Letters to Leila: Introduction
Cross-Posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age
A few weeks ago I phoned Leila J. Rupp, Professor and Chair of Women's Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (that's her at left in the photo, accompanied by her long-time partner, Verta Taylor).
Leila is also a former colleague in my department. I selected her as my faculty mentor during my first year as an assistant professor, and she graciously served in that capacity until I got tenure. She eventually became Chair of the Ohio State history department before moving on to UCSB. Even after I became tenured and the department no longer required me to have a formal mentor, I continued to consult Leila for three reasons: 1) she is one of the best all-around professional historians I have ever seen; 2) she is one of the kindest, most fundamentally decent people I have ever met; and 3) where Leila is concerned, I have long been smitten with a slight but unmistakable case of puppy love.
In that respect I differ little from many colleagues, staff, and graduate students who have known Leila, because she genuinely cares for others and, in return, is a widely beloved figure.
I called Leila because I needed her advice about something. She supplied it, and then we briefly updated each other about developments in our respective lives. Among other things I told her about my experiences with blogging. She knew nothing about the medium but grasped at once that I found it a useful tool in my professional life and was therefore all in favor of it. In a follow-up email, she wrote:
And thanks for telling me about your blog, I checked it out and it looks really fascinating. I have one question, a stupid one, how does one find blogs? Do they come up on google?
It's not a stupid question at all.
Globe of Blogs maintains a registry of blogs by title, topic, etc.
Cliopatria has a history blogroll.
Phliobiblon is maintained by Natalie Bennett, a freelance writer and commentator based in London. Her blogroll (the links to other blogs running down the righthand margin of the blog) has a lot of women's history/studies/feminism blogs.
Bitch PhD is an anonymous but very popular blog maintained by a feminist academic. On most days it's a lot of fun to read.
Evidently Bitch Ph.D. particularly tickled her fancy, because her next reply quoted just that snip of my email and said,"Thanks!"
Which could have been the end of the exchange. But I got to thinking about last summer and the whole Ivan Tribble affair -- that was when an anonymous academic wrote two essays for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he more or less declared that academics who kept blogs (especially those without the protection of tenure) were committing professional suicide. Cliopatria closely covered the reaction of the academic blogging community, so I won't rehearse it here. But I will say that in a cycle of private emails, several of us"Cliopatriarchs" -- that is, those listed on the Cliopatria masthead -- discussed how we might go about educating the non-blogging academic community to this new medium.
At one point, I suggested that it might be worthwhile to ask an academic unfamiliar with blogging, yet willing to approach it with an open mind, to read over a few blogs and offer impressions. People thought it a good suggestion; the difficulty lay in finding someone willing to donate their time and effort. On that matter the suggestion foundered -- until I realized that in Leila we might have just the scholar we needed.
So I fired off another email to Leila:
I wonder if I could ask a favor. I have often wondered about what it would be like to be -- for lack of a better term -- a"pre-blog academic" confronting a blog for the first time. The AHA Perspectives had this piece last year: [Ralph Luker's "Were There Blog Enough, and Time"] And a Harvard grad student wrote this in the Chronicle of Higher Education: ["Do Not Fear the Blog," by Rebecca A. Goetz]
But these are mainly conceptual defenses of the blog as a medium. They don't do much to orient new viewers to the practical issue of actually navigating a blog. Moreover, I think we have yet to think through a"best practices" model of academic blogs that would enable viewers to easily unlock the information they contain.
So the favor I'd like to ask is this. Could I compose a sort of [on-going] online open letter to you discussing these practical matters -- for instance, your question about where to locate blogs. You can ask me actual questions or not as may suit your time and interest. But I have found it helps from a human interest standpoint to discuss these things in terms of real people. So what I'd do is introduce you (and your program at UCSB: blogging functions as good advertising too) and then try to anticipate the questions/issues that would arise were you to explore the world of blogs (the"blogosphere"). I think people would find this useful and it would probably attract a number of helpful comments as well.
Let me know your thoughts.
Leila's response came back swiftly:
Sure, this sounds fine to me. I'm remembering one of the early orientations to -- I don't remember what, the internet? something on the computer. The computer people started talking about something and I remember saying,"OK, let's start at the beginning. I'm in my office. I sit down at my computer. I turn it on." That was the place I needed to start.
So that's the place I'm going to start. In order to keep things as straightforward as possible, I'm going to use my own weblog, Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, initially, for purposes of demonstration. (I'll probably shift eventually to a blog more in line with Leila's professional and personal interests). And for the early letters, I'll keep the hyperlinks and other fancy stuff to a minimum.
Although I will inform Leila of each installment of"Letters to Leila," I will as far as possible try to anticipate her most likely questions, because she's a very busy scholar and it would be unreasonable to ask her always to respond immediately or in great detail to each of these missives.
By busy, I mean to say not only that Leila serves as chair of the excellent UCSB Women's Studies Program, but also advises graduate students, undoubtedly has extensive university and professional service obligations, and maintains an enviable record of productivity, most recently an excellent book (co-written with Verta Taylor) entitled Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret (University of Chicago Press, 2003), which examines the ways in which drag queens" complicate," to use the jargon, conventionally accepted dichotomies of gender (male/female) and sexual orientation (gay/straight). I own a copy and absolutely love it. It's not only great scholarship, it's also a work of great humor, accessibility, and humanity. Indeed, I would recommend it to anyone in any discipline seeking a model of how to produce scholarship that entices rather than intimidates the general reader.
I welcome reader feedback and suggestions. Just bear in mind that this project is an introduction for scholars like Leila who are interested but uninitiated. We don't want craft letters that, in effect, are like asking them to drink from a fire hose.
UPDATE, 5:17 a.m.: The maiden"Letter to Leila" -- Navigating a Blog -- is now available.
Mark Grimsley - 3/20/2006
Actually, given the fact that this thread of posts is a counterattack on those academics who have a knee jerk scorn for blogs, I like to think of Leila as preparing to throttle a Tribble. Ivan Tribble, that is.
Eric Leigh Muller - 3/20/2006
Given the photo you've posted, "puppy love" was probably not the most apt phrase.
Manan Ahmed - 3/20/2006
I did a similar exercise a few years ago for my advisor. It ended up with me sending him 8-10 bookmarks on Iraq related bloggers [salam pax, i miss you] along with a cheatsheet to decode blogcode ["what's a troll and what in the world is MSM?"]. He is an avid reader now.
Mark Grimsley - 3/20/2006
That's an excellent suggestion about History Carnivals. I've skimmed your own precis concerning blogging and found it useful, too. Indeed, I'm sure a number of similar documents have been or are being produced as more blogging academics try to explain why blogging is a legitimate and valuable professional activity.
Does a compendium yet exist of such efforts? If not, it would be well to create one, organized by category and emphasis.
Thanks again. I hope and trust the suggestions and feedback will contunue.
Jonathan Dresner - 3/20/2006
My advice to scholars who haven't gotten into blogs yet would be to find one that seems to have a good match to some interest you have, and see what that blog does and who it links to.
Check out the carnivals: not to get a 'sense of the field' (that's for later) but to use them like speed-dating interviews to find those blogs whose tone or topics are a decent match. Just as you'd read the latest journals to find out who's hot in a new field, the carnivals serve to highlight some of the best work. The instructions? Go to blogcarnivals.com (I love this site!) and search for "history."
Not all of the best work ends up in carnivals, of course. Once you've found a reasonably good starting blog, though, it's time to learn how to read a blogroll....
Not to toot my own horn or anything, but you might find this useful: I was initially very dubious about this blogging thing, myself....