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Evolution of a Blog

Human evolution by Jose-Manuel Benitos

Like politicking or not politicking, like speaking out or not speaking out, the question of whether or not to blog has been with me ever since I started doing so six months ago. It’s been an interesting experiment for me, and, for those who contemplate or are already embroiled in the practice, here are a few thoughts on its evolution.

One of the most salient issues for me has been the lack of respect for the genre of blogging. Often, of course, some derision is well deserved: the blogosphere is open to people of all stripes and all levels of quality in their writing. For this reason, in my profession blogging counts for nothing in terms of “research productivity,” and so I often wonder if it’s worth the time and energy it takes for me to do it. In academia, often the attitude is that one should be spending any writing time on more professional pursuits.

My department chair, in a moment of encouragement for my efforts, noted that it would amount to something if I ended up teaching a course about blogging, which he’s suggested to me several times that we should do as a department. After all, it’s an up and coming arena in the fields we are supposedly experts in. Still, as far as I know I’m the first one in my department to keep a regular blog for any period of time, probably because it is not “publication material.” Yet I have to view it with humor and irony that I could teach a course in something that as of yet is given no credence in terms of my own writing and research.

There are reasons for this, of course, and the main one is that no one but me judges what I write before it is “published.” I am responsible for all the choices and for the mistakes I make. There is no one of greater power and respect placing a mantle of approval on my work, and without that it’s hard to know what something is worth.

In fact, this is one of the challenges of keeping a blog, period. Because a blog has a relentless production schedule and because there’s not a staff of fact-checkers or copy editors, there’s a constant issue of accuracy and of writing quality. There’s no time to “workshop” it, formally or informally. There’s no time to even get your husband or friend to glance over it. When I taught a graduate creative writing workshop course last summer, I added the assignment of creating or updating an existing blog to my students’ usual assignments, and my students commented that the relationship between posting what were essentially rough drafts and at the same time being on public display was the scariest thing about it. I, too, have become familiar with the uneasiness of this, even in as small an issue as the typos that somehow find their way into the original posting and that I then scurry to fix. It often has a bare-butt feel.

Another striking aspect, which I find a mixed bag, is the sense of community inherent in blogging. On one hand, I have found learning about the blogosphere and trying to be a member of the outside community a real time-sink and struggle. I find it overwhelming. Occasionally I come across a blog that I admire and try to keep track of, but there are a lot of them, too many for me–at least so far–to comprehend fully. I need to do better at this, as I consider that side of the exchange just as vital as putting my ideas out there for others to see.

On the other hand, I do feel already more a part of a wider community of those sharing ideas than I have felt in several post-graduate school years. Some of this is small—my friends who read the blog, my brother’s long-term blog that I now actually read sometimes, those from whom I ask permission to borrow a photograph, a few strangers who respond to my blog (even some in disagreement). Some of this is in the numerous great conversations I have had with friends in person, via phone, and over email. I even have one friend who, leery of too-public a world, has started a great monthly email newsletter for her friends. Those things are valuable, and sometimes it does go beyond the merely personal connection. One entry that I cross-posted to Daily Kos reached 200 comments and was picked up by the AAUP’s blog editor. I have reached the point where the blog gets about 2,000 hits a month.

The fact is that I have had more feedback and more intellectual and narrative exchange because of this blog than I ever have had from publishing short work in “legitimate” publications. I virtually never hear from anyone when I publish in a literary magazine, other than its editor (god love ‘em). Even when I published in Harper’s, I heard from maybe two readers. The book I published was another story, and even now, ten years later, I still occasionally get an email or letter about that.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to see your work in print, and book or magazine publication is still the ultimate end. That more polished work has distinct purposes that are also, of course, desirable and important. But there is something refreshing about the blog. There is not the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of professional career building of literary venues, or the highly uneven relationship with a “fan base.” Even though I desire readers, it feels more … well, based on genuine interest and a cohort of peers.

The best aspect of it for me, though, is the great discipline it has been for me as a writer. There is no putting it off and there is no perfectionism that prevents me from calling something ready. What that means is that as of this date, I have produced close to 200 pages or 50,000 words for the blog (including notes for forthcoming posts). If you’ve read it, you know that it’s been a process of sorting out ideas. Some of it has been better written and more interesting than other parts. It has been an evolving creature, and the skin it sloughs is invariably part of the deal.

I started the blog with the idea that these days, sorrow and crying are the emotional states we most often deny to ourselves. I started with “crying,” but have moved on through other kinds of grief and anger, as well as the occasional celebratory impulse. Various themes have emerged or been clarified for me. I’ve always had an interest in the genuine more generally, and the blog has transitioned through various emotions and prepares to examine more different ones and the notion of the genuine itself.

I never meant for the blog to be particularly political, though I knew that some people would be dismayed at a negative take on positive psychology. What I’ve found is a larger and larger connection to some political aspects of dominant positivity. I still think there is room for many different interpretations of the world aside from delusion, but I have discovered that for me the political implications of blaming people for their own unhappiness are huge.

For a while I thought I would run out of things to blog about. I haven’t yet. As my friend G said, “Oh, the world will provide you with plenty on a daily basis.” And so it does. It is like being on a journey, and I am looking forward to where it takes me next. I don’t travel a lot on a physical basis, so maybe I need this kind of adventure.

Thanks for coming along sometimes!

The Revealing Weirdness That Is Facebook

Occupy Wall Street protest, by David Shankbone.

Sometimes the most innocent of comments can activate the wildest responses on Facebook. Yesterday one of my friends, a fellow traveler in academia, posted a harmless, humorous comment about a student of his who had sent the “best excuse ever” for missing class: s/he was in jail in New York after being arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Now, there are many ways of responding. A couple of people voted in favor of this student’s activism. But one wily and experienced fellow college teacher posted a cagey comment about how his excuse of being at a previous era’s protest had fallen on deaf ears all those many years ago. He pointedly didn’t say whether he’d actually been there or not. It was entirely possible to question a) whether this is indeed a good excuse for missing class, b) what such a student’s motivations might be for heading into protest—care about the issues or general rabblerousing, or c) whether or not the student was actually at the protest in New York or just faking an excuse. Us wily and experienced teacher types have seen it all.

But there was a thread of discussion that became disturbing. My friend who originally posted said they kept the hate up all evening. It eventually became so disturbing that he sent a note of apology and took the whole thread down. So there’s a good bit of it I haven’t seen. What I did see was four posts that took a dive away from known reality so far as to give me chills.

The first of these responders, someone I happen to also know slightly, noted that she wondered what would happen if this student spent as much time and energy on work as opposed to protests. She asserted that if so the student would have a good work life. I was shocked and horrified, as this was a person who once aspired to graduate work and qualifications for college teaching. Fortunately, she didn’t go that route, as I see from this one comment that she would be making a lot of negative and false assumptions about students under her purview.

There quickly followed three more nasty remarks by people I don’t know and never heard of. One of them responded sarcastically that this student “must be Greek,” showing at least a sense of humor if not particular knowledge of the dire economic situation in Greece. The other two posted long diatribes against these “whiny” people—one made nasty assumptions about someone able to afford to fly to New York and stay in an expensive city while protesting bad economics; the other claimed that these people don’t know what work is, have never contributed to their country, and live with their parents as free-loaders.

My jaw dropped. I posted two short comments—one about my support for the practice of protests and the association between a society where no one can afford to protest and a state of slavery, and the other about the fact that these folks were jumping to huge conclusions about someone they don’t know anything about.

I’m sorry I missed the rest of the thread, even though I surmise from my friend’s apology to me that they probably dragged me over the coals. I don’t care. Someone has to honestly point out that these people are reacting to something entirely off-camera. My friend never told us more than that he had a student who claimed to be at the Occupy Wall Street protest.

He did not tell us (and probably doesn’t know himself at this point) whether that student has a job, works hard at his or her job, was properly rewarded for working hard or worked hard for nothing, flew to New York or hitched a ride with someone else, stayed in a hotel or camped on some cockroach crawly floor in some cheapo Brooklyn apartment of a friend, has a lot of money or made economic sacrifices to go, knows what work is (i.e., has worked in whatever jobs this person would define as real work), is a veteran of the Iraq war or not, has contributed to a family’s failing income and lives at home, lives independently alone or with roommates… or anything else about this person.

It is truly astounding that people would read all that into someone’s mere presence at a protest. They unfolded one factoid into an array of negative (and probably false) stereotypes. It is the kind of over-generalized thinking promoted by the right-wing media and websites. It is a pre-programmed response not based on reality at all.

I can’t speak for the student that my friend mentioned on Facebook, and I can’t speak for all the protestors, or even for every plank of their cause. What I can say is that the small handful of people I am acquainted with who have participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests are some of the smartest, hardest-working former students I’ve ever had, students who pulled themselves up by applying to and getting in and working like mad at superior graduate schools in New York City. They are the former students who were ideal in both their work ethics and their concern for social justice. They know exactly what work is, whether it is for a wage or for the benefit of art or the understanding of other people. They excelled in every way in school and didn’t let their modest beginnings thwart them. They contribute their brilliance and their labor to our country every day, and they are fighting to make sure that their contributions to this country won’t stop at minimum-wage mindless jobs at McDonalds.

But as my mother used to say, “Information cannot argue with a closed mind.” It is hard to know what to do when so many minds are so slammed shut. Knock, knock, we say. But we don’t even get a “Who’s there?” Just violent, fearful, misplaced sputtering.