Hi everyone. Sorry for the long silence.
First, a personal health update: I am now 95% back to normal, with no formal medical diagnosis on my foot or my walking. My personal homebrew self-diagnosis, which doctors hate and tell you never to trust, is that I didn’t have any stress fractures at all, but essentially had multiple Stage 2-3 sprains all over the same foot—serious stuff that took a long time to heal. After two months, I’m still doing substantial rehab. I look normal enough to satisfy my personal vanity when I walk, and I function well enough to explore the giant and beautiful campus where I’m now working. But it’s still a substantially weak joint, and I’m taking things, as maudlin convalescents often say, “a day at a time.”
Is it possible to take things two days at a time? If it were, that’s what I would do. I need the head start on the term.
Now, on to business. It’s been a long time—at least two months, anyway—since I’ve put up an article of substance here. In part I’ve been fighting medical problems, hustling to keep a roof over my head, and slaying other quotidian dragons. But in part I’ve been reeling from the explosive importance of my last two back-to-back articles on the USask #TransformUS scandal, which went tremendously viral across academia. Mostly this was to good effect, but it has had the effect of elevating, at least temporarily, this humble blog from the quiet griping of a then-unattached academic into more of an activist manifesto than I intended. To paraphrase Twelfth Night, some people have “going viral” thrust upon’em.
With the wisdom of hindsight and a good two months to watch where the ripples of this big splash have gone, let’s look back.
My sudden academic notoriety (surely a mixed blessing for a sessional adjunct!) arose from two articles I penned on the University of Saskatchewan’s tenure scandal surrounding the firing of Dr. Robert Buckingham. Through some association channels, this writing got picked up, and turned my sleepy little private blog into a Voice For Change™ with upwards of 5,000 readers. My stats page was wonderfully cosmopolitan: I have readers now in Sweden, Australia, Thailand, and other beautiful countries I’ve never been except in my most wishful travels on Google Maps’ Street View.
The attention was deeply flattering, particularly as someone whose many hats (literary critic, teacher, freelance author, musician, purveyor of literary poetry and pulp genre-fiction, content producer and reality jockey of all sorts) all depend on or make use of a certain amount of notoriety, word of mouth, and self-marketing. The completion of my PhD has launched me into a very precarious job market, wherein a reputation that precedes me is, perhaps by a very narrow margin, more of an asset than a hindrance. Most of all, the attention was flattering because of the support I’ve received from people: I get the sense that some of the grievances I’ve put out there needed to be said, or that I’ve articulated some of the important problems facing academia in what we might call the Age of the Administrator. Through the feedback I’ve received, particularly in the weeks following, it became clear that people felt I was speaking for them—and here is where issues of responsibility and professionalism begin to raise their head.
Here is a sound bite that could survive being quoted out of context in a font size twice as big, they way that magazine articles do to draw in the eye: there is a very thin divide, based on the size of the offended party, between personal grumbling and public advocacy. I’ve long considered my job here to be a whiner on my own behalf, which brings with it a certain entitlement to subjectivity, and permits a certain ignorance of the ways in which my experiences may or may not reflect on the experiences of others. That hasn’t been an irresponsible policy for a personal, semi-private blog; but with the degree of attention (and more importantly, influence) I’ve unwittingly had over the summer, that might be changing. This is one reason why it’s been important to step back from the blog and take my bearings.
The most useful critiques are those which educate, and I’ve correspondingly tried to interpret here the problems I encounter in my daily life, and to explain them both to myself and to people who may not share them, or may have a peripheral understanding of how those problems work and how they came to be. What problems are these? A cursory look back at my articles suggests that these have been the problems of being an academic, a speaker of the English language, a writer, a fantasy-reader, a subject and consumer of popular culture. I’ll admit there’s been no such soul-searching with the Luke’s Ukes ukulele videos I link to: I’ve got 99 problems, you might say, but a ukulele ain’t one.
The problem is—and okay, here I am critiquing the problem of being a blogger—I’ve unwittingly stumbled into a whole business of advocacy I don’t particularly comprehend, and I have no way of knowing whether it’s going to persist, or whether it will flash in the proverbial pan and fade as quickly as it came. My inner introvert (is there any other kind?) hopes the kind of momentary fame I’ve enjoyed will leave me be without further responsibility—but at the same time, a large readership is a tremendous professional opportunity—and, even more than that, it is a gift that comes with a responsibility.
We write, after all, to communicate. People who are willing to read what I write are precious to me—not because I seek attention, but because I seek connection. Words without listeners are empty signs, and all that. I could copy-paste several old chestnuts on the subject here—“Ozymandias,” Salinger, and so on. A written word with no reader is as sad as a Christmas present with no child. And so, part of my calculation in waiting a month before concluding this set of articles, what I might call my “Saskatchewan Trilogy,” is calculated to figure out just what sort of notoriety I’ve picked up. Is it the lasting kind, with lasting responsibility, or the temporary viral kind that is the hallmark of the Internet Age? The year 1963 saw two previously small-time bands release their breakout hits about surfin’: “Surfin’ USA,” and “Surfin’ Bird.” Am I the Beach Boys of this particular parable, with staying power and a lasting cultural responsibility, or am I the Trashmen, whose only obligation is to enjoy the absurdity of momentary fame?
The answer to this question is important in shaping the future of what I do with this blog. If my explosion in readership among the academic community was a one-time fluke, I think it’s all right if this blog falls right back to being what it was: a little soapbox where I keep in touch with personal friends and air out the rants that are too developed and honed for disposable Facebook posts, but not developed and honed enough to be committed to print articles or serious attempts at publication.
On the other hand, if I’ve said something of sufficiently lasting value to keep people (especially in academia) tuned in, then this blog has transitioned of its own accord into something that’s a larger part of my professional life than I’ve intended—in which case its mandate can and must become something different.
The politics of literary and cultural studies, of the academy, of the precariat, and of the increasingly corporatized neoliberal epoch in education I’m referring to as the “Age of the Administrator,” is a subject I think more educators in general ought to discuss. But the rules, standards, and proper approach to my private whining are not necessarily the rightest or most appropriate for public critique—and if this blog has by accident become a more professional vehicle for critique, that will naturally affect the formal bent of the blog and what I hope to accomplish with it.
If this is what’s happened, will I still talk about literature and film and cultural criticism, and embed amusing links? Probably. But will I continue to build silly infographics likening Rob Ford’s facial expressions to Gollum’s? Probably not so much, unless there’s some particularly worthy criticism in it. This is characteristic of a certain kind of satire that might not be appropriate to the future of a blog from which people expect and demand a more serious and professional kind of criticism. So yes, that’s necessarily going to affect the way I write and the things I write about—not in the name of censorship, but in the name of a certain responsibility.
The sense of society’s responsibility to its artists (including writers)—namely, to pay them in accordance with their skill and the quality of their work—is dwindling in North America, and particularly in Canada. This is something that gets lamented often, mainly because it’s one of the few things great writers will write about for free. But the flipside of this coin—the responsibility of the writer to society—is less often discussed as one of the things we’ve lost. There are concrete reasons today, mostly having to do with the glut of a marketplace and our neurotic cultural obsession with fame in the West, why promising reporters gravitate to TMZ instead of following in Walter Cronkite’s footsteps. The content factory is churning as fast as it can, especially online. The digital universe surpassed 4.4 trillion gigabytes in 2013 and is doubling in size every two years.
In part, the rush to produce content is driving this exponential expansion. Back in the 1980s, we made fun of Police Academy for spawning six increasingly derivative sequels. Now, Tom Cruise is heading into production for Mission: Impossible 5, and no one bats an eye. In the upcoming Creed, Stallone takes a swing at Rocky Balboa for the seventh time—while the announced The Expendables 4, read as a knowing cultural metanarrative, critiques the drive to produce endless iterations of human beings themselves—Stallone included. Content must produce more content. We must consume more, watch more, see more. (Feed me, see-more!).
As a result, it’s impossible to keep pace with the bloat of content. A few weeks ago, Amazon began offering a subscription service: for $9.99 a month, subscribers gain electronic access to over 600,000 books (so basically, it’s like a community library, except that it’s a library you must pay a massive corporation for the privilege of using).
Wherever a big increase in readership takes me, we might as well admit (in our best Bogart voice) that the blog of one sometime academic, sometime writer still doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world: and here is where the issue of responsibility enters.
It is not a writer’s responsibility to produce content. There’s enough content already; in fact there’s too much. It is not a novelist’s responsibility to turn out a novel this year or next. I’ll even venture that, in spite of what your Promotion and Tenure Committee tells you, it’s not an academic’s responsibility to turn out one more monograph every six years to justify that sabbatical you spent “researching” in Tuscany.
No. The only responsibility of any creator is to turn out the best work possible, by whatever standard of best applies to them.
This doesn’t mean we should work any less hard—on the contrary, we should be working even harder, with a mind to ensuring that our contributions are, indeed, contributions rather than tokens. From the Facebook comment to the monograph, our work must contribute. We are in love with hearing ourselves; we are even more in love with others hearing us. And so we speak for the sake of speaking. It doesn’t matter that the Facebook friends we’re arguing with will never be swayed ’round to our way of thinking—nor has it mattered that the work I’ve rushed out on the Pre-Raphaelites, or Lord Byron, or the Digital Humanities, was already done with greater originality and elegance by a certain legendary literary scholar (the same one in all these cases) twenty-five years ago. We are engaged in the production of content for its own sake: a derivative and insipid monograph, we have been taught, is better than no monograph at all.
Most emerging literary critics today went through the crucible, in Grade 12 or first-year university, of having to write that five-paragraph “sandwich essay” on whether Hamlet is truly insane, or just pretending. I come back to this wonderful weird phenomenon again and again in my classes, and hope to someday study it at length. But while the works we have since grown up to publish now dwarf the “Is Hamlet Crazy” essay in scope and sophistication, they too often fail to surpass it in terms of originality or impact. With these things in mind, and a growing sense of responsibility as a blogger, I mean to end off my “Saskatchewan trilogy” with a little navel-gazing, and a little looking toward the future.
I, too, have been guilty of writing-to-write. Who actually opens a personal blog who doesn’t like to hear him/herself speak? That’s entirely what this was for, with the added ego that some of these desultory thoughts were “too big” to waste on Facebook comments and quick-fix clickbait. But the temptation of the Internet is to get wrapped up in the process of commenting for the purpose of commenting. People who subscribe to this blog, or who check back regularly, may have been disappointed by the hiatus between my last post and this one. A regular update schedule, they tell us, is one of the greatest signs of professionalism in a blog. Crowdfunding patronage sites such as the very promising Patreon now operate on the principle that the more content we grind out, the better we’re serving our audience.
At the same time, I’ve spent my recovery time and my last weeks of unemployment over the summer clumsily perfecting the basics of haute cuisine and nouvelle cuisine, and I’m slowly relearning the importance of satisfying appetites (literal and figurative) with quality rather than quantity. I’ve been so distracted over the summer with projects on the go (I am a great starter of things, and an abysmal finisher) that anything I contributed here would not have been up to the standard I want to start keeping to with what I post.
So I’ll see what sort of response I get to this viewer-wise and adjust my work accordingly: if I get my usual four readers, perhaps I don’t need to take things as seriously as I have. But if I’m still getting in the thousands of readers, now, it’s time to take things a little bit seriously as a writer and be conscious of the quality and professionalism that comes out.
Mark Twain famously never wrote the word “metropolis” for seven cents when they paid him the same money to write “city.” Nobody is paying me to write either word—but sometimes, in the quest to do as much as possible, the passionate dedication to do it as well as possible can be lost. Whether the work to come is all serious and professional or informal and goofy, there’s still a standard of quality to which I’ll try to keep.
I’ll see you all again soon, and thank you for waiting so long for something worth reading. I was waiting, too, right along with you.