A Lesson from the Past about Genres and Bias

In my sophomore year of college I took a new course with more buzz than a summer blockbuster: “Postmodernism.” Students literally ran to sign up for it, partly because it was taught by the coolest, mustard-suited professor on campus, Andrew Ross, and partly because it promised a semester filled with graphic novels, Survival Research Labs, and Blade Runner.

Beyond the discussions of mechanical reproduction and simulacra, I remember several things vividly. One was Ross’s lecture on cyborgs in which he described Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator as “a condom filled with walnuts.” The second was my preceptor, a brand-new assistant professor named Jeff Nunokawa. Nunokawa was whip-smart and a great teacher, and he introduced my nineteen-year-old self to the incredible revelation that Batman had a homoerotic subtext. (I’ll pause here for you to snicker at my youthful ignorance.) Finally, and most importantly, both Ross and Nunokawa repeatedly emphasized in the course that any genre in any medium could have value—and on occasion sustained creativity and insight.

So I was glad to see a cover story on the boundless energy and intelligence of Nunokawa in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (which is actually produced monthly, in postmodern fashion), especially since the article highlighted Nunokawa’s writing of thousands of online posts about literature and philosophy, art and ideas. I cheered what I thought was a great example of a professor blogging, until I hit this paragraph:

For the record, he does not call this a blog, partly, he says, because “I hate that particular syllable,” but also, more importantly, because “it doesn’t catch what I’m really trying to do, whether successfully or not. These are essays. When I think of a blog — and maybe I’m being unfair to bloggers because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere — my sense of blogs is that that they’re written very quickly. This is stuff that I compose and recompose, and then recompose and recompose and recompose. It’s very written.”

This is precisely the bias I’m arguing against in The Ivory Tower and the Open Web. There is no reason a blog has to be quickly or poorly written; the comment made me want to time-travel the Nunokawa of 1988, Terminator-like, to confront the Nunokawa of 2011. And if Nunokawa can have this prejudice against blogs, instead of viewing them as potential outlets for good writing owned by scholars themselves, imagine what Nunokawa’s more traditional colleagues think of the genres of the open web.

As in the Oscar Wilde plays Nunokawa often dissects, there’s a final, amusing irony to this story. Where does Nunokawa do his sophisticated blog…er, essaying? Facebook.

11 thoughts on “A Lesson from the Past about Genres and Bias

  1. Rachael

    I think this is a great point. Since I have a blog about academic writing, I tend to edit it extensively (for fear of publicly violating my own writing precepts). But, more generally, it seems a mistake to view any medium as fully determining the mode of expression. (I also enjoyed your sketch of what it was like to encounter postmodernism for the first time in the late eighties!)

  2. Steve Lawson

    I agree wholeheartedly. When people say things like “I think of my online writings more as essays,” or “I see that blog more as an online journal” I want to poke them in the eye.

    I want to see more people blogging for the ages and publishing off the cuff. The more meaningless these distinctions become the happier I will be.

  3. Perkinsy

    I certainly labor over my posts, Over the weekend I posted something that was rewritten many times over seven days. And I am sure that every blogger that I follow does likewise. I follow them because of their careful and thoughtful posts.

    Of course there are a lot of blogs out there that are written on the spur of the moment, just as there are many books that are hastily and poorly written and researched. We should not blame the medium of communication for this.

  4. Trevor

    The incentive to not call it a blog is partly, I suspect, that tenure committees et al do not recognize blogging as scholarly activity. They might recognize essays as public engagement or service, maybe…

  5. Mark Sample

    Speaking of Andrew Ross, I wonder how many times Alan Sokal composed and recomposed and recomposed his article in “Social Text”? Blogs might not count as scholarly work in Nunokawa’s mind, but then, publishing in a “real” academic venue is no guarantee either.

  6. Mick Morrison

    I think he said it all when he stated: “…because I don’t spend much time in the blogosphere…”

    Anyone who does understands that ‘blogging’ is a very broad church indeed, and that how individuals use blogs often depends on how they feel at the time they are writing. Short, long, formal/academic, relaxed, whatever.

  7. Rob Nelson

    I found this post interesting in how much it marks the evolution of your own thinking. This post is really aptly titled as you appear to be time traveling back to confront the Dan Cohen of 2005 who wrote the first entry on this blog (http://www.dancohen.org/2005/11/14/welcome-to-my-blog/). Nunokawa could be paraphrasing you. “I’ve more often than not found blogs to be dissatisfying …. The ease with which one can post means that it’s often too easy to post the half-baked and the half-written,” you wrote. “So for this blog I’ve tried to set a higher mark for myself …. While my posts may not be daily, I hope that they will function more like well thought out mini-articles.” Of course, Nunokawa is dismissive (“I hate that particular syllable”) while you were slightly apologetic (twice referring to the “elitism” of your position).

    The differences between you and Nunokawa and between Dan 2011 and Dan 2005 are, I think, just semantic. You both (or is it all?) emphasize the importance of clear, thoughtful writing and of taking the time to carefully rewrite. You’re just arguing over the connotations and status of “that particular syllable” blog. You’re both thinking of the blog as a genre, one he doesn’t want to be associated with and one which you now do. There’s certainly something very productive and useful about characterizing the blog as a genre. On the other hand, something is also gained by thinking of the blog not as a genre but as a medium like the book, a medium that can be the container for various genres of writing from diaries to partisan commentary to scholarly criticism of literature or the digital humanities. I agree with you that Nunokawa’s comment is too dismissive in that it contributes to a bias against the medium. At the same time, if he wants to characterize his online writing as essays or you wanted to characterize your posts as mini-articles, I’m okay with that. I don’t see any reason that everyone who publishes using WordPress has to conceive and characterize themselves as a blogger and their online writings as blog entries.

  8. Dan Cohen

    @Rob: A great point. Thank you for bringing me the Dan Cohen of 2005. In my defense, a large part of the initial series on this blog (my 9-part “Creating a Blog from Scratch”) was to test what a blog really was. It was only after months (see that series under “Best of”) that I did indeed realize it was a medium, not a genre.

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  10. Anonymous

    The day when Audit Culture accepts blogging as a research output for the purposes of base load funding, grants funding, “research activity,” workloads, career advancement and scholarly activity is the day when I will instrumentally shift my work towards publication towards blogging.

    Until then, there’s always trade unionism.

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