On "Serious" Blogging

New Kid on the Hallway drew my attention to this article in Inside Higher Ed by Jeff Rice.

Rice has two central points, I think, in his initial article. I say “I think” because the argument is less than coherent. Rice begins by referring to the “Ivan Tribble” articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, asserting that “Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously” then makes an initial overture to his central point, his concern regarding “the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing.” He defines “seriousness” as “the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing.” This is his first point.

Next Rice segues to a red herring: the issue of anonymous blogging (discussed by Tribble) by academics using pseudonyms like “La Lecturess.” Rice argues that “these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously.” He laments that “Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers”—he lists specific aspects of blogging, both those that relate to writing on the Web in general, like linking, that are easier because of blogging software, and those, like automatic archives, that are characteristic of blogs and blogging software. Rice asserts that this “seriousness” will lead to “stagnation.” He points to literary innovators Cervantes and Rousseau as models, and asserts that “finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.” This is his second point.

Rice closes by giving examples of “provocative and exciting weblogs,” like BoingBoing, or Wonderland, and then points to his own blog, Yellow Dog as a model via a disingenuous occultatio.

Rice seems unaware that blogs aren’t that novel; even the most parsimonious blog historian has to grant them a good six years of life—that’s an age on the Web. Moroever, it’s not like the weblog formats and features he finds novel exist as rhetorical oddities; blogs and blogging correspond with the traditional five divisions of rhetoric. Nor am I the only person to compare blogs and commonplace books or nineteenth century pamphlets.

In his contention that we take Tribble’s warnings too seriously, I wonder if Rice actually read the pieces in question. I’m also not sure who Rice is referring to by “we.” With respect to anonymous blogging, while I am not anonymous, it’s because I know that it’s time consuming and laborious to be truly anonymous on the ‘Net, and I’m too lazy. Familiarity with writing for the Web is part of my professional expertise in any case, and the drive for tenure is not likely to be part of my future. I’m lucky. Many of my blogging peers are less fortunate, and people have been fired for blogging. As Professor Nokes points out, there are anonymous bloggers that aren’t anonymous to me, but I take their decision to remain anonymous very seriously and consider their anonymity a matter of privacy and professional courtesy.

Regarding the “seriousness” of other bloggers, which strikes me as a slightly self-serving assertion on Rice’s part, it’s a little difficult to be sure what, exactly, he means. For instance, he refers to “academic bloggers,” but doesn’t indicate what he means by “academic.” Does he mean any professor, graduate student or faculty member who blogs? Does he mean people who blog about scholarly subjects? The blogs I read in my scholarly field, medieval studies, are often quite serious in tone and topic, but they are just as often humorous. Most of us are medievalists because we fell in love with our field, with the music, the languages, the literatures, the art, and the peoples, and that joy is an important part of our lives, our scholarships, and our blogs. I note that a fair number of medievalist bloggers do blog about our field—but we also blog about our outside interests, and our lives, to varying extents. I know several, anonymous and not, who have decidedly non-academic blogs about their hobbies, or their families. I think too that Rice misses the value of scholarly community in his dismissal of “seriousness.” Take, for example, what began as a semi-frivolous aside about an imaginary sheep DNA project on Professor Drout’s blog. But the response encouraged him to actually explore the project. That’s not anything like stagnation.

Rice exhorts us to “play” with the opportunities blogging gives us— yet he seems unaware that that’s exactly one reason many bloggers are anonymous— the anonymity gives them a safer place to engage in serio ludere. Rice even more surprisingly doesn’t seem to realize that the content and the presentation of a blog are two very different things, and that the presentation is ultimately controlled by the reader’s Web browser (Hint: if you have a blog with a style sheet that uses tiny type, or oddly colored text against a text-hostile background, I’m subverting your style sheet). Indeed, after his paragraph in praise of the features of blogs and blog software, the examples of innovative blogging Rice gives are all innovative in terms of content, not form. I also suspect he’s completely unaware of the often forgotten bastard child of blogging—the journal, perhaps best exemplified by LiveJournal; a fair number of “serious” and “academic” bloggers have a LiveJournal account for their less scholarly musings. In short, it seems to me that Rice is really saying not, “don’t take blogging so seriously,” but “why aren’t you all more like me?”

In his follow up post, Rice renders his argument even more confusing. He asks, via hypophora, if anonymity is an issue with respect to academic writing, and then answers “no.” I’d argue that he’s answering too quickly; sometimes anonymity may be an academic writing issue, especially for the non-tenured and the graduate student (both exceedingly common statuses for bloggers). Rice then asserts that anonymity isn’t so much an issue as “access” is. Rice says that “Because academic writing is just not as accessible as blogging. Google changed the interface of interaction in ways other search engines failed.” Rice argues that in order for him to “access” a fellow academic’s work he has to pay expensive journal subscription fees, or be at a school where a library has a current subscription and back issues, and possibly actually go to the library in question.

He’s introduced yet another red herring. “Access” has always been a problem, it’s part of the history of writing (you try toting all the tablets that make up Gilgamesh), a history that includes chained libraries, unwieldy manuscripts that weigh twenty pounds, and closed stacks. It’s not a matter of access (though I note that Rice would do well to explore the issue of access in terms of his own blog). But it might be an issue of Rice attempting to label bloggers, to pigeon-hole them as “academic” or “innovative,” or exhorting them to be more like him.

Plagiarism at the University

There’s an interesting discussion over at Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light regarding the University of Kent student dismissed for plagiarism. The comments from Teresa’s regular readers, including those in the UK, are especially good.

My university has recently subscribed to Turnitin, a database and searching service that compares instructor-submitted files of student papers to those in its database, and to data on the web, in an attempt to identify plagiarism. The instructor then receives an annotated color-coded version of the paper, that includes citations to “sources” from the database, or the web, and an indication of the percentage of the paper that “source” equals.

The school doesn’t require faculty to use the service, and they’ve done a good job of integrating TurnItIn into official web sites, (well, integrating TurnItIn into the site; the pedagogical and philosophical integration is missing) but I really loathe the idea and the service. I think Turnitin is a potential violation of student rights, and I think it could cause more problems than it eases.

UPDATE: 06/06/2004 10:59 AM: Teresa has posted an additional reflection “Not the case for the Defense” regarding her suggestion that Mr. Gunn repeat his entire university program. I actually think her suggestion has some merit. If, in fact, it is true that he plagiarized throughout his three years, then the university failed part of its mission in not catching and responding appropriately. Mr. Gunn’s transcript would indicate that he took six years to earn a three year degree, and the university will doubtlessly be paying much more attention to the quality of his work. The argument that Mr. Gunn would somehow “displace” a more deserving student doesn’t really seem realistic to me. Admit however many new students the univeristy would ordinarily admit. You aren’t so much readmitting Mr. Gunn as allowing him to repeat his coursework, legitimately.