Man typing on computer keyboard

Thoughts on academic blogging

This post has been prompted by a small personal landmark. Earlier today, this blog passed the 30,000 views mark, after about 30 months of operation. Of course, the views are not evenly distributed: for more than a year after it was created, this webspace operated mostly as an online CV/academic homepage, and the blog section was only infrequently updated. Nowadays, the blog receives between 100 and 150 views per day, which is perhaps a modest number, but enough to make me feel rather proud.

I guess that one way to commemorate this landmark is to share some thoughts about the experience of running a blog. This is by no means an authoritative guide to academic blogging, for which I might refer you to Simon Wren-Lewis’ excellent Advice for potential academic bloggers. Rather, what follows is just my personal take on a number of straightforward questions about running a blog.

Why blog?

In view of several unfortunate incidents involving academic bloggers [e.g, 1, 2], one might be forgiven for wondering what value there is in blogging which warrants risking one’s reputation. Some bloggers have found that a regular writing programme helps them structure their thinking and to encourage their creativity. Both statements are true in my experience, and I would be lying if I said that the attention my blog attracts does not flatter my ego as well. But I think that what mostly motivates me to write is the potential of blog posts to reach a wide audience uninhibited by corporate pay-walls or the constraints of academic language. Put differently, it’s the fulfilling idea that I am doing something which, for some people at least, is useful.

What should I blog about?

When it comes to deciding about your blog’s content, there are two considerations to keep in mind: focus and credibility. A blog focused on a specific niche is more likely to attract a strong audience among the people interested in that particular topic. In addition, it’s easier to write with authority about the topics one specialises in.

My own strategy for developing the focus of this blog has been to think of myself as an MA student and to write the kind of information I would have liked to have available back then. This includes substantive content about English Language Teaching and Research Methods. It also includes information about academic writing, and about upcoming conferences and publications. In addition, I try to post content that might help a beginning scholar to immerse themselves in the broader debates surrounding the academy.

That said, there is a danger of focussing too narrowly on one’s specific niche, and losing sight of issues that might be more broadly relevant.  Alex Marsh, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol, who specialises in housing, summarises this concern as follows:

But if I only blogged about housing then my posts would be relatively few and far between. And I rarely report directly on research – either my own or that of others. More frequently I write op-ed commentary. Is that “academic blogging”? And, if I’m honest, sticking to housing would rather defeat the object of setting up the blog in the first place. I wanted a place to talk about whatever was on my mind. So I also blog about closely related issues such as the welfare state and rights, social security and welfare reform, and land use planning.

Going back to the original question: What should I blog about? I guess the answer is, anything that will make a difference to your target audience.

Is it difficult to set up a blog?

Not really. Hosting companies such as WordPress, which hosts this blog, have streamlined the process more than you’d think. For instance, they provide ready-made templates which you can use, and many of the technical aspects of blogging, such as hosting, reserving a domain name etc. can be dealt with in just a few mouse-clicks. I will concede that there is a certain learning curve involved in using their platforms, but it’s not much harder than, say, getting used to the interface of a new word-processing programme.

How long does it take to blog?

This depends on how regularly you update your blog, and what kind of content you create. At my busiest, between this January and March, I tried to upload five new posts per week, which meant that I had to spend between three and five hours researching, writing and revising. I tended to do this in two blocks of time per week: one for a ‘commentary’ post, which often involved lots of research and several revisions, and during which I wrote several smaller pieces such as calls for papers, summaries of articles I had recently read and so on. I then scheduled them to appear at set times throughout the week.

Did this impact my academic productivity? To be honest, I think that it did to some extent, and this is why I no longer produce as much content now. But, I also think that much of the reading that went into the production of posts such as this one or this one, did feed back into my academic work and my teaching. On other occasions, I used the blog to post content that I had already created for other purposes: this post, for example, is based on an email reply to one of my students. So I guess that the question is not whether a blog takes time, but rather whether it takes up time additional to what one already does – in that case, the answer is: not much, really.

 How can I increase readership?

As I never really used an active readership-recruitment strategy, so I am perhaps not very well qualified to answer this question. Some answers can be found in this article, but I cannot vouch for their effectiveness, and I would certainly advise you not to expect fast results. Creating good content is, obviously, the most important step, and using consistent tagging and Search Engine Optimisation are also important (speaking of which, don’t even think of paying any of the ‘SEO’ experts who approach you. Here’s why). Activating Google+ authorship also seems useful, as it appears that Google is likelier to rank your content higher, especially if you consistently produce quality content.

It is important to view a blog as just one part of one’s online presence, which will likely include profiles on services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+. I have tended to use these services actively in order to interact with interesting people, and I feel that these connections have had some impact on the reach of my blog. Avoid using these services as repositories where you can just post links to your content, though. Their value, in my opinion, is in the connections they help you to make, rather than promoting the visibility of the blog as such.

Are there any pitfalls to avoid?

Although many universities encourage academics to blog, others are somewhat more cautious, so you may want to check with your employers’ policy before starting. It is often a good idea to explicitly state that the views expressed in your blog are personal and do not reflect the views of the organizations with which you are affiliated. Some academics also frown upon blogging, which they feel to be ‘self-aggrandising’ behaviour, although such views seem to be on the decline. It has also been suggested that Early Career Researchers, in particular, should be wary of the career risks inherent in public engagement.

Does all this mean that blogging is likely to get you in trouble? In my opinion, it’s no more controversial than making any public statement on topics about which you care, and about which you can make an informed contribution. For me, at least, that’s part of what it means to be an academic.


Image Credit: adikos @ Flickr |  CC BY.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s