Over the past few weeks I’ve been party to several conversations about blogging, its role in the field of history, and in academia in general. What is the point? some people ask. Why would anyone do this? Blogging invites trolls; it doesn’t help anyone get tenure; it’s a ton of work. Yes, yes. All of these things are true. It is also true that writing a blog can be really useful for academics: it helps you sell books; it helps you network with other scholars (especially useful for graduate students); it helps you establish an “author platform.”

But in thinking about these questions – and after consulting with fellow historian bloggers Karen Cox, Kevin Levin, and Brooks Simpson – I’d like to point out several ways in which blogs are great not just for individuals, but for academia — and academic publishing, in particular.

1. Experimenting with form and tone

I’ve written before about changing up your writing by trying out new approaches and new fonts – these are strategies one can use while writing in any genre: journal articles, conference papers, dissertations, and books. But blogs are uniquely suited to pushing academic writing beyond traditional approaches and structures. The typical journal article (or book chapter) in the humanities looks like this:

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  • The hook: pleasing anecdote, with atmospherics
  • The argument
  • The intervention: while others have studied this topic they have ignored this incredibly prescient point I am about to make about it
  • The finely tuned paragraphs, each with a topic sentence and two or three pieces of quoted evidence and analysis
  • The conclusion: one more pleasing anecdote, and a grand statement: Finis!

Blog posts, on the other hand, allow for more free-form composition.

You can engage with a debate or a topic that’s “on your mind,” says Brooks Simpson, but does not demand weeks in the archive or extended analysis. This changes the structural possibilities of the piece.

Blogs also enable you to link together words and images. Not all posts demand the inclusion of pictures of kittens with laptops (Because kittens!). But as Karen Cox notes, “being able to incorporate historic photos, maps, and even film clips is part of the engagement with the audience.” Choosing images is an analytical process, and one that can often change the way that you think about your subject.

From post to post, you can experiment with tone and style. Usually, there is only room for the Voice of High Seriousness in traditional academic publishing. On Historista, however, I have the freedom to experiment with a range of voices: serious, jocular, and satirical — all of which are useful and engaging approaches to criticism. Perhaps blogs can push journals and presses to publish pieces that are more innovative in their voice and style.

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2. LOLz.

Academics could also stand to lighten up a little. We tend to take ourselves way too seriously because we want others to take our ideas seriously.

Readers (both academic and non-academic) want to get to know a scholar as a real person. As Kevin Levin says, “the most popular blogs to me are those where the author’s personality comes through.” Academics can convey their personalities in a number of ways, including humor and the cultivation of a more personal writing voice. This enables connections between scholars and readers, which can, in turn, increase readership of print articles and books.

3. Community Creation

And speaking of connections, this is another way that blogs can push academia forward. Facebook and other social media sites have done much to expand and enable academic communities but for the most part, academics still socialize primarily at annual conferences (read: conference hotel bars).

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But conferences don’t capture everyone and as Kevin notes, “there is a social aspect to blogging.” Because of their platform, blogs can create much larger social/reading communities than conferences, journals, or author events at libraries or bookstores.

This is because blogs are free to access — an important consideration — and can go viral (or, academically viral, which admittedly is not Kim Kardashian-level viral) through other forms of social media sharing like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Also, because you can include hyperlinks in posts, you create your own community of writers in every post, both print (via JSTOR, university press websites, etc.) and virtual. For Karen, this is most significant because it “allows you to showcase the work of other scholars”: books, articles, digital history projects. Bloggers can also do this by integrating different formats like interviews (Karen does this with a regular feature called “Porch Talk”), in coordination with book launches or journal publications.

4. Debates and Discussion in Real Time

Which brings us to perhaps the most important way that blogging is great for academia. Let us review the publishing schedule for most scholars, taking journal articles as an example:

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  1. Research an article.
  2. Write an article.
  3. Edit the article.
  4. Fret.
  5. Send article to trusted friends for feedback.
  6. Edit the article one last time.
  7. Write email to journal editor and attach article. Don’t press send.
  8. Fret.
  9. Press send.
  10. Wait six months (at least) for readers to get reports back to editors.
  11. “Revise and Resubmit.”
  12. Fret.
  13. Revise and Resubmit.
  14. Wait six months (at least) for readers to get reports back to editors.
  15. If “no”: go back to step 3 and start over.
  16. If “yes”: wait for copyedits.
  17. Wait for page proofs.
  18. Announce article publication on Facebook.
  19. Fret.
  20. Go to annual conference at which a colleague you respect says, “Hey, I read your article!” and then saunters off to the hotel bar.
  21. Fret.

Time elapsed: 3 years (at least).

This process, as everyone knows, is completely insane. Because it takes so long, scholars are hyper-vigilant about protecting their ideas, lest they be stolen during these long delays. And book reviews? Don’t even get me started. Waiting for two years for scholars to comment on your work (unless you should be so lucky as to be taken up by the New York Times Book Review or so much) is ridiculous.

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Blogs allow research and writing to reach readers much more quickly, and they allow scholars to engage in debates (historiographical, methodological) before those debates are rendered stale and outdated.

There are real dangers with “real time,” of course. You can become obsessed with your site stats, and begin to think more about numbers of views than about the quality of the content. You can dash off witty but misleading titles. You can press “publish” before really thinking things through.

Most bloggers have had “morning after” regrets along these lines, and you must be responsible and own your own words. But at least you can also acknowledge and fix these mistakes, often as quickly as you made them. And accountability, like pressing “publish,” is almost instantaneous on the internet. In the end, the benefits of real time writing far outweigh the risks.

Blogs and bloggers can act as catalysts to all kinds of useful changes in academia: writing, publishing, conference going, friendship building, teaching. And they can only help academics do what they do best: produce and defend their ideas.

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “4 Reasons Blogs are Great for Academia

  1. I love blogging, and I agree with the points that you make re. experimentation, community, etc.

    One thing troubles me, though. When I started blogging in 2003 (and was creating class blogs for students), people read blogs on desktop or laptop computers. Now, of course, many read on smart phones and other devices with tiny screens.

    Concurrent with this, I see in my visitor logs that fewer and fewer readers click the links in the blog posts. I blame the technology: on a smart phone, you can’t have multiple, readable tabs or windows open as on computer screen. And to me, blogging is all about the the linking.

  2. This is a great article and I think it’s spot-on. I am an academic historian but also write non-academic books, and I find my blog is extremely useful in both realms. There are numerous great history blogs out there written by academics and lay people alike, and the conversation among them is really worthwhile both substantively and socially. I once came across someone in early-career academia who was wary of blogging because “What if, years from now, a member of a hiring committee saw something on my blog they disagreed with?” This, to me, seems a recipe for a pretty crushing neurosis. You just can’t live your life that way. The era when academics can (or should) remain shuttered in an ivory tower cut off from the rest of the world has been over for decades. We live in the real world. We write books for real people, not just academics. We have opinions. We have social lives. Many of us have interests and pursuits besides just academia. A blog is not only a wonderful way to connect, it’s what people “do” in the 21st century.

  3. I would echo Pat’s comments. Haven’t taken a formal history class since disco was in style. And while I don’t comment often, having the opportunity to get a glimpse behind the curtain (Megan, do you have a pair of ruby red slippers??) is a nice diversion from the work a day world of healthcare data analysis.

      1. Oh, Dorothy for sure. Just can’t figure out if Kevin is the tin man, the scarecrow, or the cowardly lion. But, I think Brooks Simpson has to be the wizard, right?

  4. MKN-
    You allude to it already, but I’d definitely add that blogs are an accessible and open way for non-academics to plug into the goings-on within the ivory tower. With Civil War era topics especially, I think there is great popular interest and great academic interest–neither of which intersect with one another often enough. Blogs are a great way to make scholars’ game of “inside baseball” (as I think you once referred to it) an open-air event.

  5. The fifth reason is because readers find your writing engaging and the mini-reports on your research and analysis enlightening. MKN, Kevin Levin, Karen Cox, and Brooks Simpson give those of us not engaged in the daily examination of the American past a regular reminder of why it is still important to us years after college.

  6. I completely agree. At the SCWH this past June, you advised our audience of grad students to “write widely” to help us become better writers, which really stuck with me. Writing for different audiences and writing short pieces in addition to traditional academic projects has helped me focus on honing my writing style. And I’ve definitely found that, for me, writing begets writing!

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