“All the technical stuff”: Looking differently at solitary study

Greetings!

First things first: after studying food blogs for almost five years now, I find it difficult to compose a public-facing textual greeting without thinking of the bloggers I study. Someone like Sarah B. of the popular blog My New Roots, for instance, would warmly and effortlessly salute her “dear friends!” before presenting her recipe for, say, Double Chocolate Chunk Sunbutter Cookies. I don’t have a recipe, much less any cookies, and am still relatively new to the community of Sherman Centre blog-posters and -readers–but I am pleased nonetheless to adopt Sarah B.’s enthusiastic salutation.

So: greetings, dear friends!

I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, and am a member of the 2019-2020 cohort of Sherman Centre graduate residents. I work at the intersection of food cultural studies and new media studies, and my SSHRC-funded dissertation considers the food blog genre as a site of museological and auto/biographical influences, conventions, and remediations. My residency project, which helps to support this doctoral research, examines the annual “Food Blog Awards” campaign conducted by gourmet food publication Saveur. The main goal of this project is to establish quantitatively the broad trends of Saveur‘s categorization and promotion of award-worthy food blogs–particularly by charting Award titles, blogger demographics, and repeat nominations since 2010–in order to ask critical questions about this representation of the last ten years of food blogging. To what extent do the Awards recognize the digital food work of underrepresented groups, including people of colour, 2SLGBTQ+ people, and immigrants? How might Saveur invoke neoliberal values such as the “coercive networking context of the modern workplace” (Gregg 187) or the repeated “incitement to ‘be creative'” (McRobbie 13)? How does Saveur‘s institutional power shift as it takes on the role of aggregator, mediator, and promotor, and can we use this case study to consider the online workings of this (traditionally print) publication more closely?

While I feel reasonably confident in these investigative questions and their role within my field of study, I entered this residency much less confident in my ability to extract, store, decipher, and visualize the data I’ve described. Once again, I found myself thinking of Sarah B., and her opening comments on a post titled “How To Start a Food Blog“:

I get a lot of emails with the question How do I start a food blog? As in, all the technical stuff […] And the truth is that I don’t do it all myself so I’m not the right person to ask. Luckily, my husband Mikkel, who handles most of these things for me, has written this guide to how My New Roots began, and how you can start your own food blogs too.

Sarah B.

When working on my comprehensive exam papers, this excerpt sent me into a flurry of analysis: what kind of potential food blogger is imagined here? What assumptions about marriage, labour, professionalism and expertise are being circulated? From my new workspace in the Sherman Centre, I instead found myself wondering: where’s my guide to “all the technical stuff”? The possibilities of digital scholarship felt exciting, crucial to my research interests, but also unfamiliar and daunting. Suddenly, the prospect of silently surfing through these ‘tips’ and ‘how-to’ guides felt less like a troubling symptom of precarious work economies and aspirational culture and more like a sneaky but necessary concession to my own imposter syndrome.

A photograph of an empty red chair, included in Sarah B.’s post on how to start your own food blog.

And so–what else?–I enrolled in an online course, a MOOC from edX that promised to take me through an “Introduction to Digital Humanities.” Over the past few months in residence, the combination of this MOOC, my own reading, and some wonderfully helpful consultations and conversations with Sherman folks have set me on a path to building my Blog Awards data set, and planning ahead to visualization strategies and platforms. But more importantly, I think this MOOC also helped me to consider my DH imposter syndrome as a tension within my own work and learning habits.

From the get-go, the MOOC seemed to underscore the values of collaboration, exchange, and shared learning: the introduction to the course told me that I was part of a “revolution” and a “community,” reminding me emphatically that “[t]his is social. This is a lot of fun.” Yet I was doing this fun and social work largely in private; while I would dutifully participate in the (optional but recommended) discussion forums, the backlog of previous comments offered few opportunities to join or begin a meaningful discussion about course content, much less to troubleshoot any difficulties with unfamiliar software. But amidst this tension between private study and pseudo-collaboration, I also heard from schools who repeatedly identified the digital humanities as fundamentally collaborative, and described learning to navigate this field and its methods as a similarly social, interactive, and humbling process. Dr. Kelly O’Neill, outlining the partnerships and training the supported her work on The Imperiia Project, described this process from a historian’s perspective:

Most historians are trained to work on their own. We work on our own little individual silos. We spend years in archives. And collaborating doesn’t necessarily come naturally. So this was one of the most difficult things for me to adjust to. It’s the idea that I needed help doing my work. It’s also probably one of the healthiest, most productive lessons I’ve taken away from using historical GIS.

Dr. Kelly O’Neill (Associate Professor of History, Harvard), speaking in the “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course from Harvard edX.

I’m not a historian, and my project does not incorporate GIS methods and software; indeed, the work I’m engaged in is rather more like the manual and relatively private work of coding primary sources (food blogs and Saveur Awards in my case, geography-themed playing cards from the Russian Empire in Dr. O’Neill’s). Yet what O’Neill more effectively mapped for me was the (un)learning curve ahead, as I considered not only the “technical stuff” but also my confusing compulsion toward independent study from within a space so clearly oriented around collaboration, resource-sharing, and hands-on learning.

The pattern I discovered in my online learning experience also prompted a return to my objects of study. Just like my MOOC, Sarah B.’s blog My New Roots includes numerous signals of sociality, engagement, publicness: we are, after all, hailed as her “dear friends!” Looked at differently, Sarah B. is also an accomplished autodidact: her self-directed learning happens in her kitchen and at her laptop, as recipes and posts are adjusted and refined for publication. But to look differently yet again (and this is part of what my doctoral research seeks to do) food blogs like Sarah B.’s can also facilitate the exchange, accumulation, and mutual enrichment of culinary knowledge; they can function as correctives to our culinary misunderstandings or misapplications; they can offer reflections on the importance of our gastronomic traditions. Much of this work happens in the comments sections, as blog readers engage with one another as much as or more than the blogger themselves. But even Sarah B. comments that she ‘doesn’t do it all herself.’ While I can remain critical of her hands-off outsourcing–I have no wish to summon a Mikkel to do the work for me–I can also apply what I know and believe about the collaborative possibilities of food blogs to my own penchant for solitary work. As I continue to dig through my data on what Saveur deems a successful food blog, I hope also to remember that these work habits are never simply innate or idiosyncratic, but shaped by the disciplines, institutions, platforms, and spaces in which we work. I can always learn to learn differently.

Till next time!

Works Cited
McRobbie, Angela. Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries. Polity Press, 2016.
Gregg, Melissa. “Getting Things Done: Productivity, Self-Management, and the Order of Things.” Networked Affect, MIT Press, 2015, pp. 187-202.

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