Blogging as Public Archaeology
Last week’s American Anthropological Association conference perhaps once more confirmed that archaeology is a thoroughly public scholarship as the halls resounded with scholars theorizing activism and leading calls for revolution: increasingly more of us celebrate collaborative work with descendant communities, indigenous peoples, and social collectives beyond the walls of the academy. The embrace of civic engagement and public scholarship reaches well beyond anthropological archaeology circles, with a host of scholars and universities committed to reaching beyond narrowly defined “pure” scholarship.
There are many reasons to celebrate public scholarship, but academic culture profoundly influences what passes as scholarship at conferences, in employment, in peer review, and for promotion and tenure. The Society for American Archaeology conference in April 2014 will include a Blogging in Archaeology session that almost certainly will illuminate the political implications of public archaeology scholarship in the blogosphere and beyond. In the months leading up to the conference Doug’s Archaeology is hosting a “blogging carnival” that will include archaeology bloggers addressing the same questions each month (posts can be followed on Twitter at #BlogArch).
This month’s question is why do archaeologists blog? The host of bloggers that have responded to Doug’s question so far have provided thoughtful answers that I would echo on many counts, but the question also raises a bigger set of issues. First, why is public archaeological scholarship not always accommodated by conventional scholarly discourse? The easy answer in university settings revolves around academics’ traditionally cherished peer-reviewed scholarship, which blogs and digital public scholarship aspire to expand. Second, what defines the disciplinary boundaries of “archaeology” at all? Bloggers violate many of the conventional definitions of archaeology as the objective material analysis of antiquity, part of a broad expansion of archaeology in contemporary scholarship. Finally, how do universities in particular and archaeological employers in general (e.g., cultural resource management, cultural heritage industry) view blogs and public scholarship?
In some ways the academy has begun to accommodate public scholarship as reviewable research and concede the distorted distinction between applied and academic scholarship (compare the Modern Language Association’s thorough 2011 discussion on reviewing digital scholarship and the Campus Compact inventory of academic review procedures for community public scholarship). Scholarly conferences routinely include many academics theorizing community politics and sharing some genuine success stories, including many sessions examining blogging (compare Colleen Morgan’s discussion of a 2011 SAA session, another from Kris Hurst, or Terry Brock’s analysis of teaching with blogs from a 2010 SAA session); some exciting journals like Community Archaeology and Heritage have emerged to provide scholarly publication outlets for work that traditional peer-reviewed journals have ignored or viewed warily. Nevertheless, those discourses risk remaining relatively insular academic discussions: conferences, for instance, can be prohibitively expensive and pretentious boredom, and most journals are literally inaccessible to people outside universities (and increasingly more cash-strapped universities—and some that are not impoverished at all— have dumped many of their increasingly costly journal subscriptions). Perhaps more problematic is the deep-seated academic resistance to public scholarship as a tenurable pursuit: we may celebrate community research, but academics tend to tenure traditional peer-reviewed research publications, even when universities (my own included) aspire to promote faculty doing community-based, public scholarship.
Regardless of their specific missions, archaeology blogs are prototypical examples of public scholarship that extend all our conventional missions beyond conference hallways, peer-reviewed publication, and classrooms. The caricature of a blog—comic book guy registering his disapproval of Itchy and Scratchy, or a pre-teen waxing rhapsodic over a boy band—is simply a stereotype that reduces blogs to unfiltered (and un-reviewed) streams of consciousness. A blog certainly can be rigorous scholarship without forsaking accessibility (that is, both literal access online as well as reasonably readerly text and challenging ideas). Archaeology blogs inevitably take a wide range of textual forms—open-ended ideas; technical studies; tiny thinking exercises; descriptions of digs; long-winded essays (I recognize I am guilty); self-revelatory contemplation—but pundits seem to hyperbolize how much blogs differ from the more disciplined and homogenous peer-reviewed voice. An astounding amount of peer-reviewed archaeological scholarship is absolutely fascinating and readable and is not all faux French philosophy or insulated sherd-counting and scientific nerdery; the distinction between that literature and archaeological blogs is perhaps one more of delivery and style than it is of substance.
A host of scholars have dissected the theoretical distinctions of blog discourses, much as a whole bunch of civic engagement specialists have fabricated a whole language to describe and assess community research. That academic voice has a place in a community of scholars—some very specialized research needs venues for a very theoretically or methodologically focused group of scholars—but it risks appearing irrelevant if not hypocritical when it does not provide some public products that extend theorizing to narratives that are meaningful beyond scholarly circles. Public scholarship is fundamentally driven by a compelling narrative, and such narratives are often quite unlike what academics discuss in peer-reviewed publications and conferences.
It is clear that many archaeologists see blogs as consequential scholarship—any interesting research is fully capable of taking a public form that is rigorous, creative, challenging, and critical. Some observers seem wary that blogs are symptomatic of a “dumbed down” reduction of big scholarly ideas, but the perceived distinctions between various scholarly discourses from conference papers to blogs to peer-reviewed journal papers are probably hyperbolized: a boring peer-reviewed paper is almost certainly a boring blog too, and a shallow blog post is going to be an equally shallow research paper. Blog posts may well be testing grounds for ideas that may not be sufficiently rigorous to fit in many peer-reviewed outlets, but thoughtful readers—whether they are promotion and tenure committees or smart folks curious about archaeology—can assess the persuasiveness of such work. Apprehension of public discourse and popular culture are increasingly less common in the academy, but it is also the academic tendency to theorize them in ways that can either underscore their profound consequence or deliver their death rites.
Inside the academy, blogs are one form of public scholarship that remain marginal, consigned to the purgatory of “service” and much less professionally significant than a monograph. Promotion and tenure committees routinely assess journals based on subscription or citation counts and aspire to weigh the scholarly influence of research publications or conference presentations, but blogs, museum exhibits, and popular publications remain largely parenthetical scholarship outside their purview. As most bloggers realize, blogs may actually help scholars develop ideas more productively than conference presentations, and they certainly share archaeological scholarship beyond our little professional circles. Nevertheless, scholars seeking tenure, working demanding academic or heritage industry labor, or pursuing a job at all may be somewhat less inclined to view blogging as career-building. Some junior scholars sobered by the desperate job market actually may have turned to blogs for a creative scholarly space as well as a community of digital public archaeologists; ironically, they share the blogosphere with many of us with tenure or stable employment who came to blogging for many of the same scholarly and social reasons.
Academic culture may transform gradually, but clearly many archaeologists are in public space engaged with a variety of stakeholders and descendant communities. The discipline’s traditional contours have long ago stepped away from particularistic, hyper-focused research on a narrow range of things from the deep past, and now a breadth of us are fascinated with an archaeological perspective on contemporary materiality. The easy answer to why archaeologists blog is simply that it is good scholarship that expands many of the traditional boundaries on archaeological thought. Blogs provide chances to write creatively, reach into subjects that we might not normally consider archaeological or conventionally academic, and speak to a vast community of people who are fascinated with the material world and heritage.