Blogging and the return of the repressed

Earlier today I was at an OAH roundtable on blogging as scholarship. There were a number of distinguished bloggers there (Anne Little;  Kenneth Owen; Benjamin Alpers; John Fea), all of whom blog in very different styles. The audience was great.

I thought I’d post some of my argument about why blogging is valuable as scholarship: it boils down to the fact that our notion of scholarship and “historical work” is deranged. Not just in the fact that we have, preposterously, only three real forms, the conference paper, the article, and the book: it’s also that the the style of academic discourse is grotesquely psychologically conflicted.

I’ve argued before that the way we’re taught to read bears no relation to the way we are taught to write. We are taught to write as if our audience was a learned man of leisure, with servants, and we’re taught to read like sou-chefs gutting a fish: quickly, ruthlessly, under time pressure. We are asked to construct a form of self punishment–we write for the person we wish we could be, and in reading destroy that person we imagined.

Notice there's no one there

Notice there’s no one there

Don’t take my word for it. You can clearly see this conflicted self in the contrast, growing wider every year, between the text of any academic history and the acknowledgments. Open any book  of footnoted academic history published in the last two decades, and the text will almost never use the word “I,” almost never mention anything personal, never describe intellectual struggle or uncertainty. The text will aim to erase the author altogether, so the argument emerges full grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. But the acknowledgements! The acknowledgments are a virtual carnival of the self, full of confessions of doubt, descriptions of struggle, metaphors of journey and passage and transformation; yearnings and regrets and intimacies: salutes to comrades professional and personal, the fallen and the still standing. The acknowledgements are colorful, personal and self indulgent: the text is personless and self banishing.

Something’s not right here! I mean, mentally not right. The division between the text and the acknowledgements is as wide or wider than the division between the way we are taught to write and the way we are taught to read. It is a sign of repressed desires and wishes. Really, from a distance it look like a mental illness.

Blogging maybe has the potential to reintegrate the fragmented academic personality. It makes the personal visible. It allows for struggle; it is the journey towards meaning. It allows for an authorial voice that speaks through itself, instead of through some disembodied imagined person. It’s embedded in community. And it doesn’t involve the violent forms of self-erasure that the acknowledgments keep proving we want to escape


  • Meredith wrote:

    Word. You might consider the role of the index in your analysis. I LOVED creating my index, and I think it’s the best part of my book. The architecture of its organization is a distillation of the argument, like ee cummings wrote a book report on consumerism in the Vietnam War. The index is the best tool a researcher has for gutting a book, and yet not only do we not teach apprentice historians how to write one, we usually pay someone else to do it for us!

  • Yes and you could argue that we’d do better to end the divide between the index and reading, and come up with a form of reading that’s less artificial

  • Steve Kantrowitz wrote:

    Spot on. I have long recognized the gap between my first book (academically appropriate) and its acknowledgments (adventurous, personal) but never considered this as symptomatic of a more general malaise (or illness!). You’ve given me something serious to chew on.

  • Steve

    Thank you VERY much. As far as I can tell, the modern form of historical writing rises to dominance roughly at the same time as the rise of gamey ethnic types like ourselves. So there’s a double erasure taking place: not just the erasure of the self, but the erasure of a specific ethnic or racial self with a specific history and politics attached. So Richard Hofstatder good be described as “a Jew, but not one of those bad Jews” by one of his recommenders, precisely because his ethnicity was so well masked in his writing. It’s there, but you have to know about his background to see it. He’d mastered the self-suppressing style

  • Meredith wrote:

    The next ms I review, I am going to suggest a gamier, more ethnic style.

  • Yes! Exactly this! Thank you.

  • Steve Kantrowitz wrote:

    Mike – Yes and yes. In fact, the “adventurous, personal” dimension of my first book’s acknowledgments consisted of my belated realization that my investment in the study of U.S. white supremacy had its roots in my early awareness of my father’s (b. 1933) emotional conviction that Jews were not safe, even in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Don’t make me go find my copy of Auden’s elegy to Freud.)

  • Doug didier wrote:


    Just watched the video of the panel. Opening remarks. As a reader, It seems to me to make some sense out if this , i.e. Turning the blog world into some kind of use beyond the daily take, need some structure or standard in the form of metadata , perhaps XML. Think of it as adding big data dimensions.

    Blog posts would contain in addition to hyperlinks..

    Time period or time in history.
    GPS of box or area on earth.
    History subject..

    After blog post is written.. Workflow in place to send to cloud.

    Now potential to form document of stuff from my area. Or time period or both.

    Another thought is if you have a blogpost or article. Check out the Wikipedia entry that might corespond. And see if some of info could be folded in or referenced.

    Another is google has a service for food blogs. Blogger is accepted based on peers. So now when I search for a recipe, I know it’s been tested etc.. Not some junk from about,com etc..

    Doug didier

  • […] as if a learned gentleman of leisure sits in a paneled study, savoring every word.” Or as he more vividly described the research process, academics often approach books like “sous-chefs gutting a […]

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