Yesterday, I gave a talk called “Cowgirl Up: The Pleasures and Perils of Academic Feminist Blogging” at the University of Texas in Austin at the Symposium of Gender, History, and Sexuality, and boy howdy, did I have fun! (Who doesn’t enjoy talking about herself? And as you regular readers know, this blog is all about the “me.”) It was so flattering to be invited to talk to some readers in real life, and get away from my computer screen! Blogging is something that is so interior and (for me) intellectual that it felt strange to talk about it face-to-face instead of writing about it.
We had a wide-ranging discussion about feminist blogging, intellectual communities, the ethics of blogging, pseudonymity versus “out” blogging, the question of whether or not blogging should be recognized and rewarded as professional outreach, and why this feminist blog uses Gil Elvgren’s images of sexy cowgirls in its posts. (More on these issues below.) The audience–some of whom have their own blogs–kept me busy in the Q and A session afterwards for more than an hour after I left off my prepared remarks!
The folks here at UT have all been so friendly and generous in entertaining me and keeping me company over the past few days. I especially want to thank faculty members Julie Hardwick and Bob Olwell of the History Department and the Institute for Historical Studies for bringing me to Austin in the first place to participate in the Centering Families in the Atlantic World conference, and Carolyn Eastman of the History Department for inviting me here to talk about “my stupid blog.” Graduate students Julia Gossard, Jessica Luther, Sarah Steinbock-Pratt, and Kyle Shelton have been great company, too. And then, as if that weren’t enough to go to my head for the rest of the year, Judy Coffin of the History Department invited a group of us over for dinner at her gorgeous house. Thanks, friends! I’ve had a blast.
My talk yesterday focused on four issues: 1) Is blogging a waste of time and/or possibly a danger to one’s career? 2) I reviewed my brush with notoriety when I called eminent dead historian Lawrence Stone a “complete tool,” 3) Are blogs vehicles for airing out academia’s “dirty laundry,” for good or ill, and 4) Why does a feminist blog use images like the one above which might be read as an exploitation of women’s bodies and sexuality. Here, in brief, are my answers to these questions:
- Is blogging a waste of time or dangerous to one’s career? From the perspective of an intellectual metropole like Austin, I can certainly see why some might think of academic blogging as a waste of time that competes with the time available to meet concrete career benchmarks. But most of us don’t end up in major university towns or big cities with seminars and symposia in our fields and armies of Ph.D. students–most of us leave graduate school and spend our careers in places in which we may feel intellectually isolated. So blogs can be spaces that become virtual communities where we can combat isolation and have conversations about our common interests. If your goal in blogging is to alienate friends and allies, then blogs may be potentially dangerous to one’s career. But so long as you’re not a jerk (much), I don’t think they’re a career hazard. (Circumstances differ and I may well be wrong about this. Check back in another 20 years with me!)
- Why did I call Lawrence Stone a “complete tool?” You can review the controversy here and here. I was calling him out on an obnoxious review in the New York Review of Books in which he presumed to deliver ”the ten commandments which should, in [his] opinion, govern the writing of women’s history at any time and in any place.” Opinions differ as to whether “tool” was appropriate language, but it’s an example of how blog writing is more informal than traditional academic writing, and how blogs can be spaces in which a a lone feminist historian at an aggie school in flyover country can call foul on some of the language and behaviors of the eminent in her field.
- Can blogs be spaces for airing out the “dirty laundry?” Yes, absolutely–and that’s a good thing. Whose interests does silence serve? Gimme a break. (And what’s the alternative to not airing out the dirty laundry or washing it up? Seriously!) Many in the audience agreed that academia’s practices are too cloaked in secrecy and mystery, and that a little fresh air and sunshine can do us all a lot of good.
- Why the sexy cowgirls–I thought this was a feminist blog? This question was inspired by a thoughtful comment left by m Andrea last week, which (believe it or not) was the first time in three years that anyone has ever questioned me on this point. (This is especially strange to me, because I think about it all the time!) I use them ironically and playfully, but I recognize that there are other ways to read these images. To me, they represent a kind of idealization of women and of an American West that never really existed, but YMMV, as we say on the world-wide timewasting interwebs. (Everyone in the audience who spoke to this issue yesterday encouraged me to continue using them.)
Well now, I think I’ve said enough for today–what do you all think? It’s time for me to pack up my (actual) ”dirty laundry” and head on back to el rancho Historiann on the High Plains Desert, so I’ll check in and join the conversation as I can.