Dr. Olga Bezhanova

Sep 20, 2017

As a scholar of literature, I wince whenever I hear college administrators mention “digital Humanities” or peddle some new tech as the solution for all our problems that will make teaching a breeze and help the sun shine brighter. Instead of investing into teaching and scholarship – and especially into people who actually teach and conduct research – colleges are obsessed with purchasing the latest gadgets and gewgaws that will need to be optimized every couple of years, soaking up ridiculous amounts of money. As a result, concepts such as digital literacy and technological competence translate, in the minds of many academics, into yet another set of hurdles that we have to overcome instead of doing something worthwhile. Many of us end up letting the narrative about our use of tech to be defined by this aimless and frivolous worship of technology and avoid any engagement with it beyond what is strictly necessary.

In the process, we end up losing many opportunities to enhance our research that could make us more productive and simplify our lives. I made a decision pretty early on in my career to drown out the technology-friendly noise coming at me from every nook and cranny of academia and take control of my digital life. The result has been an explosive productivity in research that let me publish 2 books with prestigious academic publishers, 3 chapters in edited collections, and 18 articles in the leading journals in my field. The best part is feeling no guilt or shame whenever anybody mentions research and knowing that I’m doing good work – and mountains of it. When I was compiling my tenure dossier 3 years ago, I experienced zero stress because I knew that my record of scholarship guaranteed me an unassailable tenure case.

So how do I integrate technology into my professional life to ensure these results? One problem that many academics face is isolation. This is especially true for those of us who work in the Humanities and spend most of our lives stuck in front of a screen, alone and wondering if the idea we are developing makes sense to anybody but us. The greatest fear of an academic is investing endless hours into an article, a chapter, or a book, and having no way of knowing if what you have written will get published. Yes, one can go to conferences but let’s be realistic, how many conferences can you attend in a year given the plummeting levels of funding for scholarly endeavors of this kind in academia?

I have found a way of accessing an engaged, curious, diverse and brilliant audience that is eager to read anything I write, learn about my research, and what’s most important, help me work on my writing by reading carefully and taking apart every argument I make. Yes, you guessed right, I became a blogger. After 8 years of blogging, I’ve had 4,5 million hits and thousands of dedicated, long-time readers from all over the world. I have monetized my blog and now get paid for every reader who visits it. It’s not the kind of income that would let me quit my job (nor that I would want to) but it’s a good feeling to get paid for doing something I enjoy so much.

Of course, in the beginning of my blogging adventure, I made many mistakes. I didn’t choose the right blogging platform and had to switch to another one, I didn’t know how to monetize the blog in the way that would make the most sense. It also helps to know some HTML and to be aware of the platforms you can access to promote your writing, at least in the early stages.

Now, however, I never have to suffer from the feeling that the research I spend so much time producing will never be read by anybody but a few academics whom I might never even meet. Nor do I have to worry that what I’m writing is silly or unconvincing. Anonymous blog readers are a pretty unforgiving bunch. Whenever I publish an excerpt from my new article or start developing an idea in real-time on the blog, my readers let me know in no uncertain terms where the holes in my argument are and whether what I’m saying makes sense. I wrote my most recent book (published by Bucknell UP) in 18 months, and I have no doubt that this would not have been possible without the help of my readers who were on my case relentlessly whenever I was vague or unconvincing in my writing.

Academic reviewers of my work never fail to congratulate me with how well-researched all of my pieces are. “You must have a really fantastic library,” they say. Little do they know that, sadly, the library resources I can access at my school are extremely limited. Back when I was a graduate student at Yale University and later a Visiting Professor at Cornell, I had gotten used to having access to the best academic resources on the continent. Now that I have to do with a much poorer library, I rely on the access that my digital persona gives me. Whenever I need an article that I can’t find, I post its title on my social media and within minutes – yes, literally minutes – somebody from Israel, Germany, Slovenia, etc – emails me a pdf of the piece I’m looking for. Of course, this only happens because I have developed a digital persona of my own of which I am in complete control. Through blogging, I have come into contact with several leading scholars in my field who discovered me on social media before meeting me in person.

We need to be in control of our digital destinies, especially since the corporatization of higher education often makes us feel that we are losing control of academia. We need skills and knowledge that will open for us a whole new universe of opportunities to disseminate our research and dispel the pernicious myth of academics who are locked in their ivory tower, unwilling or incapable of reaching out to the world we love to study.