“Blessay”? “Translations of Expertise”? “Blogging For Intent” You Be The Judge

The problem with stalling around waiting for an editor to come back with comments so I can revise the manuscript so we can push forward to publication is that my brain has time on its hands. (CAN a brain have hands?) Which means I’m thinking about not just this and that, but the other, too.

To whit: I read an essay the other day written by Dan Cohen, a historian whose area of expertise is the “digital humanties.” (No, I’m not gonna  explain. Ask ten people, and you’ll get ten different explanations of what that is and does. Google it. Or Bing it. Or whatever.)

Cohen, suggested using the term “blessay” to identify a particular form of “new” writing: The blog essay that is relatively short, and both expertise- and idea-driven. An essay that’s not just a short “here’s what I had for dinner” blog entry, but also not a five- to thirty-thousand word essay weighted with footnotes and written for a peer-reviewed or for a traditional publication (like The New Yorker). An essay written for “an intelligent general audience.” (Nope. Can’t explain that either.)

His essay prompted a Twitter-based debate and quite a few comments at Cohen’s blog. I missed the debate (and only came across the essay after the fact on my Google reader feed) so I had to do some backtracking to find said Twitter-debate.

What I found intriguing, however, was that the discussants quickly shifted from the merits of Cohen’s term of choice to a discussion of the audience for “blessays.”  For whom are such blessays intended? (Other than “an intelligent general audience”?

One Tweeterer (I’m waiting for someone to tell me that’s the wrong term to use) suggested that the audience is

 para-academic, post-collegiate white-collar workers and artists, with occasional breakthroughs either all the way to a ‘high academic’ or to a ‘mass culture’ audience.”

To which I mentally replied: Ugh.

(I hasten to add that the people who were responding via Twitter to Dan’s essay were all people I “follow.” They’re all WAY smarter than I am, and way more educated than I am [not, frankly, that either of those states is hard to achieve].)

Others chimed in to say that such essays were similar to the work created by “public intellectuals” back when there were still such things (there are still), back, say, in the mid-20th century. And one person wondered:

 Do academics who blogs get readers from outside? (not so much big but wide audience)

To which I thought “Hmmmm.”

So where am I going with this? (Bear with me; I’m thinking on the fly.)

A large chunk of what appears on THIS on this “blog” are precisely the kind of essays that Cohen suggests naming “blessays”: I use my particular form of expertise (I’m a historian) to comment on what teachers back in the old day called “current events”: I discuss Events of the Day by framing them in a larger historical context. (Sometimes I also describe/talk about my work as I do it, to give readers a look behind the scenes of how historians “do history.”)

I write “blessays” in part because doing so helps me think about my own work, but also because I’m aware that, in general, Americans don’t much care for history, and who can blame them? (Read: the teaching of history, like the teaching of most subjects, is done badly if at all.) So my general goal in blogging is to “do” history in real time, if you will.

Who is my audience? Anyone who comes strolling past. I don’t care if the reader is “intelligent,” a “para-academic,” an “artist,” or works in a “white-collar” job. I don’t care if the reader collects garbage, collects debts, or collects comic books. I don’t care if the reader is from the “outside” world, wherever that may be, or the inside one.

All I care about is communicating the complexity of the human experience to ordinary folks like myself. That means I intentionally structure my blessays to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

After all, the truly amazing and wonderful aspect of the web (and of software/platforms that have made “blogging” so simple and accessible) is that our potential audience is everyone, and so we need not limit our content for a specific audience.

Can we (self) impose limits to our intended audience? Aim the content for a specific slice of possible readership (eg, “para-academics,” and no, I don’t know what that is or means. I’ll look it up when I’m finished.) Of course!

But slapping a label on the scholar-who-uses-blogging-as-a-way-to-communicate-with-a-general-audience strikes me as defeating the purpose of the scholar-driven blog. If we wanted to aim at “intellectuals,” middle brow or otherwise, well, hell, we can all just write conventionally (on paper) and send said writing off to someplace like The Atlantic or The New Yorker and hope the editors there will take the piece.

So:  it’s the big, ‘ol high-middle-low brow audience for me and my decidedly low-brow form of scholarship. But if no one minds, I think I’ll just stick with “blogging.”

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