gonzo scholarship

I am having something of a crisis of faith around here. I recently received some harsh but appropriate criticism of this pretty shabby looking blog in a private communique. That coupled with the increase in traffic to the site along with some other conversations I’ve had in comments and elsewhere have made me painfully aware of the fact that I can no longer blunder my way through this blog as if no one is watching. Because the fact of the matter is, people are.

This matters. It matters a lot in a lot of different ways. I am, as many of my long-time readers and friends know, at something of a cross-roads. Having been granted that doctorate just over a year ago now, I’m “on the job market.” That is to say, I’m at least passively looking for a job. Don’t get me wrong. Where I’m at right now is awesome. And I’d love to make a career out of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. But I don’t know if that will happen, and there very well may be greener pastures out there.

So, I’m on the market. I am looking at job listings at the AAR. And I am doing all of those things fresh, young scholars are expected to do. Respond with vigorous “yeses” when our peers and mentors ask, “Hey, you wanna write a review of this new book? You wanna compile an annotated bibliography on something you have a passing interest in and mentioned over coffee six months ago? You wanna give a lecture? You wanna contribute a short article to this news letter?” Yes. Yes. Yes. All in the name of making a name for oneself so that when you’re in that interview room, you can point proudly to your CV and say, “Yes, I’ve been doing research in the field and have been published. I’ve taught. I’ve lectured. A book chapter is forthcoming. I love doing outreach and fundraising! Oh, and I do windows, too!”

In some ways, all of this is all about the connections you have. The relationships you have with other folks in your academic community. And when one’s academic community is relatively small, and when everything you ever said is suddenly searchable and forever accessible via Google’s archives — whew. You suddenly find yourself regretting saying things that were best left unsaid.

This in-between state I am in, standing here at the outset of my academic career, attempting to not only make a name for myself but make a good name for myself, while at the same time writing a blog that hopes to bridge the gap between the academy and “not-academy” — this is sometimes dangerous territory.

This is not inconsequential. I’ve got bills to pay, like any of us. And it would be lovely to believe that I could write whatever the hell I want to write without any professional consequences. But the truth of it is that I write about what I know and love; and what I know and love also pays the bills.

It raises some important questions. On the one hand, I need to watch what I say. I need to make sure that when I am critical of other approaches to the study of Buddhism, that I am just that — critical of the approaches, of the methodologies, of the findings, analyses or conclusions of that scholarship and not critical of the people behind that scholarship. It’s something obvious and as simple as watching what I say, being more mindful of my own language.

One could argue that this whole enterprise of keeping a blog, of trying to bridge that gap between scholars and practitioners, is impossible. That real scholars, that good scholars, are able to keep their professional decorum only through detachment and objectivity. Or, one could argue that my time is better spent in the library or in the field. That the energy I expend on this project is better served on my professional experience or training rather than talking to the masses, so to speak.

I grant that those may be valid arguments. I don’t know if I agree. On the face of it, frankly, I don’t think objectivity is possible. We are all coming to our scholarship full of predispositions, biases, life-experiences, etc., etc. The real trick, then, would be to find a way to balance those predispositions and biases with sound reasoning, with firmly rooted scholarship. Not a flat-out rejection of our extra-scholarly pursuits. Something like the middle path.

That second argument haunts me, though. Do I spend too much time arguing about racism on the Internet? Or privilege? Or silly rants about politics? This is not how I want to make my mark. I’m happy to lend my voice to The Cause, I’m happy to work toward undoing discrimination in my own real-world communities. But is this my only fight? Am I not better served, professionally and by extension personally, by cracking open a few more books, doing some more fieldwork, and then writing up an article or two for some journals? (And by “professionally and by extension personally,” I simply mean that becoming more successful professionally will have certain financial benefits which will certainly have a positive effect on my personal life.)

But the question of how best to use this blog to bridge the divide between the worlds of the scholar and the practitioner remains an open one. Sometimes it certainly seems like my life would be infinitely less complicated if I did the good Buddhist thing and wrote happy posts about my mindfulness practices, about some good karma I experienced, and steered clear of all these uncomfortable, ire-raising topics. (My god, even non-serious, sarcastic posts about the Kindle seem to infuriate people these days!)

So do I abandon the first-person reportage on the academy? (Gonzo scholarship?) Do I change my name, hide my identity, retreat to anonymity? Play it safe? Or do I remain comfortable in this luminous space between scholar and practitioner? Even when it’s uncomfortable?

Thoughts? Feedback?

14 thoughts on “gonzo scholarship

  1. Scott,
    Thanks for writing this. I understand your feelings as I am trying to do the same thing with my blog. I want Buddhist practitioners to be able to read it as well as make it interesting for scholars. And of course, given the rigors of the academy and the searchability of writings on the internet, scholars must be more careful about what we write than other bloggers.
    I am just writing about my research right now but plan to keep one after that is over as well. So you give me hope that I can continue to do that! I think you shouldn’t think about the blog as a waste of time. I am using my blog to help me in my research, and I know a few others who have done this for their dissertation fieldwork as well. I am putting some ideas out there to see what others say and try to understand my own thinking in its nascent form.
    I think scholars can do this even beyond the dissertation level. You can turn the subjects you are interested in blogging about into that article. Write reviews for scholarly books on the blog, but more for a lay audience. This, I think, would be welcome as the audience for Buddhist studies scholarship often includes many educated practitioners, not only other academics.
    Blogs are only going to be more and more important. There is only going to be more bridging of the gap between scholarship and more mainstream audiences. I see this as younger scholars are increasingly making their writings more accessible. I think it would be an asset to hire someone who already has a voice, a forum for ideas, and people who follow what you are thinking and saying.
    In sum, I recommend, don’t stop blogging!

  2. Well, I am not a scholar (at least not of Buddhism). However, a cold “academic” blog is of little interest to me. The writings on a blog should provide a somewhat human face on your studies and at the same time present information that is appropraite to your “watchers”. It seems to me that you should change a thing. Write about what is topical and important. Refrain from cursing and temper tantrums and state your position. Its your blog, not mine or anyone else’s.

    Personally, I would like to see some academic material on the study and practice of Buddhism here. Its one of the few places I can get it.

    Hope that helps.


    ps. Down with Kindle!

  3. If blogging will cost me an academic job, I guess I’ll go back to Silicon Valley after I finish my PhD. I’m certainly not going to quit blogging for fear of what a committee might find on me. Of course, in my case, it is far far too late. I’ve got over six years of blog online and Usenet posts from when I was a teen in the late 1980s that show up on proper searches. Every stupid thing I’ve ever said online is already there.

    I certainly expect that society will have to adjust to this, over time. There is a whole generation now, many of whom are working on PhDs as we speak, who live their lives online.

  4. i think it’s really important to bridge that gap, as you’ve said, and i hope you continue to write about real issues here, and not just theory.

  5. Speaking from experience, I’ve come to appreciated more and more the gravity of what I say on the ‘Net. My first blog (of 4) was very personal and just a lot of ranting, but with each iteration, I became more aware that what I said might come back to haunt me later, so I’ve tried to balance more my scholarly interests with a more polished look.

    The Buddha did say that speech should be timely, true and with wholesome intentions, so I’ve learned to be more careful about what I say, without compromising what I believe in.

    It’s a tricky balance, but comes with experience. I think you’ll work it out just fine. You’re right to be worried because you have more responsibilities than before, but at the same time, you bring a unique voice to the blogosphere. Altering your writing style isn’t a sign of caving in; it’s a sign of increasing professionalism. 🙂

  6. “Or do I remain comfortable in this luminous space between scholar and practitioner? Even when it’s uncomfortable?” Yes, stick with it. At times, it isn’t going to be clear what’s called for. You might write something you’re not sure is “over the line.” But in the end, it’s another form of practice, isn’t it?

  7. I’ve done a lot of guest blogging about race, but the core of my blogging is actually foster care adoption, which can be an even more explosive topic. I talk about family traumas that are incredibly sensitive, painful, personal, and would violate the privacy of many people… if I wasn’t careful to be anonymous. Being anonymous means I’m free to be really honest, and this radical honesty is very helpful to readers (as a reader myself, I’ve learned a lot from bloggers who take a similar approach).

    But it’s a tradeoff. It means there are many topics I can’t discuss, even though they figure largely in my life, because discussing them would mean breaking anonymity. It means I have two very different lives on the internet, and I’m in constant danger of mixing them together, and I often get paranoid about it. Plus, women on the internet are often targets of cyberstalking, I’ve seen that happen to blog-friends, and I’m paranoid about that. And even though I know for myself that I’m being honest, my anonymity also means that my words have less weight than someone using their real name.

    Blogging under your real name is tough. It works best when your economic livelihood has a positive correlation to what you want to blog about. It sounds like you’re getting positive attention and negative attention too… my only advice is to explore the modes between the two extremes of anonymous blog vs. public academic persona and try to find a creative balance.

  8. Well, first and foremost – keep blogging!

    I suppose it is inevitable that some of the things we put out there on the internet will come back to haunt us, but to return to an earlier conversation, that’s just part of the karmic burden of this electronic corner of samsara.

    Sure, you could devote blogging time to writing an article or two to help yourself professionally, but what about the conversations you have been so successful at initiating through your site? Don’t those conversations matter as much (though differently) than the conversations you would be engaging in by publishing in a scholarly journal?

    Beyond that, I think the struggle you are facing between scholar-practitioner won’t become any easier if you stop writing about it, or become anonymous – all the things that have been prodding you to write will still be there.

    I say keep at it!

  9. Thank you all much for the comments and support (and thank you, too, to the folks who have contacted me privately).

    I think it’s fair to say that I’m not going to start blogging anonymously. It’s too late for that! It would require taking all of this down and starting up somewhere else from scratch. That’s a lot of work I’m not prepared to do right now, even if I wanted to! And I don’t think I could simply stop blogging. I think you’re right, Brooke, that the new medium will probably serve me well as the field itself matures. And as others have said, there is a need and an audience for this type of work, for myself and other scholar-practitioner bloggers.

    But this does leave some questions open. I am generally not one to delete posts (even ones so thoroughly pointless as Monday’s! my god! what was I thinking?) But there may be a need in some cases. Do I expend the energy proof-reading six year’s worth of posts for that one, tiny thing that may be offensive or taken the wrong way or come back to haunt me? Does that even matter? And moving forward, I want to strike that balance, as atlasien so aptly put it, between openness and honesty on the one hand with protecting myself and my privacy on the other. (See, she said it so much better!)

    For the time being, deadlines loom! So if I’m slow to respond or to get anything else up in the next couple of weeks, don’t worry. It’s just real life calling! Not me dropping off the face of the Internet!

  10. Your last sentence gave me flashbacks to Pema Chodron’s book Practicing Peace in Times of War – she’s got a whole big thing on being comfortable with the uncomfortable. If you haven’t read it already, I’d recommend it.

  11. Hey, Scott. You raise some interesting issues here which have no easy answers. As a teacher of religion at a prep school, my personal and professional interests often converge. While it is difficult, I feel it is important for me to keep these realms somewhat separate. So, I don’t make my identity too conspicuous on my personal blog, on discussion groups, etc. It isn’t too hard for people to figure it out though and I’m OK with that.

    My job is important to me on any number of levels and I am conscious that what I write could be viewed by people connected to my work. Thus I do try and make sure that what I write passes my own standards as to what is appropriate and important so I could face any potential consequences.

    But in the end this is a personal decision and you need to be comfortable with whatever you decide to do (and the potential consequences).

    BTW, I love your blog!


  12. Hi Scott,

    I’m late with my comment but I just want to echo what Brooke and the others have said here about how valuable your voice is on this blog – it certainly has been for me these last few months – and that you should consider seeing what you are doing as an added benefit to your career. Being able to communicate with more than one kind of audience is a skill that most academics don’t/won’t/can’t master and it also speaks to how well-informed you are about current events, trends, and their consequence in the world. There will always be those who criticize new media, but new generations of academic and public intellectuals embrace it and use it to break out of the ivory towers in productive ways. Search committees in progressive universities will embrace it too!

    Speaking practically, as a fellow academic, I would also agree with those who advise balance: i.e. making sure that you’re putting in the time in your professional life to keep the haters silent (sounds like you’re already doing that); and, if necessary, deleting any posts that you feel might convey a wrong impression (ditto).

    Of course, when you’re tenured…

    Anyway, stay strong and best of luck with your job search.

  13. It was a weekend of many movies. A line that runs through my head is this: “Some people think because they’re stronger, or meaner, that they can push you around…. But it’s only true if you let it be. The world is what you make of it.”

    @ Claudia_m: Thanks for the comment. And that wonderful aside, “when you’re tenured….”!

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