Saturday, June 9, 2012

Penultimate post: on blogging

Despite my evident pique in the last post about comments (a bit more on that later), I certainly enjoyed blogging for the last 16 months or so (about the same time as it took the FA to negotiate the last contract, as it happens). I'm obviously vain enough to enjoy having my moderate rants broadcast to some number of readers, who if not legion were at least rather more than the couple of people around the water cooler I would have vented to otherwise.

Blogging came rather easily to me. It's occurred to me that it is not entirely unlike the scholarly mode in which I wrote my dissertation: a commentary. A bit more on that, then on possible goals for a blog like this, and this blog's successes and failures in meeting such goals.

A scholarly commentary (mine was on the Platonic or Pseudo-Platonic Alcibiades 1) is of course a more serious undertaking than a blog, or at least requires greater expertise (mine ideally would have involved mastery of ancient Greek grammar, Greek history, Socratic philosophy, Greek history, the manuscript tradition of Plato, etc.). But, rather like a blog, it doesn't require you to research, articulate, and defend any grand hypothesis in the way that a scholarly monograph traditionally aims to do. You have some responsibility to address a large range of issues and provide some guidance for your readers, but you needn't solve every problem, and you have some control over how much time you'll spend on any given problem. In those areas where you find the research productive and think you'll have new contributions to make, you do more work; where you find an issue particularly thorny, or of limited interest, you can be more superficial.

Blogging about the various controversies here at SIUC was rather similar. When I heard of the controversy of the day, I sometimes felt I had to say something, whether I had anything to say or not. And if, upon beginning to draft a post, I found myself without much of substance to add, I could simply throw out a few comments, link to relevant coverage in the media, and move on. More often than not, though, I found myself getting more and more involved in the ramifications and nuances of a particular issue, ended up writing long posts when I had planned on shorter ones, and found that the limit to my contribution wasn't lack of things to say but the sense that I had better get back to my day job--coupled, of course, with some understanding that the longer my post was, the less likely it was that the post would get read all the way through, most readers having day jobs of their own, after all.

While I am, to be honest, as I sometimes am, rather proud of many of the posts I've written (often those that attracted fewer hits and fewer comments than most), what I'm most certain about is that some such semi-public forum as this can play a very useful role on campus. This is in part because we live in a society where bloggers have had to pick up much of the work that one imagines a better funded journalistic sector once may have done--though I don't know if Carbondale ever supported a terribly robust local media. Nothing against local reporters, by the way, several of whom I got to know a bit during the strike crisis. I found them almost without exception hard-working and open-minded. We are lucky to have the Carbondale Times, which often includes important stories (though they played a tiny role here as they only recently developed a web presence), and the DE often does truly amazing work. The Southern Illinoisan, despite its very conservative editorial stance, by and large does a balanced job of reporting. All these journalists made the work I did here possible. I can't really comment on local TV news, which I never watch, but the reporters I met during the strike were pleasant and professional to work with (if also almost always young and inexperienced). But all these reporters are stretched too thin to develop much expertise about the university and the issues it faces.

A blog like this could also play a role that goes beyond the journalistic. The SIUC faculty, for a large number of reasons, doesn't really form much of a community. Those reasons include our sheer size, and the diversity of the programs we offer; our isolation from one another is also likely part and parcel of the larger tendency toward individualism and isolation that is so prevalent in this culture of ours.

One of my lingering unrealized hopes in entering academia was that I would be part of a vibrant intellectual community of the sort I imagined my own professors belonged to--as well they might have, as I went to a peculiar and tiny liberal arts college where such a thing was possible. Of course there are risks to cohesiveness, which can result in an oppressive sense that one is living in a fish bowl, with one's every move under scrutiny. But here I think it is fair to say that there's far too little in the way of community. I think there's huge untapped potential here: the more faculty I get to know, the more I find we have in common, even across huge disciplinary divides.

Administrators here realize the problem, to some extent; hence the talk of eliminating "silos", working collaboratively and in an interdisciplinary manner, etc. But of course such talk is also driven, naturally enough, by hopes of saving money. Rather than having statisticians across departments collaborate, for example, we save money by having only one statistician.  There are possible "win-win" outcomes here, of course, and administrators have a duty to improve efficiency. But faculty are just as naturally defensive about their turf. And other administrative initiatives, like performance based funding, pit unit against unit: the notion that competition is the best way to motivate people is obviously hard to square with nice talk about us all working together.

Okay--what does this have to do with the blog? Well, not as much as it should have. The intellectual community I dreamed about above would be centered around higher sorts of issues--say, what should a college education be about? But most of my posts and most comments have focused on the stuff that dominates too many of our rather limited conversations with each other: griping about this or that administrative outrage. Of course shop-talk about means (Do we need $1.25 million for the Faner Piazza when inside of Faner we're slashing civil service, OTS, faculty lines, etc.?) is connected to more high-falutin' discourse about the Meaning of the University. Should we require students to take a course called "Foundations of Inquiry", only to staff it with instructors who aren't inquirers (and many of whom never teach other college courses)?  That is, should UCOL 101 be an introduction to "the college experience" rather than to academics?  Well, no, not in my view, but this sort of debate quickly becomes a pissing contest about the administration, rather than a more measured conversation about what a university like SIUC, with students like ours, should and can be.

I'm partly to blame for this. Polemic is a rather easy rhetorical mode, and it is easy to write what I take to be readable posts that fall into the tried and true anti-administrative rut. Such posts then generate reader interest, in page views (which I can track) and comments.

Ah, comments. They of course are also to blame for much about what was wrong about this blog. Too many of them were small-minded and nasty; they thus helped limit any role this blog could have played in building a sense of community among faculty. While I was of course aware, on some level, of the negative side of internet comments, I did expect more from the comments. Actually I, and we, did get more: many comments were thoughtful and articulate; many a comment stream developed into precisely the sort of conversation or debate that I hoped this blog would foster. The real shame was that such comments had to struggle against a number of voices that were uninterested in contributing to a debate, save to express the brute fact of their opposition to one side or the other. Such comments, if they make any sense at all, made sense only as votes. Let the word go forth that I, anonymous, hate the Chancellor/FA/Dave/Annonymous 9:15 AM. Well, good for you. This is to mistake a venue for debate for an opinion poll. When such comments became mean and personal they naturally enough helped to drive out more substantive contributions.

But let me close this post with a positive note. Writing and running this blog has been a terribly fulfilling experience for me, despite moments of intense frustration and irritation. As many readers will have noticed, I've had separation issues shutting it down. Even turning off the comments was hard: I miss going to the blog, to see the latest from paranoid, Jonny Gray, Tony Williams, beezer, or the late and lamented Socrates Finger--to mention just a few of the more prominent voices there. So the last thing I'd want to do would be to discourage others from following in my noble footsteps. I think we need more conversation about where this university is going, not less, and I do encourage you, noble reader, when the time is right for you, and in whatever venue you find congenial, to take on the challenges and rewards of furthering the conversation about how to make this university a better place. 

[One more post, a sort of closing "state of the university" message, will close things out.]