Scholarship versus dissemination

March 7, 2007 | 30 comments
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Over at the great and spacious blog, Richard Bushman writes that “what I would hope for [in blogging] is more serious and focused thought, the kind that Nate Oman turns out, rather than off-the-cuff chatter that is fun but leads nowhere.” Similarly, recent discussion at DMI focuses on whether blogging can or should displace conventional scholarship. These discussions touch on the same questions: Why are we blogging, anyway? Are some types of blogging more valuable than others, as Bushman seems to suggest? Should we all be more like Nate?

It seems to me that there are several potential blogging models. Blogging can be scholarship, or dissemination of information. It can be storytelling, or therapy, or networking. In this post, I’ll focus on a two particular potential models.

First is what we might call the blogging-as-scholarship model. This might mean posts on either primary, historical research, such as Ardis often does, or it might mean synthesis and discussion, such as Nate often does (i.e., the recent political philosophy essay). Either way, blogging as scholarship is the production of new information or analysis.

Blogging as scholarship raises interesting forum questions. If an author has just researched a historical item, why not publish that with the Journal of Mormon History? There are reasons not to blog scholarship. Blogging is unlikely to generate the scholarly payouts of work published in other venues. Blogging is also more ephemeral.

There may also be reasons in favor of blogging scholarship. There are items that might better fit as blog posts than as stand-alone articles; an item may not fit well into the ideological arena of available journals; and author may prefer web dissemination. Or the piece may be published in both venues. In any case, blogging-as-scholarship raises interesting questions about the choice of venue. Blogging-as-scholarship is also the model least susceptible to charges that blogging is wasted time.

A related but distinct model is blogging as scholarly dissemination. This sort of blogging involves posts that examine existing scholarship — historical, linguistic, theoretical, or whatever — and highlight some interesting snippet, but that don’t engage in primary scholarship themselves. Under this model, blogging becomes a vector for existing scholarship. The blogger doesn’t put the entire text of Rough Stone Rolling online, but pulls out three interesting paragraphs and says, “Look at these paragraphs. Aren’t they interesting?”

The best consistent example I can think of in this category is Kevin Barney. Kevin consistently posts little interesting snippets on scriptural interpretation — that “feet” may have had a sexual connotation in the book of Ruth, for instance. Such posts have the benefit of culling out interesting information and presenting it in a neat package for a new audience.

Blogging as scholarly dissemination overlaps somewhat with journals or other print forums. There is some amount of material in printed venues — Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies — that recapitulates existing scholarship and points out interesting portions of that work. However, blogging is not really in competition with print venues. If Kevin Barney publishes the same material in Dialogue and on BCC, with the intent to disseminate the information, he’s reaching somewhat different audiences each time.

Is blogging-as-dissemination less valuable than blogging-as-scholarship? To some degree, it might be. Unlike the scholarship model, the dissemination model does not focus on the production of something _new_.

However, the dissemination model has its own benefits as well. While the scholarship side is interested in the production of new information, the dissemination side is interested in raising the level of audience awareness of some fact. Even if nothing new is being _said_, something new is being _heard_. (And of course, scholarship can and often does link with dissemination.)

The dissemination model explains, to some degree, why some of the same conversations seem to occur repeatedly on blogs. It explains the existence of “From the Archives” and other links to older posts. I could repost this entire post, six months from now, and potentially achieve some benefit in added dissemination.

The dissemination model raises real questions of motive. The speaker wants to disseminate information about Hebrew terms or Joseph Smith polyandry or Word of Wisdom adoption or seer stones — why?

Also, online dissemination can be exhausting (particularly if one lacks a strong motive). The possibility of repeated dissemination is essentially endless. How many conversations can one have online about Word of Wisdom changes? Pretty much as many as one wishes to have. (No matter how many times I say “go read Mormonism in Transition,” there will always be someone new to say “wait a minute — Joseph Smith drank coffee?”)

Finally, the dissemination model probably fits the constraints of blogging better than the scholarship model, as a general matter. Blogging is not a good vehicle for many kinds of scholarship (such as the book-length biography) and is at its best when presenting short snippets of information. There is no reason why that information has to be all dissemination and no original scholarship. But dissemination is a very good natural fit for the blog format, while scholarship is less of a natural fit.

Where does this get us? First, blogging as scholarship is possible, and at least some outside observers view it as blogs’ best contribution. I’m skeptical. Blog posts are not a great fit for scholarly work, and they present several disadvantages (less recognition, less permanence) as compared to other venues. On the other hand, blogging as dissemination is where the medium really shines. A person who can disseminate without axe-grinding could use blogs to spread lots of interesting and helpful information, in a way that could not otherwise be achieved.

So I’d like to respectfully register a partial dissent to Bushman’s assessment. I certainly appreciate Nate’s blogging, and always find his posts and comments interesting. But I don’t know that the bloggernacle needs a multiplicity of Nates posting extended essays of original analysis. Rather, my own analysis is that “what I would hope for [in blogging] is more consistent dissemination of interesting information from existing scholarship, the kind that Kevin Barney turns out.”

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30 Responses to Scholarship versus dissemination

  1. Matt W. on March 7, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    It seems to me that there are several potential blogging models. Blogging can be scholarship, or dissemination of information. It can be storytelling, or therapy, or networking. In this post, I’ll focus on a two particular potential models.

    You forgot that all important subgenre: Blogging as navel-gazing. (Or perhaps it was implied..)

  2. Robert C. on March 7, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Very interesting Kaimi. I agree with much of what you said but I’d make a slight twist on your “dissemination” hypothesis. Rather, I think blogging is more about community. Bushman’s comment makes sense from a full-time scholar’s point of view, b/c he’s supposed to be doing serious research. The rest of us, however, take this up mostly as a hobby, with perhaps faint hopes of maybe someday doing a little scholarly work in the area of Mormon Studies. And so, from a community point of view, I think blogs make a lot of sense, as sort of a virtual classroom, book club, or perhaps a virtual evening party of (pseudo-)intellectuals or grad students where people with different interests, backgrounds and knowledge can swap breadth of knowledge, not depth.

    Your choice of word, dissemination, seems to capture much of this, but I think it misses the important apsect of immediate feedback, something that is useful for both scholarly research (like chatting with an academic colleague over lunch that leads to helpful feedback in the form, “oh, have you looked at this article or considered this angle”) and more of a personal-consumption-type of knowledge. I think Bushman’s view leads to a notion that reading scholarly work is for the sole purpose of doing more scholarly work. But most scholarly publications are read by more than just scholars who plan to do future research, the work also benefits (hopefully) a larger intellectual community that reads for other reasons (as inexplicable as such reasons might be).

    So I agree, people like Richard Bushman shouldn’t waste their valuable research time reading fluffy blogs, that’s something the rest of us get to enjoy without the same level of guilt because we aren’t lucky enough to be full-time Mormon Studies scholars!

  3. Matt W. on March 7, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    On a more serious note: Blogging is more communal than scholarly, and thus need not be limited by any of the genre’s above. I do not come to blogging for scholarship per se, so much as the opportunity to bounce around ideas in a community where I feel positive interation can be had in a way unavailable in other areas. I do not blog to give out information or be sholastic or whatever. I blog because I like having the immediate access to sources of positive information so that ideas can be hammered out together and I can ask questions and throw out ideas with the capacity for the immediacy that my modern identity and culture demand. While magazines like dialogue give me access to sholarship (that’s debateable, of course, as many posts have already done such), blogging has given me access to scholars.

  4. Kevin Barney on March 7, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    Yes, let’s all be more like Kevin Barney.

    In order to disseminate interesting information from existing scholarship, it helps to actually read existing scholarship. Just today someone was asking me about 19th century usage of the BoM, and I recalled reading an article on that very subject in Dialogue. A quick search of their index led me to the article I was thinking of, which was Grant Underwood, “Book of Mormon Usage in Early LDS Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17/3 (Autumn 1984): 35-74. A quick link to the University of Utah Dialogue archive, and I was able to give the questioner a lot to chew on with respect to his particular question. (To me it seems like the article came out a few years ago, but it’s from 1984, when I was still in law school! I didn’t even subscribe back then, but read the journal in the Institute library, back when the Institutes were still allowed to subscribe.)

    It also helps to actually engage in scholarship from time to time, and I would hope that Bloggernaclers who are so inclined will occasionally step up and take a shot at publishing in the print journals now and then. There are a lot of very talented and knowledgeable people here who certainly could do so if they tried.

  5. Kevin Barney on March 7, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    I too love the sense of community that Matt W. and Robert C. allude to.

  6. Nate Oman on March 7, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Kaimi: There is a third model of the relationship between blogging and scholarship. Rather than seeing blogging as a substitute for traditional publication or a means of disseminating ideas elsewhere (for my money, I agree with you that blogs are ill suited for publishing real scholarship on Mormonism or any other topic), we could use blogs as simply a medium of intellectual conversation.

    Much of the intellectual work of the world is done in a situation where scholars are simply talking with one another. This is the point of workshops, colloquia, and seminars. The value added is the high-quality conversation. In the 19th century, for example, prior to the rise of professionalized scholarship done in graduate school, most of the serious intellectual work was done not in universities but in informal dinner groups and other salon-like fora. (The book The Metaphysical Club wonderfully captures this world.) My initial hope for blogging is that it could operate in this way. Indeed, the title of my first foray into Mormon blogging was more than accidentally related to The Metaphysical Club. While I think that blogging can occasionally rise to this level, I am more pessimistic than once I was. Still, at its best I think that is what blogging can be. In actual practice, it not surprisingly frequently falls short…

  7. Jim F. on March 7, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    LIke Nate, I’m happiest with blogs when they function as intellectual salons, a place to try out ideas and to argue, a place that encourage me to think about things differently and so–I hope–to have things eventually to publish in more traditonal venues. But Wilfried’s and Ardis’s contributions have made me seriously reconsider that of thinking about blogging, enough that I’ve tried my hand at a couple of other kinds of things.

    In any case, though I don’t mind the fluff, I don’t pay much attention to it. It is, at best, a pleasant distraction. At worst it is depressing.

  8. The Wiz on March 7, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    I wish I were more like Nate.

  9. Kristine Haglund Harris on March 7, 2007 at 4:44 pm

    The trick is not to go looking for high-toned Hegelian dialectics in places where one should, instead, be mining for Schlegelian fragments. I strongly suspect that we think salons were more witty than they really were, because only the best bits got saved. The heroic scholar animated entirely by intellectual passions is probably as mythical as the Romantic artist starving for the glories of l’art pour l’art.

  10. Rusty on March 7, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    What? Joseph Smith drank coffee?

  11. danithew on March 7, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    I tried asking a few people to add a bibliography function to a footnote plugin. No one seemed to think it was an idea that would go anywhere.

    (just noticed that your counter isn’t really all that far away from 2 million hits)

  12. Jim F. on March 7, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    Very nice reminder, Kristine. I’m sure you are exactly right.

  13. Kristine Haglund Harris on March 7, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Thanks, Jim. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all try to be more like Nate!

  14. Keith on March 7, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    “Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all try to be more like Nate!”

    Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

  15. Ardis Parshall on March 7, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    I’m so new at it that I haven’t really had much opportunity to think about why I’m enjoying blogging so much. It definitely has a lot to do with community, and instant feedback gives me a real high. There may be a different motive behind the different kinds of posts I do.

    The faithful-women-you-never-heard-of series is being produced as a church calling, and dissemination absolutely is part of the motive there — if it serves a valid purpose for the women in my ward, maybe it will serve the same purpose for women (and men) elsewhere. Yesterday I received a wonderful thank you note — handwritten, on paper, delivered by a human postal worker — from someone who told me how those stories have been enjoyed by the women in her own ward’s Relief Society. That’s dissemination, and community, and the ego stroke of feedback all in one.

    Some of my other posts I intend to be more scholarly, whether or not they achieve that status. I have read versions of some of them in professional conferences, and if I ever get off my duff and go to the work of polishing them for formal publication, I’ll see them in more permanent print. That’s one reason I withhold my citations here, to have something additional of value to tempt journal editors.

    But whether it’s scholarship or dissemination, or community or goofing off, it only works well when readers take the time to leave comments. Even if you don’t think you have anything substantive or original to say as a comment, just letting the blogger know you took the time to read it, and liked it (or otherwise), means a lot. Thanks for that.

  16. Seth R. on March 7, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    Scholarship has no real impact upon the world or usefulness until someone repackages it in a form that the people on the street can understand.

    Otherwise, you’re just talking to yourselves on the way to the dustbin of history.

    Karl Marx’s ideas were just hot air until the firebrands, revolutionaries, and young psuedo-intellectuals started raging from European street corners.

    Blogs are just one more opportunity to take a thesis, strip it of all its pretension, carefulness, and excess wording, and shout it from the rooftops in a way that actually advances history.

  17. Jim F. on March 7, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Seth R.: Marx isn’t necessarily the best model for how scholarly thinking influences history. That isn’t how Socrates did it, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or Descartes, or Locke, or Hume . . . .

  18. Seth R. on March 7, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    Yes. But even those guys had to find their way to the real world at some point.

  19. Onelowerlight on March 8, 2007 at 5:09 am

    I think that one of blogging’s strengths can be represented by the image of a commando rope. In Boy Scouts, I remember that one of the things we learned to do was to cut a rope into several small, six foot long segments. We would then eye splice the one end, and splice a stick into the other end. Then, with that, as a group, we could very easily carry a very large, heavy rope. Instead of having one person carry the entire rope, we would each carry a short segment, and when we needed it, we would connect each segment together by the way we’d spliced the ends.

    Each one of us may have a small bit of information, which by itself isn’t all that useful, but when combined together, can create something very interesting and useful. Blogging can be a medium for bringing together all of those little pieces. For example, I remember hearing about a Pajama’s Media blog in the 2000 elections (I believe) that challenged a 60 minutes news piece defaming Bush’s military record. The 60 minutes reporters had in fact forged false documents. Within a matter of days, the blog had accumulated enough evidence from commenters to prove that 60 minutes had falsified information, and CBS was forced to issue a retraction and apology. Each individual commenter didn’t have enough, by himself, to show anything conclusive, but when all the pieces came together, there was something very powerful.

    I’m not sure exactly how that could apply to the bloggernacle, but I’m sure that it could. I’m kind of new to the bloggernacle myself.

  20. Onelowerlight on March 8, 2007 at 5:10 am

    Out of curiousity, where would creative blogs, like my own, fit into this discussion?

  21. Seth R. on March 8, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Onelowerlight,

    In the sense that it’s kind of an online journal, I don’t think it does fit into the discussion.

    In the sense that it’s simply a creative outlet and a place to post pictures (nice pictures, by the way) I also don’t think it fits into the discussion.

    However, in the sense that it serves as a method of community-building or networking between like-minded people, it does fit the pattern. The community-building role of the bloggernacle has been mentioned in the original post.

    Have to admit to getting all nostalgic looking at the photos though….

  22. Blake on March 8, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    I really dislike blogs. My own personal failing is that I refuse to read anything longer than about 5 paragraphs. I hate the sound-bite culture we belong to that has been created by TV and radio. Anything worth saying must take 30 seconds or longer — including major national issues. It seems to me that blogging plays into and exacerbates this sound-bite mentality. I am especially wary of short blogs that pretend to address very complicated issues like the anathorous theos in John 1 for example. The issue simply deserves more than a blog can deliver. Maybe it’s my failing because I can’t address the issue is just a few paragraphs.

    I love downloading full-length papers — really long ones! I believe that dissemination over the net will soon be a major publisher — already almost all major papers in philosophy are available in advance on Philosophy Online and other places.

    Blogging also seems very artificial to me. It’s like letting my computer being a mediator for me. A sense of community? I suppose, but I really like the ability to meet and talk. Blogging gets in the way of a lot of things. I feel somewhat like Book of Mormon writers who lament at how hard it is to write on gold plates (and we are spoiled by comparison) but I just can’t fully explain sometimes. It is an awkward form of communication. I’m constantly amazed at the amount of time spent blogging by folks like Clark Goble and and Geoff Johnston and Steve Evans. Don’t these guys sleep sometime?

    I alsao haate trsrying to maake suree everyhting is spekelled alwaright.

  23. Matt Evans on March 9, 2007 at 1:24 am

    “Blog posts are not a great fit for scholarly work, and they present several disadvantages (less recognition, less permanence) as compared to other venues.”

    Kaimi and Nate, I used to agree with this but Jonah Goldberg, editor of National Review Online who had earlier lost the race to be editor of National Review hardcopy, convinced me otherwise. He argues, I’m paraphrasing here, that by 2030, or maybe even 2020, scholars won’t be looking for publications in the library. All scholarly citations will be to digital formats so that readers can easily read them. Those who choose to publish on hardcopy are writing for the short term. Paradoxically, the ephemeral world of floating pixels will not only circulate faster and freer, but they’ll last longer.

    Blake, I think you’ve set up a false choice: there’s a need and purpose for both short summaries *and* exhaustive papers. The argument against sound bites and summaries relies on the proposition that it’s worse to know some than to know none at all. That proposition is usually false.

  24. Seth R. on March 9, 2007 at 10:54 am

    Blake, upgrade your browser (or switch) to Firefox 2.0. It has an automatic spell-check built-in (like the one on Microsoft Word that underlines misspelled words in red).

  25. Mark B. on March 9, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Since I treat all this as so much fluff, I’m obviously biased.

    I am intrigued, though, by Kaimi’s choice of title words, particularly in light of his latest etymological quip on another blog.

    Was he really trying to suggest that for some blogging is just so much intellectual self abuse?

  26. Blake on March 9, 2007 at 11:33 am

    Seth: I’m with Mark Twain on this won: I feel sorry for a person who doesn’t know how to spell a word in more than one way.

    Matt: I happen to believe that it is worse to “know” some rather than none at all since the view that one knows some is worse than knowing none at all. At least the person who knows none and knows that they know none won’t deceive themselves into believing that they have sufficient grasp of issues to base important decision on the little they think they know. The truth is, what they think they know is misinformed by the little that they think they know. So I dislike sound-bites because it leads to the belief that we can base important decisions on 30-second blurbs of information. Ditto most posts. American “democracy” is trivialized by the notion that we can learn about the Iraq war in a 30-second clip. The gospel message is savaged by dealing with the atonement and repentance in a four paragraph sound-bite — or a 30 minute SS lesson for that matter.

    Things like the weather, what someone wants for lunch and whether the Chicago Bears can beat the New Orleans Saints can prevail can be dealt with in 30-seconds. The latter receives more air-time in the U.S. than the $3 trillion budget.

  27. Thomas Parkin on March 9, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    I recently had the opportunity to read several letters I’d sent to a friend in the late 80s, long before my first Prodigy account. I was taken back to, first, see how little I’d grown intellectually; but more relevent to this discussion, how much care I’d put into those letters. It is quite impossible for me to put that kind of care into a comment on someone’s blog. I, obviously, don’t even take the time to spell check or correct my grammar. But even in those forums where I’ve been the poster rather than the responder, I’ve been far less careful than what I’d have found neccesary in my old correspondance. This all goes to Blake’s point about the speed at which we feel we must digest and produce information – the conversation rushes by, you must strike the proverbial iron.

    Since I’m not a scholar, or anything like one, I don’t know that I have much to say on that. Except that something is always lost when something is found. It recalls to me a phenomenon that is happening in amny areas of our society (think of our handling of sex): what was once a deep well, strictly limited in space and of deep importance (you could go to hell for doing it wrong), is now a swamp, ubiquitous and shallow. In the flood of information, where shall wisdom be found, eh?

    (I’m no luddite on this. The amount of information available to us, instantly, is staggering, and wonderful. Can you overstate how revelutionary the last dozen years have been? How our capacity is potentially increased? I can’t order a pizza without the internet, which annoys – but I can instantly translate this sentence into any number of languages, or find relevant information of eveyr subject imaginable. I’m only trying to say that, in the inevitable currents of it, more conscious effort is needed to being slow and deliberate: choosing one’s battles, thinking things through, resisting the intellectual flotsam in the air.)

    May I also say that, Ardis, while it seems to me that you are more mature and careful online than I have been anywhere at anytime, I do know a lot about that “rush” you get, that “instant gratification;” and, if, I may give advice, I recommend that you resist that feeling as far as possible. When I read your attraction to it, I felt a sting. It has lead me ill. Recognition, and even having an audience, is wonderful, in manageable doses. But it can play games with you – it can lead you to subtly tie your ideas to your ego. And that is fatal.

    My two cents.

    ~

  28. Barb on March 10, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    I do like to read well-researched scholarly works. I don’t think the blog format is really the best for putting such works forth for the most part. FAIR serves that purpose.

    I do like insightful information that is education. Ben S with his background has had some interesting posts on the Old Testament. Others bring their unique knowledge in their fields.

    Steve Evans had some round table discussions that I think brought out some great thoughts.

    There is a problem with community situation. People read something into what is in front of them that was never intended and people spend a lot of time going back and forth on that small point. Or the topic digresses in another direction.

    I do appreciate the shared culture on LDS blogs and think that is one of the things that draws me to the blogs.

    I also find the prose of some of those who blog at some of the major group blogs including Times and Seasons to be exquisite at times. And some of the descriptions of the beauty of God’s creations has been inspiring.

    I want to make it clear that I am all for fun too. I think people feel to guilty in this world thinking things have to always lead somewhere productive.

    Also, I think there is much to learn from other’s human experience and stories.

    The culminations of the personal narratives of the bloggers has led me to conclude that they are pretty cool. What is more, there are bloggers who have been examples to me of what Christian living should be. That has meant more than me than any scholarship I have received on any of the blogs.

  29. Matt Evans on March 11, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    “At least the person who knows none and knows that they know none won’t deceive themselves into believing that they have sufficient grasp of issues to base important decision on the little they think they know.”

    Blake,

    It seems you’re arguing in favor of humility, and a recognition of the limits of one’s knowledge, rather than against summarized knowledge per se. And it’s not just summarized knowledge — factual knowledge is seldom relevant to the concerns you raise.

    This is the crux of Buckley’s witticism that he’d rather be governed by the first 500 people in the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty. I take Buckley’s point to be that the Harvard faculty are more likely to deceive themselves about the limits of their knowledge than are random people you fear are learning by soundbite on the evening news. The Harvard faculty would be more likely to overthrow institutions and to disregard received wisdom.

    It also seems you underestimate the ways we benefit from the millions of facts and ideas in our heads about which we know very little, and how crippled we be without them.

  30. Matt Evans on March 11, 2007 at 11:29 pm

    Here’s a quote from the NYT article Kaimi put in our Notes from All Over that comports with assertion in comment 23:

    “Material that is not digitized risks being neglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/10/business/yourmoney/11archive.html?ex=1331182800&en=9bf0874841a9d705&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss