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Blog Notes February 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

First off, sorry for no posting the last couple of weeks.  Travel and work-related things have kept me well occupied.  New posts are in the works.

Second, for those who follow this blog’s occasional posts on the chymistry historiography, have a look at The Economist’s write-up of Lawrence Principe’s presentation at the AAAS meeting.  Also, a cbsnews.com Tech Talk post about the Economist write-up links to EWP for more information on current professional thought on the issue.  The spotlight, it blinds me!  (I got 60-70 hits off of it, which for EWP constitutes a flood.)

On this note, I’ve started to worry a little bit about the fact that there are certain topics where you can just put up a reasonably well-informed post about something, and suddenly you become an authority.  This issue comes up with my old Schaffer Oeuvre series — which may one day return — wherein by virtue of simply talking about his work at all, people know me as the guy whose comments pop up when you search for information about his writings.  I’ve received enough nice comments from people about that series that I guess I’ve gotten things right enough that I’m not too worried about it, but I do wish people who are actually well-versed in 18th and 19th-century studies would displace by some means my hobby-like interest in the subject.

Finally, speaking of nice things being said, we had Paul Lucier in to speak with us a couple of days ago.  I don’t receive a lot of feedback on how this blog is actually read and talked about, and by whom, so it was gratifying to hear from him that my post on his terrific Isis article on men of science vs. professionals in 19th-century America succeeded in generating some extra interest in that work.

My concern is that there are people out there not speaking up who have good ideas about deleterious side-effects to blogging activity.  Long story short, I think it’s time the profession as a whole started thinking quite seriously about how blogs ought to be used to talk about scholarship in a serious, responsible, and public, but short-form way.



1. Gustav - March 1, 2011

Here’s a comment.

2. Will Thomas - March 2, 2011

Gustav, I’m just starting in on Science for Welfare and Warfare: Technology and State Initiative in Cold War Sweden, as I’ve signed up to do a review of it. So you and your colleagues in Sweden are very much on my mind. Thanks for the comment!

It might be helpful to do a little futurology with respect to blogs and scholarship. Right now we have a situation where blogging is a rare activity. Since discussion in the standard literature seems to be very slow and restrained, we live in a state where scholars are mainly spared (except perhaps in the peer review process) from having to elaborate upon, or defend their ideas at length.

This situation is bad insofar as it makes scholarship less social and more boring, and being able to wait out criticisms might erode quality. However, it does free scholars up to concentrate on doing more original work.

Then, if you have only a few people blogging, you can keep it at the margins of scholarship. Let’s say you’re a scholar without a huge search-engine presence (Schaffer is a bit too big for a lone scholar to cause a serious Google problem), suddenly a little bit of commentary on you becomes your internet reputation. If this commentary is kind of crazy, this could be a bit embarrassing, but since the internet exists at the professional margins, it doesn’t impact you, and whoever is saying crazy things will probably be flushed out of the job market (if junior), or simply shrugged off (if senior, though only a couple of senior people are blogging right now).

Also, though, if we do view our task as something for a broader public, having isolated internet commentary on you could make it so that little bit of commentary becomes the reputation you have to the very public you wish to reach, which could be a real problem if the person who comments on you happens to be crazy. (I think this already happens from time to time in amazon.com reviews.)

What happens, then, when everyone starts blogging? Will it cease to be a scholarly marginal forum? Does the wisdom of the scholarly crowds start to pick out and discuss the best ideas (blog utopia)? Will scholars be sucked into having to constantly defend their ideas against misrepresentation by the less conscientious bloggers (blog distopia)?

As someone who (obviously) supports blogging, I tend to think these ideas can work themselves out, and blogs — by being a forum for frequent discussion of older topics — can become one arm of a larger effort to consolidate and keep track of historiographical gains. But that may just be wishful thinking! I always like to keep an eye on the risks as well.

3. Hank - March 11, 2011

Hey Will: Any interest in an HOS Blogging roundtable at HSS in the Fall? Could be a productive opportunity to talk out some of these issues…

4. Will Thomas - March 14, 2011

I think so. I didn’t go last year, and I have some fellowship money for conference travel, so since I don’t think I’m submitting anything for this year, that would be a good excuse to go.

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