On Academic Blogging with Amitava Kumar

The esteemed Amitava Kumar, who wrote the foreword for the CM book, interviewed me for his column on academic blogging:

Manan Ahmed is a historian. He is also a blogger who started the blog Chapati Mystery. His blog-posts have been curated into a book that is coming out this month. Manan’s publisher asked me to write a Foreword to this book. (I did, but damn, I wish I had come up with the sentence “His is a canny insurgency of the keyboard and the kilobytes.”) I’m going to quote later from the Foreword, but first a brief interview with the author. The idea is to treat this occasion as a discussion of the phenomenon of academic blogging.

Tell me a bit about your starting Chapati Mystery. When did you do it, and what was the immediate reason?

The immediate reason was to speak to my brother in Pakistan who was disturbed by the stories he was reading about Pakistan/Islam/Middle East in the American press. Hence, media criticism was at the heart of it. However, more broadly, since 2002 and the launch of the Iraq War, I had grown increasingly frustrated and angry about the unanimity of war porn around me.

Were there other academic bloggers that you were reading at that time? What was the difference that you thought you could make?

Juan Cole who was running his Informed Comment and Angry Arab who had his News. Both were tenured faculty in Middle East Studies and they were both incredibly vigilant against US media and thorough in presenting views/news from the warzone. However, neither concentrated on Pakistan/Afghanistan issues and I felt that I could contribute specifically in that hole. Of course, there were other academic bloggers (like Amardeep Singh or Crooked Timber or Language Hat whom I read with great pleasure) but CM was decidedly on the political end of things.

What are your views on what often gets called “academic blogging?”

Perhaps unlike most of the academic bloggers, I had a lot of experience with web-publishing (since the mid ’90s, courtesy of an active career in IT). I thought that blogging software allowed a greater democratization for publishing on a space that was already fairly open. I was/am very vocal in my support for it. In May 2005, I wrote an essay for the American Historical Association’s magazine encouraging historians to blog more. The beauty of the open web for academic writing was the undifferentiated readership and the quick/dirty feedback mechanism.

It was a stark contrast to the studied ways in which our universities handle “open dialogue” where we show up at designated times; assemble ourselves on carefully aligned furniture; listen to a highly didactic and structured speech for 45 minutes and maybe get the chance to ask one question. This is neither “open” nor “dialogue.” The typical university talk is never ever advertised off-campus and rarely manages to get people even from neighboring departments. Yet, academia wants to pat itself on the shoulder about being the last bastion of freedom for exchange of ideas. It is a rather laughable assertion.

So anyways. The point is that while we cherish open-ness or dialogue, we relish our closed structures and cordoned-off and privileged hallways. Academic blogging, to this graduate student, was a way out of this clubbiness. Over the years, I have tested ideas for articles, posted conference papers, talked about books in the field and out of the field, challenged other historians and their interpretations. And for each, received both genuine and amazingly instructive feedback and crazy ad-hominem attacks. I am grateful for both. (I should add that as a result of blogging I have had four academic publications, half a dozen academic conference invitations and countless other specifically academic benefits — references, reviews, gossip etc. etc.)

Also, were you ever advised to wait till you had got tenure?

Yes! A number of times. More specifically I was advised that I won’t be able to get an academic job being a blogger (they will just google you and find out all the crazy shit you said!). But the tenure thing was just silly. If I am silent now, I am silent after I get tenure as well. My speech is not, and can not, be tagged to the expediency of my personal life. If something is worth saying, it is worth saying now.

Please tell me what it is that you do when you blog. What are your rules for blogging?

This has changed, of course, over time and is specific to topics. Usually, I want to show something that I feel is hidden in plain sight. It is mostly a historical connection, but sometimes it is a way in which the politics gets framed. I try to avoid long pieces. And I try to use images to talk specifically with my text.

Finally, what have been the changes since you started? The changes in your audience, but also in the sphere of social media.

I can now reach and talk to spheres which were completely inaccessible to me earlier (editors of op-ed pages, the White House press corps, politicians in PK etc). My audience is also remarkably different and both of these are as a result of participating in social media for the last six years and feeding into it. Twitter has changed my blogging and my online reading. It is now my primary place for link aggregation and short commentary. It is also the primary interaction with social media. It is actually miles improvement over the blog/comment model and I think my blogging is completely changed as a result of it. The community building/outreach efforts for academics in twitter are so vast and vastly under-utilized. Maybe I need to write a follow-up for the American Historical Association?

From the Foreword:

When you read a good practitioner of any form of writing you are also provided a lesson in the practice of the art itself. Here’s what you learn from Manan Ahmed about blogging: Blogs should be short in order to be true to their medium; bound to the everyday, they should appear like fresh blood on the bandage. Ahmed’s posts possess both these qualities. As a blogger, Ahmed has too much quickness and wit to sound sententious; he is also far too self-conscious, or just plain honest, to ever wrap himself in sanctimony. These qualities not only make him eminently readable, they also push his writings, which deal with grim issues of culture and bloody politics, toward a kind of startling poignance. I know very few writers who lead us to rich sentiment as a refinement of thought itself. Ahmed is one of them. There is also something else in this writing: it is youthful, hip, eager to reach out to the world. I don’t mean I see here a naïve friendliness. No, as should be deduced from the idea of the blog, there is a desire to engage in a conversation, sure, but it is a critical conversation, full of attitude. Think of the young Los Angeles-based South Asian hip-hop artist Chee Malabar singing: “…From Madras to Mombasa, / they harass us in our casa sayin, ‘You Hamas huh?’ / ‘Yeah, like I learned to rap in a fucking Madrasah.’” Lastly, the blog posts that have been assembled for this book do not have the Saran Wrap of retrospective packaging: They possess the immediacy of newborn hope, and of a fear that is more like foreboding than settled despair. As a reader, coming upon these entries again, I’m instantly transported to the moment of their making. Thanks to Ahmed, you and I are alive to history.

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He teaches English at Vassar College.

Shut Down the NEH


In the list of horrible waste of tax-payer’s hard earned money exposed by Fox News, I saw this:

$50,000 to build a computer model of an ancient city in Pakistan complete with “animated and interactive ‘inhabitants’.

If history is our guide, it won’t be long before these inhabitants fall to radical ideologies and turn back on the NEH! Agent-based computing models are already rife with terrorists and terrorist-sympathizers. We know this.

I was curious, so I managed to actually track this grant down: Virtual Taxila: A Web-Accessible, Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE) of an Ancient Indian City by Daniel Michon.

This cannot end well.

Life Photographs

You might have found out, by now, that Google has uploaded Life magazine’s trove of photographs from the 1860s onwards onto their formidable servers. They are of decent quality – with some tags/Labels. The viewer, of course, cannot add their own notations, labels and tags.1 I would have liked to see this in Flickr with their level of user-interaction. These photos need metadata, folks. Us historians cannot make sense or teach from them, unless you let us interact with the metadata. Not to mention that I would have loved to see a “page scan” along with the photograph to get a sense of how these images were consumed upon initial reception. As it is, I am not even sure if the “Date taken” corresponds to the date of issue or not.

Still, some amazing South Asia stuff. Moslem League, Muslim League, Jinnah, and most intriguingly, Kipling’s India.

Some newfound favorites:

Tear down the Wall (via sarah)

  1. If they did allow it, I could tell them that the shopkeepers are obviously not posing in front of their “spice store” but their local optician []

Surfing on Crowds

A week or so ago Stephen Mihm had an interesting article in Boston Globe, Everyone’s a historian now: How the Internet – and you – will make history deeper, richer, and more accurate. Mihm concentrated on the effect of crowd sourcing on history as a research/archival practice, but I have been thinking about the positive contributions to pedagogy as well.

Google Earth – the application which allows you to fly around the world and find oddities – is a case in point. Historians would be delighted to know that Google Earth has an amazing array of communities dedicated to charting out time and event in space. For example, the battles and routes of Alexander the Great which includes his route, maps of cities and sites of battles. You can download the .kmz file (aka the Google Earth file) and open it up in your copy of Google Earth. Now you can fly like a bird alongside Alexander with notes and comments from the wikipedia, from the Google Earth community, from National Geographic and host of other sources. Surely, you can see the amazing opportunity that offers as an aid-in-teaching. Or, look at the Life of Muhammad which is incredibly detailed time and place map of the Prophet. Or, Paris in 1808. Or, footsteps of Buddha. You can find your own interest at the moderated History,Illustrated forum or the broader Educators forum. You can also simply search for keywords with .kmz extensions.

Going back to Mihm, these are more than collective applications of research or documentation; they allow us to present history in altogether new formats to our students. It grants a physicality to history that often has to struggle to be taken as “real” – separated as it is with time and distance from any typical classroom (yes, I wish I was teaching Civil War history in South Carolina or Muhammad b. Qasim in Thatta). This is not simply crowd-sourcing intelligence, it is re-illuminating our solo-sourced research with crowd-generated technology.

The recent news at Google I/O was that Google Earth is coming to the browser which opens up great possibilities of creating our own versions of digital archives that adhere to the geographical spaces.

Textual Commentary

One of my favorite activity in the archive was to work on the marginalia of the manuscript – mostly just trying to decipher but often thinking through the gloss it ‘added’ to the text.

Thinking about digital archives, I have been keenly aware that this ‘conversation on the margins’ must be incorporated into the text – along with layers, annotations etc – if we are to ever fully realize the promise of hypertext. [Basically think of having the Discussion and the History sections of any wikipedia entry remaining integral to the presentation of the text while adding commenting].

We can take, at least, one step forward on that project today: The Institute of the Book’s newly released Open Source Word Press theme, CommentPress 1.0. It allows one to display a text with the unique ability that interlocutors can discuss down to an individual paragraph. The genius of course is that in breaking the text up in such a manner, it makes the text far more legible and readable online.

This is a first step but I think that the Future of the Book folks deserve a huge round of applause.

In terms of application for historians, an easy one is the ability to workshop a paper – elicit comments, suggestions, etc.

Some of us from the history blogging world will be doing a roundtable at the AHA in January. Our intention is to present our panel work at Memory Matters. On this site, in the coming months, we will expand, discuss, debate some of the themes that underline our research and which we will presenting at AHA. Hopefully, this will serve as an example – even if it ends up being a cautionary one – of extending the ways in which we share and learn.

Hey Malkovich, Think Fast.

I have been seriously amiss [um] in acknowledging the [somewhat disconcerting] distinction that friends & gentle readers of CM have bestowed [in service of a meme (those things are still around? {apparently})]: It makes them think.

Mucho thanks, folks. As a meme, it has some rules. Like linking to this post and listing five bloggers who make me think. Well, that’s easy enough: e., who I can’t believe I have yet to meet; juan who I have met and can confirm is a scholar and a gentleman; angry arab, who amazes me with his wit; joshua, who will be no surprise to anyone but still; and zp, whose posts I look forward to like none other. Ok, now I can go back to my no-meme rule.