I was very sorry this weekend to miss the AHA panel on history blogging, and all the more so because to my considerable surprise my own blog was singled out for some recognition. I’m really touched and all the more embarassed that I couldn’t muster the energy to stay past a lovely breakfast and meet many of the authors whose words I’ve so enjoyed reading. It turns out that I’ve got a nasty case of bronchitis, which makes this the second winter in a row that an ordinary cold has deepened into something much worse. Doesn’t make me feel real positive about my likely fate if an avian flu pandemic really does spread: it’s clear that my aging body is developing a genuine vulnerability.
The award was a pick-me up for which I’m grateful. Last week, I started composing an entry for this blog about what I’ve learned (abstractly, shorn of specific local details) about academic planning this semester, only to find when I was finished that I’d more or less repeated an older entry. So perhaps I haven’t learned anything, just confirmed pre-existing principles (or biases). There are quite a few days as a blogger and an academic where I feel that way recently: that I, and perhaps more than myself, are trapped in recurrent, irresolvable debates and conflicts, that the academy is at the edge of its limitations, at a moment of arteriosclerosis, but also that its critics are swinging familiar, well-honed, and largely instrumental and political axes at the university as an institution.
I’ve been reading a bit again in the intellectual history of Romanticism and the Enlightenment in preparation for my History of the Future class, and sometimes those discussions feel not past but prologue. Not even that, but eternal, damnable return, our collective sentence to playing out the same tableaux again and again.
I sometimes wonder what’s left for me to say, especially to long-suffering readers who’ve heard it all before from me. I don’t want to jump on every new story about academic life. I don’t want to be the hot-button commentator who is there with a ready smirk or an easily formed polemic. But I also don’t want to be the nag and scold who tells everyone how to behave correctly, and I know that’s the real danger for me, the bad habit that descends from my legitimate concerns.
I still think that there’s a productive balance that scholars can strike in the public sphere in which we undertake the work of de-familiarization and exploration, trying to get people off of fixed principles, of prior assumptions, of easy generalizations. For that to work, we have to be wary of our own idee fixes, our lazy assumptions, our own unexamined axioms. We have to be curious, mobile, persuadable, crossing not just the boundaries we self-congratulatorily mark out as transgressive achievements, but the unfamiliar disciplinary and discursive boundaries that we would never think otherwise to cross. Our ethnographies and histories and textual criticisms have to be directed at unfamiliar and unaccustomed subjects with the same presumptive humility and interest that we showily perform when we go to the usual suspects. Academics are both too hard and not nearly hard enough on themselves: demanding where they should be generous, forgiving where we should always try harder. We worry too much about the obscure and not enough about the general, about our responsibilities to our disciplines but not to our institutions or our possible (and often unfound) publics.
I think I’m just tired and sick and have a case of the winter blahs because this all seems at times to be harder than it should be. I’ve been trying to reason out why I’ve been such a passive-aggressive asshole in helping out a friend and associate of mine with a project outside of Swarthmore that he and I conceived of together (if he reads this, he’ll know which project I’m talking about). Originally I was missing his emails because of a spam filter, now I’m reading them and just delaying getting my ass in gear to help out. Part of it is that the project is a bit snake-bit in terms of bad luck with the schedule, but much of it is also that it’s been difficult to make headway on the issues which most interest me. My friend gets where I’m coming from, but most of the other people in the history of the project’s development don’t. It’s not (I think) that they oppose what I’m arguing for, it’s more that it’s irrelevant and orthagonal to the way they see some of the same issues. Sorry for the abstractions here, but one of the paradoxes of blogging under one’s own name is that one sometimes has to responsibly pseudonymize and abstract some real-world situations, particularly because I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the folks who have a different sensibility to mine. Their interests are valid, intelligent, skilled, and often challenging: I wouldn’t want to be seen to be rubbishing anyone by voicing frustration.
Blogging helps a bit with this problem, because I feel that most of the people reading this blog