Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The trivial Bierce? the populist Ambrose?

Friends, AHB III has had a most interesting and unexpected journey over the last twenty-four hours. His mailboxes and comments section have been filled with missives, overwhelmingly in favor of his remaining a tribune of history department gossip. He also knows more than he wants to know about what people know, a most peculiar position for a foible-ist like himself.

Among those bloggers who have commented on the Broad-Gauge Gossip, one has made strong argument against my little broadsheet. After reading the reproachful post of Mr. Tim Lacy, I am tempted to head into the hills of Mexico for good. Lacy argues that

we should not promote the crassness inherent in delivering sound "byte" blows, slipping in snarky snippets, and promoting silly dramas. This is one reason I'm not a fan of the so-called Ambrose Bierce history gossip weblog. There's nothing like reducing the profession to a soap opera.

To Mr. Lacy's charges, I admit guilt, for crassness, snarky snippets, and silly drama can provide a necessary diversion from our otherwise serious endeavors and, in part for that reason, I created this blog. Soap operas are one of the oldest and most popular genres of our culture. Should historians always have to position ourselves on a lofty perch above such amusements, looking contemptuously down up the throngs in the bear-pit? AHB III loved Melrose Place, in part because it was a southern Californian version ofHuis Clos, with petty and pretty people. He reads the celebrity gossip in his local rag daily. Our profession needs a little levity now and then.

Many of those pleading me to keep from jumping the Rio Grande have served up a counterargument that this blog is not trivial, but actually a useful, even redemptive form of journalism. And much to yr. mustachioed maverick's surprise, a theme runs through several comments and letters like the clear waters of the Columbia River before it was befouled by industry and agriculture. AHB III could not have anticipated the argument, viz. that he is a voice of transparency and democracy, someone who breaks open the vault of elitism and provides a useful service by revealing its contents to those who do not have direct access to it because they are not part of the "old boy's network."

"We need ya brotha," reads a private note from one of my populist readers, in such charming argot. Another, deploying the argot of the cultural historian right down to the passive voice, contends that "a public discourse of our profession is direly needed." I can't add much to the splendidly-named "Gurgling Cod," except to protest that I am no "Homer, Publius, and Franklin W. Dixon." And "Ahistoricality" offers this quite compelling response to my existential crisis: "those of us who aren't well-connected to the old boys networks have never gotten a good look at the profession like this before."

Of all of the missives that I have received, whether from cod, dinosaur, or human, the most thought provoking came in an electronic missive that I received last evening. My correspondent, who revealed his or her identity to me, allows me to post the following, on the condition of maintaining her or his anonymity:

I read your post on anonymity earlier today and thought I'd respond. I'm not sure I have a firm opinion either way on your anonymous nature. But it does strike me that your blog serves some useful purposes. The public voice of this profession does largely tend to be big guns at big institutions. Folks with this inside access to the workings of these hot departments and schools have a degree of professional advantage over the rest of us who are sweating it out at mediocre schools in flyover country (but who aspire to at least slightly greater heights). I'm really struck by how much more "gossip" my pals at hot northeast schools have access to than I do. I could be wrong, but my sense is that this gossip is at times useful information that helps people guide their professional decisions. You're setting this information free -- something that is bound to be useful to those who lacked much access to it.

This doesn't exactly speak to your question about the merits of anonymity, though your anonymity, I presume, enables you to do your job better. People I guess are more likely to give you inside info if they don't know who you are. Anonymity makes your blog better. Anonymity is a means to an end.

Back in the day, my hacker pals would always say that "information wants to be free". I guess I would look at your blog more in terms of questions about information and power and access to information, rather than in terms of ethical and moral responsibility for making information or your analysis of it available.

The above letter raises issues that I had not hitherto considered, viz that this broadsheet is a sort of chant democratic.

Good readers, I have not yet decided my course of action. My bags are packed and I am prepared to retreat to Mexico, but the latter message and several others that expressed a similar theme leave me wondering whether perhaps I should continue this adventure at least for a time.


Tim Lacy said...


For a more reasoned reaction from me about your endeavor, please see my comments at this link. You'll see there that I have knee-jerk reactions to the term "gossip."

- TL

Anonymous said...

I believe that your character's appearance in the "three-quel" of the From Dusk to Dawn vampire flicks would be reason enough to hie to Mexico.


I am enjoying your blog immensely.

Anonymous said...

I recently heard or read someone say that you shouldn't post anything online that you wouldn't mind being associated with on the front page of your hometown newspaper. I think that makes sense if you are a known commodity. But, AHBIII, your anonymity allows you to comment freely and with impunity--much like undergraduates who take pot shots on "rate my professor." I DO enjoy your blog, but am concerned that you might end up in Siberia instead of enjoying the warmth and bebidas of Mexico.

Rebecca F. said...

Mr Bierce,

As an aspiring historian, I greatly encourage you to continue your anonymous blogging, as it provides those who aspire to the hallowed halls of history academia (especially those who do not/did not attend Ivy League schools) access to privileged information they would otherwise lack. I have found that it gives me wonderful insights into both specific history departments and the history profession in general, insights that will help guide my decisions about my future education and career.

Mr Punch said...

The real value of this blog, I think, lies in the fact that it is not in fact "gossip" or celebrity news -- because of its focus on departments. Nearly all of the "official" history news is about individuals -- new jobs, awards, obituaries, not to mention book reviews. But the institutional framework within the profession largely operates is a neglected topic, well worth addressing.

As to anonymity, there are pluses and minuses, but if the marketplace of ideas works at all the pluses are most likely to prevail. Again, it matters that the focus is not really personal.