12 March 2011

Blogging Archaeology, Week 2

Last week, my colleague Colleen over at Middle Savagery started a blogging carnival of sorts to complement her SAA workshop on the role of short form writing (i.e., blogging) in archaeology. There was a wealth of pointed and insightful discussion that followed; an exciting indication that the role of blogging in archaeological discourse is one of interest to practitioners, both those who agree it is a useful medium for communication and those who see blogging as too informal to make any real impact. I am part of the former group and you can read my earlier comments here. Now, on to Week 2 of...

In our last question, many emphasized the public access that blogging brings to archaeology, the option to “phone a friend,” as Kristin Sewell stated. Blogging gives new scholars a chance to speak out, to debunk 2012 foolishness and to give a little bit back to the public that usually signs our paychecks in one way or another. Though it is generally embraced (says she of the Berkeley bubble!), public outreach can be incredibly difficult, tricky, and prone to hidden downsides. Blogging archaeology is often fraught with tensions that are sometimes not immediately apparent. Beyond the general problems that come with performing as a public intellectual, what risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

One of the risks is something I mentioned last week: transparency. Not every archaeologist is ready to share with the world their thought processes and decisions that were made in the course of an excavation. Many, I imagine, are scared to be "called out" on poor research plans or methodologies. This nervousness I can understand, but the withholding of procedures by those who are adamant about calling archaeology a scientific discipline is odd at best. Our work needs to be reflexive, and it needs to be acceptable within the field to point out the shortcomings in our approaches. In my dissertation, I was my own devil's advocate in this respect, laying out all the possible interpretations of my data (and how that data was collected) to finally arrive at what I thought was the most logical interpretation.

Another aspect of short form that may appear to be a downside or consequence is the ease with which blogging allows us to share our comments and interpretations. Like other academic fields, in archaeology the feeling is "once it is printed, my opinions are out there" and there is no going back. The quickness with which we can create a new post and publish instantly (along with all our typos) likely gives all of us pause. I don't think, however, this stigma of traditional publication applies to short form. Blogs, for the most part, are not treated as gospel, but more often acknowledged as opinion spaces--an outlet for thoughts processes and emotional reactions to everything from the latest movie to the political instability in Libya. I realize this opinion goes against what many participants in this "virtual workshop" are likely arguing: the formalization of short form writing as a serious academic outlet. However, I view it more as a tool and less as an end product.

A final downside to short form is the appearance of dialog. Noting this virtual round table and other blogs (like Middle Savagery) as exceptions, most archaeological blogs that I read have very little in the way of dialog through comments. Often on this blog, I feel like I am talking to myself, which in a way is catharsis, but if an archaeology blogger writes and no one reacts, are we really changing opinions or moving the field forward?

Part of this shortcoming is hardwired into the form of blogs themselves: single author, single opinion. Commenting can also be a drag sometimes, with some blogs requiring comment moderation (i.e., your comment is not posted until it is approved) and jumping through several hoops to be notified about additional comments after yours (I'm looking at you, Word Press). Beyond blogs and even forums, which can be equally clunky, is there a better way that short form writing about archaeological subjects can stimulate true dialog and commentary?

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