Slow Blogging

I did not set out to blog slowly. Today the blogosphere is one of the most productive and inspiring places for writers and researchers to think and work. For historians, like me, and scholars of all varieties, it’s a space for the rapid exchange of ideas and exploratory drafts, for thinking aloud, and quick-fire responses or, alternatively, for drumming up interest in the soon-to-be-published book and reaching to an audience beyond specialist readers of the dusty academic monograph. It is home to the multi-tasking, networked researcher, twitter at the ready to turn power-point into a blog, blog into article, anecdote chopped from the latest chapter into an essay all of its own. But if we slow down, blogging can be something else. Not just a means to an end, a dissemination tool, but a creative medium in its own right, rich with possibility.

I have always been a slow writer. Blogging was a way to write faster. Since November 2013 I have been working on Conviction: stories from a nineteenth-century prison about the prison visitor Sarah Martin and her encounters with inmates, and their families, at Yarmouth Gaol. The blog, I hoped, would be the place to discover how to write a book about research that has taken nearly a decade in a way that might appeal to readers who enjoy history and not just scholars of crime and punishment. Starting the blog forced me to come up with the subtitle that long eluded me: stories from a nineteenth century prison. Story-telling, I have found, is liberating me from the confines of conventional academic history.

sarah martin reading gaol congregation

‘Sarah Martin and her Jail Congregation’, from Women of Worth, 1859

Story-telling is not only a way of re-crafting scholarly research into digestible form. It’s a way of seeing differently, bringing into focus multiple points of view, orchestrating many voices. It is not an alternative to analysis but offers other kinds of analysis which can exploit the devices of fiction and imaginative forms of narration and illustration. It can take time.

Ironically, I have learned this while serving time at the blogface with five boys, all sentenced to one month’s confinement at the start of 1840. Last December I wrote a blog about Christmas in Prison, 1839. Finding out about the festive dinner enjoyed by inmates and those who went hungry and cold on the streets of Yarmouth drew me up close to the timing and seasonal nature of offending, and the physical experience of imprisonment, in ways I had not considered so directly before. Pouring over the gaol registers for the year’s end, 1839, reconnected me with the five boys about to enter prison.

They were the first inmates I began searching for, years ago, when I opened Sarah Martin’s Every Day Book and came across the jagged crosses they made against their names, to sign up to the Rules the prison visitor wrote out for them. They were the subject of the first paper I presented on Yarmouth Gaol, back in 2008, that took me six years to hone into a journal article. I had failed to blog about them last November, when I stared at the computer screen, berating myself for not being able to write about the boys I knew so well. Now, I decided to join them on their ward, and measure out their sentence day by day, to feel the rhythms of the prison routine and the emotional tempo of captivity.

The Rules, pasted in Sarah Martin's Everyday Book

The Rules, pasted in Sarah Martin’s Every Day Book, 14 January 1840

I planned to blog each day of their sentence, from the arrival of three boys on 28 December 1839 to the departure, 31 January 1840, of the youngest two who entered a few days later. I feared it would be an impossible task when the academic year swung back into action at the start of January but hoped it would motivate me to write quickly and daily by simply narrating each day’s events as recorded by the Gaoler in his disciplinary book and the visitor in her prison diary.

From the outset each blog turned into a mini research project as the pleasures of the medium and seductiveness of the sources took over. As in the very first post, Serving Time at Yarmouth Gaol, new questions emerged. What did time mean to the boys, serving sentences when the penal system was just beginning to regulate prisoners’ time to inculcate in them the habits of order and discipline? How were they and other inmates used to marking time when, as I discovered from the Index and Receiving Book, few possessed a watch? Each post sent me to new sources or to look at old ones with new eyes.

My commitment to blogging daily did not survive the second day back at teaching. Eventually I began to compress a few days into a single post. Most took at least a day to write, preceded by several days’ research and mulling over. The timing of the posts now reflects the rhythms and rigours of academic hard labour rather than prison time, though I plan next January to re-release the blogs to see if publication in historical ‘real time’ reveals anything I have missed about the diurnal nature of prison life.

Long before I completed the series last week, the style and tone of the blogs had shifted. Re-reading them from start to finish has made me see how much I’ve learned by spending time with the boys and their teacher, not just about their lives in and out of gaol, but about how to write and blog about history. But the things that slowed me down are also those that have been most stimulating and rewarding in feeling my way to a more creative kind of history writing. I’ll be writing about these soon for, confession, I have an article to write by the end of August on blogging, social media and the history of crime. I need to speed up!

Are you a slow blogger or a speed blogger? How do you find time or make time for blogging and what takes up your time when blogging? I hope you will share your experience, either in the comments below or on twitter. (If you comment via twitter, please use #slowblog so I can quote you, even if you are fast!). As calls grow for blogging to be recognised as academic labour, we need to be open about the time it takes, and to resist the drive for it to be solely a supplementary medium to fast-track us to more prestigious ‘outputs’ or an outlet for the stresses of being a 24/7 academic.

It’s now 13.26 and I’m ready for lunch. I began this post before 7.00am, with just an hour away walking with my long-suffering four-legged companion who has to compete for attention with my prison boys.

13 thoughts on “Slow Blogging

  1. Thanks for this post, Helen. I often feel I should try blogging more consistently – for one thing, if I’m trying to develop an online academic profile, it helps to produce content! I tend just to blog when inspiration strikes and when I have time. I admit my blog posts are fairly quickly dashed off (and sometimes insufficiently proof-read, oops), but for me part of the blogging experience is also about having time to respond to comments etc (which for me mostly come through twitter, rather than the blog itself). But I think you’re right that we need to acknowledge that blogging IS work. The face of academia has changed, and blogging, tweeting etc are significant outreach work as well as places where research ideas are born and tested. I find when talking to colleagues I tend to downplay my internet activities, because many people see them as – many not frivolous, but certainly not serious academic work. But, as I am becoming increasingly aware, there is no one way of being an academic historian, and the sooner we can crush old stereotypes the better.

    • Thanks for your comment Rachel! There are many reasons for blogging and many ways to do it. The last thing we need is to be prescriptive about what an academic blog or a history blog or any other blog should look like. Neither should we feel obliged to blog or use social media, except because we want to. Not all blogging should take time and typos make us human! I’d like to think I could dash something off quickly and perhaps will do in future when at a different stage in the research process.

      Blogging is a form of work for those of us in academia but, for me at least, I know I do for pleasure. If I stopped work now, I would continue my prison blogging, though I doubt I would continue writing for academic journals! I would like blogging to be acknowledged as scholarship and as academic labour (and think increasingly it is) but I’m loath it should be measured or used to evaluate and manage us, though no doubt I will use stats whenever it is expedient to do so!

      Try to resist downplaying your online work. We’re all at it one way or another. I’ve yet to receive a negative comment about the way I write at Conviction or the kind of history I’m doing. Perhaps there really are lots of crusty old historians, read to tut away, but just haven’t stumbled across my blog. Yet I doubt there are many. Blogging is beginning to change the way lots of us want to write and do history and editors and publishers will have to catch up with us, because we’ll keep doing it anyway.

      Look forward to reading your blogs, whenever you get inspired!

      Helen

  2. ‘If I stopped work now, I would continue my prison blogging, though I doubt I would continue writing for academic journals!’ Yes, me too, blogging for pleasure, and very, very slowly. It is the one work-related activity I would like to do more of, but it has to be low priority due to the demands of the job and famly life.

  3. Although I’m not in HE any more, I spent ten years on and off completing a PhD, so recognise the symptoms of procrastination and slow-burning progress that you describe only too well. I now teach part-time in FE, so at last, after years of FT work, have more time for creative output: fiction and literary blogging. Even so I find it hard to just dash a post off, and end up writing what are part academic essays, part personal experience. Probably they fall between two stools as a consequence. This week I’ve managed two in the week for the first time in over a year’s blogging, largely because it’s summer break and my wife’s away and I could indulge myself all day (she worries about my ‘skulking’ in solitude over my keyboard). I daresay the results on my blog don’t show the time and effort that’s expended (and yes, I’m sure the typos and solecisms creep in), but I gain a large amount of pleasure from composing the posts, and even more when I get interesting responses via comments. Have you seen Rohan Maitzen’s excellent lit blog on Open Letters Monthly? Apart from writing about fiction, she’s also posted some fascinating pieces on blogging from within academia in Canada.

    • Hello Tredynas

      Thank you for taking the time to share your experience of blogging! ‘Skulking’ over the keyboard is a good way to put it. For many of as, the blog is like the shed at the bottom of the garden: a hideaway place for pottering, passions, and productive messiness.

      Thanks for reminding me of Rohan Maitzen’s wonderful Open Letters Monthly. Her article “Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice.” Journal of Victorian Culture 17:3 (2012) 348-354 is available here http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13555502.2012.689502?journalCode=rjvc20#.U-HyJvldWGc – which reminds me to ask for it to be made Open Access! Will do that now.

      Enjoy your summer blogging and please share links to your blog here.

      Helen

      • I like the image of blogging as the equivalent of hiding away in the shed; I thought that was largely a male fantasy! I like Rohan Maitzen’s blogposts: she manages to achieve what I vainly strive for: academic rigour but a style and approach that’s widely accessible. Intelligent but not elitist. Thanks for the invitation to share my blog: it’s here – http://tredynasdays.co.uk/
        My name is Simon, and I spent yesterday writing an over-long piece on James Wilcox. Today the sun’s shining so I’ve resisted the temptation until now to come in and skulk at the keyboard…

  4. As someone who isn’t academically-affiliated (and there’s a whole story there about the difficulty of accessing research and publications which are often confined to those with privileged access), I’m delighted when academics share their work with a wider audience.

    Blogs seem a wonderful way of creating digestible and accessible history without necessarily – depending on the author, of course – sacrificing appropriate rigour and depth. Blogging in this way should absolutely be considered as a remunerated part of an academic workload – not an extra or sideline but, actually, an important public role.

    I think your paragraph on story-telling is spot on and I think you achieved this superbly in the blog.

    Meanwhile, I sympathise on the amount of time a blog piece can take. If you’re not just dashing off random thoughts and impressions, it can be hard to capture all you want to say and know in a compressed format.

    • Thank you for your reply @MunicipalDreams. I suspect you are a slow blogger too!

      Municipal Dreams http://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/ is one of the blogs I had in mind when saying that a blog can be more than a means to an end and can, as in your case, be a creative art form in its own right. I love the way the care you take over the style and content of your blog which mirrors the aspirations of the social housing movement to create buildings and streets that are purposeful, attractive, welcoming and the fabric of community. That’s blogging at its best, I think, when form and content go hand in hand.

      And many thanks for the nice comments on Conviction!

      Helen

  5. Thanks for a really enjoyable piece. I am also a slow blogger, and like Socks for the Boys I also find that it is relatively low on my to do list – it is more fun, and less ‘official’ than my other academic activities. Hence I often find myself taking a weekend morning to write something, as it then I feel less anxious about taking time away from those things that will count towards my ‘personal development review’ and probation targets in the department.

    Luckily I write for a blog (the many-headed monster) that is co-authored with three others, so when combined we have a relatively regular output. It usually takes me half a day for a post, though increasingly I find that I start writing and my topic balloons into a pair or even a series of posts that can take up a lot more time than I originally intended. For me, writing a blog is thus a process of discovery and serendipity, where a vague, half-formed thought takes shape and hardens into something quite different. Getting led down pathways that I wouldn’t usually take is fun as well as being instructive. Indeed, this is one of the attractions of blogging – interweaving my existing expertise with new discoveries, and in a manner that I would never attempt in a peer reviewed article or chapter. So blogging hasn’t made me a faster historian, but I like to think the process and interaction with readers does make me a better one.

    • Thanks Laura for commenting and confessing to being a slow blogger – though not really so slow if it takes half a day!

      Multi-author blogs are a great way of sharing the fun of writing and reading blogs which also, in serendipitous ways, help to reshape the way we do history as the Many-Headed Monster shows http://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/. They are a good place for people new to blogging to test the water. These blogs work by pooling energy and enthusiasm, but they are also time-consuming for editors as I know from working with Lucie Matthews-Jones & Co at the Journal of Victorian Culture Online http://blogs.tandf.co.uk/jvc/. The Histories of the Emotions Blog https://emotionsblog.history.qmul.ac.uk/, Notches http://notchesblog.com/, Voluntary Action History Blog http://www.vahs.org.uk/blog/ and others are pushing the boundaries of traditional disciplines and opening up conversations to people outside Higher Education. It’s important we credit the people involved in this community building!

      Helen

      • Yes, I can imagine that some of the blogs with numerous contributors can eat up time in other ways – fortunately at the monster all that is involved is a little proof reading once in a while. And I absolutely endorse the ability of the blog to open up conversations with those outside of HE – thus blogging gives you access to exactly the sort of new perspectives that can improve our ‘academic’ work. Monster readers and contributors will certainly be appearing in the acknowledgements of my next publication!

  6. Another thought-provoking post Helen, which I really enjoyed. Like all your commentators here, I love blogging. I like the chance to write without restrictions and constraints about my passion.

    I’m like Laura, however, in that my posts seem to mostly ‘arrive’ through being stirred by something I read or think. Thus I write in fits and starts. This is also shaped by other commitments. So I haven’t blogged for a few weeks now, but that is largely because I can’t think of anything to write about at the moment (or there is nothing driving me) and I’m trying to meet a couple of deadlines.

    When I write it is pretty quick. I like the idea of posts that require some research though and I think they form a new way of writing as an academic where the post is the initial piece and a more polished ‘published’ version is next.

    Finally, as you say Helen – blogging is part of our wider profile as historians/academics and those of us who do it should be proud of our contribution – in whatever form/shape/speed. Bloggers unite!

    Joanne

  7. Pingback: One of many? | padsandchattels

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