Red pen on paper with corrections

Thoughts on academic blogging, again

After publishing my last post on academic blogging, I was asked for permission to have it republished in the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog. I was happy and honoured by the request, but I felt that the content and layout of the post could be improved upon, before being made available to a very wide readership. So what follows is an improved version, which has been reposted here

Normally, whenever I feel the need to improve something that I have written online, I do so directly onto the original post. I am making an exception in this case, in order to demonstrate a point. In this post (and its previous version), I state that blogging helps me to refine and structure my thinking. A comparison of the early and ‘refined’ versions of this post should help to substantiate this claim.


I am a relatively recent newcomer to academic blogging, having started my blog in January 2012 (although I do have a personal blog which goes back to September 2006). Recently, I crossed the 30,000 views landmark, which is perhaps a modest number, but enough to make me feel proud enough to write the following post. What follows is by no means intended as an authoritative guide to academic blogging, for which I might invite you to read Simon Wren-Lewis’ excellent Advice for potential academic bloggers. Rather, it is simply my personal take on a number of straightforward questions people tend to ask me when they hear that I run a blog.

Why blog?

In view of several unfortunate incidents involving academic bloggers [e.g, 12], one might be forgiven for wondering what value there is in blogging that warrants risking one’s reputation. Some bloggers have found that a regular writing regime helps them to structure their thinking and to encourage their creativity. Others have noted that a blog is a suitable environment for ideas that are not quite ready for publication, or for ideas that are, for one reason or another, hard to publish. All of the above statements are true in my experience, and I would be lying if I said that the attention my blog attracts does not flatter the narcissistic aspects of my personality as well.

These instrumental motivations aside, I think that what keeps me blogging boils down to three considerations:

  • First, it helps me to participate in debates about topics which, to me at least, are of certain consequence. Some of these exchanges may take place in my blog, but these days they will often extend to social media, such as Twitter or LinkedIn, and specialised academic fora, such as ResearchGate and academia.edu, where readers record reactions to what I have written, point out useful information, and generally help me to clarify my own thinking by engaging with my writing.
  • Secondly, blogging helps me to share knowledge and experience, which I hope may be of use to others. Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson have put this in better terms than I can aspire to. In their words: “We see [blogging] as a kind of scholarly ‘gift economy’ in which online mentoring, peer support and information sharing is the norm” (2013: 1115).
  • Thirdly, it is important to me that the blog posts can reach a wide audience, which includes both the professional community we serve and the ‘educated public’, uninhibited by corporate pay-walls or the constraints of academic language. I make no claim that what I have to say is worthy of a wide audience, of which it is deprived by the conventions of academic publishing. However, I will put forward that the inherent openness and equality of blogs is fundamentally more democratic than other forms of scholarly debate and public engagement

What can one blog about?

Mewburn and Thomson (2013) list nine functions served by academic blogs, namely: (i) self-help, (ii) descriptions of academic practices, (iii) offering technical advice, (iv) critiquing academic culture, (v) disseminating research, (vi) offering career advice, (vii) recording personal reflections, (viii) sharing information (e.g., about calls for papers or job vacancies), and (ix) offering teaching advice. What this typology highlights, I think, is the diversity of ways in which a blog can be useful. Practically, it would be unsound for a blog to try and cater to all these needs.

When it comes to deciding about your blog’s content, there are two considerations to keep in mind: focus and credibility. A blog that focuses on a specific niche is more likely to attract a strong audience among the people interested in that particular topic. Over time, a blog can become the primary point of reference for that type of information. Retraction Watch, which publishes news on retracted journal articles and the controversies surrounding them, and Scholarly Open Access (a.k.a. Beall’s List), which reports on predatory journals, are good examples of very successful blogs that address very specific information needs.

It is sometimes easier to think of focus in terms of a target reader, rather than a topic area. At least this is what I did with my blog, in which much content is geared towards the needs of MA students and starting PhDs in Applied Linguistics. To that end, I blog about topical issues in foreign language education, offer advice on research methods and academic writing, and share information about upcoming conferences and publications. In addition to such ‘technical’ information, I try to post content that might help beginning scholars to immerse themselves in the broader debates surrounding academic life.

With regard to credibility, it is important to realise that blogs exist in a dense ecosystem of information, which can make it hard for them to thrive. There are techniques for publicising one’s content, but ultimately, for this content is to have any impact, readers need to be convinced that the information in one’s blog can be trusted. I would not advocate blogging exclusively about one’s field of research expertise (see below), and academic credentials are neither sufficient nor necessary for building credibility. However, it’s often easier to write with authority on the topics about which one cares, and about which one does have specialist knowledge.

One of the advantages of blogging, compared to more traditional forms of scholarly communication, is that it is well suited to relating one’s specialist knowledge to the needs of the world outside the Ivory Tower. Alex Marsh, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol, who specialises in housing, remarks that:

…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. […] 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.

Sometimes blogs can become “overtly political and resistant acts”. Whether or not one wants to assume such a role of public intellectual is, ultimately, a personal choice. However, for those who feel that public engagement is part of their professional identity, blogging can be a powerful medium.

So, to return to back to the original question (What might one blog about?) I guess the answer depends on the reason why you are blogging, and on what –in your opinion- might make a difference for your target audience.

How long does it take to blog?

There are three kinds of costs in time associated with blogging: (a) setting up the blog, (b) creating content, and (c) engaging with the readership.

Despite what one might think, setting up a blog is the easiest of these tasks. If one uses a hosting service, many of the technical aspects of blogging, such as finding hosting space, reserving a domain name, and choosing a functional and aesthetically pleasing template can be dealt with in just a few mouse-clicks. This comparison chart, which compares various blogging platforms can help you decide which is more suitable to your needs. Running a self-hosted blog, or a blog hosted by one’s institution, which offers greater flexibility, is technically more complicated, but not prohibitively so. The actual time requirements associated with setting up a blog will depend on one’s willingness to explore various templates and functional configurations, as well as one’s technical expertise, but for all it’s worth, it took me a single evening to set up mine, followed by a few more half-hour sessions tweaking its layout and colour scheme.

Regarding content creation, the time needed depends on how regularly the blog is updated, and what kind of content one creates. At my busiest, I tried to upload three to 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 another one during which I wrote several smaller pieces, such as calls for papers, summaries of articles I had recently read and so on. I usually did this over the weekend, and then scheduled the posts to appear at set times throughout the coming week, which meant that I didn’t have to work on the blog daily.

Engaging with readers involves monitoring social media for reactions to what I have written, and responding to any comments there or in the blog. For me, this rarely requires more than 10-15 minutes per day, although I may on occasion spend more time to reply to some particularly interesting comment.

Does this all impact my academic productivity? I think that is a somewhat misleading question, because it assumes that any time I spend on the blog would be spent producing publishable output. In fact, I stuck to the principle of working on my blog during my own time, when I could perhaps be watching television, working out or browsing the internet. I will concede that I was less productive academically when I was most engaged with the blog (which is, in part, why I have now slowed down on content production), but I think that this was due to the blog taking over ‘writing’ time. Rather, the blog seemed to provide a creative outlet when I was, for whatever reason, unable to write for publication. That said, I think that much of the effort I put in the blog did feed back in my academic work and teaching, so in a sense it may have increased my productivity.

Are there any pitfalls to avoid?

It should, by now, be clear that I have strong positive feelings about academic blogging, but that does not mean that bloggers (and especially Early Career Researchers) should not exercise due care, as in all forms of public speaking. In what follows, I will ignore the obvious risks associated with libel law, or the non-trivial consequences of speaking truth to power, as I assume that readers are aware with the implications of making comments in public. Instead, I will focus on potential ways in which perceptions about blogging, and the actual content of the blog might prove detrimental to bloggers.

Although many universities nowadays encourage academics to blog, others are somewhat more cautious (e.g., 1 2), so it is probably best to check with one’s employers’ social media policy before embarking on a blogging project. 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 organisations with which you are affiliated. Some academics also frown upon blogging, which they feel to be ‘self-aggrandising’ behaviour. As one academic found out the hard way: “The take was that it was not academic, that it was quite populist and that was a problem (…) that if I had time to do extra work then I should be writing grant applications”. Others might feel intimidated by the suspicion that you “might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see”. It is, however, encouraging that such views appear to be on the decline.

Complications relating to content are more serious, and mostly relate to the fact that once posted, the content is no longer in one’s control, and may be used by anyone, including people with whose practices and agendas academics are always not accustomed to dealing. Sometimes content will be plagiarised, or it may be misquoted in media with large readerships. It may even be reproduced accurately and with proper attribution by entities with which you may not wish to associated, thus creating an impression that you publish with them and endorse their activities. Though I might endeavour to create a comprehensive list of unpleasant eventualities, the impact of online content is simply unpredictable, as one blogger found out when he transcribed a impromptu comment made by Slavoj Zizek at an academic conference, only to find himself unwillingly involved in a squabble between the Slovenian philosopher and Noam Chomsky.

It is equally possible, and probably more distressing, that publicly made comments might attract unwanted attention by internet activists, or by trolls, which could potentially spread into real life as well. Having spent parts of my early career in secondary education, I am perhaps not very sensitive to nasty comments being made about me, but TV presenter and academic Mary Beard, who recently became the target of online abuse, has commented that “it would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate, especially as all of this comes up on Google”. This is by no means a risk limited to blogging: Mary Beard’s unfortunate experience was the aftermath of an appearance on television, and other academics have found themselves in vulnerable situations after writing for the traditional media, but the immediacy of online communication could mean that these dynamics are amplified when it comes to blogging.

There is a risk that such warnings could put people off blogging, which is why I feel it is important to put them into perspective. In my experience, and that of many people I know, blogging has consistently proved to be an intellectually stimulating and enjoyable experience. I have not found it to be any more problematic than other ways of participating in public debate. I understand these are not risks which everyone is willing to take, but for me, at least, readiness to make a stand on topics about which I cares, and about which I can confidently make an informed contribution is an important part of my academic identity.

 


Image credit: Jenny Kaczorowski @ Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on academic blogging, again”

  1. Your thoughts on academic blogging are so precise and clear.

    It seems as if you’re opening academic doors to a wider public, and that’s exactly what we need.

    I say enough false dichotomies between natural creativity and artificially imposed top-down versions of the same.

    This frees academics from stifling intellectual restraints and also encourages the public readership to think more critically:))

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