Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pods, blogs and other time-wasters

I have been invited by the Student Advisory Board at the Society of Biblical Literature to speak at a session on the "Wired-in Generation".  It is on Saturday at 1pm and the details of the program are at the bottom of this post.  My title is "Pods, Blogs and other Time-wasters: Do Electronic Media Detract from Proper Scholarship?"

Putting "pods" at the front of that title is a deliberate and self-indulgent reference to my own attempts at podcasting, something that at this point still marks out my own online output as a little different from others'.  In spite of the massive proliferation of academic blogs in recent years, there are still relatively few podcasts around, thinking especially of genuine podcasts, i.e. programmes produced specially for the occasion of disseminating via the internet, and not just online recordings of lectures.

Having produced the NT Pod for over two years now, I am still struck at how podcasting differs from a lot of the other stuff one does online.  Somehow, perhaps because it takes so much longer to prepare, record and produce a podcast than it does to blog, it feels like it has a longevity that the blogs lack.  But perhaps it is just that it is a relatively new medium.  Perhaps podcasts will, in the long run, go the way of other experiments on the net and will come to be seen as "of their time", dated, forgettable, a waste of time.

My title is, of course, slightly facetious given that I have "wasted" a huge amount of my own time in online activities.  First, back in the mid to late 90s, it was the e-lists.  I still remember the thrill of participating in the e-lists, first b-greek and Crosstalk and later also Synoptic-L and several others.  The late 90s were their hey-day.  Back then, the whole world was not on email and it now seems extraordinary to imagine that it was actually a thrill to receive an email.  And to receive emails from all around the world and to be able to reply instantly, arguing about some element of Greek grammar, or some theme in Historical Jesus scholarship -- it was genuinely exciting stuff.

I have similar memories of the early days of blogging, roughly a decade ago.  When Jim Davila began his Paleojudaica blog, I read it avidly.  It was the first blog I remember even being aware of.  It wasn't long before I wanted to begin my own, then as a sister to the New Testament Gateway site that I had been running since the late nineties, though later under its own NT Blog heading. Back then blogging was easy, innovative and fun.  With so few people blogging in our area, there were only a handful of blogs to read, and that gave one more time to write.  There was a thrill in exploring the new medium, and I loved it.

The email lists have not gone away, but their importance has diminished massively now that we are all desperately fighting to stay on top of the hoards of daily emails, longingly imagining that simpler world that we once inhabited with its letters, memos and time for reading.  Looking back on the heyday of the e-lists, I can't help thinking that I must have wasted a huge amount of time on them.  It really felt like it mattered when one was deep in debate with someone about some point of Greek grammar, or some argument for the existence of Q.  But what value was it really?  I am embarrassed to think of the boldness with which we circulated our half-baked opinions and relieved to think that lots of that stuff has vanished from the net, never to be seen again.

But what about blogs?  What about the time spent blogging?  Could it have been spent more profitably doing something else instead, like reading a book, taking a walk or sleeping? I remember how people would sometimes comment on the time stamps on my posts, so often written in the early hours of the morning.  I used to say that that was the only way that I could find time to blog, and I think I believed it.  Why didn't I just take life a little easier?  Or why didn't I write more real stuff and get more published?

3,604 posts in eight years.  Hundreds of thousands of words.  Hours, days, weeks of time wasted.  Why did I bother?  Why do any of us bother?  After all, I am not the most prolific blogger, not by a long shot.  How much time has been burned up by the likes of uber-bloggers like James McGrath, Jim West and Joel Watts?

Back in the early days of doing scholarship on the internet, I remember being asked by another scholar about the value of this sort of work, not, at that point, blogging, but e-lists, websites and the like.   I was working in the UK at the time where we had a thing called the "Research Assessment Exercise".  I wouldn't be able to submit any of my internet stuff to that, would I?  I was a little take aback by the question.  It had never even occurred to me that the internet stuff might be taking me away from proper scholarship, the kind of stuff that one could submit to the RAE.  Perhaps he was right; perhaps this is not the way for a true scholar to behave.

Anyone who has had a blog for a while will be aware of just how short our memories are.  When the same old question comes back around again -- there is a kind of blog cycle -- it is rare for one of us to say, "Oh, I remember a great post about that two or three years ago."  Blogs are ephemeral.  Blog posts do not endure.  Even if you keep a full archive of everything you have ever posted, the vast majority of your posts, the great bulk of activity, 99% of your output evaporates from consciousness.  Here today, gone tomorrow.

I have often been surprised at what I forget of my own blogging activity.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a reference in a recent article written by John Lyons, and published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, to something I had once said here about the conflict between the criterion of multiple attestation and the criterion of embarrassment in historical Jesus research.  It was a good thought, I think, but one that I had completely forgotten. 

But here is another thought.  Perhaps I would have forgotten that idea forever if I had not blogged it.  Perhaps this is one of the values of a blog -- it is the chance to put down a marker in the sand, to share some thoughts, to put things out there and to see what happens.  Indeed, this is one of the values of the medium -- it is a little more than the casual conversation but a little less than the published piece.  It can occupy a kind of middle ground.  It is a sketch pad, but it is also interactive.  If you are lucky, people talk back.

A New Testament scholar once asked my advice on starting a blog in order to support his new book that was coming out, to give it a bit of extra publicity and to provide a place where people could come and interact with him about the book.  I advised caution.  Blogs that are set up to support publications seldom last very long, not least because they end up being rather self-possessed and narrow.  The most successful blogs, or the ones that I like reading, are those that range widely, blogs that chat about topics that are outside the narrowly defined area of a particular scholar's research interest, and touch on ephemera related more broadly to the discipline.

They are great for intellectual tidbits, the things you just can't resist sharing but know will never make it into one of your publications.  They are places for notes about teaching, for reflections on the funny side of scholarship, for research ideas that would otherwise never see the light of day.  And it's worth thinking too of those ideas that are better left to the blog alone, or would have better left even off the blog.  Sometimes blogging is all you need to do to convince yourself that an idea does not have legs and can be quietly dropped.

I don't think I'd advise anyone to start a blog unless there was a chance that they would be become an enthusiast.  In the end, it has to be its own reward.  The same is true with those other bits of public technology, podcasts, gateway sites, even the ones that now look long in the tooth, the e-lists, the scholarly websites.  That's why I don't regret the time I have spent online.  I have enjoyed it and it is just possible that it has made me a better scholar.  It's certainly given me some practice in writing, in interacting with others, and in improving my teaching.

I suppose that what I am saying to the graduate students is that it really is a waste of time to blog, to podcast, even to tweet, if you are doing it for its own sake, to gain recognition or something like that.  But if it's something you'd enjoy, it does have its rewards.  I sometimes think, "That's bloggable!" even if I don't get around to blogging it.  Or "I could do a podcast on that!" even when I never find the time to sit down and record.   And that's something that can keep you sane, which can't be a bad thing.

Engaging the "Wired-In Generation": Knowledge and Learning in the Digital Age
1:00 PM to 2:30 PM
Room: 3002 - Convention Center
Theme: Hosted by the Student Advisory Board
Teresa Calpino, Loyola University of Chicago, Presiding
Mark Goodacre, Duke University
Pods, Blogs, and other Time-wasters: Do Electronic Media Detract from Proper Scholarship? (15 min)
Christian Brady, Pennsylvania State University
On the Internet No One Knows You're a Grad Student, Or How Social Media Can Help You, Build You Up, and Tear You Down (15 min)
Kelley Coblentz Bautch, St. Edward's University
Videoconferencing in the Classroom: Broadening the Horizons of Students through Interactive Scholarly Exchange(15 min)
Discussion (30 min)


Bob MacDonald said...

Mark - I think it is important to underline how valuable it was for those of us who are not in the academic guild to eavesdrop and ask questions on the e-lists and to learn - so much - from the academics. Some of what we learn is not 'content' but that scholars (e-list or blog) are not always in agreement and some are worth reading - some maybe not. It is a selective process. I don't twitter - btw - also I keep a private blog so I can learn a bit more discipline before publishing.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Bob. Excellent thoughts, thanks.

Andy Rowell said...

Well said, Mark. I personally loved my binge on your podcasts and your description of blogging is similar to mine own. I really like Twitter (for theology colleagues) and Facebook status updates (for friends) for the brief but potentially rich and witty thoughts. I used to just scan blog post titles in my RSS feeder--which I still do--but Twitter is another way of doing that. "Just sum it up for me in the headline and I will read more if I'm intrigued."

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Andy. Agreed. Cheers.

Michael Barber said...


Well said! I do think however that blogging also has another advantage: you get feedback. I've had some great experiences with that.

By the way, I'm a huge fan of the podcasts. You inspired me to start my own, but it's not nearly as well done as yours.

Please keep them coming! Hope to run into you this weekend.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi Michael. Agree about the feedback element -- I really like that. I'd forgotten about your podcast -- I must give it a proper listen! Hope to see you in SF. Cheers, Mark

Anonymous said...

I have a very happy memory of jogging among the Maasai along the rim of the Rift Valley listening to one NTPod after another on a cheap mp3 player. Your voice is now inextricably linked with that beautiful scenery.

Thanks for taking the time to produce them.

Simon Nash said...

Like Ben I like to listen to the NT pod on 5-8 mile runs, albeit around the coasts and lanes of jersey rather than the African savannah. Something about the pace and timbre of your voice Mark makes for perfect pace, although I do seem to speed up whenever the topic of a hypothetical lost source for the double tradition in the Synoptics arises ;-)

The material is really good too and there are enough of them now that the cycle takes a good few miles to get through!

Anonymous said...

Like the others there are lots of comments here that resonate with me. One impression in particular stands out, your uncertainty of the place of podcasts. I think the uncertainty (apart from technological changes which are often unpredictable except in hindsight, and anyway potentially apply to all these media) for me stems from the relatively sparse feedback to my podcast compared to my blog. Yet the stats suggest that the podcast is already as much or even more cunsulted than the blog, despite starting the podcast three years later than the blog and less frequent posts.

Howard M. said...

Mark, I have an idea that would solve a lot of the problems you mentioned. I think all interested scholars should get together and create a biblical Wikipedia. For example, you would write a short researched article about some biblical topic. Then other scholars could add to that article, either agreeing with it and adding more detailed information or add an opposing view. Then any of you can come back later and update your section of the article. Then anyone could comment on the article. So instead of having a blog post about a certain topic for one day, which will fade away with time, you would have a static article that can be updated at any time, and it will be part of a larger scholarly work. And only actual qualified scholars would be able to write or edit articles, but anyone could comment. It would be a great way to see new and relevant biblical information in one place. What do you think?

Targuman said...

Tim, BlueCord was supposed to be just such an effort to create a curated Wiki but it never got off the ground. I still think it would be a great idea. We tried it on but again, no one was really interested in contributing... Perhaps the idea will soon take hold but I have my doubts since the effort is not rewarded in our current review systems.

Richard Fellows said...

But are peer-reviewed publications any less ephemeral than blog posts? So many are rarely read and soon forgotten, aren't they?

My own work has benefited immensely from blog posts. A few come quickly to mind: yours on the "his disciples", Carlson's on Gal 2:12, and Tilling's on protective anonymity. I am grateful that these ideas were made available to everyone with an internet connection, without subscription.

Deane said...

Congratulations! This post was included in the November 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival. This is quite an achievement. My word, yes.