Given that they possess astonishingly super-sensitive, multi-directional hearing, as detailed in a series of television programmes this week, you might think that the sodding cats would hear that it is pouring with rain this morning, and so go back to sleep for a bit rather than prodding me at 5 am until I get up and open the catflap so that they can poke their noses outside, stomp around angrily for half an hour because it’s raining and I’m refusing to do anything about it, and then go back to bed. I find it more or less impossible to go back to sleep once I’m awake, whatever ghastly hour of the morning it may be, and so I’ve already had two cups of tea, caught up on Twitter, cleaned up the kitchen after yesterday’s brewing session and transferred the experimental Blackcurrant Stout into the fermenting bin before sitting down to contemplate Tony Keen’s fascinating piece yesterday on the personal voice in classical blogging.
Okay, quick readers’ poll: did your reaction to the previous paragraph tend more towards “for goodness’ sake stop wittering and talk about something with a bit of substance” or towards “please tell us more of the home life of a professor of ancient history and his cats”? One of the arguments of Tony’s article is that blogging offers academics an opportunity to hone their writing skills and so develop more of a personal voice (and/or a more confident, articulate personal voice) that can then be employed in more conventional settings. The obvious response that there are blogs and blogs, and that by no means every approach lends itself to any sort of transfer into academic writing, is easily answered by noting that they can serve this function, not that they invariably do – but it’s also worth noting the way that different blogs reveal different conceptions of what ‘the personal voice’ might be. All blogging is to some extent personal and personalised, but that is manifested in radically different ways, for different ends – a clear echo of the arguments to be found in Hallett & van Northwick’s Compromising Traditions collection (good to see that some people still think that’s worth engaging with, if only because of the shortage of subsequent discussion of these issues; can I recommend that everyone reads at least Vanda Zajko’s chapter, not because she’s my colleague but because it’s a brilliant and nuanced analysis of the dilemmas faced by any scholar who doesn’t want to deny or suppress the personal dimension to her scholarship?)
What makes something ‘personal’ – style, content or both (yes, Hayden White fans, I live and breathe all the content of the form stuff)? On the one hand, there’s the autobiographical approach: we see more of the writer than is usual in other contexts. At one extreme of this is Mary Beard’s Don’s Life blog; this is unique not just because she gets paid to write it, but because she gets paid to write about her problems with John Lewis Customer Services and the Post Office as well as things that have some more direct connection to her academic activities.* Us ‘civilians’, sensibly assuming that our readers are generally more interested in what we have to say than in what we had for breakfast, confine such things to Twitter; with us, generally, the autobiographical material offers a lead into a more general issue (“I was teaching such and such this week, and was struck by…”) and/or is shown have shaped our response to it. We may bring in aspects of our lives or interests that aren’t strictly academic but which inform our thinking (television shows, books, hobbies), or offer anecdotes from our careers and experiences (being a graduate student, working in a temporary position, dealing with journals), but this is a means to an end rather than the end itself – or at least that’s how it is generally presented. Of course we are at the same time building up an online persona for purposes of self-promotion, offering a carefully edited and air-brushed version of ourselves to the wider world through selective personal revelations, but that isn’t (I think) the main point of the exercise.
In these terms, blogging relates to the personal voice in scholarship insofar as it offers a more relaxed, informal setting in which to think through the subjective elements of our developing ideas. We can address the influence of experience and feelings more directly, and consider their implications, in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable in more formal academic discourse – not necessarily because the latter penalises personal expression, but because it may be rambling, poorly organised and ultimately tangential. As I think I’ve suggested before, blogging is great for thinking aloud; we wouldn’t want to say all this stuff in an article, but it’s important to have worked through it and recognised the unavoidable impact of the personal on our own ideas. The fact that I grew up in the blighted wastelands of East Surrey has certainly influenced my take on Roman urbanism and its impact on its hinterland; I don’t think anyone needs to know that in order to engage with my writing on the subject, but I need to recognise it, so that I can then choose how far to bring this out in subsequent work.
Of course there are obvious limits to this; because of the public nature of blogging, we are unlikely to engage with all of our feelings and experiences, however relevant they may actually be to our thinking. Likewise there will be limits to sharing certain political (in the broadest sense) views – as the Salaita affair in the US shows, anything in the public domain, including blogs and tweets, could be held against you. Most if not all academic blogging operates under real names rather than aliases, but that’s a risk. Early career researchers and postgraduates may feel slightly less inhibited in their writing on a blog rather than in an article, but I suspect in most cases only slightly. (I will put a shout in here for the heroically unfiltered thoughts of one of my former undergraduates, Caitlin Greenwood [@caitlinwinjah], while feeling slightly nervous about the possible drawbacks of my drawing attention to them. Let me know if you want this bit removed, Caitlin…)
The second line of argument relates to style; blogs, one might say, are free from most if not all restrictions on expression, so we have the opportunity to experiment with different styles, push the envelope, find our own true voice and, if nothing else, use ‘I’ and ‘me’ a lot without feeling uncomfortable – as Tony suggests, giving “more of a sense of the personality of the writer coming over in what they write”. I’m rather less sure about this, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the writing skills and style we develop in blogging are not necessarily transferable to more conventional contexts; if we find our voices here, there’s a serious risk of our feeling frustrated that we then can’t speak in ‘our’ voice elsewhere. Perhaps it’s easier in some fields of study than in others – Tony suggests that reception studies may be particularly receptive to the personal voice – but that’s not really a solution.
Actually, why should we assume that we have, or ought to have, ‘a’ voice? Different voices are appropriate for different contexts and audiences. I am entirely in awe, for example, of the online output of Belle Waring over on Crooked Timber (see for example this and this, including the comments) – but an entire article’s worth of this, let alone a book, might be a bit much (for some reason I have a flashback to when I attempted to read Swells’ debut novel…) – and I don’t for a moment imagine that she would try writing one in that style. Blogging might be better seen as practice in switching registers and engaging different audiences, developing flexibility rather than honing writing skills that are geared towards a single specific context.
Secondly, there’s a risk that this enshrines a rather limited notion of personal voice, reduced to the use of first person pronouns or conceived of solely in opposition to conventional writing. I’m all in favour of questioning generic conventions – indeed, I would claim to have done a bit to examine aspects of the rhetoric of ancient history and question some of its assumptions, even if those are (according to Google scholar) the publications of mine that are least likely to be cited or even noticed by anyone – but that’s in order to understand how these conventions work to create a past, not to suggest that they should therefore be abandoned altogether. Put another way: it is entirely possible to write personally and distinctively in normal academic prose, even in historical rather than literary studies. I’d offer as a prime example Keith Hopkins: his articles and chapters from the 1970s and 1980s have an instantly recognisable voice and style – far more so than in his attempts at short stories and film scripts in the more overtly experimental World Full of Gods. And I’d make (indeed, have made) the same claim about Richard Duncan-Jones, whose writing is far less obviously rhetorical but is almost as distinctive.
Informality is not necessarily more personal or authentic (though it may, in blogs, be calculated to create that impression); formality is not necessarily impersonal. And with that, I need to get the washing machine fixed and start making chilli sauce…
*I do wonder whether Mary is at times deliberately testing the tolerance of her followers and/or her paymasters with this material. An alternative possibility is that she’s decided to make use of her power more often: “Process my card application or I’ll set my social media following on you!”