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Blogging as Scholarship October 24, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

Ben Cohen of the University of Virginia and The World’s Fair blog writes a little bit about his experiences blogging in the latest newsletter from the History of Science Society.  Ben’s perspective is largely that of blog-as-outreach, part of a larger dispersed effort to connect the world of science with the rest of the world.  In this vein, he discusses the relationship between blog-as-pedagogy versus blog-as-hobby and warns against the illusion that one is reaching a large audience simply because one, in principle, has access to a large audience.  From this perspective, the history of science blog is another species of the general science blog.  (Which, by the way, is why it’s not on the blogroll—its focus on science studies issues is peripheral.)

There are alternatives.  As Ben writes, “There are history of science blogs beyond the small corner of the scienceblogs collective, some of which are very well done, more direct in their discussions of the history of science, and good examples of creative engagement with the material and import of the work HSS members do.  Some are insider blogs, looking mainly to give more space to conversations otherwise left at the seminar door rather than to spread the word to others.”  And that would be us here at Ether Wave Propaganda: nobody revels in their own wonkery as tirelessly and as shamelessly as we do!

We see ourselves as a laboratory of scholarship, an experiment to create a sustainable alternative scholarly culture to the one with which we are familiar.  As an alternative, it coexists with the mainstream culture, but it also boasts its own traditions from which others may draw.  I thought it might be useful just to spell a few things out about what blogs can do that the usual seminar/colloquium/conference/journal axis can do less well.

1) Articulation.  The “axis” identified above tends to allow for fairly one-off affairs, which means it’s harder to develop ideas and it’s easier to ignore them.  I believe that to fully articulate ideas about the past, about how writing style conveys arguments and information, and about how arguments are structured, it is important to have sustained and relatively continual conversations.  One thing I’ve been noticing about the Isis Focus sections and edited volumes is that the ideas never seem to be thought through to their consequences.  The continual emphasis on being exploratory or suggestive, and the lack of emphasis on developing ideas or resolving tensions is, I think, injurious.  That said….

2) Speculation.  A blog is just the place where ideas can be tossed off in a visible but low-risk environment (again, the “laboratory of scholarship”).  Far better to be suggestive in an online environment than in an environment where any response can only be private (by email or in seminar) or massively delayed (waiting for the next time three years off when the journals bring up the issue again).  Here we can do things like worry about whether or not a “fluid taxonomy of 20th century sciences” is a possible or desirable project, revise the idea a few weeks later, and start seeing more solid results within a year.

3) Recovery.  Journals and edited volumes seldom present an environment where past scholarship can be revisited and re-analyzed purely for its own sake.  Footnotes are an opportunistic endeavor.  We use them to marshal past scholarship to our own ends (as Christopher has previously observed).  In so doing, there exists the stark possibility of losing the argumentative richness that exists in the past historiography, or rolling it up into a “naive perspective” to boost the apparent importance of our own work.  Sometimes we avoid very old scholarship because of its methodological deficiencies, even though it contains useful research.  Sometimes we just don’t have room in original work to discuss and preserve what has already been accomplished.  The online environment seems like a good place to keep a running commentary.  The Schaffer series has probably been my personal favorite thing that I’ve done here so far.  I really didn’t expect the methodological and historiographical richness to be found in his research on natural philosophy, but am glad I made the effort to see what he had to say between the lines.

4) Criticism.  We have to be careful, because it’s easy to rant on blogs.  But counterculture is not culture, and, as I mentioned, we seek to push forward in the creation of an alternative culture; therefore, I try not to descend into merely being a sulking critic.  Nevertheless, new ideas do often initially define themselves in contrast to some existing way of doing business.  Punk was a do-it-yourself response to the excesses of arena rock, and it only began to develop on top of its own model after a few years.  Therefore, we don’t shy away from criticism.  But we don’t do so just for the sake of it.  As David Edgerton likes to remind, it’s not only allowed but incumbent upon us to level deep criticisms against things that we like in order to understand how we want to build on it.

Thus blogging, for me, is not a means of communicating scholarship to a wider audience, or of extending the habits of existing scholarship into new domains.  It is certainly not a “diary”.  It is an opportunity to bring in traditions from outside scholarship to see what can be done.  As evidenced by my punk remark, I often pattern scholarship on the conversations that have existed in popular culture.  The A. V. Club is my favorite site for commentary in that field.  Its writers—Nathan Rabin, Noel Murray, Tasha Robinson, Keith Phipps, and others—continually reconsider the canon of pop culture, offer primers for those not in the know, and review new work.  If 20-year-old guitarists can thrive in this kind of critical atmosphere, surely we can.

I also take a lot of points from New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman’s blog, where he essentially meshes analysis of political rhetoric with his work as an economist, and comes up with his own articulations for non-economist audiences about the differences between what is being said and his evolving understanding of what is happening.

Strange as it may seem, I honestly get far more out of the style of their work than I do out of any science studies theory.


1. A Blog of One’s Own « Time to Eat the Dogs - October 28, 2008

[…] Blogging as Scholarship Thomas uses Cohen’s piece as the starting point to further examine “the insider […]

2. Will Thomas - October 28, 2008

An excellent piece by fellow traveler Michael Robinson. Cross-dressing Bolshevik, indeed. Check it out. (Thanks WordPress link-detecting auto-comment function!)

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[…] a sustainable alternative scholarly culture to the one with which we are familiar.” Blogs, Thomas argued, can co-exist with mainstream culture while remaining faithful to their academic roots, providing […]

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