This weekend I had a wonderful blogger meet-up with Tiruncula in the hilly town of Very Important U. We had coffee, had lunch, went browsing through antique and used-book stores, and hung out with her sweet sweet doggies.
I've loved all the bloggers I've met in person, and I've found them to be, simultaneously, just like and quite a bit more than their blog personae would suggest. Although I now have more standing invitations to get together with various bloggers than I've had actual, in-person meetings, in the last few months I've been carrying on a surprising number of off-blog conversations with people I've met through my blog (some of whom have their own blogs, some of whom don't), almost always under my own name. I've talked to people about the job market, about conference-going, about lesson plans, and about my scholarship. I've chatted with grad students in my field, as well as with fairly advanced scholars. I've encouraged some people to apply for the two jobs at my institution, and I've had a few readers encourage me to apply for jobs at theirs. In short, I've come to see how permeable the boundary is between the (officially pseudonymous) blogosphere and our regular, professional lives.
And I have to say that this isn't entirely what I expected from the blogsphere--and it's certainly not what the Ivan Tribbles of the world imagine it's like down here. When I first started blogging, I was attracted to individual academic bloggers as well as to the community that I could see they composed. But even though I was immediately interested in that community and wanted to join it, I nevertheless thought of my own blogging as relatively unidirectional: something would happen, and I'd write about it, or I'd have a long, thoughtful take on some issue, and I'd write about that. Ideally, some people out there would like what I wrote, just as I liked a lot of what I read, but I imagined that the roles of writer and reader were fundamentally distinct--even if the same person might well perform both roles at different times.
But in fact it's rarely unidirectional. Blog posts aren't pseudonymous rants or raves or cries of despair thrown out into space for other anonymous people to comment on or take heart from or whatever. They are, at least for me, a collective discussion and working through of issues common to many of us. They're water-cooler kvetching, intellectual brainstorming, and professional networking, all at once.
As I was telling a fellow blogger recently, the blogosphere has given me far more professional support and guidance than I got in grad school or than I have, so far, received in my first two full-time jobs. This isn't to knock on either of those experiences--I liked my grad school colleagues, and I think my program did a good job of shepherding us through and preparing us for professional life. But there were questions I didn't know to ask, problems I didn't know were common to other people, and issues that it never even occurred to me to think about. And even now, when I'm surrounded by great colleagues and mentors, I'm still in a very specific department, at a very specific institution; it's hard to get a sense of the range of the profession from sitting in such a small corner of it, and especially as a very junior member.
I wonder whether now is the time to mention that both of the on-campus interviews that I got last year had bloggers on their hiring committees. In one case, the other blogger knew who I was, and in the other, the blogger didn't (I'm now at the job with the blogger who--I assume!--still doesn't know who I am). I mention this because, although I'm probably one of the few people who has had this experience, it doesn't actually strike me as particularly noteworthy. How many of us, after all, have had interviews with hiring committees where we already knew one of the members? Lots of us, I'm betting. We know these people through professional societies, or because we went to college with them, or because our dissertation director was their dissertation director 10 years earlier. I had one interview where I knew the damn dean, because we'd already been on two conference panels together. Knowing someone because we both blog? Not much different, except that we're likely to know each other rather better.
So in some ways, blogging is just another way of developing academic friendships and professional relationships. It's a small world we live in, and I'd bet that very few of us are more than two degrees removed from each other anyway. I'd submit, however, that blogging is actually a much better way of developing those friendships: we're not in the same departments or at the same institutions, and sometimes we're not even in the same fields; we're not (usually) competing for the same jobs. We're better able to let our guard down and to admit to not knowing something, and we're more likely to get a wider and more interesting range of perspectives. I also think that one of the defining characteristics of the academic blogosphere is its generosity. I'm not sure why this is, although I suspect that our (at least notional) pseudonymity has something to do with it, as I suspect the sense of intimacy that can be conveyed through blogging also does.
All I can say is that my readers and fellow bloggers have never had any reason to help me out--I'm not their colleague, they usually don't know me, and I'm not exactly the person you'd want to turn to for help in getting on an important conference panel or published in a big journal. But they have, time and again, and I feel oddly impelled to help them out, too, when I can. It's the best face of academia that I know.