Tag Archives: Blogging

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Making things official without officials

For my second post for the weekend, I hope you’ll forgive me if I point you at some blogging I already did elsewhere. This, as with so much of my posting, goes back to 2019, when I managed to get a probation-saving article out in the fairly well-regarded journal Social History. Shortly after that had happened, they sent me an invitation to write a blog post about it, to boost its readership, and I probably thought something like, “just done that, mate” and the idea got lost in the flow of ongoing employment. But this year, with so much time working to contract, I’ve actually had time to get my e-mail more under control again, and found the offer at what had become the bottom of my INBOX. And I thought, “if they’re still interested, maybe this would be cool”. And they were, so I did it.

http://socialhistoryblog.com/official-records-without-officials-by-jonathan-jarrett/

It’s about a document, a double document in fact, whose job it was, I quote myself, to “create a social memory of the transaction which might later be called on when needed”. But do go and see how it did it and why that matters… I may not be able to post next week or maybe the week after, so hopefully this is some compensation!

Why not syndicate with ACI?

Some time ago now, I got an e-mail from someone offering to publicise this blog for me. This happens now and then, and is usually either search engine optimisation or someone trying to launch some kind of aggregator platform that they want me reciprocally to advertise. In all these cases I decline; the blog already ranks high enough in web searches and, if it doesn’t rank as high as it used to, that’s actually good in some ways. Quite apart from the sometimes inexplicable nature of some of that traffic, it’s a pain searching for images for your teaching or blog posts and finding that the best, but still wrong, hits for what you want are things you already put on the web yourself. Anyway, this is a post about such an offer which I also declined, back in 2019, but which I had to think harder about, because it may not have been a scam as such, but I thought at the time that it was still doing things wrong in some ways, and I think I still do. But it deserves thought.

The company in question was called ACI Information Group, though it began and now still exists as Newstex, and what they offered was not being on a page of links with a hundred competitors, but something more curated, which was firstly, syndication, so that anything I posted would be passed to databases of scholarly blogging apparently being maintained by several providers, including LexisNexis and (at that time, but no longer) ProQuest, against each of whom I have slightly irrational animus. Secondly, however, and more powerfully, they would register each of my posts with a DOI (digital object identifier) so that it could more easily be cited. It was actually the second of these that deterred me. As I say, the blog is pretty findable anyway and although I have a fraction of the page-views here I once had (approximately a hundredth of the glory days of 2009-11), I have close to 800 subscribers, some whom I suspect of actually reading the thing, so my publicity machinery probably works about as well as anyone’s can who stays off Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (to name the platforms of the moment; come back in twelve years and see which of these names needs changing…) So the syndication probably wouldn’t have got me much. But they obviously thought that the treatment of my blogging as if it were a scholarly resource would attract me and it had the opposite effect, so, why?

Well, two things. Firstly there’s the economics of it, and secondly there’s the question of blogging as scholarship. Economics is easier to explain, as it’s basically the great Internet maxim, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Registering DOIs costs a lot of money, so the only reason it makes sense for someone to do that for me is because it makes it easier for them to sell my content to LexisNexis and ProQuest. Likewise, it only makes sense for those concerns to buy that content if they are themselves then selling subscriptions to the databases. Now, electronic subscription costs are the biggest millstone around the neck of academic information; they rise every year and if you cut them, you lose the lot, nothing on the shelf to keep, nothing except spare budget from the vanishment of information you used to have. But this case would have been especially annoying, as the content these people would have been paying for was on the web for free in the first place; all ACI and then their patrons were charging for was putting it in front of people so that those people didn’t have to find it themselves. Firstly, I’m not sure that actually would have got me any new readers; but secondly, it puts me in the position of the authors whose ancient books go onto the web for free and then wind up for sale on Amazon and so on as print-on-demand copies made from the free PDFs their printers hope people won’t find. I didn’t want to endorse that economy.

But as I say, that wasn’t actually my big objection, and the second one takes more explaining because it involves the question of whether blogging counts as scholarship.1 Now, you might argue that anyone who will cheerfully perpetrate multi-thousand-word blog posts with twenty-plus footnotes each is in a bad place to argue that it’s not; and certainly I hope that my blogging is at least scholarly. But really, unless I’m actually writing about stuff I was researching for some other purpose, I don’t have time to research stuff that goes up here very deeply, and long-term readers will know that this sometimes catches me and I have to make corrections. But those updates and corrections never go out to susbcribed readers, who just get the initial, faulty version dropped into their feeds or INBOXes. I have occasionally done library work to substantiate a blog post, but I do try not to have to. I link to sources I would not cite in fully academic writing, and I check fewer things in general. It’s not done to the same standard.2

You might say in response to that that some of the things I’ve posted here have actually become scholarly publications, so must have been pretty like scholarship and may even have been it. But let’s look at that more closely. In 2007 I had a short conversation with Jinty Nelson about crop yields and she repeated to me something from her excellent book Charles the Bald that set me onto the question of how far I believed Georges Duby’s old story that early medieval crop yields were really poor.3 I wrote something about that here in 2010 which was the germ of the argument which became my 2019 article on the subject.4 But the 9-year gestation time was really important. In the course of it, I got a small grant to support presenting the research at Kalamazoo; I got important feedback there; I then read a lot more and in 2013, I think, I sent a draft off to Chris Wickham (whom I had by then met and indeed worked with), who told me other things I needed to read, which not only provided vital missing data but also led me massively to shrink a whole section of the argument about experimental archaeology. And then, of course, I actually submitted the thing and it went past expert reviewers who also made suggestions about further reading and changes. The eventual 2019 version, therefore, had had masses more packed into it, some other stuff dropped or shrunk, and had been past numerous different experts all of whom knew stuff I didn’t. It was better, it was different and I still think it’s right and one of the most important things I’ve written. And yes, it started here, but that really was only the start. The central idea is the same but the explanation of it changed hugely. I wouldn’t now want anyone citing the old blog post when they could be citing, you know, the good version. I’m not averse to having the blog in general cited, at all, but only when there’s nothing better; the main reason I footnote is so that you, the reader, might know what there is that’s better.

So what I’m essentially saying, I suppose, is that real scholarship, the stuff you can hopefully rely on, comes from possibly-years of work and emerges in conversation with others; you can’t just blag it. I’m not necessarily singing out for the efficacy of the peer review system here, about which I (like everyone who’s been through it, probably) have my doubts; but something like it needs to happen. If a writer of a scholarly proposition isn’t willing to listen to other people’s doubts and suggestions, there really isn’t any mechanism by which everyone else, or even the writer themselves, can differentiate that proposition from personal delusion. Some would doubtles argue that the academy just reinforces the delusions it likes to maintain collectively that way; but there’s got to be some checking process before something can proceed to acceptance. And when this offer was made to me, I just felt that sticking a DOI on anything I might have come up with an afternoon was cutting that pathway to acceptance too short, even if it hadn’t also meant someone else getting to charge money for work out of which I got nothing.

Furthermore, one might also want to consider what else would be in those databases that would have been the end product of all of this. My blogposts probably imitate the scholarly form too much, but others might do so too little. I’ve read some actually really good analyses on blogs I still can’t cite, because as they themselves don’t make it clear where their information comes from, I can’t be sure it’s not just repeated from somewhere else without attribution. If a huge pile of those became a searchable resource being sold to academic libraries as credible scholarship, well, anyone could be in there repeating stuff from anywhere. Curation might obviate this, but you’d never be sure without resorting to outside checks (though ordinary academic publication is getting pretty hard to filter like this anyway).5 Who are an electronic information company to judge whether I know what I’m talking about? Or anyone else? Of course, there is definitely still a problem, despite open access, in making the knowledge of tested and acknowledged experts available to everyone who wants it, even other experts—and companies like ProQuest have their share of blame to bear for that—but since this would be a subscription resource, it isn’t solving that problem.6 It’s all a bit of a threat to the idea of expertise to entertain this devil’s bargain. And without the idea of expertise, to be honest, the academy is sunk anyway; it is one of the many planks without which our ship will not sail. So when I saw someone trying to cut that plank short on my own ship, I told them no. I hope that still makes sense.


1. Of course, I have pedigree disagreeing with others on this: see Alex Sayf Cummings and Jomathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy” in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (edd.), Writing History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 246–258, online here.

2. I should say that the exception to almost everything I say here about my blog is my ancient piece “Material Motivations for Participation in the First Crusade” in A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, 13th January 2007, online here, which isn’t actually a blog post but an article I could never find a home for and put here instead. It wasn’t peer-reviewed in any sense when I posted it except that I’d asked one senior Crusaderist to look over it and he’d called it OK; but since then I’ve, rather flatteringly, had colleagues want to cite it because no-one else quite says what it says. And also, it’s open to comment, the comments are part of the 15-year record it has and I don’t intend to do anything else with it, so you may as well cite it if you want to. But for the rest of the blog, it’s either not worth citing or I’m working on a better version…

3. Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald (London 1992), p. 27; Georges Duby, “Le problème des techniques agricoles” in Agricoltura e mondo rurale in Occidente nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo 13 (Spoleto 1966), pp. 267–284; Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’occident médiéval (France, Angleterre, Empire, IX–XV siècles) (Paris 1964), transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (London 1968), pp. 25–27 of the translation; Duby, Guerriers et paysans, VII–XIIe siècle: premier essor de l’économie européenne (Paris 1973), transl. Howard B. Clarke as Duby, The early growth of the European economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century (London 1974), pp. 25–29 of the translation.

4. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

5. Jeffrey Beall, “What I learned from predatory publishers” in Biochemia medica Vol. 27 (Zagreb 2017), pp. 273–278.

6. Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013), online here; Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science: a British Academy research project (London 2014); Plan S and the History Journal Landscape, by Margot Finn, Guidance Paper (London 2019), online here.

Aside

I’m sorry for the slight hiatus here; there have been one or two issues, let’s just leave it at that, and while I did get most of a post done on Sunday there wasn’t time to finish it. It should … Continue reading

Aside

It would be reasonable to ask where I have been, and the answer is basically, on holiday in Wales. I did mean to have some blog written up before I went that I could schedule to make things run uninterrupted … Continue reading

Metablog XIV: What It Is

A full ten years ago, two eminent medievalist bloggers noted the tendency of at least medievalist, and perhaps all academic blogs, to descend slowly into long hiatuses, punctuated by posts that only apologise for not posting, followed inevitably by final silence.1 They knew of what they prophesied, as it turned out; one of them went silent a year later and the other lasted into 2016, having moved his operation almost entirely to Twitter, before falling silent himself, and now it seems as if his site has been hacked or camped for the last couple of years. It doesn’t bode well, but nonetheless, I don’t think this is what is happening here. For a start, I should say given the times, I am well and safe, in fact doing really pretty well given the situation, I have my job and a good wage, I am working from home, I am pretty free from most dangers and it all could be much worse. But still no blog, huh? So I ought to step out of backlog and sequence and try to explain why posting is happening here so rarely these days.

So firstly there is the work situation. I explained where some of the issues came from about six months ago, and I won’t rehash that except to say that the government is mainly to blame, but the way it looks at the moment, in short, is this:

  1. Digital teaching takes more preparation and more aftercare and curation of content (unless you want to do it very poorly, which I don’t).
  2. Alongside the live version of my modules, I also have to construct an asynchronous one for students who can’t access the classes, and together with the previous I am probably having to spend three times the time I would have spent on teaching pre-Covid.
  3. Digital grading also takes longer than marking papers the old-fashioned way, though we’ve done our best to streamline the associated bureaucracy to make up for that.
  4. Our first-year students do formative work as well as summative work, so there is approximately a third again as much marking for them.
  5. We had a much larger intake of first-year students than usual this year, and I am teaching probably twice as many of them as I would usually teach.

The obvious arithmetical result of this is that, shall I just say, I am working more hours than usual. Once one fits in shopping (in a world where every step into a shop represents a small, minimised but possible chance that one will quite literally catch one’s death), housework and the general management of a home life—despite the tremendous help of my partner, in whom I am incredibly fortunate—I can now usually only find one spare day a week, and currently I am quite often spending that outside, high up, or helping my family. This is not, therefore, giving me a lot of spare time or headspace for blogging.

Close-up of incised design on the Swastika Stone, Ilkley Moor, England

Here, for example, is a close-up of the incised design which gives the name to the Swastika Stone, on Ilkley Moor, photographed this very afternoon

So there’s that, but there’s also what to blog about. My research has more or less been on hold since mid-2019; my reading has been limited to stuff for teaching, almost to exclusion; I have not been participating much in seminars, despite the profusion of digital opportunities, because while the papers are interesting I have discovered that what I went to them for was really the chat afterwards, and besides there is the time issue mentioned; and so I do not really feel like a current part of academia who might comment on what is going on in the world of medieval history. I also don’t want to write about teaching, as that does not necessarily end well.

Well, what does all that matter, you may say, when you have literally four years of backlogged content written, stubbed, planned or plotted? And it’s a fair question, but I can’t help feeling that in the current state of things my past holiday snaps, from a time of travel we may never see again, reports on papers one could no longer go to if they were on, or even more substantial things whose moments of motivation are, nevertheless, long gone, do not represent quality provision for my readership. When I face the blog these days, I feel like a comedian who has stepped onto stage and had a horrible moment of certainty that none of their material is any good.

So where does this leave me, and you my readers? Well, for a start, I’m going, probably next Sunday now, to take a very mean look at the various things in that backlog of posts. If I no longer find them interesting, I’m certainly not going to inflict them on you, so they will get dropped. Right now, that is about as far as I’ve got with the resolves, but if people have thoughts about what they are finding useful here when it happens, what there could be more of, what is not so interesting and so on, I will gratefully receive them and see what I think can be done about them. Otherwise, right now, I just hope that you are all well and safe and not too badly affected by the pandemic and its knock-on consequences, and that at some point soon all of this looks a bit better.


1. Brantley L. Bryant and Carl S. Pyrdum, “On medieval blogging” in postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies Vol. 2 (Goleta CA 2011), pp. 304–315 at p. 315.

Metablog XII: A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe now ad-free

I’m hoping for time to get another post up as well as this one this weekend, since this will be short (really), but, the attentive reader may have noticed a small change in the appearance of this here blog over the last week, which is to say that where once there were advertisements there are now (I believe) none. I’d love to say this was out of much-delayed concern for my readers, but actually what happened is that the photos for the last post took me over my free storage limit. At which point, I balanced all, brought all to mind, and so forth, and reasoned that firstly, I really didn’t want the grief of going back through old posts to remove pictures, secondly that that would probably be bad anyway since some of the old posts tend to get much more traffic than my new ones do these days, and thirdly that it would only to be ‘kick the can down the road’, in the phrase that the UK’s recently indecisive politics have made popular, since I don’t plan to stop taking or uploading photos any time soon.

Early modern building to let in Istanbul

Here’s one now! Property to let in Istanbul, just up the hill from the Archaeological Museum, convenient for the trams, and I suspect its own special set of maintenance surprises inside. We did not enquire…

But fourthly and perhaps most important, I have been writing this blog for 13 years and 1 month now; it has got me a few conference invitations, a number of vital references, some academic help here and there, two actual publications at least and an uncountable number of friends and contacts, and in none of that time have I paid its actual hosts anything at all. When thus balanced, that last fact seemed the most out of kilter, especially given my nowadays more-or-less-secure status. So, this is now a paid-for blog, I have twice the storage space so ought not to have to worry about that for another decade, and as a side benefit, you no longer have to put up with advertisements. I hope this is a good thing! Meanwhile, thanks to you, the audience, who make it worth doing!

I got given money for studying frontiers

I would, of course, be catching up on my backlog quicker if I weren’t alternating posts from it with differently-backlogged notices of my various achievements. But what am I supposed to do, either stop achieving things or stop reporting on them? I’m running a blog, the choice against false modesty or even politely refraining from self-publicity was made a very long time ago now. So, here is another achievement post, and it will not be the last such, either. I hope you can cope!

A view from the platform of the Castell de Gurb, Osona, Catalonia

A view from the platform of the Castell de Gurb down the erstwhile frontier of the Riu Ter

All that said, we are still in the past here, and the relevant markers in the past are October 2016 and April 2017. As even fairly short-term readers here will know, since about 2012 I’ve been thinking that the next big thing I’d like to do research-wise, alongside my general refinement of the world’s understanding of tenth-century power and authority as seen from Catalonia, is to get people thinking about frontiers using medieval evidence. I’ve organised conference sessions about this and I’ve even started publishing on it, against some odds (long story, near-future post).1 But I have also been planning a bigger project to do this. It was one of the things I promised, as part of my numerous probation obligations at the University of Leeds, that I would apply for funding for, and the two markers are, therefore, when the bid went in and when I got notice that I had in fact received the money. None of that would have been possible without the support of the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (as it then was), to whom I owe considerable collective thanks for guiding me in my first ‘big’ bid (and to then-Director Professor Greg Radick for scaling it down to a more-likely-successful size from my original aspirations), but obviously the main people who are owed thanks here are the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, one of whose Small Research Grants paid for what followed. So this is where I express my gratitude to them all: thankyou folks, I think you chose wisely but I’m very glad you chose me.

Logo of the British Academy

A logo from my sponsor…

Now, the obvious question now is what did I do with the money, indeed what did we do, because this was a network project involving several other fine scholars of such matters. But actually, one of the answers to that was, “start another blog“, which was one of the reasons I was editing here rather infrequently during 2017, when this was all coming off. So, rather than write it all out again here, I will direct you to it on the project website (also my own work) if you’re interested, saying here only that it covers the genesis of the project, its historiographical and methodological bases, a workshop, some connected activity, a triumphant conference (there are pictures), a related conference run by someone else and some of our future plans. If frontiers are your thing, and you didn’t somehow hear about this at the time, you might want to have a look. And if for some reason you just like reading my writing about what I’ve been doing, well, there is another missing chapter of it over there for you. Thankyou, as ever, for the attention and feedback!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia, 718–1031” in Javier Muñoz-Bassols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40.

Aside

I said ‘yes’ to too many things… Expect something substantive to appear here inside two weeks and then things to be on a more even keel for a while, I hope! Meanwhile, I hope that you’re also getting some of … Continue reading

Two More Greats Gone: Simon Barton and Mark Whittow

This is a kind of repetition I really hope stops arising. The pressure is not off my life in such a way that blogging as we knew it, or anything like, can yet be resumed, but the one thing that I can’t justly not write about is people I wish hadn’t just died, and just a bit more than a year since I last posted it is, awfully, that that once more brings me out of hiding. I’m sorry if anyone was hoping for better, and I’m sorry that the news I have is so terrible, but I owe both these men a lot and have to say something in their honours.

Professor Simon Barton of Central Florida University

Professor Simon Barton, of Central Florida University and previously of Exeter University, photographed by James d’Emilio in 2017 and borrowed from Professor D’Emilio’s Twitter stream

I still don’t know what happened to Simon Barton. There is nothing on the web about his death anywhere that doesn’t apparently go back to a tweet by Simon Doubleday on 17th December publicising an announcement on the Facebook page of the Sociedad Española de Estudios Medievales, and for a while that seemed like such an odd place for the news to crop up, and it so odd that it was not repeated, that I was very much hoping that an obituary notice had been prematurely posted and that it would soon be contradicted. But that contradiction has not come and other places have begun to post tributes, and I guess it must be true. I first ran into Simon Barton because when still at Exeter, long ago in I think 2003, he accepted a paper I’d offered to the Second Conference of the Historians of Medieval Iberia. That was a good and very friendly conference, and while the paper never actually got finished I apparently did well enough to be invited back in 2005, and that paper became my infamous Aprisio article. Basically, Simon kept inviting me back to things, even at times when surely unbeknownst to him I felt as if I would have to be leaving the profession soon and was no kind of real scholar. His cheerful encouragement whenever I had contact with him has been a reliable constant for quite a lot of my academic career, all the more valuable because there was no reason he needed to provide it. It was a recent pleasure for me in the previous academic year to start using his work more thoroughly in my teaching by way of repayment, and it was only getting more interesting as he went on; his most recent, and now I guess last, book, really transcends the institutional and political sort of history in the tradition of which he had begun. And now there will be no more, and of course there are also all the ruptured personal ties and grief that death leaves behind it about which I really can’t say anything meaningful except how sorry I am.

Dr Mark Whittow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Dr Mark Whittow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

That inarticulacy in the face of death hurts all the more for the other victim of the season, Dr Mark Whittow. Here, horribly, there is no doubt: Mark was driving home from Banbury on the 23rd December, there was a collision and he was killed. Why this is a blow for the subject, others have already put far better than I ever could—the article on the website of St Peter’s College, where he was a fellow for many years, has him perfectly written up—but here, what I can’t say of Simon, I can picture the house that will now be emptier and the people who must grieve and it’s awful. I’ve sat round that breakfast table and on those sofas, with Mark being controversial because the conversation was more fun that way, and again I was made welcome there when that mattered a good deal. Within days of my arrival in Oxford, indeed, Mark had made himself known to me and roped me into giving a paper at short notice (a paper which, by a horrible irony, until very recently rested with none other than Simon Barton, who was editing a book in which it was finally to appear), but he made up for it with dinner and that famous welcome, and for the remaining years I was in Oxford we plied each other with college and other hospitality and made grand plans whose minuscule chance of realisation, given how busy we both were with other things, didn’t make them any less entertaining. He also enjoyed the blog, and it seems especially perverse, however obvious, that he can’t comment on this post. He would have been pleased at least, I imagine, to know that his death would make both the Times and the Telegraph, but there’s no question that he’d rather have been around still having fun, and he had, perhaps more than anyone else I know, worked out how to have it. The timing and the family he leaves behind make this all seem very cruel already, but so does the sheer vivacity with which Mark lived and of which he and we would all have enjoyed so much more. I shall miss him and Simon both and I wish they weren’t dead.

Gallery

CESMA field trip to Shrewsbury

This gallery contains 25 photos.

I should apologise for the blip in posts subscribers must just have experienced; I put one post together in the depths of sleep deprivation before I realised that this one should have come first. If it’s any comfort, this one … Continue reading