Sunday, October 29, 2006

The blogworld and its generosity

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.


Anonymous said...

What a great post! I completely agree wtih everything you say here (although I've never been interviewed by anyone who blogs, as far as I know - that totally cracks me up). I just wish I could meet up with more bloggers in person - I think partly because I don't name my city, it rules out some possibilities (because people don't know they're going to be where I am). I can't remember who suggested this or where, but I'm all for the idea of an all blogger U - wouldn't it be fun if we could found and staff and run our own institution??

lucyrain said...

Oooo! I love the idea of a Blogger U, NK!

And, Flavia, so much of what you've written rings true for me, as well. However, I've never had a blogger meet-up, and a big part of my not having one is that I'm afraid of the experience shattering my expectations or--worse--the expectations of the other blogger. But that's just my insecurity. You've convinced me to be more open about the possibility.

Plus, I have come to love all you crazy, funny, dear, smart shits.

Tiruncula said...

Blogger U - yes!! Count me in!

I've appreciated the way the virtual breaks into reality in such different times and places. I've had meetups at conferences, which is sort of a no-brainer, but also at Major Continental Landmarks (shoutout to NK); WN came to see me at my old house and was the only blogger to meet Very Old Cat, and now Flavia's the first to have visited my new location. Next week comes another meetup at the house I grew up in. It all makes for nice gracenotes to a blog that I started to chronicle the process of thinking about moving and then doing so, twice.

Hilaire said...

Flavia, this is so well said. I agree with everything you've written here. I have been observing to a couple of people that in my weird state lately, between two places and feeling out of touch with friends and partner, blog relationships feel like the realest ones. And off-blog correspondence I've carried on, especially lately, has been immensely gratifying. Blogging *fills* a part of my life I didn't know needed filling.

Anonymous said...

Very well said - I've never had a blog meet-up, but I imagine it would be nice.

I'm curious how you know someone who interviewed you was a blogger, but they don't know you!

Dr. Crazy said...

This is a great post, and it reflects a lot of what I feel about blogging as well. I've never actually done a blogger meet-up - which is kind of strange because I'm "out" to a lot of people, but yet somehow it's never happened, though I suspect it will sooner or later :)

kfluff said...

Ditto to all the above, and one more thing. Is anyone else thinking about the role of anonymity here? Clearly, many of us are in the kind of in and out limbo that Flavia describes, but I wonder whether the public anonymity of the blogosphere somehow contributes to the support and sociality of this group. (Particularly as it flies in the face of the "big name bingo" of the academy.)

Flavia said...

I'm totally on-board with Blogger U, y'all. Get us a land-grant, NK, and I'm there!

Kfluff: I think you're absolutely right about the importance of anonymity/pseudonymity to this whole enterprise. Sure, I get great advice from people who actually know me, and sure, I offer advice to people I know in Real Life--but I do think there's something powerfully and importantly equalizing about the fact that we don't entirely know each other, or that we certainly don't know each other at the outset, when we form attachments to given bloggers based purely upon whether or not we trust their voices and personae, and whether or not we find what they have to say interesting.

I don't like to think that I'm an academic snob, but when all I know about the grad student or junior professor I meet at a conference is the basics of his or her C.V. (as given in the presenter bio), it's true that I generally only go out of my way to talk to people who a) are working on something of immediate interest to me, or b) are teaching at/got their degree from an institution where I know people. I just don't have the basis, in that context, to know whether there are deeper things we might have in common.

Psycgirl: I wish I could explain that one, but it would give too much away!

medieval woman said...

Hear, hear! Maybe there should also be a blogger handshake?? But seriously, I totally agree with your observations on the generosity of the blog community - I began my blog because I felt very isolated at my previous position and (I think I might have mentioned this before) I wanted to respond to one of your posts! Since then I've gotten such good advice, commiseration, and encouragement from the blog community (both on and off the blog) - it's really been more rewarding than I'd ever imagined. I have not yet had a blogger meet-up, although I hope to soon!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Post - thank you for writing with such clarity on this. Anonymity is important for the process - particularly for people who are early in their careers. The support from the community is amazing, and being able to participate is fantastic. And I love finding out how other subjects 'work' at these levels.

Professing Mama said...

This is such a great post and reflects my own blogging experiences as well. I've written before that I don't know that I would have finished my diss without the blogosphere, and a few people have given the "Of course you would have!" reaction, as I'm if just saying that. I really meant it, though. It's amazing how powerful this blogging community can be; in my case, it really helped me get un-stuck and re-discover my enjoyment of writing.

Anonymous said...

You've really hit the nail on the head. Like many others, I joined the blogging community because I feel isolated at my present institution and needed to have an outlet for my rants, raves, weak moments, successes, etc.... I would love to meet up with fellow bloggers, and I was wondering if perhaps someone could create a website where each blogger can list their next trip (research, personal, whatever) to make themselves available for a quick bite to eat or cup of coffee with a fellow blogger who may be in the vicinity as well. This would work especially well for conferences like the AHA, but it would work for research trips as well. I dunno...good idea, or bad idea?

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, Flavia.

I'm interested in, and agree with, your comment that "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." I wonder if this is particularly true among pseudonymous academic bloggers. I know that in parts of the the "mommy blogging" corner of the world, there's certainly a lot of mutual support but also (my sense is) a lot of dictating to one another how one ought to raise children. And in the religious and political blogosphere, sometimes there are quite vitriolic exchanges. And maybe I just don't hang out around academic blogs where the same thing happens, but my experience has been that pseudonymous academic bloggers are usually genuinely nice and caring individuals. And all of the bloggers whom I've met in person are the same way -- genuinely kind and supportive people, who also happen to know (collectively, at least) a heck of a lot about the profession and are willing to share that knowledge.

Bardiac said...

What a great post, Flavia, really thought provoking.

I'm fascinated by the ways many bloggers manage to be generous with ideas, suggestions, and feedback.

We don't need a land grant, just a server of some sort, for our blogger U!

Margaret said...

Great post. Like lucyrain, I've never had a blogger meet-up (and am somewhat nervous about that), but I do agree that I've received far, far more support and guidance than I ever expected when I began blogging. Thank you for expressing the gratitude --and wonder!-- of blogging so beautifully!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Is there a way to meet other bloggers without sacrificing anonymity to the whole world? Maybe we could have Blogger U. Class reunions? Flavia, how do you meet other bloggers?

Flavia said...

Kristen & Elwood:

I'm certainly not against more organized meetups, although it can be hard because of the anonymity issue--big conferences or pleasure travel to major locations can provide great occasions for meet-ups, but I happen to go to a lot of relatively small conferences (some in very odd locations), and since I'm "out" about my field, I wouldn't feel comfortable broadcasting that info far & wide.

The people I've gotten together with are generally bloggers I have some kind of relationship with, if that makes sense--people on whose blogs I comment frequently, and who comment frequently on mine, and with whom I seem to have a good rapport. Sometimes one of us will happen to contact the other via email with a specific question or issue that we don't want to discuss on-blog, and we'll get to know each others' identities that way. Other times, one of us will have noticed from our sitemeter where the other person seems to be located, and if a trip brings us out that way, we'll shoot a casual email off delicately asking if *perhaps* said blogger does live there, and might *perhaps* be interested in meeting up. (There's really, for me, a whole weird etiquette involved--you don't want to assume the other person actually WANTS to meet you, nor do you want to weird them out by revealing that you know too much about them!)

I think that the key here is that friendships have to develop relatively organically, whether on-blog or off, and there have to be some signs of mutual interest. If someone's in your field, there may be an immediate connection that's worth making, in which case I'd suggest going right ahead and establishing informal email contact ("hey, I'm a fellow nuclear physicist and I've been feeling a lot of the same things you've been writing about on your blog..."); otherwise, I'd hang out, start commenting, see if the other blogger starts commenting back, and let whatever develops develop.

Hope that helps, and thanks to everyone for your interest!

Scott Eric Kaufman said...

On the one hand, well, the title of our panel's "Meet the Bloggers," so I feel like I should chime in on the matter of bloggers meeting up. But on the other--as I alluded to in the footnote to this post--it is disquieting to walk into a room of people who know you. Who really, really know you. The footnote's backstory is that I attended a Halloween party largely populated by first- and second-year graduate students and was known to almost everyone there. People talked to me about my work, my rehab, my theoretical preferences and, in one particularly vexing case, my nuanced uneasiness with psychoanalytic theory was the impetus for an hour-long lecture about the unsubtle awesomeness of Lacan. To be honest, I felt flummoxed by the air of intimacy people took shortly after shaking my head. Flattered, too, but uncomfortable nonetheless--which is why the "Meet the Bloggers" panel and after-party should be fun? interesting? In other words, I'm not sure how I feel about the experience of meeting lurkers, I think. It's one thing to have people you feel should know you, as you've had a fair amount of interaction; it's another entirely to find yourself in a room full of lurkers. The latter tends to paranoia, I think. (Especially if, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick said--which I quoted in the second link up there--blogging unwittingly forces you to reveal, in real-time, who you're becoming by blogging.)

timna said...

In my interview, I actually talked about being mentored by a blogger. One person on the committee knew about my blog, but the rest needed to hear how this worked! It was a bit scary to admit it. Certainly it helped that John Lovas was a public figure, but he and I had communicated a lot - via blogs and email. He really did help me move from grad student/adjunct to teacher.

Meeting others -- wonderful. I do try to mention where I'm going and people have been good about letting me know they're in that neighborhood. I suspect I miss others by not having my location public.

Dr. Virago said...

You rock, Flavia.

Even though I'm waaaaay behind on blog reading and commenting, can I be hired at Blog U, too? :)

I was talking to my grad students about blogging yesterday, and starting to put together a list of blogs that I think will give them a sense of what academic lives are like -- and yours is on it -- and now I'm going to add this post as a general introduction to the pleasures and value of the academic blogging world.