Warning: long and meta

A recent post by Alun Salt at Archaeoastronomy entitled ‘Blogging and Honesty’ has re-inspired me to think about a subject that had its genesis at the IMC at Kalamazoo a few weeks ago. I had the pleasure of attending a session on weblogs and the academy, specifically on the topic of anonymity / pseudonymity and issues of identity. organized by Shana Worthen and Elisabeth Carnell, which led me to a set of not-new-but-new-to-me insights about this crazy medium. I urge you to read the liveblog post that gives a very good sense of what was said at the panel.

I decided a long time ago that I would make no effort to conceal my identity online. Basically, I don’t trust that anything I say anonymously will remain anonymous, so rather than say something that could later come back to bite me, I’d rather self-censor ‘at the source’, and just not say anything. Obviously this has the disadvantage that there are certain things I just can’t or won’t talk about publicly, which means that I have to find other ways to get them off my chest. Fortunately I have the Growlery, which is also public, but which I can filter and lock away from eyes not meant to see certain things. It’s just what works for me. When I started this blog, the distinction was not between ‘pseudonymous’ and ‘non-pseudonymous’ but between ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’.

But this does raise some significant issues of identity, because what exactly constitutes my ‘academic’ work? When I look out my office window and see a funny-looking sign, why is this ‘academic’? Or when I write extensively researched posts about particular aspects of English etymology, is this ‘non-academic’?

I may not have mentioned this before, but this blog was a present to myself upon attaining my present academic position. I had always had an interest in academic blogging, but I never felt I had the time or the energy while I was still working contingently. I am very fortunate that in my previous workplace I had enormous academic freedom that not all of my peers enjoyed, and I don’t think that the fear others have, of losing a job or saying something that affects a tenure decision, played a significant role, because by last year I’d been blogging for six years already, and had lots of practice with not saying stupid things that I would later regret.

I think one of the most important reasons why I started an academic blog under my own name, though, was to serve as a public voice for my discipline, my sub-disciplines, and my own crazy point of view. As Kristen Burkholder pointed out in the panel, medievalist bloggers can’t rely on pseudonyms to maintain their identity because the field is specialized. Well, let me tell you, anthropologists who study numerals are significantly more specialized than that, so unless I wanted to avoid any discussion of my actual research, pseudonymity wasn’t an option. I also see this place as a venue for sorting out ideas before they’re ready to publish, and announcing things that I actually do publish. So there’s that.

But as Julie Hofmann pointed out very rightly in her paper, there may well be issues of privilege involved here, because I am a white male, and have less to worry about my colleagues disparaging my blogwork as less than professional. And from what I can see, that’s true for medievalists – but perhaps less so for other disciplines. In linguistics, for instance, the existence of the big collaborative Language Log, which has been running since 2003 and whose non-pseudonymous authors are practically a Who’s Who of the discipline, almost certainly helps budding linguists and linguist-oids such as myself to make the leap without fear of repercussions. LL is authoritative, clearly the top of a hierarchy of linguistics blogs, and sets the gold standard. I don’t know of any linguistics blogger who’s unfamiliar with it.

By contrast, anthropology bloggers are more fragmented, partly due to the fragmentary nature of the discipline, and less prominent within the field. Yet there are also fairly few anonymous anthropology blogs. I’m not sure exactly why that should be. I wonder whether part of it is that anthropologists spend a lot of time in the field, in situations where their research is unique or nearly so. Weirdly enough, while being one of a small coterie of medievalists may encourage pseudonymity as a form of protecting one’s identity, being unique may encourage one to simply be ‘out there’ or risk not being able to say anything professional at all.

So, yeah, identity. Probably the paper that hit me the hardest in the panel was Janice Liedl’s on issues of identity. Because I spend a lot of time and mental energy thinking about how I’m going to come across to others. My dissertation supervisor once phoned me up during my first year of my PhD to tell me what a large superego I had (thanks, I think?). Of course my own persona here is constructed, and is different in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways from my persona over at my other public place on Livejournal – even though both are public. But I also think you could figure out a lot about my personality from hanging around here long enough, even though this is a professional blog meant for an audience interested in the sort of work I do.

And part of all of this being ‘out’ is about a public display of my identity as a scholar and as a professional – hopefully not narcissistically so, but rather, as a model for other scholars, and also for my students. A couple of the panelists pointed out the usefulness of blogging as a model for other scholars, for instance, what it’s like to be a professional, or what kinds of challenges academics face, and I think that’s right. And one of the only regrets I have about not being pseudonymous is that there are those things that I just can’t blog about here, because it would be grossly inappropriate on a professional level. Even though I agree most of the time with Dr. Crazy over at Reassigned Time, for instance, regarding how to relate socially with excellent students or unexcellent colleagues, she can say publicly things that I can’t.

And this is perhaps another difference: there aren’t too many linguistics OR anthropology blogs that take a strongly personal approach. Hofmann argues, rightly, that ‘academic life’ blogs that focus on the day-to-day goings-on in a professional’s life tend to be pseudonymous and written by women. But it seems to me that there are whole blogging cultures (roughly disciplinary in nature) that tend towards one voice or another. And so yeah, I think we need more anthropology blogs, period, but we also need more blogs that deal with the daily realities of anthropological life, not just research findings. We owe it to one another to engage in the sorts of discussions that serve not only as a model to our peers, but also to our junior colleagues – the students who will form the next generation of bloggers. Without wanting to imply any direct causation, I find it noteworthy that several of my former students from McGill have started their own blogs over the past six months – good ones, too! By blogging (pseudonymously or otherwise), we are engaging in a process of cultural transmission, akin to yet different from the face-to-face mentorship we take on in the classroom and the office (and, let’s be honest here, the bar).

Okay, maybe that sounds pretentious, and maybe it is pretentious. Hell, while we’re on the subject of identity, you don’t think my pretentions only exist here in the blogosphere, do you?

Language and Societies

The students in my graduate-level linguistic anthropology course, Language and Societies, have written extended abstracts of their research papers, which we have now published at a new blog, Language and Societies. Both I and they would greatly appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you have regarding their projects, several of which go well beyond this course and will form the basis for ongoing research leading towards advanced degrees in linguistics or anthropology, and/or (one hopes) peer-reviewed publication. Please comment on the specific posts at the Language and Societies blog. Thanks!

Why I blog

I’ve only been blogging at Glossographia for six weeks, but I’ve been blogging at my non-professional blog, The Growlery, for six years, which must correspond to a century or more in Internet time.    And over those past six years, but particularly over the past six weeks, I’ve been thinking a bit about the different reasons I blog.

I blog because I like to think someone out there is reading and thinking about an issue differently than they did before.   I have never been accused of being unopinionated, and the sharp immediacy of the blogging environment gives me a thrill I rarely find outside the classroom – with the added benefit that my words are there on the screen to mull over.  Want to know what I think about something?  You can be pretty sure I’ve written about it somewhere, and if not, you know where to ask.

I blog because the community of interesting and thoughtful people that I know through blogging.  Livejournal is not primarily the refuge of fourteen-year-old emo kids.  Fully one-third of my friends list has at least one graduate degree, and there are (at last count) a dozen people with doctorates and another half-dozen who are pursuing the doctorate. I know doctors, lawyers, and architects – most of whom I have never met in real life – and people from virtually any other field of endeavour you might think of.  Not to mention the reams of bright, fascinating people whose paths have not yet led them to further education, or never will.

I blog because of my colleagues.  Anthropology seems to be underrepresented in the academic blogosphere, in comparison to, say, history or linguistics (two other fields in which I have some specialized training and interest), which is a shame.  I find it to be absolutely essential not only as a tool for social networking, but also as a tool for playing around with ideas that may not yet be quite ready for peer review, but which need a collective of thinkers.   Is academic blogging playful, even trivial sometimes?  Sure, but so is 95% of what academics do on any given day.  Is it going to give me tenure?  Not likely, but I don’t sit up nights panicking about that.  Is it worthwhile, socially and intellectually?  Damn right it is.

I blog because I see the potential for blogging to change the way we think about academic mentorship also.  One of the real joys I had while working at McGill was to observe the level of student participation in presenting ongoing research, as in the NOCUSO field school blog from Finland, or the zooarchaeology field school blog from Parc Safari in southern Quebec, both spearheaded by my friend Andre Costopoulos, but written and run by the junior scholars there who I am happy to call my friends and colleagues also.  In these efforts, as well as in the web-published projects I run, I see a grand opportunity for extremely bright and thoughtful young scholars to develop their ideas and find their voice – as well as to stay in touch.   Next term I am looking forward to having my graduate students at Wayne do similar sorts of work.

I blog because I believe in the democratization of knowledge.   That may sound all highfalutin and whatnot, but what it comes down to is a feeling of obligation to share things that I know, without any expectation of reward.  I’ve been doing that for over a decade now at the Phrontistery, and my motivation is still much the same as it was back in 1996 in the Middle Paleo-Internet.  Sure, my day job involves me getting paid to share my knowledge, but that doesn’t mean I think I should get paid for everything I write.  I am privileged enough to enjoy a career that allows me the freedom to do this service.

I blog because of my friends (academic and otherwise).  I recently moved to a city of 300,000 where I know virtually no one who is not a blood relation – and let me tell you, I don’t do well in isolation.  Most of my closest friends are nine hours’ drive away in Montreal, and most of the rest are even more distant.  But over the past little while I’ve come to realize that I’m not really alone, and that, while I really do need to get out more, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to discount what I have here.   There are people I’ve never met in person with whom I feel  a strong personal connection.  There are also people I once knew as well as family who have faded from my life through their absence, which I regret, and hope to avoid in the future.

I blog because of my family.  I don’t know what Arthur will think of the various things I have written about his young life, when he’s older and jaded and thinks his dad is a big dork.    I’d like to think though that there is value in having this record of funny moments and strange episodes, the sort of minutiae that most people never know about.  And I blog because Julia blogs – she was the one who sucked me into this life, after all – and not a day goes by that we don’t spend some time looking over one another’s shoulder at some funny thing, or talking about something we’ve encountered in our mutual journey.

Lastly, I blog for me.  I’m not sure what kind of person I would be without this outlet, but I can’t imagine that I would be better off.   Like a lot of people, I can be anxious, I can be overanalytical, and I can be wracked with doubt.   But having the ability to express these thoughts in a relatively neutral medium can be (and is) a great source of personal strength.  And having the ability to look back on things I wrote long ago, to rethink an issue, or just to remember a good day warmly, is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Four Stone Hearth

Much to my great surprise and immense pleasure, Glossographia has been mentioned in the latest Four Stone Hearth, the four-field anthropology blog carnival, hosted this time by Clashing Culture.  Welcome to all new visitors; I promise lots of four-fieldery for all anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, and evolutionary scientists out there, wherever your disciplinary home or identity may lie.

Front matter

Welcome to Glossographia, a blog dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of language from a social scientific perspective. I am Stephen Chrisomalis, an anthropologist working at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. I will be writing about the intersection of linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary theory, cognitive science, epigraphy, literacy studies, and the history of science and mathematics, among other things. While my focus will be academic, I’m aiming to present material that will be accessible and interesting to non-specialists and specialists alike.

My primary research focus is on the anthropology of mathematics, specifically numerical systems.  My forthcoming book, A Comparative History of Numerical Notation, is a cross-cultural cognitive history of all attested systems of written numerals from 3500 BCE to the present.   It is the sort of work that takes me into cognitive neurolinguistics one day, and Near Eastern epigraphy the next, and I will undoubtedly write about it here.

In my non-professional life I am the creator and maintainer of the Phrontistery, a site dedicated to the love of English lexicography and specifically rare and obscure words.  Some of the posts that will appear here over the next few months will be older posts from the Phrontistery, and I will occasionally cross-post material at both sites, but largely the two should remain distinct.

The name of this blog is taken from the title of a dictionary by Thomas Blount (1618-1679), an English antiquarian and philologist.  The original Glossographia was one of the first ‘hard words’ dictionaries to reflect a historical perspective on the English language.  Blount was a true polymath who also wrote on topics such as ancient folk customs and the history of legal terminology, and it is in that spirit that I begin this namesake project.

While I’m not a great fan of the word ‘blogosphere’, I see academic blogs as a modern, egalitarian equivalent of literary salons – the sort of place where like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) people, regardless of status or profession, can talk about ideas informally and get to meet one another.   Please feel free to comment with relevant news, questions, or links of interest.    And once again, welcome!