sometimes when I have to click to continue reading a FB status I think, really?). Both sites are less about writing than blogs typically are. They are more like conversation, and the discourse is very oral-culture, and leans heavily on links, photos, and videos. These are all great things, but again, they're taking the place of blogs and replacing one kind of discourse with various others.

3. Pseudonymous blogging has withered as real offline identities become more of a norm and as society becomes more accustomed to oversharing, both of which serve the commercial ambitions of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. If I were a graduate student now I probably wouldn't care as much about my advisor reading my cooking blog posts, because everyone shares their shit these days. Definitely more than they did in 2005. The anonymous, pseudonymous, open-secret pseudonymous, pseudo-pseudonymous authorship of blogs permitted a voice of confessional intimacy that I just don't see that much of any more. Consider vaguebooking, the custom on Facebook of making oblique references to emotional ups and downs, and of life events of some consequence being kept under wraps. If we weren't writing under our full, real-world names on Facebook, for an audience of high school friends, distant relatives, parents and children, students and teachers, work friends and friends of friends, would people be doing so much vaguebooking?

When I started this more scholarly and official blog, I was reacting against what I perceived to be threats to my scholarly identity that would come from the type of mid-aughts blogging that I now miss. But I was also thinking positively in terms of how I could share writing related to my research and teaching interests. What didn't seem feasible at the time, as a beginning assistant professor, was to combine these modes of writing in one place. It still doesn't seem very feasible, even as I have earned tenure and no longer worry so much about other people's judgement. I would not have considered turning Haverchuk into a mixture of food writing and film and TV studies writing. From my present vantage, I see this blog as a product of my 2006-7 self. This has been an assistant professor, tenure-track blog. If I had been 7 years along my career trajectory in 2007 who knows what I might have done in the way of a blog.

***

When skeptics and naysayers want to trivialize the way people share their experiences of everyday life online, a favorite example involves eating. "I don't need to know what you had for lunch." Well, I am often happy to know, especially if you made it yourself or ate it someplace cool. And I have long considered this kind of common-sense TMI reaction to carry a strong dose of gendered distinction between what matters and what is deemed to be beneath the speaker. Food and its preparation, particularly in the more ordinary day-by-day experiences of eating, is trivial because it's associated with women and domestic labor. Many things that matter less than eating (after all, you need to eat and probably take pleasure from it regularly) are given greater cultural legitimacy if they are the interests of straight adult males, e.g., sports. Which isn't to knock sports - I like sports too, as both a participant and spectator. But let's recognize the patriarchal privilege that makes sports talk seem legitimate and food talk -- "what you had for lunch" talk -- not merely uninteresting but the epitome of uninterestingness.

There's a big exception here, which is that the masculinized upscale culture of restaurant chefs and "gourmet" home cooks is ok. Men and women experience food cultures differently. For women cooking can be a creative and professional pursuit, but it's always also tied to their gender role as nurturer and caretaker in the home. For men cooking is often seen more as a hobby or special interest, is more often professionalized (even men who don't work for a living in a kitchen might be called chef when cooking at home), and is tied more to masculinized notions of virtuosity and accomplishment. Men want praise for their cooking, and in many families their presence in the kitchen is a special occasion. I have experienced so many times the affirmations men get for domestic work that is merely expected of women.

Because my identity was only three initials on my old blog, it wasn't obvious to many of my readers who I was. I often wrote not only about grocery shopping and cooking but also mentioned looking after a young child. Some people assumed I was a woman or weren't sure of my gender. It wasn't exactly "on the internet no one knows you're a dog," but the pseudonymity allowed for a more fluid presentation of identity than we get on Facebook. Maybe if I had been writing about mainly dudely food topics like grilling or molecular gastronomy I would have come across more dudely. While some of my posts were about unglamorous dishes like tuna casserole, fried rice, and turkey pot pie, I also dabbled in kitchen experiments with things like aspic and organ meats and unusual ice cream ingredients. Some of this might have had a male kitchen-workshop flavor, but on the whole the food blog world is quite strongly gendered feminine, and most of the people I got to know there were women. What I was doing wasn't too different from what they were doing.

There's a similar distinction we can make between more feminized personal blogs (and tweets, status updates, etc.) and more masculinized professional ones, the ones in which daily life and its feminized concens (dressing, eating, care of self and others) is minimized and official discourse about stuff that counts is made central. The shift away from personal academic blogs toward more parascholarly writing was a boon for scholarly discourse, and I don't think anyone, even those who looked on skeptically in the mid-aughts, would deny that now. But it came at the expense of another kind of writing, which is often devalued because it is personal.

My old blog and this one reflect this development. The mid-aughts blog, often personal (though rarely very intimate or confessional) and centered around food, was not concerned at all with my scholarly identity or with participating in the kind of discourse that might ever count, though I did often talk about TV and media. This kind of blog, on the other hand, participates in a development in the neoliberal academy in which we are all concerned with the establishment and maintenance of an entreprenurial personal brand. Even if people don't take blogs posts as seriously as journal articles and books (a debatable point - people assign blog posts in class and cite them in scholarly work, and many people want them to count), these web self-publishing exercises are serving our professional goals by fashioning and building reputations and networks. We might need to do that in our present environment, but the personal, intimate, confessional, and yes feminized discourse of many mid-aughts blogs was also serving people's needs. It would be nice to be able to meet those too in longer or more open or less ephemeral forms of writing than Facebook statuses and tweets. It would be nice if some of the blurred-boundaries, not-counting qualities of the mid-aughts blogs were more available to us in today's and tomorrow's academic blogs.

***

This post was inspired in part by reading another reflection on scholarly blogging in the aughts at Slaves of Academe, one of my favorites from several years back. It was a pleasure to see a new Slaves post appear in my RSS Reader.

Haverchuk was active from July 2005 to March 2007. Revisiting some of my writing from that time gives me the urge to take the blog offline. But some of the posts make me feel other things, related to what my life and the world were like then. I also used the blog as an impetus to learn about photography so that my food shots didn't look horrible, and some of these posts have (if I do say so) interesting photos by a novice with a point-and-shoot camera we bought to take pictures of our baby. So here are a few of my entries that I can imagine you reading without feeling totally embarrassed.

What's Haverhuck

Old Food 

Cornbread turkey pot pie 

Eggs in aspic 

Office doors

Fun with schmaltz 

Tripe

Egg ice cream

And some YouTube videos of July, 2006, when YouTube itself was just so incredible. Lots of links to videos no longer there :(

2 comments:

judgmentalobserver.com said...

Really interesting post, MZN! I came to blogging late than you did, in 2009, when I began it was for many of the reasons you list. I wanted a space to do the kind of writing that academia didn't "count" as writing. Most of my posts mixed the personal with the professional, often linking how I felt about a TV finale to how much my infant son had kept me awake that week. And, as you note, I now feel less comfortable with that form of blogging (and my blog has also seen some neglect), partially due to the fact that having a blog has become more of a professional identity and less of a space to play around with partially formed ideas. The good news is: I did list my blog in my tenure portfolio. The bad news is: I blog less now than I did before.

I've also been experimenting with other forms of online writing: a friend of mine (an MFA who is a HS teacher) and I have started a collective blog for true stories. I suppose, in a way, this is my attempt to recapture the excitement of my early blogging days. Creative non-fiction is certainly not something that will get me a promotion/raise because it has nothing to do with my professional profile. And that is kind of exciting.

MZN said...

Thanks so much! I also put my blog on my CV submitted with the tenure file (as well as posts at Antenna, etc.), but don't blog so much any more.