Five Years in the Blog January 1, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Ether Wave Propaganda opened for business on New Year’s Day 2008, which makes it five years old today. At that time, it was one of a handful of blogs on the history of science. As the links on the right show, that number has increased markedly. Given the limitations in format and turnaround time in humanities publication, this always seemed like a promising format for scholarly communication, and I’m pleased to see that others have picked up on this point.
Still, I think there remains a lot of untapped potential in the format. For one thing, I think many more scholars need to take it up, if only to keep others apprised of what they’re up to: what talks they give, what publications are in process, what archives are being visited. At present, vague faculty web pages (with, horror, incomplete publication lists) and rumor and hearsay seem to be the most prevalent means of keeping up-to-date in our profession.
Secondly, historians continue to use blogs mainly as a soapbox from which we can dictate little parables to whomever might wander by, essentially like miniature articles. I believe historians continue to nurture a fear of the unrefined. We are extraordinarily reticent to show ourselves in a state of uncertainty, investigation, and, above all, internal disagreement. Harry Collins once called scientific knowledge akin to ships in bottles, and the sociology of scientific knowledge an investigation into how scientists got those ships in there. By that token, it is strange that historians still seem to prefer to present the world with their own ships in bottles, much more so than scientists themselves.
To me (as regular readers will know), this propensity is indicative of a deeper aspect of scholarly culture, which chooses topics, methods, and modes of presentation in such a way that minimizes the need for intensive collaboration and criticism. Blogs—we can rename them if we think we need a more dignified term—could yet be a wonderful tool for scholarly exchanges of information, for dialogue while our work remains in an unrefined state. But that, I think, would depend on a change in the way we see and challenge ourselves. In the meantime, I do hope EWP at least sends a signal to other scattered souls who hope for a more collaborative and critical scholarly culture that we’re neither imagining our discontents, nor pathologically pugnacious.
For reciprocating the sentiment on his blog, and blessing it with the adjective “candour”, I give great thanks to Michael Bycroft. (That the last word of my recent “Strategies of Detection” article is “candidly” stems directly from his blog.) Thanks also to Betty Smocovitis for her recent encouraging description of EWP as a “service to the community”. When you stick your critical neck out, that sort of thing means a lot.
Even if we don’t use blogs to communicate with each other, most historians who do use the format seem to agree that it helps them think and write. This has certainly been the case for me. As I just noted a month ago, blog posts that I wrote in the summer of 2009 ended up informing an article published in late 2012. I have another article that I am revising, which encapsulates some of the main historiographical points developed here. Chris Donohue and I are working on a chapter for an edited volume, which engages with a lot of what he’s written here. (As always, great thanks to Chris for joining me here.)
This process of blog posts turning into peer-reviewed articles, of course, augments rather than replaces usual modes of research and writing. My rate of posting has declined in recent years to accommodate other pursuits, professional and personal. But I will continue to post as often as I can as long as it seems beneficial and convenient to me.
Finally, a few stats: EWP has been visited over 175,000 times since moving to wordpress.com in the middle of 2008 (and didn’t have much of a readership before that). The most popular post continues to be Thony Christie’s pre-Renaissance Mathematicus guest post on Newton’s prism experiments (7,597 views); while Chris Donohue’s post on environmental determinism continues to close in (6,845 views). Those years-old posts were also the most popular in the past year. By the way, my most popular post—my primer on Adolphe Quetelet—isn’t even close to those perennial juggernauts (1,359 views). The most popular new post this past year is my list of agricultural colleges in Britain, from March, which has 689 views. A lot of people searched for specific colleges, many of which have been closed down, which I gather comes from alumni and former staff, and people interested in local history.
All told, not bad for a defiantly esoteric blog!