Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Blogging, Twitter, and New Paradigms: Thoughts from Kalamazoo

My thoughts here are kind-of half-baked, springing from some conversations with very intelligent people at the infamous Kalamazoo. 2 panels in particular. Please bear with me.

The first, the panel I was on was, in truth, rather sparsely attended but still generated some interesting discussion around the topic of the "medieval," especially I think because we had the benefit of a specialist on East Asia and another on South Asia (but even these both fraught terms, of course). In the end, I was left wondering whether "medieval" -- or, more generally, any rather arbitrarily-decided result of periodization -- can ever tell us anything about the period itself. Does "medieval" in the end primarily useful as a way to get at a culture's/ society's myths of nation/ identity/ modernity? And relatedly, I'm increasingly shocked by how captive to late 19th- and early 20th-century scholarship we (as scholars) all seem to be. They have/ still do define the frames by which we look at the past and constrain the very questions we think to ask of our sources. The great Chris Wickham (and you have to put magnus next to his name) seemed to touch on this recently. But I'm left thinking that, pace Tony Grafton, we need someone to destroy our intellectual "coherence." Someone needs to grab hold of our most basic premises -- what we think we really know about the European Middle Ages -- and shake them to the core. Maybe this'll happen through New Media, online sources that can be manipulated in ways previously unthought of, or the prospect of the type of collaboration that only New Media can bring. I dunno. It does, however, seem like it's time to be daring.

This brings me to my second point, inspired by another panel, conveniently having taken place just after mine. 'Twas on blogging and the academy. The papers, let me say, were all excellent -- well thought-out and well-presented. But a question posed at the end by Manan Ahmed, in conjunction with an announcement made at the beginning of the panel that this would be the last year they would organize a session on blogging, in conjunction with the very sane observation made by one of the presenters that, well, things had changed in academic blogging over the past few years, got me thinking. Is blogging worth it? To paraphrase Dr. Ahmed, the revolution will now be covered in 140 characters. Yes, it will be tweeted.

And I think that's largely true. To a degree, we in academe are in the position we lamented of our parents -- a day late and a dollar short, still using the VCR. High School/ College students know and use email, perhaps they even blog themselves. But they don't use email in the ubiquitous way we do. They communicate in different ways, via txt, IM, tweet, or status update. This, of course, has long-term implications because these are the technologies that they'll bring with them to our courses and then outside of college. These new technologies are the ones that will govern our ability to communicate with them because it's how they communicate with one another. I wonder if blogging just isn't one of those technologies. Are we now just talking to ourselves?

I don't have a Facebook account (despite increasing pressure) but I do tweet, and am growing increasingly fond of doing so. The opportunities to communicate quickly and directly with people are huge, even if there remains the looming challenge of cutting through the inevitable "white noise" of so many short posts, so many followers. For example, see what happened when Oprah joined Twitter (also, check out the reporter's name).

And yet, and yet, and yet. Twitter is only good for 140 characters. (Eileen Joy would never survive, although she's gamely making a go of it on Twitter...) You just can't do the sort of long-ish, really good stuff that you can do in a blog post. So I think, in the end, I slightly disagree with Dr. Ahmed's point. The revolution will be tweeted but it'll be blogged too. You need both, a synthesis of "old" and new. The new paradigm shouldn't totally supplant the old but perhaps ought respect its contributions and then go back, take a different route, and build alongside it. It is, indeed, time for something bold.

UPDATE (5/15): See this interesting and related post by Jon Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. I'll post somet thoughts there as well.

UPDATE II (5/18): The NY Times now has an article about the mammoth growth in social network sites (not surprising) but also how time spent on those sites positively dwarfs time spent with email. See above for my thoughts on that.

16 comments:

dgm said...

some time ago, the world changed. What we call the web 2.0 technologies achieved critical mass, so now we have lectures as podcasts and streaming media, research diaries as blogs etc etc.
And because the world changed this is a reality with which we have to live, the kids expect it, and increasingly colleagues do it as a means of comunication, which is why we now have to provide campus blog servers, collaboration servers and the like and look weak if we do not ...

Jonathan Jarrett said...

This is not a VCR question. The DVD or whatever does the same job as the VCR, better and lighter. Twitter does a different job to blogging, as you say. But the medium is the message! I'm not sure, however, that that means we have to join it, or even attract them from it. We're academics! We stock knowledge. Our task is firstly to make that knowledge accessible--and when web 2.0 people want to know something, they Google it, and we're ready for that one. Then it's to increase the wish of people to seek knowledge. So if we're using Twitter at all for academic purposes, it should be to encourage people to ask questions we can then answer in other ways.

More interestingly to me, because more obscure, what would you like to destroy about our current medieval history? What do you think ought to be shaken down? Why won't this structure do, with a few changes as we learn nore? I don't seek to defend it, particularly, but I'd like to see what you're shooting at...

Another Damned Medievalist said...

It was really interesting seeing just how bound we all were to European paradigms. Not necessarily a bad thing considering we do European history. But still, it did show us that we are not so much thinking outside the box ...

Matthew Gabriele said...

Jon, I do think it's kind of a VCR question. A VCR did different things than a DVD player does -- it records and plays back. Similarly, blogging creates community among different people than, say, Facebook or Twitter. That's not to say that Twitter/ Facebook people are "more important" or any such thing, simply that we need to recognize that emerging technologies present problems and opportunities and that we can't continue down a road still thinking that we're reaching people that we're really not anymore.

As for the things I'd like to "blow up," well that's a longer conversation. Perhaps I'll both blog and tweet about it... :-)

theswain said...

Hi Matt,

I think I'm with Jonathan on this one, overall. And in my experience *so far* the blog/facebook/twitter people are largely the same. Those I follow on Twitter also blog and I read those and often write books/articles and participate in the same email lists. This may not be true for my current students, but it is true for even my youngest colleagues (though not my oldest!). So even though it is a different kind of communication and does and seeks different ends, it is often the same people.

Academia at any level is ill-suited to youth period, exacerbated now by the short/quick nature of our media. Part of our job is to take the 18 year old student and teach said student how to think deeper and longer while not losing the "quickness" (used here in both the original sense and the more modern) and spontaneity of a tweet, IM, text message....etc. It is that multivalent, polysemous ability that marks the best academic and the best students.

Janice said...

I'm still attempting to unravel the entire paradigm of what goes where between blog, FB, twitter and more -- until I figure that out for myself, I can't contribute much useful to the discussion.

As for the paradigm/periodization issue, I'm thinking that we have to acknowledge that the "catch all" nature of medieval helps us to reach out to other scholars and seek comparisons to other histories. When I teach the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, for instance, I'm bound to a much tighter sense of appropriate subjects than when I teach our medieval European survey. After all, anything that happened in Europe from about 300-1450 or so is fair game, no? But that's a two-edged sword as we've now got a term that can literally be all things to all people. *sigh*

Matthew Gabriele said...

Larry, but because you're following the same people on Twitter/ Facebook as on blogs, isn't the other side of the coin that you're not touching a whole swath of people? To a degree, both networks are self-selecting, so you pick who you follow and, coming from the blogosphere, you look for familiar people. Perhaps I'm suggesting that there are many who we don't know about but can by more fully engaging with this other form of new media.

Janice, I agree that medieval is a blessing and a curse. My great fear is that, as you imply, since "everyone knows what it means" we don't interrogate it. If we did, we're likely to find out that we may know what it means to us but that that definition likely makes no sense to anyone else...

Jonathan Jarrett said...

Medieval as a term only makes any sense when set up against some other period. There has to be a middle age to be in and that means other periods at its edges. This, I think, encourages teleology but at least discourages isolation. We're as inclined to look for passages out as to set up walls. All the same, if we were all US archaeologists we might find `early historic' a much more useful term, at least `early European historic'.

Matt, I agree that there must be people on these networks we don't usually reach, but I still think they have to be drawn onto our networks to learn anything useful. If you can genuinely knock down our picture of the Middle Ages in bursts of 140 characters, you may prove me wrong :-)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Jon, one of the interesting things about our panel was that we all had a 'd'oh' moment (I think) where it became clear that we could almost as easily apply Peggy Brown's approach to 'medieval', because our understandings were so wide-ranging. Like 'feudalism', it works in very specific cases, but the minute you take it to the broader context, and especially when we assume that it's applicable to other cultures, what 'medieval' is, becomes very fuzzy. We pretty much ended up at the end trying to deal with whether it was a temporal thing, or whether there were particular things (like a horse-reliant warrior nobility) that indicated a society's Middle Ages. What I thought would be a merely interesting comparative panel ended up being a panel that raised some very difficult questions.

manan said...

At least from the non-West perspective, Medieval is a strictly imposed category with a ton of historical baggage. I would like to interrogate it, please. Maybe not waterboard it. But some sleep deprivation?

Matthew Gabriele said...

stress positions too, Manan?

Jonathan Jarrett said...

ADM, and also Manan, indeed, this is one of the (few) good things I shall be able to say about Kathleen Davis's Periodization and Sovereignty when I finally review it; she would say that pretty much all uses of `medieval' and `feudal' (especially the latter) are more or less consciously political. She makes good use of the non-Western perspective to back this argument, too. So if you need something to chew on with these ideas in there's now that. But I hope you like your arguments flabby and indigestible if so.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Look forward to your review, Jon. Where will it be?

I didn't read all of Davis' book but I actually liked the parts I did. I thought her final section on secularization was provocative and certainly has made me approach the historiography in a different way.

manan Ahmed said...

Hmm. I haven't looked at Davis. Will do so. Are you folks hip to the Textures of Time jive? A problematic text, but one which deals provocatively w/ issues of labeling.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Manan, haven't heard of that work. Is it this one? Sounds really interesting though. Will have to take a look...

Jonathan Jarrett said...

The review will be in EME.