Annals of Comment Spam

A few days back, I tweeted an amusing bit of comment spam I’d received that morning:

But there’s amusing comment spam and then there’s amusing comment spam. I’m not going to reproduce it here, but yesterday I received a comment that could conceivably have slipped past me, had Akismet not caught it. The comment was left on a recent travel-related post, and it related a travel anecdote, asking for advice on how to handle a somewhat bemusing interpersonal issue. And while my post seemed a strange place to ask that particular question, the story was well-enough written, and the concern seemingly sincere enough, that I might have let it get through. Akismet, however, flagged the address that the commenter left in the URL field, and so into the filter it went.

I find myself both relieved and troubled. While it would be great to get fewer comments telling me how helpful and brilliant and pretty and useful my blog posts are (or alternately that I should really work a bit harder on them), those are quite easily spotted and dispatched. If spammers start actually taking the time to ask substantive questions and post them in plausible places, will it become increasingly difficult to recognize spam when we see it?

It occurs to me that in fact I probably wouldn’t have missed the spammish nature of this particular comment, precisely because I didn’t recognize its author — even if I had been taken in by the tale, I wouldn’t have been ready to engage with the teller. Something in that leaves me both relieved and dissatisfied. On the one hand, I’m glad that relationships and the communities they create can help us weed out bad actors in networked spaces. On the other hand, if we find ourselves in a situation in which we close folks whom we don’t (yet) know out of our conversations, how can those communities continue to develop?


This morning is filled with the millions of details required to get self and stuff out the door and on the road for the better part of seven weeks. It’s the always enervating start to what’s bound to be an exciting, energizing trip.

The good news is that the small blogging binge I’ve been on here for the last several days has done the thing that I’ve had to remind myself of more than a couple of times in recent years: it’s made me receptive to the things that cross my consciousness that might be worth writing about, and it’s limbered me up a bit so that the writing can happen.

So I’m looking forward to spending some time on today’s long flight doing a bit of writing, and to doing even more when I get where I’m going. One has to depart, I suppose, in order to arrive.


Collin published a fantastic post yesterday thinking through, among other things, love, writing, Roland Barthes, Etsy, and Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. He’s had reasons for having fallen out of the blogging routine of late, reasons that are quite different from mine, but that seem to have had much the same effect: a vastly diminished ability to tune out the noise of the rest of the world and to focus in on what there is to be said and how to say it, without fear about how it’ll all turn out.

What he notes he’s learned from Etsy is a kind of “shamelessness,” a willingness to put everything out there regardless of what any given audience might think of it. The lesson Etsy holds for writing, he says, is a reminder to “just make the words fit together, put them out there, and get rid of the hope and fear that comes from obsessing about the outcome.”

This shamelessness is no small part of what I need to relearn as well, if I’m going to reignite things here. Some of the potential for shame I’ve felt around writing in public of late has come from the seemingly sudden visibility of my work and my position — if people are actually paying attention to what I write, shouldn’t I be really super careful about it? But some of it, I think, comes from finding myself still (again) in the gap between projects — the last one recently released into the world, the next one… not really very well conceived at all.

As I read Collin’s post, I was drawn to this notion of shamelessness as a condition for writing of the sort in which I hope to immerse myself. Shedding shame is a necessary precursor to blogging, I think, and that blogging is likely to be a key component in helping me around the main obstacle keeping me from writing these days: not being at all sure that I have anything worth saying.

When each paragraph has to bear the weight of the next Big Project, its fragility and its apparent emptiness become all too visible. When each paragraph is just a passing thought, a throwaway, something that might lead to the next thought, or might simply drift off on the breeze, that fragility and emptiness might be transformed into virtues.

So my task for the coming weeks is to work on just making the words fit, on just putting them out there, unashamed that they are nothing more than what they are.

I Has a Sad

I’ve just gone through and pruned my blogroll, taking a look to see who was still active (by a fairly generous definition, given my own lack of activity), who had moved house, and who had gone the way of all things since I last took a hard look at my sidebars.

Things happen. Bloggers move on, lose interest, get jobs that require other kinds of writing, and the like; I don’t expect everybody to keep producing. But in my little tour of bloglandia I discovered that the very first blog to catch my attention — the blog of a friend from grad school, which I stumbled across the very week I finished the manuscript of my first book, just shy of ten years ago, just as I was beginning to wish I had some kind of outlet for the immediate gratification of my desire to communicate — is being kept up-to-date, but not by my friend. That site has been taken over by a commercial entity using it to advertise Reputable Chiropractic Services and Compassionate Personal Injury Attorneys. And worse: my friend’s archives are not there.

My friend has gone on to great things; I’m not sad for him. I’m sad for me. It’s less that my model has been corrupted (and yes, I do now have J. Geils whistling through my head) than that I can’t ever revisit that blog in search of inspiration, that his half of our early conversations — the far smarter half — are lost.

I obviously knew when I named this blog lo these many ages ago that this was a possibility; obsolescence is engineered into the very architecture of the blog. But things like blogs and friendships can be preserved, with a little work.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

Some months back, I got pharmahacked, which was a royal pain, needless to say, and which I took extremely personally. (Witness: I got hacked.) Part of what annoyed me so much about the hack was that I knew I’d been a sitting target; not only had I not recently checked my security settings through my hosting provider’s control panel to be sure that they were as strong as they could be (needless to say, they weren’t), but I also hadn’t updated here in several months (a summer-long gap which you can see manifested in the archives menu at right). It was all too evident that nobody was minding the store.

I took advantage of the need to rebuild my site from the ground up to put a new design into place, hoping that a new theme would inspire me to create new content. It was September, after all, and perhaps it was the equivalent of getting new notebooks and new pens to greet the new academic year.

But, of course, I wasn’t starting a new academic year; I’m on a twelve-month calendar now. And the new theme never really sat as well with me as I’d have liked. I missed my sidebars, and the header was huge enough that there was only visible content at the very bottom of many folks’ smaller browser windows. And then there was the friend who pointed out that the same theme was in use on another blog that I wasn’t terribly fond of. And then I ran into it again elsewhere last week. It all just started to feel wrong.

So here I am, coming up on the end of May, about to launch into my first full no-summer-break summer in nearly 20 years. In the hopes that I might think of this as the beginning of my new #alt-academic year, I’m treating myself to the new pens and notebooks now. Perhaps I’ll even be inspired to write.

My fear, of course, manifests in this post’s title: that all of this site redesign is no more than deck-chair rearranging, making things nice and orderly while the blog-ship is going down. But perhaps naming that fear will keep it from coming to pass.

We’ll see, I suppose.

The short of it: welcome to the new Planned Obsolescence, with some of the nifty stuff of the last design, and some older features resurrected. Things will likely need a little touching-up in the coming days — the blogroll not least among them — but it’s nice to have laid the groundwork for what I hope to be a productive year to come.

A quick note: I had the opportunity to attend the Apple Education event today on behalf of ProfHacker, where I posted my reflections a bit later in the day.

And a bit after that, I appeared on Tech News Today, talking more about the ways that iBooks 2, the iBook Author application, and the other things announced today might (and might not) affect education.

It’s been a whirlwind. Thank goodness I have a quiet weekend planned.

The Public Scholar’s Two Bodies

I started this blog as an assistant professor, under conditions that were never fully pseudonymous but were perhaps semi-veiled, at least by the fact that very few people knew me, and even fewer of those who did knew anything about blogs. All of my colleagues, that is to say, were looking in the other direction, and so I was able to say more or less what I wanted. Only gradually did this odd collection of writings and reflections come to be associated with a professionally known me.

Even after that, it seemed perfectly reasonable for the persona I inhabited on the blog to be a bit personal, to think through problems I was actually facing, to be at times a bit worried and not entirely secure. I was, after all, an assistant professor, in an online community composed primarily of other assistant professors, and thinking in public through the anxieties associated with that role was part of the point — we were using the blog format to demonstrate to one another that however isolated we may have felt, we were not alone.

Nearly ten years have gone by, however, and I’ve not only been tenured and promoted (twice!) but I’ve moved into a new position, one that calls on me to take on a new kind of leadership role. And those changes now have me reassessing the kinds of writing that I can — that I should — be doing in a space like this one. A post like yesterday’s, exploring some concern that I’ve got about my relationship to my work, can leave me feeling overexposed today in ways that it never would have eight years ago. Or even five years ago: even after I was tenured I felt that it was important to model a way of being an scholar that didn’t hide the messy process of working out ideas behind the polished completeness they eventually take on, that didn’t disavow the insecurities and anxieties of academic life in favor of a self-doubt-free public persona.

But in my new role, I’m increasingly aware that there are two Kathleen Fitzpatricks in the world: on the one hand, one that’s taken on a form of public service, that represents a large and important organization, that has a mission focused on something bigger than myself, and on the other, one that’s… just me. It’s something a bit more than the usual public/private divide; it’s a split between a self that speaks with a voice that’s larger than itself, and a self that seems always too small, too local, ever to be spoken for publicly.

And so while I still find myself wanting to push back against what I’ve always found to be a pretty gendered mode of being an academic — always projecting confidence, being convinced of one’s rightness, putting forward arguments that are never anything other than unimpeachable — and instead model a kind of self-questioning that I am convinced is necessary for real intellectual and personal growth, I now increasingly wonder whether I can or should continue do so as myself. There are questions to be asked about that mode of writing in and of itself, of course — is it possible to take on a project of open self-questioning without falling into an equally gendered mode of self-doubt and insecurity? — but there are also pressing concerns to be raised about whether the kinds of introspection the blog has long inspired in me can co-exist at all with the public role I have now chosen to occupy.

This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve announced an attempt to reconcile the blog with this public persona, and that I haven’t managed to do so yet bespeaks the difficulty of the project. But — in a stroke of what’s either meaningful irony or mere coincidence — I’m actually writing right now, for a public venue, about the importance of taking the work that gets done on scholarly blogs seriously. And that juncture, or disjuncture, depending on your view of it, has me thinking about the changing function of the public platform at the various stages of a career, the ways in which we all produce different voices at different moments, and the degree to which a coherent self can ever speak, or be spoken.

Hey, Why the Silence?

So, you may have noticed that there’s a significant gap in the archives here, roughly corresponding with the summer. And you may have asked yourself, gee, is kfitz on vacation?

Not exactly.

The period of my absence roughly corresponds to the period during which:

1. I flew from New York to California, and began the process of weeding out my stuff, getting rid of about half of it, packing up the other half, and shipping it to New York, while also figuring out how to get two cats moved, selling my car, and preparing my condo to be rented out. And then flying back to New York and packing up my sabbatical studio and moving that stuff into my new apartment, and then waiting for the California stuff to arrive and unpacking and settling in.

And then:

2. I started a new job, at the Modern Language Association, leading the new office of scholarly communication.

Anyone who has started a new job recently, much less one that’s actually a pretty serious change of career path in disguise, will recognize that though item 1 sounds more exhausting, item 2 has been much bigger and more stressful. The vast majority of that stress has been of a very positive sort: I’m in a fantastic new environment, learning amazing new things and getting to work in really productive, collaborative ways with wonderfully supportive colleagues. Nonetheless, I go home at the end of the day with my brain stuffed to bursting with new thoughts and possibilities, daunted by the need to figure out what’s been going on in the organization for the last 40 years (and why) and by the enormous, exciting, important charge I’ve been given in thinking about its future.

Part of what’s kept me so quiet, both here and (to some extent) on Twitter has, in other words, been a little bit of exhaustion; most of the time when I haven’t been actively working, I’ve found myself lying on my sofa, recharging in preparation for the next day’s work. It’s fantastic work, but this much learning takes a lot of energy. And while it’s true that I probably spend fewer total hours working than I did as a professor, almost all of those hours are spent in my office, dressed like a grownup, at minimum available to talk with other dressed-like-grownups people and a seriously high percentage of the time in actual meetings with them. The change from spending a huge number of my working hours alone in my home, not having to talk to anyone, cannot be underestimated. All that learning, and all that collaboration, has left me feeling as though I’ve done all the communicating I need to do.

But there’s been another change, one that’s more subtle but perhaps more important, one that I’m still trying to sort out how to manage. As a tenured professor, I operated wholly protected by principles of academic freedom. Not only was I able to speak my mind, but I was expected to do so. And the costs of expressing a controversial or — heaven forfend — incorrect opinion were fairly low: somebody would pipe up in the comments and tell me I’m full of beans; I would either agree or not; life would march on. Because, as a faculty member, it was understood that I never spoke for anyone other than myself.

Now, however, that line is blurred. When I write here, or post on Twitter, or speak at a conference, am I writing or posting or speaking for myself, or for the MLA? Even if I issue a disclaimer, can my own position ever be fully separated from that of the organization? The risks involved in my expressing an obnoxious or wrong opinion are just that much higher: someone, somewhere, will note my title and will pass on that the MLA has taken that position.

It’s an extraordinary benefit and a huge responsibility: when I speak, I am supported by the weight of an enormous and important organization. But I also carry that weight, and every time I open my mouth, it has seemed to me, I run the risk of creating trouble for the organization. I am, in ways I have not previously had to be, responsible for something larger than myself.

After having given it a lot of thought, however, I’ve decided that I need to relaunch my public presence; the benefits to the MLA of having my voice out here, arguing on behalf of change in scholarly communication, are far too important to let slip — even when I’m wrong; even when I float an idea that everyone hates. Maybe even especially then, because I need to hear back why I’m wrong, why everyone hates my idea, what alternative directions I should consider.

So, with the blessings of my awesome boss (hi, rgfeal!), I’m starting back up here again. And I hope that I’ll be able to post (way) more frequently than I have lately, to think through some of the things that I’m learning and the questions that the organization is facing as we move increasingly into the digital.

So that it’s been said: Opinions expressed on this blog are my own, and no one else’s but my own. I’m entirely responsible for them, for better or for worse.

That having been said: the move is done, and the transition has settled down. Let the communication resume.

I Miss Blogging

I got myself caught this evening in a thing that happens to me here every so often: I’ll spot an intriguing post title in my “Five Years Ago” block and click and read that post, and get all nostalgic about five years ago, and sometime later realize that I’ve just been paging forward through old posts on my blog for an hour and a half. Five years ago, I was really deep into the blogging: I’d been at it for four years, and I had a solid community with which I was in dialogue, and I felt utter license (thanks to having gotten tenure and having gotten the first book out) to write about whatever the heck I felt like writing about, for no other reason than that I felt like writing it.

Things went through my head. I thought “hey, that’s kinda weird.” A couple of hours later I’d slap a post together pondering that oddity. And then I’d do it again the next day, or a few days later, or whatever.

The blog was an amazing invention to me back when I first launched it in 2002: after having spent so long struggling with articles, or gods forbid, the book, and after having gathered exactly no audience through those publications, the blog was an exercise in immediate gratification, in ongoing writing practice, and in community. And by 2006, it was a core part of my thinking life.

But in the last couple of years, immediate gratification has come to me in 140-character bursts, instead of in the slightly longer (if not necessarily more thought-through) form of the blog. And I’ve said this several times recently, but I really miss this place.

Part of what I miss is just that ability to read back through the blog and discover that, astonishingly enough, some things I’m working through right now have been on my radar for five years, and that other things that I was convinced I was going to do five years ago are long since forgotten. The immediacy of my interaction on Twitter is amazing, as is the breadth of that community, but I miss the sense of building a publication that belongs to me, that in some sense is me, something that I can page back through and think, wow, I remember that, or that was five years ago?, or dude, have a glass of wine and chill.

I’m not going to turn this into some vow to do more blogging, because I know that’s not going to happen: a lot of what was most interesting to me five years ago was the kind of quotidien post that is only 140 characters worth of interesting to me now. And I’m also (not to put too fine a point on it) a whole lot older, and whole lot more senior, and so much more settled into a public persona that’s much more professionally-oriented than it was.

But I’m feeling profoundly nostalgic for blogging right now, and for this blog in particular, and it somehow seems important to mark that.

Day of DH 2011

I’m participating in the University of Alberta-sponsored Day of DH 2011 today, and so will be posting there (and here) about some of my digital humanities doings as the day goes on. Assuming, that is, that things do not go awry in the way that they did last year. Which I’m hopeful that they won’t; I’m attending a full-day meeting at the Bard Graduate Center discussing the future of digital publishing with some amazingly smart folks, and while I may not be able to report directly from there (we haven’t yet had the opportunity to have the Twitter/blogging conversation), I should nonetheless have lots of good stuff to talk about.