Blogging and Archaeology: A Few Contributions

March 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Because I am a space cadet, I did not notice Colleen Morgan’s call for some preliminary thoughts related to her Blogging Archaeology panel at the SAAs.  I really wanted to attend the conference and the panel, but for various reasons could not so I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the discussion in some way.

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Her first question asked us to consider the place of short-from, blog writing in the archaeological discourse.  I’ve thought about this a good bit over the past few years as an academic, archaeological blogger.

First, we have to get beyond the idea that the blog is a genre of writing. The blog is a tool and like any tool we can use it in multiple ways, while at the same time realizing that its form and history condition how we use it.  Blogs have already found a place within the academic and popular discourse.  The Bryn Mawr Classical Review manifests in a very blog like format (and allows for comments in Blogger), blogs like Snarkmarket, The Valve, and Blog Them Out of the Stone Age seek to bridge the gap between popular and academic writing, and blog software, particularly sophisticated takes on the standard blogging platforms like CommentPress (which Shakespeare Quarterly has used to great effect) and “the platform formerly known as” WordPress MU, have formed the foundation for a range of academic projects.  In short, the blog today as a form of expression is neither intrinsically academic or popular, neither specifically short-form or long-form, and is probably at the ragged edge of being anything at all except a piece of software running on a server and accessible via the web.

Next, “the blog” and projects run on blogging software offer some serious advantages for archaeologists. First off, blogs are cheap to run compared to traditional academic publications. This is particularly significant for archaeological writing which tend to be expensive.  Most blogging platforms can accommodate a nearly unlimited number of images, photographs, and text. For publishing archaeological reports – the most basic form of archaeological writing – the blogging platform represents an ideal tool. The tradition of short report-style publications (at least in my field of Mediterranean archaeology) has existed for decades (e.g. the Journal of Hellenic Studies’ Archaeological Reports, the annual reports in the Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, the Report of the Director of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, the Archaiologikon Deltion et c.) Blogging software would make this kind of publication not only orders of magnitude cheaper but also easier and probably better (more imagines, more photographs, more text!).

Other forms of archaeological writing already position to take advantage of the kind of easy to use, dynamic interface that blogging provides. As many respondents to Colleen’s question have already noted, there is a long standing tradition of popular archaeological writing in archaeology. Archaeology Magazine, National Geographic, and Near Eastern Archaeology all present archaeological reporting in an accessible and exciting way.  The use of photographs, illustrations, maps, and graphics bring complex relationships to life, but also add significantly to the expense of these publications. Blogs provide a ready-made format for this genre of publication.  In fact, I am currently working with a group of scholars looking to establish a more robust web presence of an academic organization. As we think about how we will appear on the web, I have suggested that we look combine the best aspects of popular magazines like Archaeology and a blogging platform as an approach for creating a body of popularly accessible content for our members.

Finally, when academics hear the word “publishing” we often default to a very conservative, limited, and, frankly, inaccurate view of the academic discourse. Publishing suddenly becomes “peer review”.  While I am not a critic of the peer review process and recognize its importance for our standing as professionals, I refuse to subscribe to a view that only peer-review can produce valid knowledge. In fact, we tend to forget that most academics present finding across a wide range of platforms, genres, formats, and editorial processes.  There is a continuum that begins in the classroom and professional seminar and continues through the conference to the grey-paper site report, book chapter, peer-reviewed article, and into the monograph.  At each step of this process there is a different degree of critical attention and peer scrutiny, editorial rigor, generic practices, and professional expectations. The blog as a manifestation of academic writing fits into this continuum of academic work. Most blog posts probably fit somewhere between a conference paper and an article or between an seminar presentation and a conference paper. The best can probably be classified as “academic correspondence” or notes (long-dying forms of academic publication like this short piece by Alan Cameron or any number of short articles in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik).  We can add to this list projects like John Wallrodt’s Paperless Archaeology which represents a valuable body of technical notes for the application of a range of digital tools in archaeological practice.  All this is to say, that whatever the place the academic blog, it does not fall beyond the pale of academic work as it is recognized today or as it has been understood historically. The tool for publication has changed, but the impulse behind short-form writing has not.

The key to recognizing the place of academic blogging within the academic discourse is separating the tools that we use to publish our ideas from the ideas themselves. There is nothing academically problematic about short-form arguments – in fact we present them all the time at conferences, post-sessions, and in seminars). Nothing about the use of blogging software makes them unsuitable for peer-review, and, at the same time, peer-review is not a monolithic guarantee of academic excellence particularly in the field of archaeology where a robust popular press and a tradition of less-rigorously reviewed reports already exists.

In fact, the wide range of academic practices in archaeology makes it an ideal field for the continued use of blogging platforms to communicate our professional work to our peers, our students, and the public.

And, I’ll get to Colleen’s second question (in a more timely manner) later in the week…

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