Text for Lehigh Valley THATcamp

[Lehigh is hosting its first digital humanities conference -- a THATcamp -- Friday and Saturday. I am facilitating the session on "Academic Blogging" that will occur on Friday. Below are my notes for the session. These introductory notes are intended for an audience coming from very different levels of familiarity with blogging, social networking sites, or the digital humanities.]

Academic Blogging Workshop: Notes

For THATcamp Lehigh Valley, March 2013
Facilitated by Amardeep Singh (amsp@lehigh.edu)

Workshop Description

This is a non-technical session designed to introduce participants to the world of academic blogging. Time will be evenly divided between practical “how-to” questions and more general questions related to the pros and cons of academic blogging, and the role of blogging in the digital humanities. No particular experience in web programming or design is necessary, as blogging software has evolved to become ever more easy to use.

The first half of the session will address practical questions, such as: 1) What blogging platform might be right for you?; 2) How do you get your own domain name, and how should you arrange for your blog to be hosted? Does it cost money? 3) How to promote your writing using social media? Some time during this session will be spent demonstrating how to start a practice blog, so participants are encouraged to bring laptops or tablets to the session for this purpose.

The second half of the session will pertain to broader issues regarding the value of academic blogging, including 1) How can your further your “serious” research with a blog? 2) Does blogging ‘count’ as Digital Humanities work? 3) What are some different models for academic blogs and 4) What are the implications of academic blogging for hiring, tenure, and promotion in academia?

 The Lay of the Land

A look at the statements participants wrote describing their interest in this session made me realize that there’s a very broad range of levels of experience with academic blogging here today. Some people are very new to this mode of writing, while others are experienced bloggers. Some are most interested in blogging as a teaching tool in the academic classroom, others are seriously invested in the digital humanities as an emerging academic subdiscipline.

Briefly then: blogging is a reverse chronological mode of online publication. Publishing simple text using today’s blogging platforms is no more difficult than logging into your email client and writing an email.

There are several blogging platforms to choose from. The platform is run by a company – you visit their website to login and compose your posts. Older platforms are Blogger (free if you use the Blogspot.com host), Wordpress (free if you use the WordPress.com host), and Moveable Type (not free; increasingly in decline).

Most blogging platforms I have experience with allow high degrees of customizability. You can customize the look and style of your blog, the font, the graphics – pretty much everything. Some degree of customizability can be done with no technical knowledge – blogging platforms like Blogger and Tumblr give you “template” options you can choose from. The downside to using a preset template is that your blog will look like a million other blogs using that same template. Knowledge of HTML and web design does come in handy if you want your blog to look unique.

The newest addition to the landscape is Tumblr, which is a free format. Tumblr has proven to be wildly popular amongst young people, in large part because it incorporates a strong social networking architecture. When you join Tumblr, you don’t just use it to publish your own blog – you are strongly encouraged to plug into a network of people you follow. (I will discuss Tumblr below in a brief section on using blogs for teaching – as I have been using it this spring in a course I am teaching called “Writing for the Internet.”)

For people starting out, a simple (free) Wordpress blog might make a lot of sense. [The Wordpress workshop that is happening later today seems like a nice complement to this session.] After you have more experience you can transfer your blog to a site with a domain name you own: JohnSmith.com as opposed to JohnSmith.wordpress.com. (My own case: I wasn’t able to get the domain for www.AmardeepSingh.com when I started my own site, so I used my old DJ name, Electrostani, and purchased www.Electrostani.com several years ago for my blog, which is on the Blogger platform.)

And in case you’re wondering how to buy a domain name, you can buy them, usually pretty cheaply, from sites like GoDaddy.com. Transferring a WordPress.com blog or a Blogspot.com blog (hosted by those services) to your own domain name can be a bit tricky, but both services do give you detailed instructions as to how to do this. (For Blogger, start here: http://bit.ly/XJhuwW . For WordPress, start here: http://bit.ly/XJhEnZ )

A Brief Overview of the State of Academic Blogging in 2013

Academic blogging is in flux. The model that I first embraced when I started blogging in 2004 was what I call the Cowboy Diarist – a solo academic blogging in a diary-like way, engaging with other academic bloggers through vigorous debates over a broad range of issues on blog comments. Those debates in blog comments were often extensive and quite elaborate, with discussion threads that were sometimes revelatory but also sometimes maddening. The mode has changed a good deal in recent years. Blog comment threads in particular have virtually disappeared, as now readers are much more inclined to leave comments for a blog author via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter than they are to leave comments on blogs.

While at times it has felt as if academic blogging has been in decline since its “peak” moment in the mid-2000s, it is probably more accurate to say that long-form blogging now operates in concert and as a complement to social networking conversations. It is much more widely institutionally recognized, and a much greater proportion of academics in the humanities appear to be engaged in online conversations than was true in 2004. But they are not necessarily doing it using the Cowboy Diarist model I mentioned above.

Following is a brief overview of academic blogging as I have seen it evolve in recent years, including some models that now seem to be in decline.

Alongside the Cowboy Diarists, the first wave of academic blogging also featured a number of pseudonymous blogs written by people with a particular axe to grind: some of my favorites from the past few years might be BitchPhD (now defunct), or “Confessions of a Community College Dean” (http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/). Sometimes the pseudonymity is merely a veneer (as it is with Acephalous/ Scott Kaufman: http://acephalous.typepad.com/ ). In other cases, the bloggers will disclose personal details that could potentially compromise their professional reputations or their jobs if their true identities were to be uncovered – so pseudonymity is rigorously maintained. However, the positive potential for this model is that these bloggers can be very honest about what they think – as long as it doesn’t give too much away about where they’re teaching. Academia arguably needs more honesty and truth. Sometimes it works best if it comes from people with committed pseudonyms.

(Note that I would distinguish committed pseudonymity from true anonymity. On the internet, pure anonymity is largely a curse – leading as it does to trolling – while pseudonymity has the virtues of requiring the sense of “responsibility” of a real author while also protecting career prospects and so on.)

Blogging without having your own blog. With the advent of online scholarly community sites, people can now begin to build an online presence and contribute to scholarly conversations online without starting a blog or a website.

A new approach that doesn’t entail creating and designing your own website might be to use a site like HASTAC (http://hastac.org/ [pronounced “Haystack”]) or for literature people, MLA Commons (http://commons.mla.org/ -- though it remains to be seen if this new service will actually take off and become something that is widely used). HASTAC allows registered users to contribute their own content to columns or start their own blogs under the HASTAC umbrella, which then might appear on the HASTAC front-page. Here you benefit from an existing community of readers. HASTAC discussions are oriented to tech and digital humanities oriented issues. (Recent blog posts I saw dealt with concerns about MOOCs and the legacy of Alan Turing.)

As academic bloggers become established, they are sometimes invited by larger entities to move their blogs under the umbrella of a larger media organization or established magazine. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, hosts several widely read blogs, including ProfHacker (http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/). ProfHacker, which started as an independent group blog before being invited to operate under the umbrella of the Chronicle, is an interesting example of a group collaborative blog with an emphasis on new tools scholars in different fields might use in their research, teaching, or networking.

Another model that is still somewhat rare is for universities or colleges to host umbrella sites for faculty and grad students to share columns following the model of a blog. One such site is Stanford’s “Arcade” project: http://arcade.stanford.edu/ . The limitation of projects like this is that the contributors are often not talking to each other – in comments or sequences of posts. As a result the site seems more like a static web page than a dynamic site of ongoing conversation (i.e., HASTAC or the various social networking sites).

Another blogger who has gone “big time” is Aaron Bady. As with ProfHacker, he was recently invited to post under the umbrella of a larger magazine called The New Inquiry: http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/zunguzungu/. Bady is a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley. And one could also mention the Victorianist Rohan Maitzen, whose blog "Novel Readings" was initially independent; her blog now appears on the website of the literary magazine Open Letters Monthly.

One thing to like about the culture of academic blogging as it has been emerging is that hierarchy and academic “caste” seem to matter less than they have in “offline” academic institutions. Aaron Bady has become one of the most influential academic bloggers in the country by his wits and intelligence – no one dismisses him as “merely” a graduate student. Similarly, many of the folks who have become well-known in digital humanities scholarship have done so from regional universities with heavy teaching loads – i.e., Central Connecticut State. If I think of academic blogging in the state of Connecticut, I don’t think of Yale – I think of Jason B. Jones’ contributions to the afore-mentioned ProfHacker as well as his personal blog, The Salt-Box: http://www.jbj.wordherders.net/

One probably wouldn’t start out intending to join the masthead of something like ProfHacker (they would have to invite you), but it’s not inconceivable that if you follow these folks on Twitter and start sending them ideas, that you might be invited to write a guest post and possibly even join the masthead down the line. The key is to start dialoguing with a community with which you want to start a connection. The barrier to entry to some of these online communities is much lower than it has been to conventional professional organizations – but participation is also more ephemeral.

I should also say that while academic are increasingly using Twitter to connect to one another, in literary studies there has begun to be somewhat of a backlash against Twitter, especially as the aggressive style favored by many Twitter users outside of academia has sometimes found its way to into academic Twitter feeds. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has, for instance, recently written about her frustration with academics who seem to be abusing Twitter – by allowing the brevity of the format to lead to uncivil exchanges. Start with her post here: http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/blog/if-you-cant-say-anything-nice/

Job marketing: blogs in conjunction with a professional website containing your CV and links to articles you’ve published, a description of your research, teaching resources, etc.

[This is for graduate students in the workshop who might be thinking about whether to start a blog, and what to do with it.] I’m now more than a decade out from the academic job market, but as I have seen from my work on several hiring committees in the past few years, a new model that appears to have emerged is that of blogs connected to websites presenting an online profile that might be findable by hiring committees. Besides simply reading what you send them, many hiring committees are regularly Googling their applicants to see what their online profiles look like. A carefully curated professional website (which you can actually build using a blog platform) can be a way of showing that you’re serious.

Recommended reading: “Do You Need Your Own Website While on the Job Market?” at ProfHacker.

An example of the model I’m describing might be Jonathan Rees’ website, “More or Less Bunk”:

I also like Ryan Cordell’s site (he teaches in the English department at Northeastern University):

These are effectively both blogs – but you can see a bar across the top with links to their CVs, books, online projects, etc. They started with standard WordPress themes and then went on to customize them.

Accidental benefits: Outside of the job market, there can all sorts of secondary payoffs to announcing your particular research interests online. 

People searching for material related to those interests will surely find your writings, especially if it’s not a mainstream topic. I have been contacted by publishers and journals looking for peer-review help based on blog posts I have written; I have been contacted (numerous times) by journalists writing stories on topics related to my blog posts. And more than anything else I have been cited in several scholarly books and essays. As I’ve discovered through periodically searching for my name in Google Books, my blog has been cited in published/ peer-reviewed texts far more than anything I have ever directly published in peer-reviewed venues.

[My Lehigh colleague, Bruce Whitehouse, whose blog on Mali, drew the interest of NPR a few weeks ago, and led to an interview on All Things Considered. His blog is well worth a look. http://bridgesfrombamako.com. Incidentally, if there are other anthropologists in the room, I would recommend Savage Minds and Laura Agustin's Naked Anthropologist as other interesting Anthropology blog projects. ]

These secondary benefits may not apply for everyone – it really depends on the kind of research project you are doing. If I am working on the Hindi language novelist Nirmal Verma, for instance, any blog post I write about him will likely be treated favorably by Google since there is not a lot of fresh content on Nirmal Verma going up on the English-language web. If I were working on, say, Virginia Woolf, by contrast, it’s much less likely that a blog post I might write about her would have such an effect.

Possible approach: Crowdsource your review and revision process using new platforms like CommentPress to develop and then publish article-length or book-length manuscripts in a fully networked, interactive format.

A new term that has emerged to describe “serious,” research-oriented academic writing that is published on blogs is “middle state” publishing. Thinking of publishing your writing on a blog before it’s quite polished and ready to be formally published is anti-intuitive for many traditional academics, but this approach is gaining traction. Many scholars are doing this in order to get feedback from readers that might help them improve their work. Doing this also positions your work in conversation with other scholars from an early point. You aren’t hiding away in a room for three years writing before hearing any substantial feedback…

In 2007, Kathleen Fitzpatrick posted a draft version of an article she was working on justifying and explicating a new scholarly publishing platform she had been involved with called CommentPress. CommentPress is built on the WordPress blogging platform but is tailored to publishing materials longer than an individual blog post (http://www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress/ ). The idea is to fully network every paragraph of an essay so that readers can potentially leave feedback and comments directly attached to individual sections. Later, other readers can see what previous readers have said about particular paragraphs or sections, and add to the conversation if desired. Your own “footnotes” are also networked – in the form of hyperlinks to your sources.

After going through a “draft” round and then being edited by the author, Kathleen Fitzpatrick published the essay simultaneously in the “Journal of Electronic Publishing” and MediaCommons. You can see her “CommentPress” in published form here: http://bit.ly/XmRVnn . She also kept the “CommentPress” draft and final versions of available in CommentPress itself here: http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/cpfinal/
Before this, Kathleen Fitzpatrick also blogged her book, Planned Obsolescence, chapter by chapter, on her blog (http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/), using a straightforward blogging platform. She used blog comments from readers to the chapters as part of her feedback loop as she then revised the book for conventional publication.

Don’t Forget: Have fun, be a little loose. Don’t take everything quite so seriously.

In fact quite a number of academic bloggers tend to mix up the topics they write about from post to post. Some use the blog format to talk about issues they care about but aren’t teaching or researching (i.e., politics). Occasionally, a photo of a cat might be mixed in alongside serious topics. (Some pseudonymous bloggers are effectively diarists who happen to be academics. I don’t call this academic blogging, since the academic context could be interchangeable with any other kind of white collar work.)

There are some stylistic norms one can see in academic blogging that might be worth pointing out to people not entirely familiar to this mode of writing.

One stylistic norm of academic blogging that I thoroughly endorse is the liberal use of the first person voice. Many successful academic blogs provide a clear sense of the personality and life-narrative of the author, often integrated into broader arguments and ideas under discussion. You might have developed an interest in children’s literature because you yourself have a child and you're trying to figure out what they should be reading; you might care about a particular debate in anthropology because you are writing as an American teaching in Taiwan (as my friend P. Kerim Friedman is: http://keywords.oxus.net/ ), and you notice some of those cultural dynamics in your daily life. Making it personal is not seen as a weakness in the culture of academic blogging, but a strength.

Another stylistic norm entails attempting to make one’s writing accessible to a general readership. For me this was one of the greatest releases but also the greatest challenges of entering into blogging. I had been trained in the Ph.D. program at Duke to write a certain way—sounding theoretically sophisticated was more important than being clear.

But when I started blogging about topics related to South Asian literature and South Asian diaspora culture in the mid-2000s, there were very few other people doing that. My problem wasn't that my readers had strong opinions on Homi Bhabha's appropriation of Derridean poststructuralism in his theory of hybridity, but that my readers (many of them non-academics interested in South Asian literature) hadn't heard of Homi Bhabha or poststructuralism, and didn't care about Derrida. And yet they were still interested in the content of the debate -- the specific referents of the debate over cultural hybridity as found in its living examples: is Salman Rushdie’s magic realist method a distinctly Indian mode of narration, or does its connections to European and Latin American predecessors complicate its “Indianness”? What does “authenticity” mean in Indian English fiction? On my feet, I tried to find ways to write about conceptual and terminological problems without the blessing or the curse of academic jargon.

The requirement that we put our jargon aside can be incredibly productive. On the one hand, writing this way might force us to clarify our thoughts within a particular academic context or debate without getting lost in our respective disciplinary jargons. In my own case, some of the long blog posts I wrote for non-academic audiences in the mid-2000s would later go on to forms the seeds of academic articles I would publish (after of course putting the footnotes back in).

It’s also worth mentioning that I wasn’t the only one doing things like this: there has been a growing movement in academia to aim to make debates that were previously limited to a very narrow range of scholars accessible to a larger public. In literary studies in particular, the 2000s are increasingly being seen as the moment when French Theory that dominated academic discourse throughout the 1980s and 90s seemed to lose some of its purchase.

Some examples of blogs that manage to have fun (within limits! we are still academics after all…) and mix things up are:

Timothy Burke

Crooked Timber

Miriam Burstein

Should you blog if you’re early in your career? Will it help or hurt your chances of getting tenure?

In the mid-2000s there were some well-publicized cases of academics whose blogs may have contributed to their being denied tenure. Perhaps the best-known instance was Daniel Drezner, who was a dynamo of political blogging in the mid-2000s. Alongside hundreds of blog posts and tens of thousands of readers, Drezner had a serious academic book out at the time he was denied tenure at the University of Chicago. The thought was that perhaps his blog, which often tended to follow the vagaries of the latest political horse race rather than the academic discourse of political science, hurt him. (He landed on his feet, with a tenured job at Tufts, incidentally, and is still an active blogger.)

But such cases have been the exception rather than the rule. As the “Cowboy Diarist” image of blogging has receded and a more professionalized academic blogging landscape has emerged, writing for blogs has become a much more mainstream activity. I do not think that anyone with a well-mannered, serious-minded blog would find that it hurt their chances on the job market or for tenure.

I did find out through my own experience going up for tenure at Lehigh that while my blog was actually a net asset to my own tenure case, it was not considered under the category of “research” even though I did often used it in connection with my research. The basic reasoning behind this is the question of peer-review – what you write on your blog is not reviewed through that process, so you shouldn’t expect it to “count.” As I understand it, this delineation of academic blogging as “service” rather than “research” is fairly common throughout academia right now.

At most research universities, blogging can be a supplement to a strong portfolio of peer-reviewed publications but what you write on your blog will not help you significantly in getting tenure – but it shouldn’t hurt you either.

Using Blogs in Connection With Teaching

As I mentioned above, this spring I have been using Tumblr as the blogging platform I have been using in an undergraduate course I’m teaching called “Writing for the Internet.”

For this particular course the format seems to be working quite well. I have asked each of the 19 students to start her or his own Tumblr blog, and I have a “root” blog that can be found here: http://amardeeplehigh.tumblr.com .

Why do this as opposed to CourseSite/ Blackboard posts? For one thing, the interface of those academic Course Site frameworks is a bit drab and tedious. Tumblr is visually very intuitive and pleasant to look at. It has also meant that my students have been much more likely to read each others’ works than any class where I have asked students to post on CourseSite.

Writing on the open internet also gives students a sense that their words are “live” – they matter.

Of course, not all students will want their full names attached to blog posts written for an undergraduate course for perpetuity. I did give students the option to take on a fixed pseudonym to protect their privacy if desired, and several students have taken this route.

I’ve been pleased to see several students having their blog posts “liked” and “reblogged” on Tumblr by total strangers who found their posts by doing searches for relevant tags.

Needless to say, this approach might not be substantially better than CourseSite forum posting for classes that aren’t specifically oriented to online writing skills. But this is a topic that might be worth discussing with the group as a whole…

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