So, why would I champion academic blogging?

And why do I blog under my own name?

The simple answer to that is because it didn’t occur to me not to. As I’ve probably mentioned before, this blog was set up as an offshoot of my academic website. That has always carried my name (and information about me) because as far as I’m concerned that’s crucial for the academic credentials of the site: since I would always tell students that a key issue in evaluating online resources is authorship (and that you should be slightly wary of any supposedly academic resource that doesn’t tell you something – which you can check up on elsewhere – about the people responsible for producing it), it could hardly be otherwise.

Plus, I feel that part of my ‘authority’ here on the blog when I’m writing more serious posts depends on you the readers knowing exactly who I am and how and why I’m qualified to do this. (I don’t tend to put my full name up in posts, but you only have to click on the About Me or EMR links to quickly find my surname. And as for Google, I might run but I really can’t hide.)

More than that, since I always wanted this to be a primarily academic rather than personal blog, I would find the constraints of pseudonymous/anonymous blogging completely frustrating. You can’t keep your real identity private – especially if you work in a fairly small field – while simultaneously doing any kind of serious research blogging. And that’s something I really really like doing.

And the point of blogging research?

I know that some people fear that it might lead to others ‘stealing’ your ideas. But I agree with those who point out that blogging the ideas can actually help to prevent this: by putting them out there in the public domain with a date-stamp and your name on them, you make them indisputably yours. And I really don’t mind at all if someone else picks them up and develops them (I think that’d be bloody brilliant actually!), as long as they give me a bit of credit.

Blogging research lets you develop the very first drafts of ideas. Bits and pieces that don’t yet amount to articles (or even conference papers), but they may well do some day. And something else, sometimes: last year I was having trouble thinking up any new ideas at all, but blogging old ideas, often attached to new sources, meant that I kept writing, if only a few hundred words a week, without having to worry about it being original or impressive. And now, because it’s all archived and easy to find, I can look back over some of that work and see potential themes, little seeds of ideas that are worth working on, start to make them grow.

And it means that you can get feedback and suggestions. In the last few weeks, I’ve learnt about some fantastic-sounding primary source material that I’d never even heard of before, quite apart from all the great secondary source suggestions. I love my readers. I love the fact that we can have conversations (and occasionally arguments!) and pool our different areas of expertise. (I also get a warm fuzzy glow when you say nice things about my site. Not that I’m fishing or anything.) Blogging really does foster communications and networks and communities. That alone makes it worthwhile.

Another thing: writing for a slightly different audience than in the usual academic contexts. This is an amazing opportunity to reach out. To stop just complaining about how ignorant people are about your field and do something, however small, about it. And trying to write in a way that can work for both fellow specialists, other academics and completely non-academic readers who might not know anything about my period – that’s a challenge. (I not only like writing, I like thinking about writing and how to make it work. I gather this is slightly weird.) The bonus is that the writing style can be a little bit more free and informal. That’s fun.


Now, I also know that whenever I write here (or at other blogs), I take the risk that I will – sooner or later – be read by someone who doesn’t like what they read. Someone who may disagree violently with my opinions, my style, my methods. (And very occasionally I have not been entirely, er, sweet-tempered. I admit it.) And that someone might at some later stage be on the committee reading my job application and…. well, I’m screwed, aren’t I?

But as I’ve already said, I take that risk every time I publish something. I have to be prepared to do that. If I don’t, I’ll never write anything anywhere… and then my chances of a job will truly be a big fat zero. I think I said it before, but I will say it again: If you are going to be a ‘real’ academic, you will have to take risks. Every time you open your mouth to express an opinion, no matter how carefully researched and thought out. Every time you give a conference paper. Every time you send off a precious manuscript.

Sooner or later, you will piss someone off. Most of the time you don’t even think about the risks you’re running; you’re too busy doing your best to do things right, putting in your research, crafting your arguments. One day someone will hate it, and your heart will break into a thousand pieces on the spot. You’d better get used to it, in small doses, now.

Then, of course, there’s another set of risks that you’re likely to take as an academic with a blog. This gets us to something that Tribble went on about at length, and that he has been taken to task for. Both fairly and unfairly. If you blog under your own name and you use the blog mostly to complain, rant, whine about how unfair life is, carp about colleagues, if it’s all negative, you are going to put potential employers off. Can you blame them?

But at the same time, blogging frequently blurs some key distinctions of modernity, the public and the private, the professional and personal, formal and informal, in potentially disconcerting but (I think) also positive and creative ways.

So this is a primarily academic blog, not a personal journal. But if you read it for a while, you get to know me quite well, don’t you?

There are things I don’t write about here. I don’t often discuss politics or really intimate aspects of my personal life. I could have a hunky toyboy wearing me out most nights of the week, hell, he could be licking my toes right now, and you wouldn’t know. (… I haven’t.) I edit and I self-censor. I have started and deleted quite a lot of rants since I started up here. (Though sometimes just the action of writing is enough to let off steam. Posting becomes oddly redundant.) But that still leaves quite a lot of trivia. So what? Must I be Deep and Serious and Profound all the time just because I wannabe an academic? Phooey.

(I do mostly cut out the swearing: seriously, most of you have no idea just what a common foul-mouthed blaspheming old cow I really am.)

So you do tend to get a selective picture of what I do and what I think of the world. But I suspect that I give away quite a lot about what kind of person I am. (I am a leftie! I am a feminist! I am a sarcastic bitch! Er, is any of that a surprise?) More than I’d like perhaps. And in ways that I know I can’t entirely control. That, I accept. I think it’s worth it.

I’ll very soon be job-hunting. Maybe I’ll be more careful about what I do here for a while. Mostly, I probably won’t. Although I still won’t be telling you if I get myself a toe-licking toyboy.


Key discussions elsewhere:

Mark Grimsley has written two great posts. The second is particularly compelling on the significance and validity of the ‘personal’ in an academic blog. (And if you want to see research blogging at its best, you only have to go to Mark’s blog most days of the week.)

Manan Ahmed has something to say about that lurking fear whenever you blog that this is not really ‘productive’.

The Little Professor asks why a pseudonymous writer in the (generally much derided, from what I can see) first person columns of the Chronicle of Higher Education should have any more credibility than a blogger.

And you can keep up to date with the responses to Tribble here and at Technorati.

(Further update) Dan at Trench Fever hits it on the head: “It would be an awful thing if Tribble’s article put off a generation of younger academics who might be tempted to dip their toes into the blogging waters.”

I think all this is important. As Mark points out, we need to be having serious conversations about academic blogging. Where is it going? How can students and young academics at the bottom of the pecking order make the most of it – have fun and make it work for them and their careers?

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27 Responses to So, why would I champion academic blogging?

  1. Ralph Luker says:

    “… a toe-licking toyboy …” Now, see: I suspected that you were a foot fetishist all along (Manolo love, etc) and here we learn that it is your own feet that are to be fetishized.

  2. ksbrorson says:

    I sometimes worry too, about what prospective employers might think about blogging and my writing in particular. However, I believe an academic blog like yours shows a devotion to your research and it should be an advantage. In the “publish or perish” world, it would be better to employ someone that are ready to make their opinions known than someone that hides in archives years on end without relating to the world. I hope employers will come to that conclusion too.

  3. Chris Williams says:

    I’ve read Tribble’s articles and come to the conclusion that he’s missing one of the points of academia. It’s not as if conferences (with their face-to-face communication, bars, hotel rooms, etc) don’t allow academics to make fools of themselves in academic and personal ways – ways which will be remembered for years (note to senior professors who never buy their round – we know who you are, and we remember*). So is Tribble against conferences and people who attend them?

    I’ve always been a conference hound, and blogging is a fine extension of the conference ethos. More to the point, I can think of at least two academic bloggers whom I’ve been able to offer opportunities to – and there are more gigs on the way for some other academic bloggers who don’t know it yet, if various plans I have pan out. Sometimes this can involve actual cash money for the lucky blogger: other times it’s just the academic currency, recognition.

    Being open about what you do means that people have heard of you, and thus when a gig comes up, they will think about offering it to you. Maybe Tribble’s world is essentially a static one. No outreach, no media projects. A highly stratified network of conferences and seminars driven purely by a pecking order. No desire in his research field to find stuff out, through doing whatever is necessary. Stasis. I feel sorry for him if that’s the case.

    Chris A Williams (History Dept, Open University)

    * NB: Currently I am in a department full of professors who always buy their round. Bless ’em.

  4. Thanks for the nice words about my posts on Tribble and my blog in general. I really appreciate it.

    And thanks for an excellent post here. Well done!

    Re the need for a serious exchange about academic blogging–why don’t we get something organized? It won’t be hard to find proponents; what we need are a few good, principled skeptics. I can think of a couple in my own department. I don’t know if they’d have time to participate, but they might.

  5. Dan says:

    I think your point about the regularity of writing is an excellent one. I’d also agree with you about the occasional desirability of self-censorship. Think twice, cut once, as any carpenter would say.
    But I also believe some evidence of fallibility can be a positive thing. Blogging our research shows how our ideas change and develop. You can’t cover every base – as you say, how wonderful if someone takes up that idea you don’t have time to follow up and runs with it (and credits you). It also shows students that our publications don’t arrive as the fully formed works of genius they can appear. This in itself is a powerful lesson.
    A proper debate sounds good, but I wonder if we need a more concrete aim than ‘are academic blogs a good or a bad thing’. Otherwise we’ll just have two distinct views regarding each other without comprehension (see an older generation of literary and military historians and the First World War). Perhaps we need to ask the sceptics what they need to be convinced, and see if we can adapt our practice accordingly?

  6. Conor says:

    As a research group which consists of a bunch of overlapping teams working on different topics, we’ve found it very handy to maintain a blog per team/topic. It’s very useful to have a place to punt half-baked ideas and to log recent developments. Whilst not entirely devoid of personal content, the atmosphere of a topic-team-blog tends naturally to militate against off-topic soliloquies. A typical entry might be ‘H and I went down the pub and this is what we scribbled on the back of an envelope…’. Especially given that we do not all live or work in the same place, this low-stress way to exchange ideas and chat about stuff (with pointers to relevant online resources) has really become a vital part of the way we collaborate. Pub-envelope-scribbles sometimes take a while to get written up more formally.

    Meanwhile, an old mate (in media, rather than academia) whom I haven’t seen for years is a fairly active blogger, and I’m very glad he is, for the entirely selfish reason that, er, I haven’t seen him for years. His is pretty much a personal blog, in that it consists of everything from ‘I’ve found some great kit!’ to ‘Can anyone tell me just what exactly is the BBC’s policy on employees’ personal blogs?’ via ‘I’ve just cut my finger on a yoghurt!’. It’s a good way to maintain human contact.

    So what’s the issue? Given that a weblog is a pull-medium (you choose whether and when to read it), I don’t see why anyone should object to academics benefiting from the useful feedback a research blog yields. Does anyone disagree? I’m certainly not saying that everyone will find research blogging useful. But am I mistaken in my imagining that I find it useful?

    Beyond that, the odd cricket comment or cat photo is more or less harmless. Some grumps grump ‘why do you imagine I care about your cat?’, to which the answer is ‘if you don’t like my stuff, don’t read it’. Blogs are better than static web pages in this respect, because your academic mates will often also ooh and aah over your cat photos; anti-cat-photo grumps thus see your reason to believe that there is an audience which does care about your cat, even if they’re not it.

    Meanwhile, just like having a web page, writing to the newspapers, accidentally hitting reply-all instead of reply, or projectile vomiting atop a soap box at Speakers’ Corner, blogging provides you with a new way to embarrass yourself and your associates and generally to mess up your life. What’s new?

    Now, it could be that a certain kind of opinionated wingnut finds blogging an attractive medium for damnations of various kinds, thus bringing blogging into an undeserved general disrepute. Plenty of said wingnuts also have static web pages, which doesn’t make web pages a bad idea either. In my world, failure to provide easy access to your work via the web is considered bad form. Things just take a while to catch on: the fact that pornographers, drug dealers and the military tend to take up new technology years before anybody else figures it out does not make new technology wrong per se.

    Finally, on names… I’m no expert on web anonymity, although I’ve made up several people who are. Who you appear to be when you transmit a message has a considerable impact on how it is received. The internet makes it very easy to manipulate this parameter for good or ill. Whether on the net or not, people sometimes write not so much anonymously as fictionally, to put in the mouth of a character an opinion to which they hope others will publicly trouble to take exception. Correspondingly, when faced with a pseudonymous rant, it’s often healthy to mistake it for a comedy performance, whether it’s intended as such or not. Mind you, it helps if it’s funny.

  7. sepoy says:

    “most of you have no idea just what a common foul-mouthed blaspheming old cow I really am”


    now we do. :)

  8. Sharon says:

    Not until you’ve heard me on a really pissed-off day you don’t. ;)

    Ralph, I put that in specially for you…

    More seriously, all, great comments.

  9. Sharon says:

    PS: Conor, I quite agree: there shouldn’t be an issue really. But I could be wrong, but I think scientists have taken to this blogging business much more readily than people in ‘humanities’. People in the sciences can appreciate the benefits of the rapid communication and networking thing more readily perhaps. Or am I wrong?

  10. Conor says:

    I expect you’re right, especially given that the whole internet/web thing arose from a pressing need in the scientific community. I should, of course, embarrass you slightly by remarking that it was the way your blog functioned, in a way that our existing mailing lists and static web pages didn’t quite, which provoked me to suggest that we work the way we now do.

    Email is a push-medium, so it turns up when people aren’t willing to deal with it and then gets ignored; also, subscribing to a mailing list requires a degree of commitment to being bombarded which surfing up a blog just doesn’t. Meanwhile, static web pages lack both the explicit sense of ideas developing with time and the capacity to spark interaction in a public space.

    I guess my point is twofold, (i) some academics find blogging useful; others may not, but they have no business telling those who benefit from blogging to cease to do so (ii) this issue is temporary: with time, people will learn to evaluate individual blogs on their merits because it will be in their interests to do so. At best, a blog is a virtual coffee room where both ideas and idle chat get kicked around (the presence of idle chat serves to lower the gravitas threshold necessary to dare to squeak); at worst a blog is the pointless ranting of the loony on the bus. Before too long, I think people (writers, readers, fundholding googlers) will find it worthwhile to make the distinction.

  11. Pingback: Alun » On Tribble

  12. Caleb says:

    Right on, Sharon.

  13. Sharon says:

    Folks, make sure you all go read Alun’s post trackbacked at 11. He has some intelligently sceptical things to say, and some very constructive suggestions too.

    I agree with Conor that, really, Tribblism will be a fairly temporary phenomenon. But there are two particularly pernicious things about Tribble as I see it. One is that he may well have frightened unknown numbers of people out of trying blogging when they could benefit from it, and in particular losing out on the professional benefits of being able to blog about your own work under your own name.

    The second is the effect he might have had on non-blogging sceptics out there. Academics who have not yet seen quality scholarly blogging and primarily associate the medium with either poisonous political ranting or self-obsessed personal and sexual revelations. We know that Tribble is talking rubbish, and why. They don’t, and they don’t have any particular reason to spend precious time finding out whether his columns were accurate or fair.

    This is why it’s vital to get beyond preaching to the already converted, and it was great that Ralph Luker and Manan Ahmed got articles published in the AHA’s newsletter about history blogs earlier this year. Forget about attacking Tribbles and concentrate on finding ways to put out better information.

  14. david tiley says:

    The job thing cuts both ways. Some people will like the ideas you espouse, and the persona you have in words and debate.

    That’s what I tell myself, anyway, every time I get the night terrors about the damage I have done to my reputation late at night, with a bottle of gin, and a panting computer.

  15. Sharon says:

    This is what I think (or hope) too. You might put one person off and lose a job interview: but equally, others might love it and pick you out of the crowd *because* of it.

    Your computer pants? Wow. :) Mine sort of hums but that’s because the heatsink needs servicing. Or possibly replacing. Come to think of it the whole machine probably ought to have a service. I’ve had it well over a year. OTOH, *I* pant when there’s a bottle of gin in front of me… which is why I don’t keep any in the house.

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  19. Henrik says:

    A woman!? Oh Mine +Dominvs+!
    I have been reading your great stuff for weeks now but I *never* realised…err…. Well, I really thought you were a man!
    You do blog like some grumpy old [male] professor which is not at all a bad thing – on the contrary that’s what makes it so funny! Really!
    (I guess that would be avery openminded into-ancient-law-and-worktime-toelicking-kind of professor, though. Nice picture there.)

    Ought to follow that ‘About Me’ link sometime…

  20. Sharon says:

    Old!! You think I sound old?! I’m deeply hurt now…

  21. Actually, you sound incredibly sexy and alluring. For a Brit, anyway.

  22. Chris Williams says:

    Sharon _is_ incredibly sexy and alluring. Although she is from Essex, which remains a bit of a handicap in the wider scheme of things.

  23. Sharon says:

    I AM NOT FROM ESSEX!!!!! Now that really is an insult.

  24. Chris Williams says:

    Ooops. Now where did I get that one from, then? Such is the magnitude of my error that you’d be within your rights just leaving me hanging on that one. I’ll be falsely accusing you of supporting Arsenal next, and then I’ll have to commit ritual suicide.

  25. Sharon says:

    Well, we’ve had some Essex-baiting conversations before now. Perhaps you got mixed up…

  26. Chris Williams says:

    ‘Mixed up’. That’ll be it. Soz.

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