Blogging: “Public Thinking” as “Digital Scholarship”?

Back to that first post of mine, where I expressed a hope to engage in some “Intellectual spring cleaning.” That is, “to clear out some stray thoughts taking up mental space, expose them to the harsh light of day, and see if they look as profound on screen as they can sound in my mind at 1am.”

This seems to be a common way of thinking about blogging among some of its more interesting practitioners. To cite an odd couple of recent examples:

Roger Olson• Historical theologian Roger Olson pronounced himself understandably fed up with “evangelical inquisitions,” after something he blogged prompted an “investigation” by an unnamed evangelical group in whose founding he had been involved. Though he had deeper (and older) objections to these trials, he complained that his blogging was being misunderstood:

…what I write here, on my blog, are (by the blog’s title) my “musings.” They are not necessarily my firm beliefs. I don’t have firm beliefs about everything. Sometimes I say something here to spark thought and discussion. Some of it is “thinking out loud” as an effort to work through something myself. This blog is not meant to be read as gospel truth or dogmatic affirmations. Sometimes I play the devil’s advocate. Sometimes what I write is tongue-in-cheek. I hope you don’t come here expecting to find out my timeless, unalterable truths, carved in stone, by which I will stand come what may. Sometime I put those things here and sometimes what I write here is of an altogether different genre. Think of it as conversation during which I throw out some ideas for consideration and feedback…

Ta-Nehesi Coates
Licensed by Creative Commons (David Shankbone)

• Then Ta-Nehesi Coates (the Atlantic editor and author who landed a spot on my “progressives for conservatives to read list“) last week played with the notion of the age of slavery as (tweaking Thomas Hobbes’) a war of All Against Them. He proposed that the quarter-century leading up to the Civil War “brought a nationhood to white people, fashioning them into collective, singular ‘All’ rooted in the manufactured privilege un-blackness,” partly by fashioning the enslaved African-American population into a “Them” — “the foreign, the contemptible, the justly warred upon.”

Which is no doubt a compelling notion, but I was most struck by his penultimate paragraph in that post:

My thoughts are still raw here and I’m trying to pull together a lot. Please forgive me for the messiness of the logic here. This is public thinking.

Thinking that he’s been engaged in for a while — his final paragraph linked to several examples: a kind of history of his own developing thought on the Civil War and slavery — but public thinking, in plain sight of whomever might read The Atlantic blog. Thinking that is reflective but provisional, and inviting of similarly “raw” thought in response.

At the very least, blogging-as-public thinking has this advantage over more traditional scholarly modes of communication: it presents a more inviting scholarly posture — less the all-knowing lecturer than the genuinely curious discussion leader, as eager to learn from students as to instruct them.

This posture seems especially appropriate if we historians are also to follow Tracy McKenzie’s advice to focus less exclusively on describing what happened in the past or analyzing why it happened, and work more on thinking through its meaning. I’m still wrestling with this notion, but my first responses to it were to muse that (a) that’s the level on which many non-scholars approach the past, yet (b) making meaning of events, especially given the current state of public discourse in this country, is a high-stakes, emotion-laden enterprise in which few present-day historians are trained to engage. (Which is what opens the door to the likes of the author whose work won the title of “Least Credible History Book in Print.” And what makes all the more admirable the efforts of evangelical scholars to rebut him.) So this could be the kind of scholarly effort that would have a natural public audience, but best worked out in collaboration with that audience. Asking questions, but listening for answers as often as we advance them. (A kind of James 1:19 scholarship?)

Well, having now presented a nicely messy example of a scholar-blogger thinking out loud, let me close by inviting responses to a summary question:

Can blogging be a form of scholarship: both by initiating or expanding conversations among scholars and as a kind of thinking for and with the public?


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