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The Emerging Blog

egoodlett's picture

In the beginning of our class discussions, we discussed the blog as a possible “new academic essay.” More recently, we asked if what we are really doing is blogging at all, or if it is instead “putting academic essays on display.” Members of the class suggested that they have their audience in mind when writing their papers, and often feel a greater urge to write in first-person than they normally would when writing a paper for a class. However, when we read Freadman’s piece using tennis to describe genre, the class agreed that it was an academic essay, even though it featured a great deal of first-person references. Had her essay been posted online, would we have called it a blog instead? Is the blog just a new form of an academic essay? Answering that question depends on our definition of a blog.

If we were only to look at Tim Burke’s blog, perhaps we might agree that a blog is an academic essay with a different audience. After all, when defining Freadman’s essay as a piece of academia, we cited the argument she seeks to make. A good academic essay must make an argument, or thesis, and seek to prove it throughout the essay. Good academic essayists provoke a response from their readers, and perhaps even inspire other authors to write. For example, we discussed Derrida inspiring Jameson to use him as the archetypal example of “theorizing” in Jameson’s essay on literary theory. In a similar tone, Tim Burke explained to our class how he feels a good blog will provoke a response from the readers, and start a discussion. Many of Tim’s blogs do just that. Some of those commenting disagree with his theories, while others agree, but the important thing is that his writing initiates such conversations. If this was our sole example of a blog, then I would say yes, the blog is analogous to the academic essay.

But then we move to Kate Thomas’s blog, which has a very different aim. Kate does not aim to initiate discussions via her postings, nor do her comment sections contain the type of debates found on Tim’s. Her blogs do not make arguments to be agreed or disagreed with. They read more like, as our class suggested to her when she was visiting, a food column in a newspaper (albeit a very poetically written and literature-centered one). She does not engage her readers with a thesis or proposal, but rather with her striking prose and occasional personal anecdotes (although, as we also mentioned, she is careful not to reveal her or her partner’s names, or the full identities of those she writes about). If blogs are academic essays, than we would either need to change our definition of an academic essay, or we would be forced to say that Kate’s blog is not a blog.

However, she calls it a blog, her readers refer to it as a blog, our class had no difficulty accepting it as a blog, nor did anyone question its being hosted by blog-spot, so, let us assume that her blog is a blog. And let us also assume that, judging by the number of academic essays we read, our definition of those is not too far off. Instead, maybe the online academic essay-blog is just one type of possible blog. And in addition to it, there can also be personal blogs, and food-column blogs, and countless other subsets in the blogging field. Are we sure that the genre “blog” is even just one genre, then?

This line of thought brings me back to our discussions of Moby Dick, and our questions as to whether or not it could be called a novel. Melville wrote the piece at a time when the genre of the novel was just beginning to emerge and his piece, with its switches from personal narrative to encyclopedic writing to third-person narrative to play and back to personal narrative definitely tested the limits of what can or should be termed a novel. Yet, despite all of our debates on the subject, the modern literary cannon has made its opinion of Moby Dick as a “classic novel” quite clear.

Laura Blankenship’s blog, Geeky Mom, is a similar mixture of styles that can confuse our attempt to define the genre of blogs just as easily as Moby Dick confuses our search for a definition of the genre of the novel. Some of her posts include highly personal narratives, while others are centered around general topics in education or the field of technology. In class, it was suggested that her blog seemed to be a mixture of Tim’s academic and discussion-based blog and Kate’s personal-based one. In similar class discussions, Moby Dick was discussed as a mixture of different narrative styles, found separately in many novels, but usually not combined in the manner that Melville ventured.

What does this comparison show us? one might ask. In the 19th century, when novels were growing in popularity and range of styles, people began to theorize on the genre of the novel. Was it a genre? It did not lend itself so readily to definition as older genres, such as the epic poem. But then again, poetry had evolved to include such difficult-to-specify forms as free-verse, too.

 Now, as blogs have grown from websites simply used to compile links and help navigate the web into social networking systems and tools of literary and personal expression, we are beginning to theorize about this new form. Are blogs an emerging genre? If we are willing to call the novel a genre (with sub-genres, naturally), when it includes such diverse forms as the multifaceted writing styles in Moby Dick, the pseudo-memoir in The Scarlet Letter, and the self-proclaimed “realistic fiction” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I think we must call the blog a genre (with sub-genres) as well.

If we are to do that, then we could easily say that, although the online academic essay is not the only form the blog can take, it is a sub-genre within the genre that is the blog. That may not seem a very satisfactory or difficult conclusion to reach, but then, throughout our attempts to define the genre of a novel, we found many different theorists’ approaches, and many different definitions, none of which could really be classified as unquestionable. And every day, new novels are coming out which test the boundaries of this definition, just as every day, new blogs appear that make us question the boundaries we set for the genre of the blog.

But perhaps this very questioning is what defines an emerging genre. We have been unable to satisfactorily define a novel, because we constantly find examples that fall outside our definitions, but that is because the form itself is still evolving. We can define it one day, but the next, a new example will emerge that necessitates a change in our definition. And perhaps, recognizing this, we can make an argument for the blog as an emerging genre as well, since it does the same – it makes us constantly question our former definitions, as new examples are unveiled. Perhaps, for now, that is all the definition we can give to genres that are still changing.


Anne Dalke's picture

And now for some meaning?

You’ve written three linked essays this semester, the first on the “compendium of genres” that is Moby-Dick; the second failing a test-drive of an “exclusive” definition of genre; and this third one insisting that we “must” define a blog as an emerging genre, because it is so generative of questions. That claim seems nicely situated atop the two earlier ones you made; your argument itself has ‘emerged’ and complexified over the course of the semester. And I like the paradox of your naming a category that is definitionally “mixed,” as you say both the novel and blog have shown themselves to be.

I do think that you elide some differences in a changing spectrum; I’d say that conventional academic writing tries to “stop the conversation,” to construct an argument so tightly that it can’t be knocked down—game/set/match--while bloggy academic work tries instead (as you show Tim Burke trying) to provoke further conversation, not to shut things down, but rather to keep the ball in play.

So: where to go from here? Using these ideas as “foundational”  (dare you? do you want to) what meaning can you make of the patterns you’ve traced? What does it get you, to identify the blog as a distinct genre, and the academic-blog as a sub-genre of that category? (What do you lose, by constructing these categories?) Does the emergence of the academic blog work as a weather vane, an index to changing patterns in academic discourse? Do you want to look @ the blogs in your own field of linguistics, and see what patterns you might identify, and what those patterns might mean? Or…?