The fantasy in online forums is utterly different than the Republic of Letters…


I am particularly struck by the distinctions you draw between (a) the weekly colloquium you attend at Johns Hopkins, with its sense of ritual and courtesy, and (b) the unbounded and disembodied aspect of discussion lists, including that of IAJS. Here’s how you described the Johns Hopkins colloquium, which seems to illustrate the contrasts:

“Usually there is a pre-circulated paper, which people come prepared to discuss. There is a short talk by the presenter at the beginning, and then they ask questions or make suggestions. The approach is to first establish what the writer was trying to achieve, why he or she was gripped by this topic. Questions and suggestions then follow, always respecting not just the writer’s disciplinary stance and research aims, but even the inner motives, the passion that launched the study. Comments are invariably constructive, seeking to help the author clarify, balance, polish, or augment the argument and the study which it is  apart. There is no showing off or grandstanding, no effort to hijack the proceedings in favor os some other agenda.”

My experience is that creating such a successful conversational space is only possible with an extraordinary degree of intelligent care. The Johns Hopkins colloquium, for instance, is clearly led by professors who have spent their lives devoted to mid-wiving the ideas of students. There is a great deal of mirroring going on, a great deal of attention paid to establishing a rich and high minded tradition, including all of the small rituals and gestures that constillate the right mood for dialogue, making everyone feel smarter, more empathetic, collegial, respected, and so on. There’s a lot wrong with higher education, but this represents the tradition at its best.

I certainly agree with you that online discussions (including our own) feel quite different. Writing to a list serve, for instance, is unlike speaking to someone in a colloquium. Interestingly enough, it’s also unlike writing a letter to someone who lives far away. Letter writing is slow, intimate, Dionysian, full of bodily emotions. There is a rich, scholarly tradition of letter writing going back to the Renaissance: the attempt to share ideas and insights among colleagues who only rarely had the chance to meet face to face, what some have called the Republic of Letters. The fantasy in online forums is utterly different than the Republic of Letters, more like that involving teletype machines found in mid-century news rooms, or texting on a cell phone. The medium of list-serves favors speed, simple statements, enquiries as well as ego, grandiosity, the one-line jest. Dialogue and the development of long, sustained arguments or complex ideas are simply lost in the detritus of the medium itself.

Perhaps the medium itself has grave limitations, especially in fields like literature, religion, and post-Jungian studies. I belong to a number of scholarly list-serves, and over 10 years I have yet to have a single discussion that has been as rewarding as a face-to-face seminar. That is not to say that list serves aren’t important, but I want to be clear with myself about what they do well and what they occlude.

Thank you for your paper.

Best Wishes,

David Barton

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