Friday, May 24, 2013

Fear and Loathing in the Blogosphere

Dr. Danny Anderson, Assistant Professor of English
Emmanuel College
Franklin Springs, Georgia

When Dr. McDaniel (is it alright to call him Jamie in a blog post?) asked me to be a guest blogger for The CEA Forum Annex, he left the subject matter open. He did, however, suggest I might reflect on the relationship between blogging and my professional life. He couldn’t have known it then, but as it turns out I am currently wringing my metaphorical hands over this subject, so I am glad to accommodate.

The Haunting Question
What would possess an otherwise functional human being to voluntarily add semi-regular blogging to his official duties as a freshly-minted assistant professor of English?

My adventures in blogging began on a whim at the end of my first semester in my new job. My institution does not operate within the “publish or perish” model, so most of the professional pressure I’ve experienced revolves around my teaching. I’m grateful for this aspect of my work, but I must also admit that it makes me a little uneasy as well.

I’m hoping that the audience for this blog will understand what I’m about to say more than my family and non-academic friends, because it probably doesn’t make much sense outside of graduate school.

After years of mostly-disciplined devotion to my research, I found myself with a Ph.D. and a job that I truly enjoy and feel was meant for me on a metaphysical scale. It is utterly clear that my institution and I are a hand-and-glove fit. Finding myself through my work has been an unforgettable and exhilarating experience, yet the cozy comfort I feel somehow makes me nervous as well. The nagging fear I live with in my accomplishment is that without having something that I must grasp at, I risk intellectual sedimentation. Without having to go through the torture of publishing academic research that contributes to something, I run the risk of becoming sure of myself. And if I learned anything in the course of writing my dissertation, it is that what I do not know constitutes an infinity all its own. This is both maddening and thrilling, and it is what education is all about.

Teaching and Learning
I’m maniacally dedicated to my students’ intellectual growth and so teaching is a passion for me. Helping students discover and grow excites my intellect and moves my emotions. I am a little embarrassed to say that when I teach my students the great Bernard Malamud short story “A Summer’s Reading,” I often find myself fighting back tears. I know that story well, and I love making it resonate with students during their first experience with it.

At the same time however, I also realize that my role as teacher is far more than simple content delivery. Whatever teaching is, it is certainly not the act of passing on a finite body of knowledge that I have fully mastered and accounted for in my brain. On the contrary, education is, for me, the institutionalization of chaos, and I am its agent in the classroom. I make it a civic duty to make my students a little uncomfortable. Within respectful limits, I have to make students understand that their knowledge and experience is microscopic. Then I must find a way to fill them with the desire to expand on their youthful state. This is a process of unsettling that which has settled, and beginning a dialectical process of questions leading to answers that raise more questions. In education, causing trouble is a virtue.

Yet how can I maintain this circus of pedagogical anarchy without also stirring trouble in my own mind and unsettling my own intellect? How can I ethically justify asking my students to stretch in ways that I myself do not? And what limits might ultimately be placed on the effectiveness of my teaching if I stop pushing myself to experience the world in new ways?

Blogging as Intellectual Defense
These questions led me to start my own little blog, The Arnoldian Project. The name of course draws on (and perhaps makes a fetish of) the critical philosophy of the poet, Matthew Arnold. The Victorian Arnold’s quaint liberal humanism is, I know, terribly out of fashion, and his insistence upon political and cultural detachment is even offensive to many scholars, who see the work of the humanities as vital to our democracy. His ideals were controversial in his own day and downright comical in ours. My invocation of Arnold’s name and cultural values is not meant to pick a professional fight over such issues. Though I try to occupy the ethical space of the speaker in “Dover Beach,” I don’t wish to point an accusing finger at any ignorant armies clashing by night.

Instead, I find the Great Humanist’s obstinate refusal to settle into clear, definable, and sure positions to be an attractive defense against my own intellectual temptations. Blogging for me is both an opportunity and an obligation. It is an opportunity to experience the cultural world around me in new and exciting ways, and it is an obligation in that the maintenance of The Arnoldian Project requires me to engage with the world outside myself even if I don’t really feel like it all the time. In short, my blogging experience has been the proverbial blessing and curse.

But let me focus mostly on the blessings.

I am a humanities professor who teaches at a religious institution. I understand that for many people this is an irreconcilable coupling, but for me it is an exciting dialectic. (Perhaps I am too much under the sway of Arnold here—after all he saw religion as a kind of metaphor for his precious “Culture”). So my self-imposed cultural engagement often finds its subject matter in the intersection between faith and humanism. So far I haven’t gotten myself in trouble with my superiors, but I have, through the process of writing, stumbled upon connections that both illuminate current research projects and inform my classroom pedagogy. In other words, writing works for me just like I tell my students it should work for them—it is a generative process that is, in Wayne Booth’s words, “thinking in print.”

Likewise, I am primarily a teacher, yet still invested in research and my own process of learning. To reconcile this potential dichotomy, my blogging efforts frequently reflect on teaching experiments I conduct upon my students. In writing about these teaching experiences publicly, I challenge myself to honestly reflect on their effectiveness (for example, how well am I really incorporating Twitter into class discussions?). Furthermore, when I explore my teaching practice in the informal, public forum of the blog, I am essentially engaging with questions of the value and function of a liberal arts education, a major concern of my “professional” research.

In short, my blog has been for me a space in which I can, in ways both professionally safe and dangerous, engage in my own great, unsettling dialectic. Teaching, research, literature, and religion all circumnavigate a matrix of troubling questions that lead me to uneasy answers that push me to answer still more questions. My blog is my friend because it is my foe.

As with every post I’ve ever written, I don’t really know what to do with what I’ve uncovered. I will continue my blog (with a little more frequency now that the semester is over), but not without some reservations. The instantaneousness of the medium is both nice and naughty. I appreciate being able to publish an account of an unexpected discovery in class the very day it happens. Yet I also am suspicious of the absence of gatekeepers. Peer review exists in professional writing for very good reasons and the blog’s ability to circumvent it is, in many ways, troubling. Partially because of this, I do choose to simultaneously maintain a more traditional “professional” research agenda. I enjoy the company of other scholars and want to both contribute to, and grow from, their scholarship.

In the end, maybe this dual professional identity will come to constitute the great dialectic by which my career will ultimately be judged. The Christian Humanist Blogger Teacher Student as Outsider/Insider.

After all, I always say that even though I may strive to be Lionel Trilling, I’m only ever Groucho Marx.

And I’m very comfortable with this dilemma.

No comments:

Post a Comment