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Blogging and Honesty

May 30, 2009

A ramble rather than a rant.

How do you put your blog posts together? Photo after erix!

There’s been a spate of ‘Why Blog?’ posts in the Biblioblogosphere. They happen every so often amongst bloggers. Sometimes they’re insightful and sometimes they’re navel gazing. Thankfully the discussion leans towards the former here. Charles Ellwood Jones has put up a round up of posts at the Ancient World Bloggers Group.

The entries that particularly caught my eye were on honesty in blogging. Jim West kicked that strand off, you should read the whole thing, but key pararaphs are:

In sum, do we refrain from blogging what we really think about this or that or the other because we are unsure of ourselves, or because we are fearful of the reaction or- and worst of all- because we are afraid we might not be called to serve at Harvard or Yale if someone there reads what we cheekily say?
. . .
I find myself, at the end of the day, constantly amazed at the unwillingness of some to be themselves. I take this as nothing but hypocrisy. Hide yourself, don’t say what you think, play the hypocrite, and someone may hire you or publish you. As though being hired or published were more important than honesty. Which I suppose, for some, they are.

Roland Boer is in agreement. There were a couple of other responses. Mark Goodacre commented on the split between his blogs into broadly professional and personal, because some one might want to read the one and not the other. In a different direction Missives from Marx argues that in some cases anonymity is necessary for honesty. I think that MM makes a mistake. Missives from Marx is not an anonymous blog. It’s a pseudomymous blog and there’s the constant possibility that someone will connect the pseudonym to the person. To be honest you may struggle to find people openly blogging “Yes! I am a hypocrite, AND PROUD OF IT!”

I could join in. As well as recently disagreeing with some big names in Ancient History, a scholarly society set up a page of their website specifically to allow a Professor respond to me. Alas for my ego they’ve removed that page, so clearly I’m not as important as I’d like to think. I think that would be a mistake to say that makes me honest. It’s honest if you do that kind of thing after careful thought, but what I do is often closer to a case of academic Tourette’s syndrome.

Like the people Jim West complains about, I omit things. If you want an examples things I’ve not blogged then you should look in my drafts folder. Last night I found a long, long post on postmodernism in the Humanities. It’s badly in need of a re-write because it was clearly written late at night. I think it needs to be sharpened and more names added with specific examples of bad scholarship. It’s not fun, especially the last part where you may end up talking about a very nice person who doesn’t understand that linear has a specific meaning in maths and it’s not a synonym for ‘bad’. It’s also not going to appear here. What will happen is – when I have time – I’ll write it up as a proper paper and submit it to a journal. The reason is I want it to appear where it will sit on a shelf, rather than being dismissed as a blog post. Because that’s on the ‘to-do’ list, even though it’s years down the line, it’s not something I’m likely to blog about in the near future. It’s entirely feasible that I’ll blog positively about the good work they do without mentioning where I think they’re utterly mistaken on a different topic. I think that willingness to show one side of what I think and not another would be dishonesty in Jim West’s eyes.*

Another example of selection is in the reviews I do. They tend to be positive. That’s not a reflection of what I read. I’ve read some pretty dreadful stuff recently. Writing about that gets me down, and if you’re going to do it fairly it’s a lot of work. Frankly if I am going to go to any effort I’d rather spend it on something that’s worth talking about. Some current ‘theory’ papers are simply so awful they’re not worth the effort of saying so. There’s no point in saying that though, because these papers aren’t about advancing knowledge. They’re about establishing social bonds. It’s the academic equivalent of baboons grooming each other. Indeed, pointing out specific examples is like shrieking from the next tree, and that’s not a game I’m interested in playing. It only serves to reinforce the importance of social bonds.

Students are also largely not going to appear here. They may do generically, but problems which refer to specific students don’t, even in a munged form. I’ll talk about the a problem with friends and colleagues, but not here. The reason is that if a student has an issue then it’s confidential – even if the student’s problem is that he’s a brain-dead moron who thinks reading weeks are for holidays in Spain and can’t be bothered to turn up to some seminars because the tutor “is a woman”. Anonymising that kind of thing is hard to do, because everyone in his class will be painfully aware that he was the one who came back from reading week with sunburn. I could leave it a few years, but that won’t work because the ‘turning up to a lecture with a suntan’ gaffe is one that happens most years. The latest fool will assume I’m talking about them instead.

Obviously, I’m using the word ‘fool’ in a positive and supportive way there.

The same goes for internal meetings. I’ve been on the School Committee of one department and the Management Committee of another. I don’t always agree with the decisions they make, because I’m human. In fact it would be bizarre if the entire department was run for the benefit of one grad student. That means there’s no sense in making those disagreements public and reheating them here. You can’t run a department against a background of public grousing.

There’s also plenty of personal stuff which won’t appear here. You don’t need to know about the problems of looking after elderly grandparents and I’d find writing about it in any detail would be tedious. Ok, you might not, but I’m the one doing the writing so I’ll write about what I like. Ultimately that’s the bottom line for nearly all bloggers. If they’re not interested in writing about something they won’t, or at least they shouldn’t. With all these career and personal decisions is there room for honesty?

I think in the earlier days of blogging it was easier to pretend that the offline world was somehow different to the online world. This may have encouraged ranting by some people. The aftermath of Ivan Tribble’s column on hiring procedure should have punctured that illusion. Still, that doesn’t stop a blog from being a social space, just different to being down the pub. I think you can behave differently in different places with necessarily being dishonest. I was going to say that the online and offline parts of me are at least consistent. That’s true as far as online me isn’t going to say “Phenomenology of Landscape” is a good book and then offline me slag it off for the bad photography in it. Yet there are differences.

My opinions change in reaction to what other people say and on further thought. One example is that in the past few years I’ve moved from thinking that memes might be useful to thinking that they’re probably not. That opinion might change again as I like the work of Boyd and Richerson, but I’m not convinced they need memes. Certainly if they do show memes to be useful, they’ll be memes a long way from the Dawkins model. Yet in the past I’ve been positive about memes, especially Cullen’s Cultural Virus model. In this later post I’ve clearly a more negative view. I could delete or edit the posts to match my current opinion, but that eventually gets unmanageable. It makes people look odd in the comments as well. If post-dated editing isn’t going to happen then imagine everything you’ve said following you round, including the more stupid things and the posts where you forgot to add a ‘not’ in a critical place. That’s a blog.

I think the best I can offer is that the post is consistent with my opinions at the time when I click the ‘publish’ button. I think that’s the best you can hope for from any blogger. I don’t need to know the author’s personal life. If you knew me you’d probably be happy to skip my personal life too. I think I give away enough of me in rambling posts like this one. However, if you’re serious about an academic career blogging opinions which you disagree with is not a long term option. Your readers and commenters will get to know you and how you think. They’ll spot when you’re faking it – unless the people reading your blog are a bunch of thickos. If that’s the case then I’ve no advice, because I’ve never blogged where that’s happened.

At least it would be if I were in his eyes and I doubt I am. There are A-list bloggers, B-list bloggers and so on down to the Z-list. I see myself more as an Ψ-list blogger, towards the tail end of a more obscure alphabet.
  1. missivesfrommarx permalink
    May 30, 2009 5:26 pm

    You’re right about the pseudonymous vs. anonymous thing. I’ll be more precise about that from now on!

    So, I’m curious, what’s with the stuff about “postmodernism”? Yes, there are bad “postmodernists,” but does that mean you reject “postmodernism” tout court?

    • May 30, 2009 8:56 pm

      I think a lot of people don’t think about the difference between pseudonymous and anonymous until they accidentally give too much away and realise post A can be linked back to post B and so on… I certainly didn’t think about it for a long while, but that might be because I deliberately chose not to take a pseudonym.

      As for postmodernism, I simply found a 3200 word essay sat in the drafts folder that I don’t remember writing. From context I get the feeling I wrote it after another conference where Kuhnian paradigm shifts were invoked, along with Newtonian mechanics being ‘linear’. One of the notable features that Newtonian mechanics has is that it’s non-linear hence chaos and so on. I think it would be better if it focussed on superficial interdisciplinarity as a whole. Postmodernists don’t have a monopoly on that, but there were a spate of things I attended in 2006 (I think) where Kuhn, relativism and incommensurability was used to justify some real rubbish. It’s more a curiosity than a serious concern for me now. At the moment I’ve far too many other papers I’d prefer to write.

      For example, if I do write about problems in interdisciplinarity then I’d far rather write a constructive case for post-positivist approaches. If the papers that annoyed me really are as awful as I think, then any half-competent alternative approach would cause them to be forgotten as irrelevant. Extra effort debunking them would simply be unnecessary.

      The baboon comments are about people jumping on bandwagons in general than postmodernists specifically. ‘Agency’ is my current bugbear. I know it can have a useful meaning. It can provide a framework to say some really interesting things, which is why it attracts people. However, if an author doesn’t say what meaning of agency they’re using, then it’s usually a synonym for ‘soul’ or ‘thing’. Agency in those cases is a gloss for an absence of thought. If they’re not thinking about the content it’s reasonable to ask: what they are producing these papers for? The answer, I think, is social bonding between individuals.

      Social bonding is going to happen in any field, because you’ll tend to attend the same conferences or publish in the same journals as other people with similar interests. However publishing poor buzzword scholarship specifically to place yourself in a social network doesn’t interest me. What I’ve come to realise is that drawing attention to work like that is a form of reward. I could write about something meaningful instead.

      In both of the above cases that means my blogging will be presenting a more positive view of ancient history and archaeology papers than I have offline. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. A side-effect is that these days I’m more likely to throw away bad papers than persevere with them. It’s fortunate that there really isn’t a shortage of publications in history and archaeology that is worth reading.

      • missivesfrommarx permalink
        May 30, 2009 10:10 pm

        I know what you mean about people writing essays that are little more than a series of buzz words. I hate those too.

        However, on the other hand, I’ve learned a hell of a lot from philosophers like Derrida, who is generally considered “postmodern,” so I’m sensitive to absolute denunciations—but that doesn’t sound like what you’re doing.

        In my opinion, the best of the stuff that’s labeled “postmodern” is really just a new combination of nominalism, anti-essentialism, and theories of power—all of which are enlightenment or modern ideas …

        Post-positivism? I think I might know what you mean by that, but I’m not sure (I think that’s another of those terms that people use differently). Can you say a word or two about how you’re using it?

        On agency: I get frustrated about that term sometimes. What I think is weird is people who charge “determinists” with not allowing for agency in their theories. To me, their criticism seems to assume that if determinist theories are persuasive then people won’t be able to be “agents” in the sense of challenging the status quo, which is an absurd idea.

        By the way, there’s nothing of substance in this reply that deserves a response—I’m just rambling here!

  2. June 1, 2009 7:13 pm

    Some of those approaches like nominalism are medieval…

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