How I Became a Writer
A reflection on the Golden Age of blogging, and how the internet took me someplace that my university training could not
A version of this essay appeared in The American Historian in 2015: I wanted to revive, and rewrite it to honor the origins of the Substack platform in the commercial blogging platforms that became available in the early twentieth century. But given the controversies about a career panel at the American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans last weekend (no, I am not linking—the players deserve their anonymity back), I wanted to reflect on how some of us began to look beyond the academic world to satisfy our need for personal fulfillment. If you know someone who would be interested in these thoughts, please share them, and urge new readers to:
What does it mean to become a writer?
On October 17, 2006, I thought I already was a writer: technically I was, I had published a book and numerous journal articles. But on that day, having never done anything more complex on my computer than send an e-mail (I wasn't even on Facebook yet), I created an account on Blogger. It didn't take me long to pick the pseudonym "Tenured Radical" as my blog persona, and like many academics on social media, I initially withheld my actual name. I imagined that I had built a firewall between my academic self and the Wild West of blogging, so that I could write what I wanted to write without being criticized for my views or charged with being unscholarly.
That fell apart in less than six months.
Having made a very poor choice—publishing a comic post about something a student had said in class—I learned to my dismay that many people on campus already followed my blog. They knew that Tenured Radical was me. While some students and faculty at my college (which, in a nod to Sinclair Lewis, I called Zenith on the blog) were enjoying Claire Potter unplugged and uncensored, I was also regarded by a select few (including the student, to whom I offered profuse apologies) as my own Evil Twin.
The online academic celebrity, the me and not me who was Tenured Radical, is over 15 years old. I am more mature, wiser, and far less likely to step in it than I was then. I am also far better known for my general audience writing, a career move for which blogging created a platform. In fact, I was Tenured Radical longer than Steve Allen, Jack Paar, or Conan O'Brien hosted The Tonight Show.
But the idea of celebrity within a particular demographic captured the spirit of what it meant to develop an online persona back in the Bush and Obama years. That is not because being the Tenured Radical made me rich or even more than modestly visible outside higher education, but because blogging was a performance, and one in which I revealed only a part of myself.
I think this was true of most bloggers in those years. We were often shyer than we seemed online (OK, I wasn’t, but other people were), and we were capable of taking risks on social media that we knew would be frowned on in our scholarship. In a blog, the dreary routines of academic life that supported research and writing (or undermined them, depending on your point of view) dropped away. As Anne Lamott wrote in Bird By Bird, when she first learned to make "the story happen," exaggerating some things and diminishing others, what resulted wasn't intended to be a reflection of life. Instead, the resulting narrative was "vivid and funny . . . the people involved seem larger, and there was a sense of larger significance, of meaning."
Those of you who followed and may remember Tenured Radical know that in addition to writing about history, I got to be a cultural critic, an essayist, an unrepentant goad to right-wingers, and a faux Dear Abby for early career academics. None of these voices or personae were available to me as a scholar. Eclectic cultural work on the internet is considered highly suspect by many of our colleagues because there are virtually no rules that govern blogging, and the university world is obsessed with rules and the respectability that comes with following the rules. When I began writing online, social media was also associated with the young, which made a middle-aged scholar-blogger even more suspect. In those early years, some of my colleagues would have been less concerned if I had taken up competitive skateboarding at the age of fifty.
The good news is that nearly every academic I knew who launched a blog believed that they became a better writer for having done so. If you blogged well, and were persistent, you not only had an opportunity to comment on one of our most urgent social issues—the future of education—but you got to discuss the larger significance of what we do every day as scholars, teachers, and researchers. You even wrote better sentences.
And shorter, punchier paragraphs that broke grammatical rules effectively.
We also became more public people, exceeding the boundaries of our departments, campuses, and professional worlds. But the questions at the time remain questions today, even as (or especially because) the blogging world has given way to greater access for academics to journalism platforms, Substacks, podcasts, and fame as Twitter commentators. Do you want this? Does it serve you?
Blogging had a range of advantages for scholars who aspired to make a difference with our work. Most of us had little experience in, or access to, mass media platforms, and scant training about how to write effectively for a general audience. Through blogging, scholars like myself learned that we had a great deal to say to each other, and how to refine a writing voice through repetition and practice.
Inevitably, blogging also led to becoming known as a "thought leader," a term often bandied by public relations professionals. Short, punchy essays, wherever they are published, made others curious about other things we were writing, including our historical scholarship. But it also became a folio of writing that made journalism platforms confident that we could work for them too.
And can I emphasize enough that we became better writers? A compelling blog performance required thinking about tone and style, beginning with the design we choose for our pages, the names we adopted, the illustrations we chose, and the topics we wrote about.
Choosing the identity Tenured Radical seemed like a no-brainer when I began blogging in 2006. The culture wars of the 1990s had become a permanent part of the educational landscape, and the phrase was frequently used by liberal and left-wing faculty as a way of putting a thumb in the eye of critics. As I explained to my then-unknown audience in my first post, I was one of those "'tenured radicals' who were indoctrinating the youth of America."
In reality I was doing no such thing, and I knew it. In retrospect, however, it set the stage for a certain kind of stance toward my other self: the things I took most seriously—teaching, scholarship, and being a good colleague—would also be my first targets.
But I wouldn’t choose it again, because hardly anyone younger than 40 seems to know that I was being deliberately ironic.
Blogging didn’t always made me popular. Those who disliked my views for their own political reasons persistently argued that I could not believe the things I do if I actually knew the "facts," a view that continues to resonate today.
This often led to the assertion that Tenured Radical and Claire Potter were one and the same, and that a blogger "proven" not to be in charge of the facts, or who was of a certain political bent that prevented her from perceiving “the facts,” was also not fit to be teaching history.
Presuming that all people are, or should be, understood as fully integrated beings has been a theme in U.S. political culture for some time, and it continues to be. For example, Bill Clinton the adulterer was said to be unfit to be Bill Clinton the president, and Jane Fonda the former antiwar activist is still regarded by some as unfit to be Jane Fonda the actress. Again, this theme continues to resonate every time someone’s livelihood is put on the line for something they said, tweeted, or did that may be wrong and regrettable—but may not reflect their entire worth to society.
We don't have to look to celebrities to make this point: the difference between academic and non-academic identities has been collapsing for some time, and the rise of social media accelerated that. While we were all still blogging, because of public speech acts that had nothing to do with their teaching, scholars had their employment threatened or terminated by forces as diverse as the National Rifle Association, their own university administrations or trustees, and their state legislatures.
Among the important, and unresolved, questions that emerged from the University of Illinois's retraction of a tenured job offer to literature scholar Steven Salaita in the summer of 2014 was whether his vividly angry social media utterances about Israel's attacks on civilians in Gaza were constitutionally protected speech. Were they covered by the principles of academic freedom, or by the regulations that govern hate speech? Was the Steven Salaita who tweeted about Gaza the same Steven Salaita who would walk into the classroom to teach an audience of undergraduates that included students of the Jewish faith?
Establishing an online presence was not for the faint of heart, and it still isn’t. Over time, I have learned that maintaining emotional health depends on reminding myself that, when an essay of mine draws fire, it is not me who is being attacked. This may seem like a false distinction, but it isn’t: it is much like the knowledge that personally vicious criticisms in teaching evaluations do not reflect the overall quality of the class.
And although the platforms have changed, it is also important for online writers to remember that there is a whole cadre of people of varied political persuasions, professional trolls and keyboard warriors, who pepper writers with insults only because they can. They pick quarrels for the fun of it, fight at the drop of a hat, and taunt—and some are even doing it to extend their reach for profit-making activities and data collection.
It is literally not about you. But trolls on the left and the right tended to, and still have, one thing in common: the belief that the Internet is a radical free-speech zone governed by a complex set of principles about democracy and truth. While controversial bloggers were often accused by their critics of "truthiness," a term coined by The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert in 2005 to describe "facts one wishes or believes to be true rather than concepts or facts known to be true," it is also the case that the vast majority of those policing the internet are guilty of truthiness too.
As an example, in 2008 the blogger Right Wing Professor wrote a prolonged rant in my comments section claiming that Bill Ayers, the tenured education professor, Obama fundraiser, and former Weather Underground member, had "confessed to multiple murders" in his memoir Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist (2001). That this is not true, but a moral extension of the truth—setting off bombs in public places might kill people—should give you a sense of what "truthiness" is, and why it plays such a prominent role in the contemporary political imaginary.
So, given the dangers, why write publicly? Blogging was, first and foremost, about writing, and writing in a way that foregrounds play as well as intellect. This made blogging fundamentally different from how any academic was trained in graduate school, which was to regard writing as "our work," and not an act of pleasure or creativity. Think about it: one of the earliest conventions we learn as graduate students is to greet a person we don't know not by asking "What are you writing?" but "What are you working on?"
Yet the best historical writing is not unlike the best general audience writing: it hides its work from the reader. It reads easily, promotes empathy, and is driven by human characters that scholars come know intimately through research. Blogging as the Tenured Radical not only allowed me to think seriously and productively about what brought me to writing in the first place—it also gave me practice in inhabiting and developing another character entirely, one that is now an opinion writer for a number of national outlets.
Because of blogging, I learned to write every day. I learned to experiment with voice, with failure, with criticism from strangers, and with learning to be misunderstood.
What I mean to say is this: blogging, and the other bloggers I knew back in the `oughts 2010s made me a writer. The internet made me a writer. And regardless of how bad things have gotten, and what a tangled place the virtual world is now, I will never cease to be grateful for that.
You are invited:
Tomorrow night at 8:30 EST, I will be in conversation with Christopher McKnight Nichols. Hosted by the Oregon Historical Society, our event is part of an ongoing series, “Historians and the News.” It’s online, free, and you can register here.
Keep your eye on the May 24 Alabama primary, where Republican voters will choose a candidate to run for the seat vacated by Senator Richard Shelby’s retirement. First-time candidate and businesswoman Katie Britt is giving Representative Mo Brooks more than a run for his money. in the race She’s picking up endorsements (most recently the Alabama Automobile Dealers Association) and, according to The Alabama Reporter, “became the first U.S. Senate candidate to formally qualify with the Alabama Republican Party for the 2022 cycle. She has visited all 67 counties on the campaign trail and has challenged her opponents to follow her lead.” It’s unlikely that the Democrats can pull off another Doug Jones-type victory. But the Jones campaign may have made it clear to the Alabama GOP that the Trump clown car approach, which works so well for people like Brooks in congressional races, is less viable for a Senate campaign. (January 11, 2021)
News organizations might want to be less focused on the sensationalism of Trumpettes refusing to testify and more focused on the evidence that the House Special Subcommittee investigating the January 6 insurrection does have. The paper trail of the administration’s malfeasance is, apparently extensive, and according to Nicholas Wu of Politico, includes “forged certificates of ascertainment declaring him and then-Vice President Mike Pence the winners of both Michigan and Arizona and their electors after the 2020 election.” (January 10, 2022)