Sahel Blog Goes Dark, at Least for a Time

Today will likely be the last time that I post on this blog for about a year; as readers have likely noticed, the pace already slowed considerably over the summer.

This month marks two major transitions for me. The first transition is that I’ve finished my Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Northwestern University (it was awarded yesterday, in fact). And the second transition is that on Monday, I will start a new position as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I am grateful to the Council for this opportunity, and I am excited to begin this new chapter in my career.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, I will not be blogging. I am sorry to take this pause, but also grateful. I am grateful first for the opportunity to have interacted with so many people through the blog, especially regular commenters here and conversation partners on Twitter and elsewhere. I am grateful too, however, for the chance to step back a bit from this medium. I’ve mentioned some of my struggles with blogging before; here I’ll rehash them.

For most of the time I’ve spent on this project since I started in 2009, I was enthusiastic about the ways in which blogging could provide rapid, timely analysis of events, sometimes even as they unfolded. I think it is vital that at least some academics take up blogging. Through this medium we can showcase some of the things we have to offer: language skills, analytical skills, historical perspective, knowledge of cultural and religious traditions, etc. In a country (America) that often despises intellectuals and asks what they’re good for, blogging gives us a chance to demonstrate our value. (For the record, I don’t think intellectuals need to “justify their existences” to anyone – but it’s easier for all of us if some of us make the effort.) Blogging also allows academics to circumvent some of the barriers that often stand between us and the public. Finally, and most importantly, it gives scholars a chance to counter some of the narratives that dominate in media and policy circles. For me, that has meant trying to present one critical region of Africa in its complexity, and to write about it in a way that seeks to recognize the dignity of the real people who live there. So many “foreign policy” writers seem to view the people they talk about with contempt – an attitude that makes it easy for such writers to recommend the use of violence against those people. Hopefully I have provided some antidote to that point of view here.

During 2013, however, I’ve increasingly felt that my style of blogging – which is highly reactive to events, as well as highly scattered – does little more than skim the surface. I live in dread of making factual errors, translation errors, and sloppy analytical judgments, all of which are strong possibilities if I blog every day, hopping from topic to topic. I have also grown concerned that what I write doesn’t build toward anything, and that staying wedded to the news cycle constrains my ability to work on topics in depth. Writing my dissertation in 2012-2013, as well as trying my hand at a few journal articles, I came to appreciate traditional scholarly formats even more than I did before: in 10,000 words, or 100,000, based on meticulous research over a period of years, the potential for insight and depth vastly exceeds the potential of a rushed, poorly researched blog post of 700 words. Therein lies a dilemma: how much time to devote to the long but relatively isolating intellectual quests that might yield a truly powerful contribution to knowledge, and how much time to devote to the kind of engagement that brings me into dialogue with a greater public? The answer must be some combination of both, but I haven’t gotten the proportions right yet.

In this vein I’ve been experimenting with different writing formats. This month is also an important one for me because Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) has released a working paper I co-wrote with Andrew Lebovich. The paper is entitled “A Handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 Crisis” (.pdf)* and it aims to be exactly that: a comprehensive guide to the events, actors, and institutions that have interacted in Mali over the past twenty-one months and more. I hope the Handbook will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Mali.

I also have another intention for it: I** want it to showcase how empty of empirical content so much writing about the Sahel is. Does the world need more reports that tell us about the “dangers of ungoverned spaces” in the Sahel and the “nexus of terrorism and trafficking” there, or some other tired phrase like that? I don’t think so. I think people need information they can sink their teeth into, and some way to contextualize it that goes beyond stock narratives.

This year I won’t be doing much blogging or traditional scholarship, so perhaps that will give me a chance to reflect on both media, as well as on what kinds of new analytical projects are becoming possible. I welcome readers’ suggestions.

I also welcome their contributions. Some guest writers may pass through here during the coming academic year. And in 2014, if I decide to resume this project, I will likely want to do so in a more expansive and ambitious way. If you have an interest in contributing here – and if you understand and agree with the point I’ve tried to make about recognizing other people’s dignity – then I urge you to contact me.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone for reading!

*The hyperlinks in the current version do not work, but ISITA plans to post an updated, corrected version next week.

**In this post I speak for myself alone.


10 thoughts on “Sahel Blog Goes Dark, at Least for a Time

  1. Congrats on all the wonderful achievements, Alex. I will miss this blog, and the valuable insight that came to define it, but very much look forward to reading your work going forward. Please keep us posted!

  2. Congratulations are in order. I hope you continue to work to make Northern Africa a place accessible and understandable to the people outside it.

  3. Congratulations on your PhD Dr. Thurston and also on your new job!

    I will very much miss this blog. Please do post if you have any more longish academic articles out there, would love to check those out.

    My husband, also an academic and a blogger, has the same dilemma as you: 700 words is often far too short to convey complex ideas to non- specialists. He has tried to whittle down to 2500 words, but often that is still far too short. However, if you do have an idea that you feel is important and is not being conveyed in the popular media, then blogging is a great way to start that ‘spark’. I have also encouraged my husband to use the blog as a kind of ‘supplemental data’ section to his bigger papers (i.e. provide a link to the little blog post). This is all still a work in progress, but believe me, you are not the only academic struggling with this ‘communication vs. attention span’ conundrum.

    You were always able to convey the humanity of the North African people very well, and that is probably what I enjoyed most about your blog, it was a mercy to all of us who are not recent African (I mean, we are ALL originally African, its just that some of our ancestors migrated away earlier than others’). I hope you will continue with much success and despite the snafus, continue with your goal of promoting understanding between people. Thank you.

  4. Alex – we have never communicated directly but I have followed your blog for the last couple of years and thoroughly enjoyed the insights that you provided; from my perspective you provided a great service.

    Congratulations on the Ph.D. and best of luck at the Council.


  5. Dr. Thurston,
    Many thanks for all the great work you’ve done on this blog and your other publications. I’ve made it a point to check in with your site on a daily basis, and will sorely miss your cogent insights and analysis. Let it be known that your work did in fact shape certain aspects on government policy, and I look forward to keeping abreast with your future work! Speaking of which, what specifically will you be doing at CFR?

    Cheers and best of luck with everything in the future!

  6. This is truly a disappointment! As someone that has lived, worked and loved this region – I have really enjoyed this blog and the nuanced discussions that it consistently provoked. The topics were always timely, interesting and insightful. Based on conversations with colleagues, I am surprised there aren’t 100 more comments here expressing the same notions. Good luck with your upcoming endeavors and I look forward to seeing what you come up with in the future.

    *P.S. Congratulations on graduating!

  7. Dear Alex,
    We will miss your blog, it gave us the opportunity to share with people in the NGO sector who were in lack of the better analysis, or with people who simply did not perceive context analysis as a priority. Hopefully we will be able to receive news by other media or gateways, still signed by you.
    Thank you a lot for the great job you did, and hopefully will do regarding this context were misfits in information are still too common.
    Brgds, kc

  8. Hello Alex same like above I really appreciated the analysis of your blog Well done for the Ph.D keep the pace and the faith my best regards Jean Christophe Servant

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