• April 20, 2014

Do Not Fear the Blog

My blog, "(a)musings of a grad student," was born one day in July of 2002 when my then-boyfriend suggested I start one. I suspect he was slightly sick of listening to my running political commentary, and a blog seemed an ideal channel for my complaints. So with little effort and a crash course in basic HTML, I had my own Web-based publication, subtitled (appropriately as it turns out), "reflections on an academic life, plus politics and more."

In the beginning I had five loyal readers: the boyfriend, my father, my mother, and my grandfather, who periodically printed out posts and brought them dutifully for my grandmother to read.

My blog inhabited a quiet, slightly dusty corner of the blogosphere. My posts were occasional meditations on the politics of the day, interesting primary sources, fun news articles, rants about graduate-student life, quick research notes, together with some thoughts about the plot arcs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I lurked on the edges of an increasingly vibrant scholarly community overflowing with posts on what it meant to be an academic, current research, teaching dilemmas and successes, and other day-to-day experiences of people in my profession. For me blogging was a professionally pleasant hobby. I could ruminate at will on what was going on in my academic and political lives.

Initially I was semi-pseudonymous. I blogged under my own name but hid my affiliation until a blogger at another university referred to Harvard as a bastion of grade inflation. I defended my university enthusiastically and thus blew my cover. The sky did not fall. I don't think my small but growing audience even noticed. I did enjoy my status as a graduate-student pundit in history: It was a happy day when "(a)musings of a grad student" became the first thing that popped up when I Googled myself.

Installing a site meter was even more fun. At first visitors just dribbled by to the tune of 5 or 10 a day; now I get an average of 50 visitors a day. I was even invited to begin blogging at Cliopatria, a group blog for historians. I felt slightly overwhelmed -- two places to blog instead of one! What could I do with such riches?

It never occurred to me that there might be a connection between my blog and my professional fate. I considered myself simply a historian in training who commented sporadically online about her experiences.

But over the summer, as I began contemplating the job market, I started to wonder what role my blog would play in the process, if any. Should I list it on my CV or on my department's job-placement Web site? It isn't a publication, really, more of a scholarly activity that isn't always scholarly. In the end, I decided that since I don't list my swim team on my CV, my other extracurricular activities, the blog included, didn't belong there either.

That settled the question, until the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble's two anti-blogging columns appeared in The Chronicle in the summer and early fall. The effect of those columns, both of which strongly cautioned graduate students and junior faculty members against blogging, trickled into other parts of my job search in alarming ways.

Shortly after Professor Tribble's second column, a campus career counselor advised several of my fellow job-hunters and me to limit our online presences, because, she said, The Chronicle had published articles saying it was a bad idea. (I assume she meant Tribble's columns.)

She advised Googling ourselves to see what was out there and further suggested removing questionable items about ourselves from the Web. (She was less specific about how one goes about removing things from the Web.) Any online content, she said, should be completely professional. If you have a Web site, make sure you don't put up pictures of your pets. (Oops.)

Like many bloggers disturbed by Tribble's columns, I was seized by a fit of metablogging. Why do I blog? What benefit do I derive from it? Does anything in my blog somehow make me a less desirable job candidate? Have I blogged myself out of academe without even realizing it?

In answering those questions to my own satisfaction, if not Ivan Tribble's, I came to understand the nature and the value of the academic blogging community.

I blog first and foremost because it is downright fun to participate in an emerging media form. Blogs and the blogosphere are new concepts, and the possibilities for scholarly communication are endless and exciting. Because I blog I now have contacts, online and offline, with a variety of scholars inside and outside my field. They don't particularly care that my dissertation is not yet done; the typical hierarchies of the ivory tower break down in the blogosphere so that even graduate students can be public intellectuals of a kind.

Professor Tribble lamented that blogs are not peer-reviewed and wrote that that was one reason why their content was illegitimate. While it is true that the author of a blog decides what she publishes on her blog, she does not blog in a vacuum. Other bloggers can -- and do! -- react to faulty logic or misinformation.

Bloggers write about the rewards and pitfalls of teaching, the difficulties of putting together syllabi, and the solutions for odd classroom situations. They write about research dilemmas, forthcoming conference papers, and publishing problems and successes.

I bring my own research issues to my blog on occasion; I wrote a few months ago about a dilemma I was having about counting godparents in early Virginia wills. I received e-mail from several people recounting their own counting experiences and offering helpful suggestions. I have come to believe that those online exchanges build better, more involved scholars who have a wide circle of blog-colleagues.

Moreover, my post on Virginia wills was recognized on a History Carnival. Carnivals are the periodicals of the blogosphere. History carnivals, the brand I have the most experience with, are open to blog posts about all periods, places, and methodologies. The result is a fortnightly collection of links to the best posts in history blogging, assembled by volunteers on a rotating basis. While bloggers can nominate their posts for inclusion, the dedicated hosts also strike out on their own to find appropriate posts. (I did not nominate my post about wills.)

There are other carnivals -- on topics like philosophy or teaching, and a recently inaugurated Carnival of the Feminists. In short, academic bloggers who write about research and teaching are thinking very seriously about their vocation and they are engaging with their colleagues about how to do it right.

Academics who blog and assemble carnivals can perform thought experiments and try out ideas quickly without going through the conventional publications or conference process. They can also comment on areas outside of their expertise or current research. If they like, and I've been known to do this myself, they can be a bit silly on their blogs too, letting off steam at the end of a long week.

In short, I find that blogging makes my work better. What isn't to like about that?

Having come to an understanding of why I blog, I wanted to hear from other blogging academics about their experiences. I posted a set of questions on my blog asking to hear from blogging graduate students and junior faculty members. I received 65 responses to my query -- not a scientific poll, I know, but the answers to the question "why do you blog?" were the most thoughtful.

Graduate students, in particular, found blogging to be a way of communicating the joys and frustrations of working on a dissertation. Almost all of the respondents mentioned the usefulness and stimulation of cyber-scholarly life. Several mentioned that they had had Web presences since the mid-1990s; for those students blogging is just an extension of previous Web-based activities.

I also received a few disheartening e-mail messages from grad students who had been told not to even think of blogging because it would destroy their chances of getting a tenure-track job.

But of the blogging junior professors, those whose colleagues knew about their blogs indicated that it did not seem to have harmed them in any way. A few even told me they had included their blogs in performance reviews -- perhaps a sign of things to come?

The overall response led me to believe that the anti-blogging hysteria evident in Professor Tribble's columns is not as widespread as I originally thought.

The meaning and purpose behind a blog is, of course, in the eye of a blogger. For every blogger who posts only serious scholarly material, there will be many more bloggers like me who mix the personal and the professional in fun and quirky ways. My advice to job committees: If you have a blogger in your pool, give the candidacy serious consideration. Job seekers who blog are thoughtful, interesting people who are fascinated by the possibilities that this new medium has for enhancing their personal and professional lives. Do not fear the blog; embrace it. You'll be glad you did.

Rebecca Anne Goetz is a doctoral candidate in early American history at Harvard University. She writes a blog called "(a)musings of a grad student," which is at blogspot.com, and contributes to one called "Cliopatria," which is at http://hnn.us/blogs/2.html. For an archive of previous First Person columns, see http://chronicle.com/jobs/archive/firstpersonarch.htm

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