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Five Years in the Blog January 1, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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!

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Comments»

1. Michael D. Hattem - January 2, 2013

I agree with your overall characterization of historians’ reticence toward blogging as a platform for the process of scholarship. I am a contributor to a group blog by early Americanist graduate students and junior faculty–The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History–that I think you will find attempts to engage our fellow historians in exactly the kind of debates you describe as lacking in the academic blogosphere.

2. Thony Christie - January 2, 2013

Congratulations on completing the half decade Will. Without your example, support and encouragement I would never have started The Renaissance Mathematicus so you partially spawned at least one other history of science blog.

3. Charles Day - January 2, 2013

Happy birthday, EWP!

Because blog posts tend to be shorter and more accessible than scholarly articles, EWP and its ilk are making the history of science more accessible and available to the laity, which includes me.

By the way, your list of History of Sci-Tech Blogs is missing Patrick McCray’s new blog, Leaping Robot http://www.patrickmccray.com/blog/

4. Alex Wellerstein - January 2, 2013

Hi Will, and Happy Bloggoversary! (My, but that’s an ugly neologism.)

I was asked to give a talk about blogging at the last HSS, which I did, and I tried to couch a lot of it in terms not only of “I didn’t invent this” (I felt like somewhat of an ass giving such a talk, having blogged for no more than a year at that point), but also in terms of convincing a skeptical, scholarly audience that this was 1. worthwhile and 2. important.

Much of what I said is similar to what you’ve said: it’s an ideal medium for thinking-in-public, and we shouldn’t be so afraid to think-in-public anyway. (Any job that prohibits you from thinking in public, within reason, is a job you don’t want. So bravely says the guy who has another year and a half left on his postdoc.) The blogging practice should augment, rather than detract from, traditional scholarly work (I gave as examples all of the blog posts of mine that were really just spin-offs of other scholarly work I had to do anyway — book reviews, article reviews, going to talks, my own articles — and increased the readership of said other scholarly products probably a hundredfold if not more). And for me, at least, the practice of writing, in public, on at least a weekly basis has improved me as a writer. For my blog, anyway, the few hours I put in per week in writing up posts pays off extremely well in terms of exposure, professional opportunities, and improvements to my own thinking and expression. At least, it seems to do a lot better in those respects than any academic production I’ve done does, though I don’t discount the importance of those for “anchoring” what I do (I couldn’t do what I do without also having those as a driving force and an underlying context).

We obviously have different approaches to our subject matter. I wonder which of our approaches is more professionally risky? Mine is much less inclined to engage with scholarly work and much more “popular” — and uses quite a lot of attempts at humor. Yours is more focused on scholarship and ideas, but you also do a lot more direct criticism of other scholars, something I generally avoid both for personal and professional reasons. I suppose only time will tell!

Good luck and congrats!
Alex

5. Will Thomas - January 2, 2013

Thanks all for well-wishes and comments.

Michael: I wasn’t aware of The Junto. Thanks for pointing it out to me—I will definitely be following along. I haven’t read through all the posts yet, but on first glance it reminds me of U. S. Intellectual History (which both your blog and mine links to), which is also a good example of a blog that is critical, is not afraid to air preliminary ideas, and often has pretty intricate debates in the comments.

Charles: I usually wait for a blog to accumulate several posts before it goes on the list; duly, I forgot to add Patrick’s blog now that he’s rolling pretty good. Oversight corrected! Extending history of science knowledge to broader and non-professional niche audiences has, I think, been a huge success of the blogging venture. I view Alex W. as essentially the model for this, though, one should add, Restricted Data is also remarkable for proposing novel historical problems, both of detail and interpretation.

Blogging is also a great way to include people who are pros in all but name only like Thony, whom I was very glad to meet in person for the first time a couple of months ago. I mentioned my agricultural colleges post above, and another example of this sort of thing is getting us in contact with Carrie de Silva of Harper Adams College, who did an even more thorough job. To generalize the point, blogs can create spaces where people with very specialist interests can collaborate on localized problems in ways that more-or-less demolish the professional/lay historian divide.

Alex: I don’t think anyone can claim to be a blogging authority, and you’ve certainly demonstrated as well as anyone I know a grasp of the principles of what can be accomplished. So, I, for one, am interested in what you have to say, regardless of how long you’ve been at it.

I also don’t view your approach as professionally risky, since I think appeal to broad audiences and general good-naturedness are very prevalent virtues in our profession. Additionally, your work gets at the details of nuclear history in such a way that I don’t think anyone could say your work lacks scholarly integrity. Personally, I admire your work for how detail-oriented it is.

I try to be fair-minded and respectful in my own approach, and our profession ostensibly prizes scholarly engagement. Still, one gets the sense “in the air” that criticizing people in public, even in a scholarly-type way, is not the done thing. So, there may well be people (though I’ve never heard from any) who think there must be something wrong with me for going on and on and on about problems of scholarly quality, and that, in any case, I must be really full of myself to think that I’m the person to tackle these issues. From that perspective, my approach is certainly the more risky.

However, I bank on the following points:

1) The job market is so bad that abiding by the most commonly accepted rules is not an especially “safe” path; therefore, if one is going to go down, one might as well go down living in the kind of scholarly world one wants to live in. As much as your ideal scholarly world prizes openness, within reason, mine prizes speaking one’s mind, within reason, in the belief that sympathetic mutual criticism is the best path to ensuring we do our jobs well.
2) Although some people may be turned off by critical candor, there may also be a few people with similar concerns, who would not otherwise pick up on our shared interests through my ordinary publications on things like operations research.

There’s also an element of long game at work here, as I do believe we have reason to worry about what our profession is accomplishing. Currently, the humanities are under scrutiny for their economic impracticality, but I do think we are vulnerable to criticism on scholarly grounds, too. The most prominent of such criticisms (such as those against post-modernism) are wide of the mark, but that shouldn’t lull us into a sense that the virtue of our work is self-evident and guaranteed to persist. As I see very few deep discussions of this sort of thing, I do view it as important to keep a self-critical line of thought open, so that we can answer difficult criticisms and enact reforms should the necessity/opportunity ever arise. I am not specially qualified or well-positioned to do this, but it seemed like a good thing to think about publicly, and, frankly, to me, it’s been as interesting an intellectual puzzle as my ordinary projects.

6. Patrick McCray - January 2, 2013

Happy birthday from me as well, EWP, on your “bloggoversary!” I’m new to the format but I have so far found it a useful place to test some ideas, sharpen the writing tools, and just connect with other people in an informal manner. I’ve been enjoying EWP as well as Nuclear Secrecy. Both have give me ideas and resources to use in my teaching and writing. So, five years anniversary = wood, traditionally. I’m not sure how this translates into electrons or publications but kudos nonetheless!

7. Patrick McCray - January 2, 2013

Also, the chance to make edits on the fly i.e. Nuke Secrecy = Restricted Data and thus forth…bloggily, P.

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9. scritic - January 16, 2013

Happy Birthday from me too! This is my first comment here but I’ve been a reader for a while. Like you point out, blogging is a great way of testing ideas, trying hypotheses – and most important, finding ways to collaborate with others, something that we do far less of in the humanities.

Will Thomas - January 16, 2013

Thanks! And thanks for reading — I’m always very pleased to hear from people who read but don’t usually comment.

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