Clio and the Bloggers
Anthony Grafton, May 2007
Every weekday morning, nowadays, I start work with a trip. I rise, like most codgers, before the sun. I make coffee. And then I down sit at the computer and let it take me on a virtual journey across the Web. The sites I visit aren't all historical, or even directly concerned with universities, scholarship and education—they include political blogs, cultural resources, European newspapers, and more.
But it's the historical and scholarly blogs—by no means all of them conducted by historians—that pull me onto the Web every morning. And with reason. For all their differences of scope, tone, and character, the blogs offer a new level of conversation and information about our beloved discipline. Taken together, moreover—and it's proper to do that, since they list and respond to one another, and the same posters and lurkers move from one to another—they have created something like a virtual café in cyberspace, one where the conversation is extremely lively and you can learn a great deal simply by listening in.
The first historical blog that won my regular attention was Invisible Adjunct—an eloquent and civilized blog kept by a young scholar who worked, in 2003 and 2004, as an adjunct assistant professor, while looking for a permanent position. In the end, she didn't find a tenure-track job, and chose another profession. But she left behind an extraordinary record, which is preserved and remains accessible on the Web. Her blog showed me—and, I suspect, many others—for the first time what a blog was and how it functioned.
At the core of Invisible Adjunct—as of most blogs—were the blogger's own posts: a long series of sharp observations, remarks, and short essays. Many of these offered pungent judgments on what she saw as a profession in crisis. She turned a spotlight on the vanity that led senior historians to urge their best students to go to graduate school despite the lack of professional opportunities and the careerism that seemed to accompany scholars' efforts to tackle new questions and frame new methods. Though her comments were incisive, her language was always civil. Invisible Adjunct also varied her analysis of history's decay with equally lucid and lively comments on many other subjects—from teaching evaluations to Jane Austen—and linked to a vast range of documents on the Web.
Below Invisible Adjunct's posts stretched something else which I had seen, but not examined closely, before—seemingly endless discussion threads, in which commentators—named and anonymous, senior and junior, brilliant and wacky—riffed on her ideas and clashed with one another. Their remarks couldn't have been more varied in tone or content, and they themselves clearly came from many disciplines inside the academy and from many occupations outside it. The founder of the feast maintained a high level of civility, which most commenters tried to match, and the discussions often shed a fierce, searching light on the way the academic profession operates now—especially as it's experienced by graduate students and professors on contingent contracts.
Invisible Adjunct closed her blog when she decided to leave history—a decision widely discussed in both the print media and in the blogosphere. But the larger world of historical discussion to which she introduced me and others has blossomed in the last few years. Dozens of historians, from undergraduates to senior historians, now keep blogs. Some blog anonymously, some reveal their names; some concentrate on scholarly and professional subjects, but many discuss personal matters as well. One way to get a fast sense of their variety and interest—as well as of the range of blogs not kept by professional historians or students, but still relevant to their interests—is to look at the current History Carnival—a periodic roundup of historically interesting sites and posts, that began at Early Modern Notes, a lively and erudite British blog, in January 2005. Carnival 51, for April 2007, appears on A Don's Life—the blog kept by Mary Beard, the distinguished historian of Rome and the classical tradition, which is featured on the web site of the Times newspapers, serves as host. Her offerings include multiple point-counterpoint discussions of the movie 300—and, taking off from that, of hoplite warfare in ancient Greece—and of the British engagement in the slave trade (a discussion also sparked by a film, Amazing Grace); responses to a recent, harshly critical review in the Times Literary Supplement of the new, complete translation of Michel Foucault's History of Madness; posts on museums; and a particularly fascinating discussion, in the form of a dialogue, of Jörg Friedrich's controversial book on the air campaign against Nazi Germany, The Fire—a tour of the historical Web, stretching to Germany and France as well as the English-speaking world, with something for just about anyone interested in history, ancient or modern. History Carnival reflects the eclectic tastes of their hosts—but also the collective intelligence of the blogosphere, since anyone can send recommendations to the host of the next one to be held.
Those who want to consume similar fare on a daily basis can find it easily—for example, at Cliopatria, the group blog whose members have posted for some years on the web site of the History News Network. Here, in one space, you can find texts and comments on history, politics, the media, and much else—notably, last year, the Duke lacrosse scandal—posted by professors, journalists, and graduate students, all of them selected not for their status in any larger professional world but for their wide-ranging erudition and skill at the new genre of the blog post. History News Network hosts other, individual blogs as well, and offers regular news reports of great value. I myself have become a passionate fan of their profiles of junior and senior stars of the historical profession (I teach a course on recent historiography and have picked up a number of provocative, eminently discussable works to assign in fields outside my own from these entries). The blogroll at Cliopatria has just been brought up-to-date, and amounts to a gazetteer for the historical blogosphere as a whole. It lists "over 600 history blogs. Among the highlights: 51 ancient and 44 premodern history blogs, 49 blogs that concentrate on regional histories outside the United States, 43 non-English language blogs, and 39 blogs in United States history, 47 military history blogs and 36 blogs that focus on digital history, science and technology."
In the end, of course, everyone who travels the blogosphere does so for individual reasons, and compiles his or her own list of favorite blogs. One reason that I read blogs is to keep in touch, at least a little bit, with the lives of students and junior faculty members. They inhabit worlds very different from the one in which I was young, and their well-being matters to me. In recent years I have learned about what it's like to be an undergraduate historian at my own alma mater from Nobody Sasses a Girl in Glasses, and about what it's like to be a graduate student at other institutions from Clioweb and Historianness—though the keeper of the latter has now morphed into an assistant professor. Above all, though, I have learned about what it's like to start out as a professional historian—and in the areas of literary scholarship field that demand the sort of intensive research. New Kid on the Hallway, Blogenspiel (by "Another Damned Medievalist"), and Ferule & Fescue—this last the work of a literary scholar—offer the comfortably tenured reader uncomfortably vivid insight into what it feels like in the 2000s to go through the job search year after year, to try to make a home in a new department and a new city, to attend one's first conference as a professional, and to move from writing a dissertation to working on articles and book chapters. These blogs have all become the hubs of virtual communities, whose members offer one another a kind of support, intellectual and moral, that sometimes seems to be missing in actual departments.
As vice president of the AHA's Professional Division, I have a professional deformation of my own: I'm tasked to seek out areas where the institutions of history, and the universities that house them, don't work as well as they should, and look for modest, practical ways of improving matters. A number of blogs offer particularly incisive commentary on these matters. Tenured Radical, for example, has analyzed in depth, and with the freedom that this genre allows, the failings of the current tenure system (so has the English professor Margaret Soltan, whose University Diaries offers a long-running, focused, and extremely effective critique of the university as we know it).
As a scholar, finally, I search the Web for sheer, exuberant erudition—and the blogosphere, for all its novelty, has plenty of that to offer. Try The Little Professor—the eloquent and extravagantly learned blog of an English professor, Miriam Burstein, whose expert commentary on the history of books and readers is spiced with wonderful skits and parodies; or Easily Distracted, the blog of the African historian Timothy Burke, where you'll find sharp criticism of the academy—especially, though not only, of graduate school—mixed with serious discussion of new ways to do research on and teach history.
Historians often complain about their loss of intellectual and personal community: the disappearance of books that interest historians in all fields, the pervasive hyperactivity that makes it hard to find time to have coffee with colleagues. It's all true—and yet, a visit to the historical blogosphere shows that historians are crafting a new and vital public space.
—Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) is vice president of the AHA's Professional Division. He himself contributes occasionally to a joint blog maintained with three other editors of the Journal of the History of Ideas.
Blogs Mentioned in the Article
A Don’s Life
History Carnival 51 http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/
Early Modern Notes
Ferule & Fescue
History News Network
New Kid on the Hallway
Nobody Sasses a Girl in Glasses
The Little Professor
—Compiled by Elisabeth Grant