Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reflections on "E-Medieval"

Last week, I noted the release of the most recent issue of Literature Compass, which is a collection of articles around the special theme "E-Medieval: Teaching, Research and the Net." Since last week, I've been reading through the issue and thoroughly enjoying the essays included. In my previous post, I also said that I would post again after I had read the issue, with some thoughts and a sort of review. Although all of these articles have much to offer, and allow for exploring various ways of approaching digital humanities, I will focus my responses on only a few of the essays. I should mention at the start that the following reflections represent the meanderings of my mind: I wrote these thoughts sort of like a journal of reader responses while I read and thought about the essays, both individually and collectively.

In the first essay--a type of introduction to the themes running through the issue--Larry Swain raises a host of questions about the directions in which digital humanities have moved scholarship, and where academia could move next. Above all, this critique is meant to spur scholars toward new modes of working--not only new tools, but also new questions, new methods, and new products of academia. His suggestions in the last part of the essay are compelling, especially those revolving around using digital tools for collaborative work. To the online academic venues that he singles out as particularly pursuing new avenues (e.g. The Heroic Age and Digital Medievalist), I would add a journal with which I have been involved, Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies--which has offered a nice collaborative work-flow process for the reading and reviewing in which I have taken part. I would also add the growing collaborative capabilities for manuscript work (e.g. transcription, paleography, editing, notes, collation, etc.) at T-Pen.

One aspect of digital scholarship that Larry does not discuss is blogging. Here I find the most connection (for myself) with his suggestions about collaborative scholarship. Blogging is, of course, prominent in this issue, and I found that my own thoughts resonated most with this aspect of the essays. In my experience, blogging has been one of the most direct ways in which the digital and my scholarship have intersected. The footnotes to my scholarship show other ways in which my work meets the digital, but blogging is surely the most public and most evident way of seeing the intersections. My blogging experience has also proven to be one of the most collaborative aspects of my academic life. For a moment, please permit me a digression from discussing the Literature Compass essays.

Once upon a time, I had my own blog that has since gone the way of deleted internet-stuff. About a year after I closed the old blog, I began thinking about blogging again and was kindly invited to join Modern Medieval. Yet even beyond Modern Medieval, my sense of an online academic community extends further back in time and further across the internet. I attribute much of this connection to when I first started reading In the Middle (ITM), which I think was the first blog by medievalists that I encountered. In turn, the folks of ITM, as well as others like Matt Gabriel, Larry Swain, and Jonathan Jarrett (by happy coincidence, several of the very people who have contributed to the Literature Compass special issue), interacted with me through my old blog, and continue to do so through Modern Medieval. This interaction has, in the past few years, also expanded to Twitter, where I continue to have frequent conversations with many of the same people whom I first encountered through blogging. I have, then, become part of a large network of collaborative conversations that certainly affect my work.

Stephanie Trigg addresses blogging specifically in the second article of the Literature Compass special issue. She relates blogging to the behavioral concept of a "displacement activity," to reflect on blogging as an aside to formal, academic writing. Implicitly, this essay does well to challenge assumptions about the role of blogging for academics. I would push this further, to question if blogging might not (perhaps already has?) become another element in the peer-review realm of academia: an outlet that grows and survives through interaction and validation from others. While not producing scholarship along the traditional lines of a rigid peer review process (a la journals), the community of blogging medievalists with which I have interacted--and, I would argue, collaborated--has helped (at least helped me) to foster a special kind of peer review through the many interactions. Thus, my work benefits from the comments, linking, response posts, and Twitter conversations, to name only a few of the ways my peers respond.

Of course, all of this has to do with my identity, as Heide Estes indicates in her contribution to the special issue. I portray different aspects of my identity while blogging, writing formal scholarship, tweeting, and so on. Estes puts it well when she claims the suggests the concept of "a self with a multiplicity of facets, a self that can be expressed in different ways on different days" (980)--to which I would add different media, different spaces, different communities. She also comments (echoing others) that "one of the advantages of blogging, particularly over more typical academic writing with its lengthy time frame to publication and its heavily mediated boundaries, is the possibility of discussion and feedback from readers, at earlier stages in the development of an idea that is customary in academic contexts" (980). In other words, blogging allows for (though it may not always result in!) unfolding collaboration.

Jonathan Jarrett's contribution speaks to yet another aspect of my thinking, namely, the idea that blogging may be a new medium for collaboration is predicated upon audience engagement. Therein lie some of my anxieties. Jonathan does not express his essay precisely in terms of anxiety, but he does point out the tensions of writing a blog, gathering data about readers, and what it says about a potentially "silent audience." This finds an interesting connection with Heide Estes's observation that she rarely receives comments, but her readership is in the hundreds. For my ideas about collaboration--and the possibility that blogging communities could lead to a type of peer review--to work, as Jonathan observes, "the readers that one wants are those who comment, engage, affirm or critique" (994). His positive spin, about assuming readers' interest in the subject, and potential relevance, is compelling. So also are his hopes, expressed in the final lines, that point to the same thing that I hope: that "the academic blog may yet become a tool of affirmation for the Academy" (994).

Many of these themes appear in the final contribution, the four-part essay by ITM bloggers Karl Steel, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Mary Kate Hurley, and Eileen A. Joy. Between the four authors, they end up expressing many of the same ideas I have been reflecting upon as I read the previous contributions. Reading their essay, I even wondered if it all nullified my own thoughts, but I continued anyway--and I am still posting my own reflections as parallel and echoic. Thus, agreeing with Karl, I am glad to have put myself openly and publicly on the internet by blogging; with Jeffrey, I wonder about the negatives of blogging, but ultimately set them aside for the benefits; with Mary Kate, I ponder the process of thinking, blogging, and developing my scholarship; and, with Eileen, I revel in working in community. All of these reflections are worth reading, and the collective essay offers a useful closing to the Literature Compass special issue.


theswain said...

Thanks for the comments on the issue. I am humbled and pleased to have been a part of it. In my defense, if such is needed, I didn't address blogging in my essay because a) I had a really tight word limit and b) it was being covered by other contributors. But the chief reason I didn't even mention it is that blogging is a hard thing to get a grasp on: some blogs are closed to only a few readers, others wide open, some allow comments, some not. Some talk about scholarly things, some personal, some the fusion of the two. In fact, not only does the experience, even in terms of collaboration, change from blog to blog and reading community to reading community, but even blog post to blog post! So I steered away from such a large topic because it would be hard to really describe: as soon as a declarative statement is made, 6 counter examples come to mind.

But I agree, blogging is a great way to collaborate and I've learned a great deal through comments and discussions and blogs interacting with one another.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for the kind words, Brandon. I was quite unsure about whether my piece really said very much (especially in five pages) so it's nice to see someone drawing worth from it. I'm looking forward to finding time to reading the rest; the paywall has so far stopped me doing so on impulse...

Jonathan Jarrett