Cowgirl Up: my talk at the University of Texas

Thanks, Longhorns!

Yesterday, I gave a talk called “Cowgirl Up:  The Pleasures and Perils of Academic Feminist Blogging” at the University of Texas in Austin at the Symposium of Gender, History, and Sexuality, and boy howdy, did I have fun!  (Who doesn’t enjoy talking about herself?  And as you regular readers know, this blog is all about the “me.”)  It was so flattering to be invited to talk to some readers in real life, and get away from my computer screen!  Blogging is something that is so interior and (for me) intellectual that it felt strange to talk about it face-to-face instead of writing about it. 

We had a wide-ranging discussion about feminist blogging, intellectual communities, the ethics of blogging, pseudonymity versus “out” blogging, the question of whether or not blogging should be recognized and rewarded as professional outreach, and why this feminist blog uses Gil Elvgren’s images of sexy cowgirls in its posts.  (More on these issues below.)  The audience–some of whom have their own blogs–kept me busy in the Q and A session afterwards for more than an hour after I left off my prepared remarks!

The folks here at UT have all been so friendly and generous in entertaining me and keeping me company over the past few days.  I especially want to thank faculty members Julie Hardwick and Bob Olwell of the History Department and the Institute for Historical Studies for bringing me to Austin in the first place to participate in the Centering Families in the Atlantic World conference, and Carolyn Eastman of the History Department for inviting me here to talk about “my stupid blog.”  Graduate students Julia Gossard, Jessica Luther, Sarah Steinbock-Pratt, and Kyle Shelton have been great company, too.  And then, as if that weren’t enough to go to my head for the rest of the year, Judy Coffin of the History Department invited a group of us over for dinner at her gorgeous house.  Thanks, friends!  I’ve had a blast.

My talk yesterday focused on four issues:  1) Is blogging a waste of time and/or possibly a danger to one’s career?  2)  I reviewed my brush with notoriety when I called eminent dead historian Lawrence Stone a “complete tool,”  3)  Are blogs vehicles for airing out academia’s “dirty laundry,” for good or ill, and 4)  Why does a feminist blog use images like the one above which might be read as an exploitation of women’s bodies and sexuality.  Here, in brief, are my answers to these questions: 

  1. Is blogging a waste of time or dangerous to one’s career?  From the perspective of an intellectual metropole like Austin, I can certainly see why some might think of academic blogging as a waste of time that competes with the time available to meet concrete career benchmarks.  But most of us don’t end up in major university towns or big cities with seminars and symposia in our fields and armies of Ph.D. students–most of us leave graduate school and spend our careers in places in which we may feel intellectually isolated.  So blogs can be spaces that become virtual communities where we can combat isolation and have conversations about our common interests.  If your goal in blogging is to alienate friends and allies, then blogs may be potentially dangerous to one’s career.  But so long as you’re not a jerk (much), I don’t think they’re a career hazard.  (Circumstances differ and I may well be wrong about this.  Check back in another 20 years with me!)
  2. Why did I call Lawrence Stone a “complete tool?”  You can review the controversy here and here.  I was calling him out on an obnoxious review in the New York Review of Books in which he presumed to deliver “the ten commandments which should, in [his] opinion, govern the writing of women’s history at any time and in any place.”  Opinions differ as to whether “tool” was appropriate language, but it’s an example of how blog writing is more informal than traditional academic writing, and how blogs can be spaces in which a a lone feminist historian at an aggie school in flyover country can call foul on some of the language and behaviors of the eminent in her field.
  3. Can blogs be spaces for airing out the “dirty laundry?”  Yes, absolutely–and that’s a good thing.  Whose interests does silence serve?  Gimme a break.  (And what’s the alternative to not airing out the dirty laundry or washing it up?  Seriously!)  Many in the audience agreed that academia’s practices are too cloaked in secrecy and mystery, and that a little fresh air and sunshine can do us all a lot of good.
  4. Why the sexy cowgirls–I thought this was a feminist blog?  This question was inspired by a thoughtful comment left by m Andrea last week, which (believe it or not) was the first time in three years that anyone has ever questioned me on this point.  (This is especially strange to me, because I think about it all the time!)  I use them ironically and playfully, but I recognize that there are other ways to read these images.  To me, they represent a kind of idealization of women and of an American West that never really existed, but YMMV, as we say on the world-wide timewasting interwebs.  (Everyone in the audience who spoke to this issue yesterday encouraged me to continue using them.)

Well now, I think I’ve said enough for today–what do you all think?  It’s time for me to pack up my (actual) “dirty laundry” and head on back to el rancho Historiann on the High Plains Desert, so I’ll check in and join the conversation as I can.

0 thoughts on “Cowgirl Up: my talk at the University of Texas

  1. Historiann:

    Being from Texas (and a city not too far from Austin), I love the name of your presentation! It sounds as if the symposium was great and I am sure your perpective and expereinces were appreciated by the attendees. I am also glad you were greeted with proper Texas hospitality!

    I am a novice blogger and blogging is fairly limited in my field. I always enjoy your writing and have learned a lot about blogging from reading your blog. So thanks for all of your hard work!



  2. Interesting about the Elvgren images. As a “later-comer” to the blog it struck me on first viewing. I both thought you meant to use them ironically and that it likely had been hashed out long ago on here. I was surprised to read that it hadn’t!

    Sorry I missed you at Austin—sounds like a good, productive event.



  3. I haven’t yet gotten around to reading the forum on feminist blogging in the JWH (I’m in “exam prep mode”), but I’ve been curious about your thoughts on grad student blogs. Do you think grad students (especially opinionated, outspoken feminists like myself) may have more to risk in blogging than tenured faculty? How might you (or other folks) advise your grad students on this topic?


  4. How about a little less of Elvgren and a little more of Barbara Stanwyck from “The Big Valley”? For me, at least, of all the “idealization[s] of women and of an American West that never really existed,” hers was the best.


  5. I’m not sure I’d want to live on a planet whose self-described dominant species entrusted TOO much of its collective well-being to “benchmarks,” anyway. Up here we still look for “earmarks,” which is a little problematical too.

    I got the ironical part from the start. My only question is can there really be that many different Elvgren images, or have you got the old coot back at his drawing board working on commission expanding his oeuvre in some kind of a digital sweatshop? 🙂 Nah, that can’t be it. Happy trails on the way back to P’ville!


  6. Re: Elvgren

    Your blog, your ironic flourishes; my free will, my choice to read. Seems pretty simple to me.

    I do wonder if you ever get public reaction from your town/city/region. The work I do is sometimes in the public eye and just today, a local crank sent a rambling email about the good ol’ days when scientists had open minds. My eyes kind of glazed over after a while but I did notice there were Nazis in the missive.


  7. Awesome! I never get e-mails or comments from the locals about my blog. (I got a few after publishing letters to the editor of the Denver Post, including some from the asshat columnist whose columns are regularly filled with factual errors about the Constitution.)

    In Austin one of the questions from the audience was how my colleagues at Baa Ram U. see my blog/blogging and has it changed our relationship, but I had to say (honestly) that I have no idea if my colleagues read or care. (That’s not entirely true. One colleague regularly sends me items he thinks I might want to write about, although that doesn’t mean that he’s reading my blog. In any case, I’m not aware that they read, and I have no idea if they’ve ever commented. If they do, it’s under a pseudonym.)

    Sometimes I feel like blogging is like compulsive eating or masturbation: no one mentions it or asks about it. But that’s OK. Like I said above, it was kind of odd to be standing up in public talking about my blog, instead of staring at my computer screen.


  8. What I thinke:

    (1) Sounds like you had a great time. I travel a couple times per month to talk to people at conferences and deliver seminars at other institutions, and it’s absofuckenlutely fantastic: a great intellectual invigorator.

    (2) Using the word “centering” to mean something other than “putting the bowl in the middle of the table” really fucken grates on me.

    (3) I think you were totally wrong to refer to Stone as a “complete tool”. “Complete fucken tool” would have been more appropriate.


  9. “Centering” as you define it: I think that’s exactly what the organizers of the conference meant. Putting families at the center of the “table,” rather than merchants/explorers/imperial officials/diplomats/etc., which is more traditional to comparative colonial histories or Atlantic World histories.

    Yes: travel and talking to new friends and colleagues is very invigorating. I don’t get to do it as often as you, but I always really enjoy it.


  10. “Centering” would work for a conference about a shipload full of families that got dismasted halfway between Bermuda and the Azores, and just continued to spin slowly around there in the weak currents and eddies, like a plastic fireboat abandoned in a rapidly cooling bathtub.


  11. Historiann –

    I may not be local, but I’m just down the road and I read your blog all the time. I teach history at Metro State (that’s ok, no one else has heard of it either, despite us having 24,000 students) and am a alumna of Ram U. I loved the cowgirls first thing – in fact, it made me want to read the blog.


  12. Thanks, Kim–*I’ve* heard of Metro State, of course, and I sympathize with your institution’s efforts to find a less generic name.

    Glad you like the cowgirls. That seems to be the consensus. In my original response to m Andrea, I mentioned how I thought it might be necrotic or exploitative of their youth, when as a woman in my (very early!) 40s I am potentially old enough in theory to be their mother. But when I ran this idea by a man in the History department at Texas, he commented that he didn’t think about their age, he just read them as vintage posters from the 1940s and 1950s. (And of course, these women would now be in their 80s or 90s now!)


  13. I never asked about the Elvgren pics because I always figured you used them for a good reason and also I have sort of a love for those sorts of pin-ups because they carry so many different messages, including my favorite, which is that they kind of sum up a sort of clueless sexism that explains so much about our past and our present.


  14. Just realized I never thought twice about the cowgirl images. Not sure why they don’t bother me, whereas some other female bloggers who use modern images of the idealized sexualized female DOES bother me. Guess I will have to think over where the disconnect in my brain is.


  15. @Historiann,

    Gads, just when I start to feel good about it again, you go and remind me that I could be someone’s mother. I too am in that early 40s range and finally have students who’ve been alive longer than my marriage. Weird.


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