A long, long time ago (in Internet years), maybe as far back as 2004, I began to think about starting a blog. I was angry at how the media consistently failed to engage with history in news stories, and I thought I could write lively commentaries on the historical contexts of modern issues. My friend Karen said I should call it "How Did We Get Into This Mess?"
Alas, I was busy. Instead of blogging, I wrote a dissertation. Then I lucked into two peak years of job openings for medieval historians. I landed a position, became a father, chased tenure, and totally missed the Golden Age of Blogging. Social media and Tumblr gradually eroded the ubiquity of blogs, and many Internet writers either drifted away to focus on their Twitter accounts, stopped doing informal self-published public writing, or began to find homes on one of the proliferating number of online media sites. I thought I’d missed my blogging window.
In fact, not only is "the blog" alive and well as a form, but one of its most vibrant subsections is the academic blog. While blogging is no longer the only — or primary — way that academics seek to broaden their audience, it remains a good avenue for engaging the public.
While there are many barriers to entry into the ranks of the commentariat (though fewer than you might think), anyone can set up a blog, often within a matter of minutes, and use it to communicate ideas that don’t otherwise fit into your scholarly publishing world. Academic blogs are rarely pathways to mass public outreach, but they don’t have to be. Fueled, rather than threatened, by social-media networks, a blog offers a way to share your ideas with peers inside those networks.
I started my own blog (named, of course, How Did We Get Into This Mess?) in May of 2013. I picked a platform (Blogger, which belongs to Google), spent a few bucks on a cheap first-year registration of Thismess.net, threw up a basic template, and started writing. Setup was simple. Within 30 minutes I had posted a quick piece on Michele Bachmann’s invocation of medieval apocalyptic ideas, and introduced myself. I assured readers, "I plan to try and publish at least one essay a month." I wrote a post every day that week. And the next week. And the next.
Nearly 700 posts later, I’ve learned a lot about blogging and how it fits into an academic career. I’ve also made mistakes, more than once, by not doing my research.
Here’s three lessons for anyone considering building their own space for online writing.
1. Pick the right platform. I failed to do that twice. Blogger still feels too simple. Its comments don’t always work. Worst of all, I began to covet the fancy sites of other writers. So I hired a designer and commissioned a site on Wix, a cloud-based platform that seemed beautiful to me. Although my designer was fabulous, the experience was a disaster. It turns out that supporting a high-volume writer like me is a specific problem for Wix. Each blog post functions as its own page, so sites like Blogger and WordPress, (the one I would probably recommend), are designed to help writers easily manage that volume. Wix, on the other hand, places severe limitations on post management, formatting, access to HTML, cutting and pasting, and much more.
I spoke to Eric Mason, a spokesman for Wix, and he agreed that his platform is not for serious writers. Wix is for people who have no coding skills but who need a "beautiful, professional-looking website," especially for e-commerce. Mason agreed that I’d made a mistake, and, to his credit, refunded my premium site fee. I’m back at Blogger now, graphics lightly tweaked, comment system fixed, and glad to be home. Learn from my mistakes.
2. Write whatever you want. Don’t let ideas about propriety or academic silos limit you. My blog has evolved past its original, fairly narrow conception. By "this mess," my blog no longer just refers to the lack of historical literacy in the media, but also reflects my expanding journalistic commitment to disability rights and my commentary on higher education. I use the blog to write things that I have no place else to put — big collections of links, quick comments on someone else’s writing, long-winded semicoherent rants, questions for which I have no answer, and quick bursts of irritated prose when someone has made me too angry to contain myself in 140 characters. Like Bruce Banner, I’m always angry, and never at a loss for something to write about.
Some of my favorite academic blogs, though, hew more closely to their author’s academic discipline. They become a space to experiment with form rather than content, to find ways to make an academic concept accessible to a broader public, or as a way to write about academe. One of my favorite higher-ed blogs is Tales Told Out of School, by Liz Lehfeldt, a professor of humanities and dean of the honors college at Cleveland State University. She created it, she told me, when she was "frustrated with some parts of being a department chair and wanted to channel the things I liked about the job into something constructive."
It’s worked for her. "It’s been fun to think about what I’ve learned about that role — including my mistakes and missteps — and share that with others," she said. "I’ve also really enjoyed finding a voice that’s different from the one I use in my scholarly work." There are thousands of other academics who might easily echo Lehfeldt’s comments.
3. Write for the sake of writing. This one is the most important. Because I have been an advocate of academics writing in a broad array of mainstream publications, I routinely field questions from other academics about whether they should start a blog as a pathway to reaching a bigger audience.
My basic answer is: No, you shouldn’t just start a blog. Unless you can build a time machine and found your blog 10 years ago, the Golden Age of Blogging really is over. Early adopters of academic blogging built dedicated readerships, but that’s hard to replicate now. Today, a blog becomes a piece of the conversations you are already having on social media. You are most likely to use a blog to preach to choirs and attempt to convert the already converted. But it’s fun to preach to the choir.
Moreover, the iterative practice of regular blogging has its own set of joys. For me, writing begets writing. The blog doesn’t distract from my formal academic or scholarly work. It feeds it. It becomes a form of discipline, like doing sit-ups every morning, a practice I long ago abandoned. My abdominal muscles are flabby, but when I sit down to write, whatever the context, I feel strong.
Blogging — self-published, regular, semiformal, potentially public writing — fits academic life beautifully. Just pick your platform carefully, use the experience as a way to write new things, and, most of all, write for the sake of writing. And then just maybe, readers will follow.