August
5th 2009
Part II: Does blogging hurt or help an academic career?

Posted under: jobs

In today’s installment of my conversation with GayProf from Center of Gravitas, we talk about the pitfalls of blogging and the risks it can pose to academic careers.  On the other hand:  can writing on a blog help one’s academic writing?  What’s the shelf-life of blog writing versus academic writing?  The audience we reach on our blogs is so much larger than the audience for our academic writing, and yet there’s no question but that the academy privileges academic writing above all (at least for now).  Please enjoy eavesdropping on us, and then chime in in the comments, if you have any other burning questions or timeless answers to share!

When last we left GayProf and Historiann in part I, they were discussing the fact that blogs appear to be rewarded more for the quantity of posts than for their quality.  Now, they’ll address some of the potential problems it can create in an academic career:

wwcloseupGayProf: For tenure-track academics, blogging can be a bad road.  While some argue that it keeps your mind active by writing regularly, it also takes up time that could be spent on other projects (Hello, Never Ending Research Project of Doom, or NERPoD for short).  Plus, excepting nasty trolls, the feedback is almost always so rosy and positive on blogs that you can start to think every idea you have is golden.  It’s because of the latter that many academics are probably comforted by it.  Most of our academic writing usually gets trashed by some of our closest friends two or three times before it makes it into print.  A blog seems friendly and nice because people most often only leave positive comments.

 For junior and associate professors, it can become an artificial place that might hinder their road to promotion. And, of course, there is also the potential to blur the line between professional/personal that can be a special danger for the untenured (trust me).  Aside from Wonder Woman, people still associate my blog with My Liar Ex (Who Told Many Lies) despite the fact that he hasn’t actually been a specific topic of conversation in years.  I suppose everybody loves a train wreck.

cowgirlkeyscloseupHistoriann:  Many people have asked me recently how my blogging affects my writing–as in, does it make it easier to write an academic article or book?  I have to say I don’t know–I’ve never suffered from writer’s block, nor have I ever had a problem getting something done for a deadline (or, well, reasonably close to a deadline.)  Do I write easily because I blog, or do I blog because I write easily?  I’d have to say I suspect it’s the latter, and not the former, although some of our blogging colleagues have used their blogs in the service of meeting their deadlines for academic writing.  (For example, several of the blogs I read participated in InaDWriMo, or International Dissertation Writing Month, last year.  Never mind that many were faculty members who presumably had already finished dissertations–the project inspired people to set and meet a writing goal, and they frequently blogged about their efforts.)

GP: Maybe one area where blogging could help academic writing is by cutting down on the verbage (overly long blog posts attract as many readers as yesterday’s still-paper newspaper).  Blogging  reminds us that writing is often about entertaining as much as informing.  I have several books sitting on my desk that are devoid of even a glimmer of entertainment.  Learning to write to actually please readers is not a small thing.

H: I worry a little about blogging as a hindrance, as you suggested above, since I’m now among the Associate Professors, many of whom are famously “stalled” on the way to promotion by service obligations or other non-research professional activities.  It’s fun to get comments from people who tell us how incredibly smart and insightful we are!  (It’s even fun to engage with someone who disagrees with us but has taken our ideas seriously.)  And that it all happens in “real time,” not in book- or article-time, in which one waits (sometimes in vain!) for months or years to get reviewed or cited in someone else’s footnotes, is very seductive.  So far it seems like I’m about as productive as I was in my academic writing before I started my blog.  (I’m neither super-productive nor marginally productive–I’m probably at the top of the middle lump of the bell curve, and always have been.)  If I began to fear that my research productivity was hurt by my blog, I’d cut it off or scale it back, because while the blogging is fun, being a productive historian of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is my work and is more fundamental to my identity than “Historiann.”

GP: It sounds like we are coming to the not-very-interesting conclusion that it’s all about moderation.  If you are using a blog for a quick laugh, try out new ideas, or to build a sense of community, then it’s golden. If, though, all of your time and energy goes into thinking about ways to make your blog as popular as a free $100 bill, tenure or promotion might elude you forever.

H: That’s right.  Moderation is the key, which makes us sound pretty boring and middle-class!  But it’s true:  if an academic finds hirself spending more time on hir blog (or doing anything else, I suppose) than on hir teaching and academic writing, maybe it’s time to consider a major change in career.

What’s the half-life of a blog, compared to our academic writing? We like to think of books as having a decent shelf life-one that might outlast us or even get “rediscovered” 50 or 100 years later and hailed as a brilliant tome ahead of its time-but most academic books get stale pretty quickly.  Whereas some blogs are more famous in death than in life, like the great Media Whores Online (a.k.a. “The Horse”) or Invisible Adjunct .  And, if I may paraphrase Rick in the movie Casablanca, “we’ll always have servers,” so people can browse around and reminisce fondly in our archives…

GP: Wait –  You think people actually read the archives of blogs?   I think most readers think of a blog as being only as good as its most recent post.  This is why people are tempted into the newsfeed model.

cowgirlkeyscloseupH:  You’d be surprised.  (Well, I actually think you’re being sarcastic, but never mind.)  I think my top post of all time is a little one-off I did commenting on all of the women athletes at the 2008 Bejing Olympics who were identified not as “mothers,” but as “moms,” and why it is that motherhood is seen as essentially incompatible with athletic performance.  I think that’s the post that comes up when people Google (and they do!) “hot 40-year old women” or “hot women athletes.”  (It’s times like this when I realize how very differently I use the world-wide non peer-reviewed internets compared to the rest of the world.)  That happens at least 30 times a week.  And while I’m glad for the clicks-well, sometimes I guess I’d prefer not to know what brings people my way.  TMI, you know?

And speaking of TMI:  if we keep on like this much longer, we’ll have given away all of our super bloggy secrets that make us such awesome bloggers!  Happy trails, GayProf–I hope to see you again soon.  (And sorry about the mess my horses made over at your place yesterday.  Glory, Domino, and Seminar need to learn some company manners!)

wwcloseupGP: Great Hera!  Thanks for spending time at CoG and welcoming me into the world of HistoriAnn.

23 Comments »

23 Responses to “Part II: Does blogging hurt or help an academic career?”

  1. GayProf and Historiann tell all! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 05 Aug 2009 at 6:29 am #

    [...] Howdy, friends!  Today’s post is just to announce that GayProf from Center of Gravitas and I have initiated a conversation about blogging the academic life over at his place today.  Go read and jump into the conversation over there!    Tomorrow, I’ll have the keys to the wagon, so I’ll take the show on the road and drive it out West to Historiann.com.  (Part II is available here.) [...]

  2. Erica on 05 Aug 2009 at 7:59 am #

    I like the question about whether you are can blog easily because you can write easily, or vice versa — rather a chicken and egg question, isn’t it?

    I’d be intrigued by the idea of helping improve students’ writing skills by encouraging them to blog. One problem with engineers and other science-oriented fields in particular is that frankly, we don’t expect to need to communicate well — we are expected to understand the potential failures and strengths of whatever widget we design, not eloquently proclaim its virtues to the world. (That’s what the Sales department is for.) Partly for that reason, an ability to write or speak is very highly valued when it is found in an engineer; you do need to be able to concisely but clearly explain your engineering choices to a boss, a co-worker, a subordinate, a customer, even though engineering school taught you it was all about the math and language skills were for English majors.

    This summer I took a seminar in which students read journal articles and wrote brief responses to them. Since it was taught by my advisor and I’m a grad student, he was sharing many of the seniors’ responses with me; when they were given an opportunity to explore concepts, and realized there’s no “right” answer (opinions are rarely encouraged in engineering problems, it’s an unusual situation!), their writing improved, dramatically in some cases. I wonder if one could similarly improve skills by giving them basically free rein to write about whatever they were interested in (limiting it to an academic topic, perhaps, to avoid “omg lol did u see Heroes last night wtf!” blogs). I’ll have to suggest that for next year’s seminar :D

  3. James Stripes on 05 Aug 2009 at 8:53 am #

    Enjoyed this post and yesterday’s at Center of Gravitas. I started to post a reply concerning blog archives, but the reply grew too long, and disseminated into other issues, so I posted it elsewhere–my own blog.

    Thanks for letting us listen in on this fascinating conversation.

  4. Gavin on 05 Aug 2009 at 10:24 am #

    Blogging has really helped my writing. When I was a student I hated writing and often found it difficult to motivate myself to write essays. Although I loved doing the research for my PhD, writing it up was torture. That was one of the things that put me off being a historian and sent me on a five year career break. When I decided to make a comeback in 2006 history blogs were among the exciting new things that I discovered and it didn’t take long before I decided to start my own. It was an unusual feeling to actually enjoy writing, and to get encouraging feedback straight away. I can see how positive comments might make us complacent, but as an unemployed independent researcher I think I really needed them to stop me from feeling like such an outsider.

    My blog has been really useful for exploring different topics and different approaches to history, and I’ve got even more different perspectives from reading and interacting with other blogs. For example, I’ve learnt far more about feminism from blogs than I have from books. My approach to writing has completely changed – I now write little and often, which works really well for me. Even the thought of writing a book doesn’t scare me any more. Also my style has become more direct and succinct, I’m more confident with writing about less familiar things, and I focus more on ideas than on detailed evidence. I’ve written papers that I wouldn’t have been able to write before.

    It remains to be seen what will happen in the long term. In terms of job applications it doesn’t seem to have made much difference whether I mention the blog on my CV or not, but the sort of jobs I go for (and the one I’ve got now) are all about skills rather than traditional academic stuff. Maybe things will change when I’m ready to start chasing research fellowships.

  5. GayProf on 05 Aug 2009 at 10:31 am #

    Erica: I am actually going to be experimenting with allowing students to create web pages for one of my classes this fall. The theory is that it will allow them to exercise both sides of their brain by being creative as they assess an intellectual problem.

    James: Glad to hear that our musings prompted more serious thinking elsewhere. Alas, though, beyond those searching for pictures of Gil Gerard, nobody ever clicks through my rather ample archive. And, you know, some of that stuff is pretty darn good.

    Gavin: I didn’t mean to discount the benefits of the positive feedback from blogs. I think that academic feedback is often too negative and discouraging. As you point out, blogging can give writers more confidence to write in other formats.

  6. Feminist Avatar on 05 Aug 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    I think if you are writing the right things you often get quite critical (in the sense of engaged and challenging) feedback on blogs- and certainly I am happy to leave engaged commentary on blogs that make interesting points. I agree with Gavin that some of the best discussions on the place of modern feminism and its nuances are happening in the blogosphere – and not in academia. And, you can have quite high level debates in almost real time if you are in the right place.

    I like blogging for working out ideas- so often I will apply concepts I am thinking about in a historical context to a contemporary event for a blog piece- which actually helps me rethink and work through my ideas. In this way, my blogging is actually quite closely tied to my research- although not always in obvious ways.

  7. Flavia on 05 Aug 2009 at 3:57 pm #

    Like the two of you, I’m not sure blogging has really changed my academic writing, either positively or negatively; I don’t see the two as being particularly related.

    But I *do* think blogging has helped my career in a couple of ways related to the creation of community (which you guys talked about yesterday, over at GayProf’s) — first, it’s been a really useful sounding-board for pedagogical or professional stuff (e.g., how to contact a senior scholar for a recommendation letter, or how to bring a class back from the brink.

    Second, it’s been a good networking tool. I didn’t intend or expect that, but I’ve met a LOT of Renaissance scholars through my blog. I consider the people I’ve met through my blogs to be friends (or at least usually!) rather than useful contacts, but the fact is that it IS useful to have friends. . . and I have way more of them, at an earlier stage of my career, than I’m sure I would have otherwise.

  8. Dr. Crazy on 05 Aug 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    I’m inclined to say that the experience for me has been far more positive than negative, but I also don’t think it actually has “helped” my career in a direct way, if that makes sense. In other words, I’d never say that blogging is going to have any positive effect on how much one publishes, whether one gets a job, etc. I will say, though, that it gives one a wider audience than one would otherwise encounter, and typically that audience is very generous with feedback and advice and even just engaged conversation. With that being the case, blogging can make one’s career trajectory more comfortable, even if it doesn’t actually do one any measurable or concrete good in terms of career advancement.

    I’ve been doing some of my own thinking about blogging that touches on a lot of what you and GP are discussing. I’ll do a post over there and link to you guys.

  9. GayProf on 05 Aug 2009 at 4:47 pm #

    Feminist Avatar: I agree — Much of the published work in academia is surprisingly traditional (due, in part, to some gatekeeping that is likely happening behind the scenes). Blogging allows more voices and more discussion.

    Flavia: Meeting new people has been one of the best elements of the blog for me (even if I have also had to sort through a couple of loonies). It is has been a good bonus.

    Dr. Crazy: It seems to me that if our ideas don’t fly with a blogging audience, then we should rethink them. In some ways, it’s easier to convince other academics in our narrow field than engage a much wider audience.

  10. undine on 05 Aug 2009 at 5:37 pm #

    I think there are two parts to the “has it helped your career?” question. For bloggers who are named, who form communities in that way (see Flavia’s comment) or who blog about their subject matter, which is another way of pointing toward IRL identity, the question is going to be whether being known as a blogger is beneficial. The discipline-based readers at those blogs help to form a community.

    For those who don’t blog about their subject matter because they want to separate their IRL identities from their blogs, the “helping your career” point has to do almost exclusively with writing: has it helped your writing? Do you write better/more fluently/more prolifically because of your blog?

  11. Dr. No on 05 Aug 2009 at 6:51 pm #

    Great discussion Historiann and Gayprof, I hadn’t thought too much about these issues before…Blogging has made my “work” writing come easier simply by providing an outlet (one that allows me to write how I think as opposed to how a journal and my discipline wants me to).

  12. Historiann on 06 Aug 2009 at 7:18 am #

    Thanks, everyone, for carrying on the conversation while I was away from the internets yesterday, and thanks especially to GayProf for serving as such an affable host yesterday and today. I’ll be posting some of the linky goodness this conversation generated later today. I think the issues you raise–the benefits of blogging as priming the pump for academic writing, and the differences between blogging your subject field or not that undine mentions, are really interesting.

    Feminist Avatar’s point about the interesting conversations about feminism happening on-line rather than academia is a really profound one. Ze crystallizes stuff I’ve been thinking for the last few years without having really articulated it clearly myself. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in college and grad school, academic feminism was generating a lot of important insights, but it seems like it just kind of died by the mid- or late 1990s. What happened? My sense is that it is a generational thing, and the women my age or younger who are interested in those conversations aren’t affiliated with academia and/or see the on-line world as a more fruitful place to build communities.

  13. Roxie on 06 Aug 2009 at 11:26 am #

    Fascinating discussion. Thanks to Historiann and GayProf for getting it started. As you might imagine, we have a slightly different take on blogging and academic careers over at America’s favorite dog blog devoted to politics, pop culture, and basketball, but the difference might surprise you. Our quirky little corner of the blogosphere got set up on a whim, because my typist got tired of people saying to her, “You really ought to have a blog, you know.” She wasn’t even sure what they meant by that, but the whim quickly turned into an obsession as she discovered the deep pleasures of thinking, writing, and playing (serious, intellectual playing) in the blogosphere.

    Interestingly, though we write only occasionally on academic and professional issues, my typist has begun to claim blogging as a part of her official, professional life. In the past year and a half, she’s given a series of lectures and conference papers on blogging and has begun to see her work much more within the context of digital humanities. Unlike others who have weighed in here, she has also listed her blog on her CV, under a new (for her) category, “Creative Nonfiction.” She’s not sure how the salary committee evaluated that part of her portfolio, but there’s no merit money right now anyway, so who cares? She’s got the year off this year and plans to devote it to writing a book on blogging, which she sincerely hope Historiann’s legions of loyal readers will buy! ;-)

    Sorry for the long comment. I probably should have turned this into a post over at my place, too, but my typist is supposed to be doing other things today. Per usual, she has succumbed to the lure of the blogosphere. Here’s to work, play, and intellectual community online!

  14. Feminist Avatar on 06 Aug 2009 at 11:40 am #

    As a historian whose work has a distinctly feminist bent, I know that whenever I use the word ‘patriarchy’ in an article I always get pulled up for it on review. I either have to then give a LONG explanation/justification [definition is not enough] for using it- which becomes tiresome- or I take it out and use something like ‘power’ and hey presto everybody is happy. It is in fact suprisingly hard to contribute to feminist discussions (at least within history) in an explicit way.

  15. The History Enthusiast on 06 Aug 2009 at 12:50 pm #

    Thanks once again for the insightful posts. Since I’m a grad student there has never been any expectation for me that this could help my career; I’ve only ever felt self-conscious when people discover my identity IRL because I am so fearful that my advisor or someone else (like my nemesis) will read it and mock me. Yes, it has helped me grow as a person, but there hasn’t really been a connection between how that might improve my career per se. Surely personal growth can’t hurt my career, but it also isn’t explicitly related to my career. This may not make sense, but I’m trying to sort this out and am not expressing it all too well.

    What I mean to say is that blogging is a diversion and it gives me a sense of belonging. Although if I were to start a new blog under my real name, and address research and teaching in more detail than I can under a pseudonym, perhaps that might indeed improve my writing. Just have to see.

  16. Historiann on 06 Aug 2009 at 2:21 pm #

    Feminist Avatar: I suspect that your work is being sent to non-feminist historians and/or antifeminist historians, although I’ve seen some feminist pushback on the word “patriarchy” from feminists too. My hope is that Judith Bennett’s use of the term in her recent book will provide people like you with ballast for using the term.

    Academic feminists backed away from “patriarchy” when it became a buzzword used by non-academic feminists, who frequently used it in lazy and non-descriptive ways (although not in all cases.) I’ve never seen a scholar use that term in a lazy fashion–most of the people who use it (like you) have a darn good reason for it.

    THE, thanks for your thoughts. I think you and other grad students should see blogs as a tool for community-building AND career-building. If you’re a thoughtful commenter on other people’s blogs and a gracious host at yours, how would that be a bad thing for you? (I think everyone–grad students, junior scholars, adjuncts, and senior faculty alike) should consider how behaving in the reverse (being a jerk on other people’s blogs and writing an obnoxious blog) will work in their lives and careers, too. I’ve observed recently that if someone’s a jerk, not only do I not want them commenting on my blog, but I also think that most scholars wouldn’t want them as colleagues.

  17. Historiann on 06 Aug 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    Oh, and Roxie: great idea to write about blogging! I can’t wait to read it–maybe GayProf and I will do a conversational review/discussion of the book on our blogs.

    I’m sure that many of my readers, especially those with their own blogs, will be interested to read what you come up with.

  18. Feminist Avatar on 06 Aug 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    Yes, I think you’re right. And, I suspect it is because I work on a small country where women’s history is relatively ‘emerging’ and so I get sent to male historians who work on the same period and social group as I do, but of course they are doing very different things with the sources. I aspire to write a fabulous article for Signs where I will use the word patriarchy with flagrant abuse! ;)

  19. Historiann on 06 Aug 2009 at 2:48 pm #

    That’s the spirit, F.A.! I love it.

  20. Blogging the academic life: wrap-up and linky goodness : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 06 Aug 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    [...] on to the business at hand–the conversations about blogging the academic life that GayProf and I hosted over the past few days have inspired some interesting commentary on other blogs, so I thought I’d pass along some [...]

  21. The Technological Tools of our Trade « The Floating Academy on 06 Aug 2009 at 3:28 pm #

    [...] some of my favorite seasoned academic bloggers currently taking place at Center of Gravitas, Historiann and Reassigned Time. These bloggers, and their commenters, have raised important questions about [...]

  22. Z on 07 Aug 2009 at 4:22 pm #

    What about helping your career by helping your being?

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