Saturday, March 17, 2007

Of Blogs and Substance

Over at The Valve, there's been an interesting discussion evolving that was kicked off by an editorial at n+1 magazine which criticized litblogs generally for failing to live up to what the editors saw as the potential of the medium:
People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. In practice, blogs reveal how much we are unwitting stenographers of hip talk and marketing speak, and how secondhand and often ugly our unconscious impulses still are. The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested .... The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satisfaction—"The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!"—or displeasure—"I shit on Dante!” So man hands information on to man.
I have not read back through all of the give and take surrounding the litblog controversy, but I have spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what the relationship is between blogging and "real" writing. I don't think it's reasonable to measure the thinking and the writing that is to be found on litblogs or edublogs to stand up to the same kind of scrutiny that one might give to an article published in a magazine with even a few editors, whose job it presumably is to (first) select and (second) edit and (third) check sources for what they are publishing. Bloggers don't have that kind of backup. Most blogs, as far as I can see, are written more or less regularly, and more or less in an exploratory mode. Bloggers are often writing in the heat of the moment, or in the cool of the evening, or over a cup of morning coffee, and what shows up on the screen is, unsurprisingly, at least partially spontaneous. And for those of us who submit ourselves to the practice of blogging as a kind of intellectual discipline, a writing practice of sorts, there is, in fact, a need for speed, at least if we are going to post something with any regularity. I've posted something pretty much every day for four months now, and if I had been looking over my shoulder at those who would be measuring what I was writing against the Platonic ideal of an essay, the definitive statement based on exhaustive research and deep critical analysis, it's unlikely that I would have posted anything at all. Often as I write, especially in the evening, I have one eye on the clock. Even if I were inclined to want to stay up writing for a few more hours, I've got to be up at 5:45 to be ready for my day at school, and so I often begin thinking about bringing a post to a close by 10:00, even while ideas for how to extend it are darting about in my mind. So I guess what I'm saying is that I view the blog less as a theater or arena for performance and more as a kind of playground or practice area. I suspect that somewhere down the line I may be able to go back into my posts and pull together some of the threads and try to weave them into something more fully elaborated and more carefully documented, but that's not really what's on my agenda from day to day.

Granted, there are many edubloggers (Doug Noon and Chris Sessums spring to mind) who hold themselves to a higher standard, who choose to post less frequently, but whose posts are more carefully shaped and more fully developed because they have taken the time to make them that way. But even they are most often engaged in a sort of ongoing dialogue which (thankfully) does not have the feel of traditional formal educational discourse. I would argue that that's the compromise all bloggers face: do we post more often at the risk of superficiality, or hold out for depth at the risk of long periods of silence? I think we all negotiate that territory in different ways. But again, it seems to me that it is in the nature of blogs to be more spontaneous and less formal, and that that is not a bad thing. One of the things I most value as a blog reader is the occasionality and spontaneity of the medium.

And I think, at least so far, that the same holds true of student blogs. I have noticed that if I give an assignment to one class and ask them to post it to their blog, and give the same assignment to another class and have them hand it in to me, the ones that show up on paper tend to be more fully developed and more carefully crafted than the ones that show up on the screen. Maybe that's because they're still new at it. Maybe it's because they know I'm not going to slap a grade on it. Maybe it's because I haven't yet insisted on raising the bar. Or maybe the indictment rings true: maybe there is something about the immediacy and informality of the medium that "encourages.. the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested." My challenge with my students, as with myself, is to encourage them to keep at it, while also encouraging them to ratchet up their expectations of what a substantive blog post might look like.

1 comment:

Miss Profe said...

Bruce, I have reflected on the very points you address in your post. I tend to write in one sitting, as well as every day. However, I am trying to refrain from writing on the weekends, so that I may read and comment on others' blogs, and, so that I can get things done to keep my life moving.:)

For me, while blogging is about composing a well-written piece in terms of form and content, it is my canvas for experimentation, for contemplation, for reflection, and for sharing. Blogs have often been compared to diaries and journals. So, with respect to the Wave commentary, it does not apply to what I write on my blog. Unless, of course, I blog for money, which I don't.