Ceci n’est pas une Blague

in univerCity| wizbango! tech

I rebuild the mySql db four times. I wrote the mod_rewrites 1,0000 times. Hell will be a gigantic database with millions of entries in millions of tables. The angel will ask me to find all instances of the *./*.html and replace it with $1/$2/. By hand. When I am finished he will tell me that I forgot the php tag. When I redo it over, I will be informed that, um, the tag was un-necessary, take it off, and put the html back again.

Oh wait. That won’t be hell because that was last night.

I think the crazy part of the transition is over. The permalinks mess. Now, I can preserve my excellent google page rank®. No fear.

I won’t have time to do the external work on the site until this weekend maybe. Before that, in preparation for Friday’s meeting, I wanted to put some thoughts on paper concerning academic blogging.

At the offset, we have to make distinctions and gradations. All blogs are not created equal. Similarly, all bloggers are not the same kind of bloggers. Blogging – a time-stamped tool for disseminating information and receiving feedback – is as vast and diverse a phenomenon as those with access to a computer terminal. Let’s chart out within that cosmos, our concern: “academic blogging”.

The wrong definition for academic blogging would be, academics who blog [yes, tenured professor who have a needlepoint community on LiveJournal do not count as academic bloggers. a w00t for them, notwithstanding]. In my opinion, the criteria should be 1. whether the person is an academic by training/profession and 2. whether a significant portion of the blog represents the person’s engagement with wider world of their academic or civilizational concerns.

I think both of these criteria are quite necessary because I think blogging is evolving into a cleaner connection with the authorial voice and authorial identity. Being trained in and/or being in the profession makes crucial difference in this public discourse. A Google engineer with a Ph.D. in CS is a credible source for understanding Google APIs just as a Sanskritist with a Ph.D. is a credible source for understanding Upanishads. Obviously this doesn’t mean either of those sources would be infallible or exhaustive. Which leads to another issue: Is a Google engineer just as credible when she is discussing Middle East political landscape? How about a Sanskritist talking about modern Middle East? See, how expertise traps you in a sandbox? What must be kept clear is that the academic stamp is only one step. The more important step is the archive that the academic puts forth for the world at large. This is where training becomes crucial – Reading primary sources, synthesizing information in a coherent and judicial narrative, being able to speak to wider and thematic concerns.

So, what exactly should an academic be doing with her academic blog? Making a critical engagement with the social and political world that she inhabits. The typical, and to a certain degree fair criticism, is that the academic world is a bubble: Micro-specialists writing abstract texts in archaic journals and books; giving each other tenure while chuckling about their liberal hegemony. The domain of “real world” – political or economical or religious is ceded to journalists or politicians or pundits. Silly is the academic who ventures to write for a “popular” audience. I think this view is an exaggerated one but it is, nonetheless, grounded in some reality. Of all the Middle East/Islam tenured faculty I know, only 2 regularly write op-eds or give interviews to radio or tv. For the rest, this may be a lunch conversation. This is where a blog as a medium comes in handy. It is no op-ed page at the NYT, but it’s a good start. It is the piece that not only can start this intellectual engagement with the public but also highlight it. Martha Nussbaum blogs. Becker and Posner blog. Obviously, everyone at Harvard Law blogs.

Why do I blog? I happen to believe in scholarship that directly engages with the political. I believe that my concerns of history, of narrative, of faith are not limited to 13th c. Indo-Persian historiography but crucial to the ways in which I perceive and understand the contemporary world. Those are the concerns that animated me to start a blog. I may not succeed everyday – but I try. As a scholar, it is not coming out of the ivory tower into the real world, it is bringing the world into the ivory tower. Two exemplars from the field of history, that I would like to point out: Mark Grimsley and Timothy Burke.

So, let us say that you are an academic and you blog largely about your concerns – does it stop you from getting a job? does it prevent you getting tenure? That seems to be the b.i.g. question, right? Dan Drezner having been denied tenure here. Except he got a tenured gig elsewhere. In the ME field, there is Juan Cole setting the standard and opening up the door for many other scholars – Joshua Landis comes to mind – and other collectives [I should note that Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes are the real trailblazers – albeit reactionary – in engaging directly with the broader public]. But, then Middle East is always in the news. In South Asia, I cannot think of any senior, tenured historian. The public sphere is left for people like Stephen P. Cohen or Hussain Haqqani or whomever lived there for a week. Akbar S. Ahmed being one exception. He is big in Europe. So, step up all ye tenured and untenured faculty.

Step up to what? Where is academic blogging heading? One hint is the UChicago Law School blog. That is, department or program level blogs that produce a clear window into the academic world for the rest of the world. Can you imagine a prospective graduate or undergraduate looking at all the blog-posts of the history department at UChicago? To see exactly what the faculty is up to…not just through bounded volume but a live discussion.

The second venue is towards collaborative projects. A collective effort – whether towards advocacy or pedagogy or anything – based around the distinct technologies like blogs, wikis, podcasts is bound to make a clear and defined impact on the field. Hence, my great hopes for the South Asia Sourcebook Project.

In the meantime, back to blogging about Disco.

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