Blogging and Honesty

A ramble rather than a rant.

How do you put your blog posts together? Photo after erix!

There’s been a spate of ‘Why Blog?’ posts in the Biblioblogosphere. They hap­pen every so often amongst blog­gers. Sometimes they’re insight­ful and some­times they’re navel gaz­ing. Thankfully the dis­cus­sion leans towards the former here. Charles Ellwood Jones has put up a round up of posts at the Ancient World Bloggers Group.

The entries that par­tic­u­larly caught my eye were on hon­esty in blog­ging. Jim West kicked that strand off, you should read the whole thing, but key pararaphs are:

In sum, do we refrain from blog­ging what we really think about this or that or the other because we are unsure of ourselves, or because we are fear­ful of the reac­tion or– and worst of all– because we are afraid we might not be called to serve at Harvard or Yale if someone there reads what we cheekily say?

I find myself, at the end of the day, con­stantly amazed at the unwill­ing­ness of some to be them­selves. I take this as noth­ing but hypo­crisy. Hide your­self, don’t say what you think, play the hypo­crite, and someone may hire you or pub­lish you. As though being hired or pub­lished were more import­ant than hon­esty. Which I sup­pose, for some, they are.

Roland Boer is in agree­ment. There were a couple of other responses. Mark Goodacre com­men­ted on the split between his blogs into broadly pro­fes­sional and per­sonal, because some one might want to read the one and not the other. In a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion Missives from Marx argues that in some cases anonym­ity is neces­sary for hon­esty. I think that MM makes a mis­take. Missives from Marx is not an anonym­ous blog. It’s a pseudomym­ous blog and there’s the con­stant pos­sib­il­ity that someone will con­nect the pseud­onym to the per­son. To be hon­est you may struggle to find people openly blog­ging “Yes! I am a hypo­crite, AND PROUD OF IT!“

I could join in. As well as recently dis­agree­ing with some big names in Ancient History, a schol­arly soci­ety set up a page of their web­site spe­cific­ally to allow a Professor respond to me. Alas for my ego they’ve removed that page, so clearly I’m not as import­ant as I’d like to think. I think that would be a mis­take to say that makes me hon­est. It’s hon­est if you do that kind of thing after care­ful thought, but what I do is often closer to a case of aca­demic Tourette’s syn­drome.

Like the people Jim West com­plains about, I omit things. If you want an examples things I’ve not blogged then you should look in my drafts folder. Last night I found a long, long post on post­mod­ern­ism in the Humanities. It’s badly in need of a re-write because it was clearly writ­ten late at night. I think it needs to be sharpened and more names added with spe­cific examples of bad schol­ar­ship. It’s not fun, espe­cially the last part where you may end up talk­ing about a very nice per­son who doesn’t under­stand that lin­ear has a spe­cific mean­ing in maths and it’s not a syn­onym for ‘bad’. It’s also not going to appear here. What will hap­pen is — when I have time — I’ll write it up as a proper paper and sub­mit it to a journal. The reason is I want it to appear where it will sit on a shelf, rather than being dis­missed as a blog post. Because that’s on the ‘to-do’ list, even though it’s years down the line, it’s not some­thing I’m likely to blog about in the near future. It’s entirely feas­ible that I’ll blog pos­it­ively about the good work they do without men­tion­ing where I think they’re utterly mis­taken on a dif­fer­ent topic. I think that will­ing­ness to show one side of what I think and not another would be dis­hon­esty in Jim West’s eyes.*

Another example of selec­tion is in the reviews I do. They tend to be pos­it­ive. That’s not a reflec­tion of what I read. I’ve read some pretty dread­ful stuff recently. Writing about that gets me down, and if you’re going to do it fairly it’s a lot of work. Frankly if I am going to go to any effort I’d rather spend it on some­thing that’s worth talk­ing about. Some cur­rent ‘the­ory’ papers are simply so awful they’re not worth the effort of say­ing so. There’s no point in say­ing that though, because these papers aren’t about advan­cing know­ledge. They’re about estab­lish­ing social bonds. It’s the aca­demic equi­val­ent of baboons groom­ing each other. Indeed, point­ing out spe­cific examples is like shriek­ing from the next tree, and that’s not a game I’m inter­ested in play­ing. It only serves to rein­force the import­ance of social bonds.

Students are also largely not going to appear here. They may do gen­er­ic­ally, but prob­lems which refer to spe­cific stu­dents don’t, even in a munged form. I’ll talk about the a prob­lem with friends and col­leagues, but not here. The reason is that if a stu­dent has an issue then it’s con­fid­en­tial — even if the student’s prob­lem is that he’s a brain-dead moron who thinks read­ing weeks are for hol­i­days in Spain and can’t be bothered to turn up to some sem­inars because the tutor “is a woman”. Anonymising that kind of thing is hard to do, because every­one in his class will be pain­fully aware that he was the one who came back from read­ing week with sun­burn. I could leave it a few years, but that won’t work because the ‘turn­ing up to a lec­ture with a sun­tan’ gaffe is one that hap­pens most years. The latest fool will assume I’m talk­ing about them instead.

Obviously, I’m using the word ‘fool’ in a pos­it­ive and sup­port­ive way there.

The same goes for internal meet­ings. I’ve been on the School Committee of one depart­ment and the Management Committee of another. I don’t always agree with the decisions they make, because I’m human. In fact it would be bizarre if the entire depart­ment was run for the bene­fit of one grad stu­dent. That means there’s no sense in mak­ing those dis­agree­ments pub­lic and reheat­ing them here. You can’t run a depart­ment against a back­ground of pub­lic grousing.

There’s also plenty of per­sonal stuff which won’t appear here. You don’t need to know about the prob­lems of look­ing after eld­erly grand­par­ents and I’d find writ­ing about it in any detail would be tedi­ous. Ok, you might not, but I’m the one doing the writ­ing so I’ll write about what I like. Ultimately that’s the bot­tom line for nearly all blog­gers. If they’re not inter­ested in writ­ing about some­thing they won’t, or at least they shouldn’t. With all these career and per­sonal decisions is there room for honesty?

I think in the earlier days of blog­ging it was easier to pre­tend that the off­line world was some­how dif­fer­ent to the online world. This may have encour­aged rant­ing by some people. The after­math of Ivan Tribble’s column on hir­ing pro­ced­ure should have punc­tured that illu­sion. Still, that doesn’t stop a blog from being a social space, just dif­fer­ent to being down the pub. I think you can behave dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent places with neces­sar­ily being dis­hon­est. I was going to say that the online and off­line parts of me are at least con­sist­ent. That’s true as far as online me isn’t going to say “Phenomenology of Landscape” is a good book and then off­line me slag it off for the bad pho­to­graphy in it. Yet there are differences.

My opin­ions change in reac­tion to what other people say and on fur­ther thought. One example is that in the past few years I’ve moved from think­ing that memes might be use­ful to think­ing that they’re prob­ably not. That opin­ion might change again as I like the work of Boyd and Richerson, but I’m not con­vinced they need memes. Certainly if they do show memes to be use­ful, they’ll be memes a long way from the Dawkins model. Yet in the past I’ve been pos­it­ive about memes, espe­cially Cullen’s Cultural Virus model. In this later post I’ve clearly a more neg­at­ive view. I could delete or edit the posts to match my cur­rent opin­ion, but that even­tu­ally gets unman­age­able. It makes people look odd in the com­ments as well. If post-dated edit­ing isn’t going to hap­pen then ima­gine everything you’ve said fol­low­ing you round, includ­ing the more stu­pid things and the posts where you for­got to add a ‘not’ in a crit­ical place. That’s a blog.

I think the best I can offer is that the post is con­sist­ent with my opin­ions at the time when I click the ‘pub­lish’ but­ton. I think that’s the best you can hope for from any blog­ger. I don’t need to know the author’s per­sonal life. If you knew me you’d prob­ably be happy to skip my per­sonal life too. I think I give away enough of me in ram­bling posts like this one. However, if you’re ser­i­ous about an aca­demic career blog­ging opin­ions which you dis­agree with is not a long term option. Your read­ers and com­menters will get to know you and how you think. They’ll spot when you’re fak­ing it — unless the people read­ing your blog are a bunch of thickos. If that’s the case then I’ve no advice, because I’ve never blogged where that’s happened.

At least it would be if I were in his eyes and I doubt I am. There are A-list blog­gers, B-list blog­gers and so on down to the Z-list. I see myself more as an Ψ-list blog­ger, towards the tail end of a more obscure alphabet.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. missivesfrommarx says:

    You’re right about the pseud­onym­ous vs. anonym­ous thing. I’ll be more pre­cise about that from now on!

    So, I’m curi­ous, what’s with the stuff about “post­mod­ern­ism”? Yes, there are bad “post­mod­ern­ists,” but does that mean you reject “post­mod­ern­ism” tout court?

  2. sm says:

    Some of those approaches like nom­in­al­ism are medieval…

  3. Alun says:

    I think a lot of people don’t think about the dif­fer­ence between pseud­onym­ous and anonym­ous until they acci­dent­ally give too much away and real­ise post A can be linked back to post B and so on… I cer­tainly didn’t think about it for a long while, but that might be because I delib­er­ately chose not to take a pseudonym.

    As for post­mod­ern­ism, I simply found a 3200 word essay sat in the drafts folder that I don’t remem­ber writ­ing. From con­text I get the feel­ing I wrote it after another con­fer­ence where Kuhnian paradigm shifts were invoked, along with Newtonian mech­an­ics being ‘lin­ear’. One of the not­able fea­tures that Newtonian mech­an­ics has is that it’s non-linear hence chaos and so on. I think it would be bet­ter if it focussed on super­fi­cial inter­dis­cip­lin­ar­ity as a whole. Postmodernists don’t have a mono­poly on that, but there were a spate of things I atten­ded in 2006 (I think) where Kuhn, relativ­ism and incom­men­sur­ab­il­ity was used to jus­tify some real rub­bish. It’s more a curi­os­ity than a ser­i­ous con­cern for me now. At the moment I’ve far too many other papers I’d prefer to write.

    For example, if I do write about prob­lems in inter­dis­cip­lin­ar­ity then I’d far rather write a con­struct­ive case for post-positivist approaches. If the papers that annoyed me really are as awful as I think, then any half-competent altern­at­ive approach would cause them to be for­got­ten as irrel­ev­ant. Extra effort debunk­ing them would simply be unnecessary.

    The baboon com­ments are about people jump­ing on band­wag­ons in gen­eral than post­mod­ern­ists spe­cific­ally. ‘Agency’ is my cur­rent bug­bear. I know it can have a use­ful mean­ing. It can provide a frame­work to say some really inter­est­ing things, which is why it attracts people. However, if an author doesn’t say what mean­ing of agency they’re using, then it’s usu­ally a syn­onym for ‘soul’ or ‘thing’. Agency in those cases is a gloss for an absence of thought. If they’re not think­ing about the con­tent it’s reas­on­able to ask: what they are pro­du­cing these papers for? The answer, I think, is social bond­ing between individuals.

    Social bond­ing is going to hap­pen in any field, because you’ll tend to attend the same con­fer­ences or pub­lish in the same journ­als as other people with sim­ilar interests. However pub­lish­ing poor buzzword schol­ar­ship spe­cific­ally to place your­self in a social net­work doesn’t interest me. What I’ve come to real­ise is that draw­ing atten­tion to work like that is a form of reward. I could write about some­thing mean­ing­ful instead.

    In both of the above cases that means my blog­ging will be present­ing a more pos­it­ive view of ancient his­tory and archae­ology papers than I have off­line. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. A side-effect is that these days I’m more likely to throw away bad papers than per­severe with them. It’s for­tu­nate that there really isn’t a short­age of pub­lic­a­tions in his­tory and archae­ology that is worth reading.

  4. missivesfrommarx says:

    I know what you mean about people writ­ing essays that are little more than a series of buzz words. I hate those too.

    However, on the other hand, I’ve learned a hell of a lot from philo­soph­ers like Derrida, who is gen­er­ally con­sidered “post­mod­ern,” so I’m sens­it­ive to abso­lute denunciations—but that doesn’t sound like what you’re doing.

    In my opin­ion, the best of the stuff that’s labeled “post­mod­ern” is really just a new com­bin­a­tion of nom­in­al­ism, anti-essentialism, and the­or­ies of power—all of which are enlight­en­ment or mod­ern ideas …

    Post-positivism? I think I might know what you mean by that, but I’m not sure (I think that’s another of those terms that people use dif­fer­ently). Can you say a word or two about how you’re using it?

    On agency: I get frus­trated about that term some­times. What I think is weird is people who charge “determ­in­ists” with not allow­ing for agency in their the­or­ies. To me, their cri­ti­cism seems to assume that if determ­in­ist the­or­ies are per­suas­ive then people won’t be able to be “agents” in the sense of chal­len­ging the status quo, which is an absurd idea.

    By the way, there’s noth­ing of sub­stance in this reply that deserves a response—I’m just ram­bling here!