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Old English, New Media: Blogging Beowulf

Mary Kate Hurley, Columbia University

(via Old English Newsletter)

read this essay in .pdf format (83 KB)

During the question and answer session after a lecture I gave at my alma mater, Wake Forest University, an undergraduate in my former advisor’s Old English class asked a question for which I was not quite prepared: “It seems to me that the writing you do on your blog and the project you’ve just outlined are very connected. Can you talk about that?” I was a bit surprised at first—undergraduates read my blog? I thought, before remembering that my advisor had sent a piece I’d written on the recent movie Beowulf to her class before I visited. More importantly, the talk I had just finished giving was based on the argument in my dissertation prospectus. Could it be that something many people considered only marginally professional might be affecting—or worse yet, infecting!—my scholarly work?

My participation in the academic “blogosphere” began about a year and a half ago. Called Old English in New York (subtitled English. Before it met French), [1] the blog was a project I started in April of 2006 in preparation for my upcoming oral exams, which were scheduled to take place about a year later. In my opening post, I described the blog as “a combined form of motivation and procrastination … as well as a forum to connect with other people out there studying English, and particularly medieval English.” [2] My intention, in the beginning, was that my “work” blog would allow me to share my thoughts in a semi-public form as I read for exams, in addition to giving me a space to learn how to write about medieval literature for an actual audience. [3] At the time, I did not write under my own name, but under the pseudonym Anhaga—which I soon realized did nothing to obscure my identity for my graduate school colleagues, who had heard me speak about the Wanderer quite often during my first two years at Columbia. From the very beginning, my blog identity was a bit of an open secret—I would not broadcast to colleagues that I had a blog, but I would not deny it if someone brought it up.

My attachment to the pseudonym I used on the blog was clearly a bit ambivalent. Luckily for me, and for anyone else who is interested in questions of voice, anonymity and authorship, whether on the internet or in more traditional media, a number of academic bloggers have addressed the implications of anonymity in blog authorship. Blogs have been in existence for over a decade, although some would argue that they only really captured the public’s attention in the last five years. The reasons for remaining anonymous or pseudonymous vary widely among bloggers. A scholar who spoke on the topic at the MLA in 2006 considered the use of pseudonyms in eighteenth-century periodicals in order to analyze academic blogging, suggesting that “[w]hen pseudonymity becomes a generic feature, as with essay periodicals and blogs, one of the things that means is that the genre entails risk, that publishing is risky.” [4] Indeed, blogs (particularly those with pseudonymous authors) tend to present the reader with personae which may or may not resemble the academic behind them. And while you might think that the mask of anonymity would encourage a mild-mannered academic to bluster up a swaggering, outspoken, in-your-face kind of tone, in fact the opposite seems just as often to be the case. In her comments on the first “Blogger Meet-up” at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo in 2006, medievalist and pseudonymous blogger “Dr. Virago” observed that “some bloggers who use their blogs to voice their anxieties and insecurities seem much more confident, polished, and even potentially intimidating in real life.” [5] She goes on to suggest that “[a]nonymous blogs allow us to express feelings that might otherwise seem ‘unprofessional’ to our colleagues, that would make us seem like we weren’t ‘handling’ things, or that would generally make us seem needy or not together.” Anonymity can, in fact, encourage intimacy and honesty. A number of pseudonymous bloggers use the space to write about the more personal side of our discipline, as a way to work through the anxieties and fears that lurk in any kind of intellectual work and are often heightened in the hyper-competitive world of academia. In a world in which your ideas will make or break you, any crack in your armor can seem a monumental weakness; all too often our own insecurities can seem overwhelming. Pseudo- or anonymity allows a certain gap, useful and protective, between one’s real-world persona and the persona created for the online medium.

Less than a year after beginning Old English in New York, however, I found that pseudonymous blogging was no longer consistent with the vision I had for how blogging would intersect with my work. I had noticed early on that the writing I posted to the blog was only rarely related to my readings for exams. My writing had become a form of intellectual procrastination, tending to focus on the reworking of the medieval in the present day through movies, stage-shows and books. The summer of 2006 saw a number of such reworkings of the story of Beowulf (including an opera at Lincoln Center), and part of my “job” in blogging, as I perceived it, was to chronicle these events. More importantly, and surprisingly for me, it seemed as I sought out and wrote on these modern re-envisionings of the Anglo-Saxon world that an increasing part of my writing was devoted to finding something redeeming in a genre destined to be pitilessly mocked by academia.

Simultaneously, I was discovering the pleasure of participating in the intellectual community of medievalist bloggers, although my pseudonymous status restricted the types of properly academic work I was willing to post to the web. As I’ve watched colleagues finish their Ph.D.s and go onto the job market, our professors have repeatedly emphasized that as medievalists, when we give a job talk at a smaller school we may often be speaking to scholars who are not in our field. Thus, when writing job talks, the intended audience is not a community of specialists. Another lesson to be learned from this exercise was that the intellectual community of graduate school, and the ease with which one finds a group of colleagues with whom one can speak of one’s work, will not last. More often, we will be the only medievalists at our institutions, a situation that is only exacerbated if you study Anglo-Saxon. That being said, medievalists are not the only scholars who find the community and camaraderie of the blogosphere to be one of its more important features. In a recent roundtable at UC-Irvine (later posted to the periodical “Inside Higher Ed”), Adam Kotsko and Scott Eric Kaufmann, both of whom are active contributors to academic blogs, gave differing opinions on the utility of the blog format as a forum for making scholarly connections. [6]

Kotsko’s assessment of the role blogs can play in academic discourse is twofold. He points to the model of political blogs, which “link to and comment on particular news stories” and so bring them to the attention of a wider reading community. [7] Taken into the realm of academic blogging (and perhaps particularly blogging in the humanities), and added to the wider availability of academic resources online, academic blogs might usefully function to bring “new scholarly research to the attention of an interdisciplinary audience” by disseminating and commenting on new ideas and sources as they become available. Kotsko’s final word on the utility of academic blogging, however, is ambivalent. For him, blogs are “best-suited as a social outlet for academics who would otherwise feel isolated, creating camaraderie and supplementing the social aspects of disciplinary conferences.” Kaufmann, on the other hand, sees a brighter future for the prospect of blogging in the academy. Maintaining a fairly high readership with his blog Acephalous has given Kaufmann a certain visibility within the scholarly community, but the real payoff is in the experience he has gained not only as an academic but as an academic author—blogging has given him the opportunity to learn “what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience.” [8] Furthermore, he poses a particularly challenging question to specialists: “Why not write for people who don’t already [know] how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?”

Kaufmann’s questions here are ones I routinely pose to my first year writing students, encouraging them away from what the Rhetoric and Composition specialists call “writer-based prose” and toward the far more engaging “reader-based prose.” It is a fine line to walk; what academic blogs can do, however, is allow all of us an opportunity to write for the non-specialist, to attempt to make complex arguments without being obscure. In responding to both of these authors, Joseph Kugelmass makes the point (one I hope will be well taken) that blogs allow an interface between the academy and the “public” in a way that more traditional scholarly outlets such as journals, edited collections and books seldom do. Moreover, he claims that “[h]umanistic blogs are one way of restoring the connection between scholarly tradition and the new plenitude of culture.” [9] In short, they allow the humanities to be accessed by their subject—humans.

Kugelmass concludes his meditation on the use of blogging in the formation of academic communities with a possibility that might be familiar to many, the idea (though not explicitly stated) of the workshop. Conversations on a blog, he suggests, might function as “stepping-stones to mainstream work: ironing the kinks out of a journal article, gathering sources for a dissertation, drafting a keynote address or the chapter of a book.” Blogging, then, allows a lower-stakes audience for a work-in-progress, and thus allows for the author to take risks he or she might not otherwise take, and benefit from readers’ comments and responses. In line with Kaufmann, he highlights the development of the author in the writing of a blog, arguing that “the opportunity exists to turn blogging into something more than an interstitial occupation, for the lonely times, and the idle times. It can be the practice, as vital in scholarship as in friendship among equals, of discovering a voice.” The idea of a practice inherent in blogging—a practice which should be highlighted as a process rather than a product—is key, for Kugelmass and for many academic bloggers (myself included), in the formation of “voice.” [10]

I would argue that the idea of developing one’s academic “voice” is one of the most valuable and rewarding aspects of academic blogging. In May of 2007, after numerous conversations with colleagues at Kalamazoo about the possible ramifications (positive and negative) of letting go of my pseudonym, Old English in New York’s “Anhaga” was relieved of her duties of authorship, and I “claimed my voice.” [11] Since then I have used the blog as a forum for promoting the activities of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium, as well as posting interesting calls for papers and descriptions of conferences in the New York area. After having been a frequent commenter on the medieval group blog In the Middle (founded by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in 2006), I was asked in August 2007 to join the collaborative project there as the resident graduate student blogger. [12] In the Middle, and the community that has formed around it, is, to be sure, a forum in which I share my own ideas and projects. It has also, however, and perhaps more importantly to the development of my academic voice, allowed me to be an active commenter and interlocutor for the work of other academics.

Through Old English in New York and now In the Middle, I have found a community of scholars with similar interests, who want to provoke and participate in discussions about the work we do. I would suggest that a part of what is gained in the blogging community is not simply a chance to think aloud on one’s own topics, but to be affected by each others’ work. Even when topics range outside our own areas of expertise, we can still comment usefully and intelligently on each others’ ideas. Moreover, I have found that the ideas and questions raised on the blogs linger with me, and hold a purchase on my imagination which can only enlarge my breadth as a scholar. This kind of interaction often encourages imaginative juxtapositions in what I call a “Forsterian” scholarship, drawing on the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. Our work is to “only connect”: to connect ideas, people, cultures and texts in a network that might, in the end, be best described not only as human but also as humane:

[W]ithout conversation, especially among those who seek, not to tear down your ideas, but to help you make them better and more theoretically rigorous, I really don’t believe there is much traction for really good work to develop its highest potential, or else whatever ‘victory’ you do achieve with your work is, again, kind of lonely, maybe even empty. [13]

Here, Eileen Joy picks up on my Forsterian theme, suggesting that scholarly work at its best is always a process of collaboration. Blogs are becoming a fruitful way for us, as scholars seeking to create a community of thinkers, to reach out across the distances that separate us to form a kind of global classroom in which we can all benefit from each others’ expertise early on in projects that can be made more astute through the interaction. And by holding these conversations in a forum that is readily accessible to a culture that is increasingly engaging the texts we study, we have a chance to let intellectuals and enthusiasts who are not academics see inside the “ivory tower” a bit more. Perhaps in the process, that tower might be dismantled, allowing the study of medieval cultures and texts a place in a society that often finds it inaccessibly remote. All we need do is connect.

Notes

This essay has benefited from comments from a number of scholars, both on and off the internet, on the general topic of academic blogging. Most importantly, I wish to thank my co-bloggers at In the Middle, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Eileen Joy and Karl Steel, for their encouragement throughout my adventures in blogging, and for their intellectual rigor and engagement in our ongoing dialogue.

[1] http://oldenglishnyc.blogspot.com.

[2] “To begin with …” Old English in New York. 27 April 2006. http://oldenglishnyc.blogspot.com/2006/04/to-begin-with.html.

[3] A recent review of the web traffic for my site by Sitemeter.com suggests that, in addition to regular readers, this audience is composed of what I presume to be a number of Old English students, who search Google for “Beowulf” and “analysis.”

[4] Although this scholar did speak at the MLA, she removed her real name from the posting of the paper on her blog. Bitch, Ph.D., “Academic Blogging Part II: ‘I’m Nobody, Who are You?’” Bitch Ph.D. 28 January 2007. http://bitchphd.blogspot.com/2007/01/academic-blogging-part-ii.html.

[5] Dr. Virago, “Why Bloggers and Kzoo Do Mix” Quod She. 19 May 2006. http://quodshe.blogspot.com/2006/05/why-bloggers-and-kzoo-do-mix.html.

[6] Adam Kotsko blogs at The Weblog (http://www.adamkotsko.com/weblog/); Scott Eric Kaufman blogs at Acephalous (http://acephalous.typepad.com/), and is a contributor to The Valve (http://www.thevalve.org/).

[7] Adam Kotsko, “A Skeptic’s Take on Academic Blogs.” Inside Higher Ed. 1 November 2007. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/11/01/kotsko.

[8] Scott Eric Kaufman, “An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogging.” Inside Higher Ed. 1 November 2007. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/11/01/kaufman.

[9] Joseph Kugelmass, “Academic Blogging Revisited.” The Valve. 1 November 2007. http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/academic_blogging_revisited/.

[10] Here I would like to thank the director and assistant directors of the University Writing Program at Columbia, Joseph Bizup and Nicole Wallack, for introducing me to the theoretical aspects of writing, and in particular this focus on process, which is one of the key components of the course.

[11] “Claiming my Voice.” Old English in New York. 16 May 2007. http://oldenglishnyc.blogspot.com/2007/05/kalamazoo-07-claiming-my-voice.html

[12] Although In the Middle began as a single-author blog, Cohen has hosted a number of guest bloggers during the two years of its existence, including Jon K. Williams and Michael O’Rourke. The first In the Middle “book club” event featured contributions from Susan Kim, Heather Blurton and Asa Mittman. Karl Steel and Eileen Joy, who are now co-bloggers with Cohen, also began their work on the blog as guest bloggers.

[13] Eileen Joy, Comment on “Scholarship and Blogs part 54656” by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. In the Middle. 21 December 2007. http://jjcohen.blogspot.com/2007/12/scholarship-and-blogs-part-54756.htm.

Old English and Medieval Blogs: A Beginning List

Although a full listing of academic blogs would be impractical to compile here, I would like to offer a few of my favorites. By following the authors’ links on these sites, you can continue on to explore the world of medieval blogging.