look, it's time you (re)started a blog

This was going to be a wrap-up on Week 1 of classes newsletter — spoiler alert, they went pretty well! — but then last night I felt a long, probably-typo-ridden rant coming on, and have decided to indulge myself for a bit. Hey, it’s my newsletter.

I spent a bit of Thursday prepping for Week 2 of seminar, which is a delve into a few things — the status of the “public intellectual” today, the idea of the public, and an introduction to the musicology/ethnomusicology/music theory blogosphere. Here’s what that looks like on the syllabus:

Week 2: Public intellectuals + blogging (2/3)

What is a public intellectual today?

What is a public?

  • Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics”

Why blog?

Blogs to peruse (we’ll divide these up -- read at least 5 posts and get a sense of what the blog’s about):

Institutional:

Personal:

Fun

When you come to seminar:

  • Be prepared to discuss different perspectives on the role of the public intellectual today, and Warner’s theory of publics/counterpublics + have 2 discussion questions ready

  • Be prepared to discuss, in-depth, the blogs that you examined

  • Begin setting up your blog, and be prepared to talk about it

So, that blogosphere. It’s basically defunct. You might be wondering why I’m assigning my students to check out twenty blogs that mostly aren’t updated anymore — a few of them still are, but not super regularly. It’s because I want to bring it back. I want to revive the blogosphere.*

Not really, but also, kind of. Along with keeping up with readings, doing small projects (trying out program notes, thinkpiece writing, podcasting, etc), and executing a large-scale project of their choosing, all of the students in public musicology are tasked with this:

4) Do your blog. All of you will be tasked with starting (or continuing) some kind of informal, ongoing online writing project. This could be a blog (Wordpress, Blogspot), a newsletter (TinyLetter, Substack), or something else. You should write an entry at least once a week that reflects on your coursework in some way, and is aimed towards a non-academic reader. If you’re not comfortable writing publicly, you can also create a “Creed”-style blog -- e.x. a restricted document on Google Drive that your classmates will have access to.

I believe deeply in this anachronistic thing called blogging, because I think it’s important, and useful, and yes, I’m also very nostalgic. I started putting together a few newsletter-y thoughts about why I love blogs as I was reading Kieran Healy’s very smart article on public sociology in the age of social media, or what it means to do sociology-in-public. Here’s Healy:

I shall argue that one of social media’s effects on social science has been to move us from a world where some people are trying to do “public sociology” to one where we are all, increasingly, doing “sociology in public.” This process has had three aspects. First, social media platforms have disintermediated communication between scholars and publics, as technologies of this sort are apt to do. This has not ushered in some sort of communicative utopia, but it has lowered the threshold. for sharing one’s work with other people. Second, new social media platforms have made it easier to be seen. Sadly, I do not mean that it is now more likely that you or I will become famous. Rather, these technologies enable a distinctive field of public conversation, exchange, and engagement. They have some of the quality of informal correspondence, but they are not hidden in private letters. They take place as real-time interaction, but do not depend on you showing up to a talk. Again, as is typically the case with communication technologies, exactly what gets enabled can vary. The field of public conversation encompasses everything from exciting forms of serendipitous collaboration to the worst sort of trolling and harassment.

Let’s pretend we’re instead talking about “doing musicology/music theory/ethnomusicology in public.” Healy identifies blogging, facebook, and twitter as three main modes of public online interaction, noting (in 2017) that blogging is clearly on the decline. All of the music blogs listed above were also mostly dormant by 2017. We perhaps see a lot more measurable evidence of “musicology in public” these days because of a lot of musicologists being on Twitter and talking a lot; Twitter was one of the first things brought up when I asked students about what made them interested in a seminar on public musicology. (To be fair, I also sent them to Twitter to check out the hashtag #publicmusicology and report back.) I’m not going to harangue too much against Twitter, especially since historically I’ve been a defender of Twitter, and still am. I learn an immense amount from who I follow on Twitter, especially scholars in other disciplines.

But Twitter does give a false sense of security to public scholarship, by making it seem like public scholarship is identical to scholars-talking-in-a-non-private setting. I don’t think that everything musicologists tweet is public musicology, just as musicologists writing emails to their friends or going to the grocery store or playing in their local community orchestra isn’t synonymous with public musicology; participating in a public activity as a scholar does not make what you do public scholarship. (My hot take, at least. You can disagree!) But blogging, ah blogging, requires having more to say, and wanting to talk about it in a longer form, and it likely deploys the skills and modes of thinking you’ve learned as a scholar. I really like what Healy has to say about the idea of public scholarship as a kind of daily practice, and what he articulates is, to me, best epitomized in the practice of blogging:

In “Science as a Vocation,” Weber remarks that although we do not get our best ideas while sitting at our desks all day doing regular work, we wouldn’t get any good ideas unless we sat at our desks all day doing regular work. In a similar way, successfully engaging with the public means doing it somewhat unsuccessfully very regularly. This fact is closely connected to the value of doing your everyday work somewhat publicly. You cannot drop a lump of text onto the Internet and expect anyone to pay attention if you have not been engaging with them in some ongoing way. You cannot put your work up on your website, or “do a blog,” or manufacture interest in your research like that. There is a demand side as well as a supply side to “content,” and most of the time the demand side does not care about what you have to say. This is why, in my view, one’s public work ought to be continuous with the intellectual work you are intrinsically motivated to do. It is a mistake to think that there is a research phase and a publicity phase. Your employer might see it that way, but from a first-personal point of view it is much better—both intrinsically and in terms of any public engagement you might want—to think of yourself as routinely doing your work “slightly in public.” You write about it as you go, you are in regular conversation with other like-minded researchers or interested parties, and some of those people may have or be connected to larger audiences with a periodic interest in what you are up to.

(Bold is mine.) Take Unsung Symphonies, for example, a blog that’s been dead for almost a decade. Two graduate students who have since become legit professors in our field — Matthew Mugmon (he of the great book on Copland/Mahler) and Frank Lehman (Mr. Star Wars Music) — wrote about a lot of obscure symphonies, in language that expressed their technical knowledge and deeply grad-school-y-enthusiasm, and chock full of musical examples. I have no idea how many people read it, but I did, and I learned a lot!

I don’t learn very much from other musicologists online these days; Linda Shaver-Gleason’s meticulous, thoughtful blog was more an exception than the rule. Twitter offers more heat than light, allowing us to package our hot takes on Beethoven-at-250 into polemics that don’t really teach all that much. I really do think that this is the key thing that public musicology requires: readers should learn something from us that they might not know otherwise. I learned a lot from the blogosphere; go check out the back catalogue of The Taruskin Challenge, in which two grad students blogged their way through all five volumes of the Oxford History of Western Music in the 2000s, and you can still learn a lot. I read it religiously in my late undergrad days, and consulted their musicology reading list — a very valuable public resource! — to get a sense for what kinds of books I should check out as I was beginning to seriously explore musicology. Now I’m not saying our goal is to convert more citizens into an underpaid grad student/adjunct pipeline, but we should at least want to teach people things and offer public resources that are useful.

Healy goes on to discuss some of the fairly simple data visualizations he’s done, and how they’ve become widely cited in popular media:

Slowly, by this route, a few of these data visualization posts have become stable reference points for journalists and talking heads. A clear point and a good picture can go a long way. The assault deaths graphic is reliably referenced whenever there is a mass shooting in the United States, which sadly is very often. This is is an interesting role to occupy as an academic social scientist. I write publicly about other topics in my field, or other questions that I am working on, and I develop arguments in posts discussing whatever it is I am thinking about. Some of those do well, but most do not. The posts that are shared widely and seen by the biggest publics are often about identifying patterns rather than providing explanations. A good journal article or a deliberate marketing effort for a book may get in the news for specific findings or a big idea. Then its fifteen minutes will be up. The journal article usually ends up behind a paywall. The book, you have to buy. But a good blog post, especially a data-focused one, can have an unexpectedly long life. It becomes more like a public resource. It won’t make you Thomas Piketty, but you do keep popping up in the papers.

It also doesn’t take that much effort, once you have had some practice. A simple graphic summarizing a bus-ride’s worth of data analysis from the OECD can keep surfacing in the ebb and flow of national media. The material should be focused, freely available, and—increasingly unusual— at a stable URL for more than a few months. In short, if it flows naturally from what you would be doing anyway, it can be worth making publicly available. Not as “your findings” about something, with Your Special Theory (keep that for the journals), but just as data you’re working with that’s of interest. Very few people in sociology (or social science more generally) do this, even though there is absolutely a huge demand for what might seem like basic data on topics of public interest.

We don’t tend to do a lot of data visualization, but one of the reasons that Linda’s blog was so great is that it took issues that are fairly basic to musicological understandings of the world, boiled them down to their basics (without draining them of their intellectual content), and gave them a stable home. Need a perspective on why music isn’t a universal language? You could read 4 or 5 journal articles, or take an ethnomusicology seminar, or just read this post. It’s a public resource.

And this is why I want grad students especially to get into some form of longform writing about their research, coursework, etc. now rather than later. No, you don’t have time to blog when you’re in grad school, but you definitely don’t have time to blog after grad school. But if you learn to carve out the space for it earlier, it’ll help later, and you’ll be honing public writing skills that will pay off down the road. There is also some immense private satisfaction that comes from writing something that’s not a seminar paper or a dissertation: you can send it to your family and say this is what I do! and they might read it; you can feel like you have something personal, something that’s wholly your own, that’s not mired in the what-will-my-committee-think anxieties inherent to a thesis. Your own blog — which can be anonymous! — is going to be much less visible to senior scholars in your field than writing (unpaid) for blogs run by our scholarly societies. And if––writing for yourself, unpaid––you develop a style of writing, an audience and a back catalog of work, then you’ll be much more prepared to pitch to major outlets and get paid for it. Micaela Baranello wrote some of the best opera reviews of the 2010s as an anonymous grad student, and then she wrote a bunch of stuff for the New York Times!


Do you know what the best blog on that list is, right now? It’s Natalie Weiner’s The 1959 Project, which is public musicology by a non-musicologist; Weiner is an awesome freelance writer and immersed herself in newspaper archives to figure out, day by day, what was happening in jazz in the landmark year of 1959. It’s a rich, revisionist history; I learned a ton from reading it, and it’s fun too. It’s the exact kind of thing musicology grad students should be doing.

(FWIW, it’s very likely I’m being far too nostalgic for blogs—as you might imagine, I’m very attached to the written word—and not thinking through some of the enormous potential of other media not based around longform writing. I'm nostalgic for nostalgia's sake too, let's be honest: my intellectual life was essentially nourished in the 2005–2010 blogosphere, which I headily absorbed. I did deep dives into the back catalogues of Alex Ross and Daniel Stephen Johnson’s blogs, reading every post. I used click on all of the different links on Alex and Steve Smith’s blogrolls, several times a day, checking for new posts, before I got Google Reader and got my daily digest. My dissertation conclusion has a pagelong lament about the decline of the new-music blogosphere.)


Somehow a lot of us made time for blogging a decade ago, even though we were doing it for free. We made time for it, because there was another kind of compensation — a clear knowledge that attention was being paid to what you wrote, that you were participating in a discursive community, that other bloggers were reading and responding in a way that was intellectual rewarding. Today, our attention economy works differently. We are suctioned to large corporate platforms and their endless feeds: your tweet is guaranteed some form of quantified feedback, and, even if it is totally inane, will likely incite more responses, discussion, and engagement (and dopamine) than a blogpost would in 2020. If you blog in 2020, perhaps a few people will link to your post on Twitter and Facebook and declare it a must-read—perhaps they might even have read it before doing so! They probably won't engage with its substance, though; there's not much room for that in the current ecosystem. Who cares, anyway? More tweets, please.

When writing this morning, I thought about this tweet about American Dirt: it’s a lot easier to talk about something that you don’t have to read than something that you do.


Which brings me to my final area of rant, which is how we talk about our teaching online. I was, to be honest, pretty afraid to say much on the internet about what I taught and how I taught it for my first three-plus years of teaching. I put my public musicology seminar syllabus online, but I wasn’t about to drop syllabi for undergrad courses for (perhaps specious) fear of people bugging me about what I was/wasn’t teaching or assigning. I’m only talking about it now because I think I’m trying out something cool with the appreciation class—something I’m maybe proud of?—and want to to share it.

There are like three ways I see music scholars talking about teaching on social media: complaining about stuff (understandable); humblebragging about what they did in class today in a few sentences (understandable); dropping links to new syllabi (understandable, and super useful, though perhaps intimidating to non-academics). Whenever I see someone tweet about something they did in class that sounds cool, I always think about this West Wing riff:

What are the next ten words? Tell me more about what you’re doing! Because I want to know if, and how, I could maybe do it, too. There’s a large source of incredibly valuable, publicly accessible scholarship in the Journal of Music History Pedagogy (check it out!), but I would also love to see more of us writing blogposts/newsletters about what we do in the classroom, what worked/didn’t work, etc (while still respecting the privacy of students).

It’s taken me years to break some of my bad grad school teaching habits, and I wouldn’t have done so if I didn’t start going to TLTC workshop at UMD; I think a lot of us are starved for more dialogue with each other around teaching, and semi-formal writing about it is one way to do so. There are hundreds of musicologists teaching around the country right now doing cool things and for the most part we have no idea what our friends are actually doing in the classroom, what works for them and what doesn’t. It would not be hard for us to share this knowledge with each other, and with people outside our field—not just in conferences and journal articles, but in everyday writing.


I’ve now been doing this newsletter for six months so I can tell you with authority: you should start one. We all already know that the public doesn’t know what musicologists do on a daily basis, but it’s also true that musicologists don’t know what other musicologists do on a daily basis. We drop a journal article every two years that’s behind a paywall, and everyone comments on our Facebook post about it and says they can’t wait to read it, and you never find out if they did; we give a conference paper to a couple dozen people, and the only way other people find out about it is if someone happens to tweet a tiny snippet of it; we brag about our acceptances, gripe about our rejections, raise necessary ruckuses about the toxicity of our field. But we don’t really give a good sense, even to each other, of what we do in our classrooms and in the archives: people know the abstracts, not the content.

Look, I know you don’t have time to add anything to your plate, but I see how much you’re on Twitter, and I know you could probably squeeze out 700 words every week if you spent a little less time being Mad Online. You’d probably feel better, too. It’s energizing, this blogging/newslettering. I really enjoyed writing this post; I started writing it last night, and picked it up again this morning, and had a bunch of interesting ideas that have sustained my interest and made me want to spend my day writing other stuff too. Once I hit publish on this, I’m going to work on some book revisions; I’m already in the writing flow. By contrast, if I come up with a funny tweet, I’ll tweet it, check incessantly for responses and faves, see something about the president, and want to curl into the fetal position for a decade. So start a newsletter, or a blog, or something, please! I’ll read it.

*Important note: we can try to bring back the blogosphere, but actually, we can’t.


Georgia makes music now, who knew?!