This year, 15 years after starting my first tenure-track job, I became a "midcareer" scholar. That status came, coincidentally, with an appointment to a "Tier 1 Canada Research Chair." Standing at that juncture, I thought long and hard about how to make the most of my new position. What should I do first?
I started blogging.
You may wonder why the achievement of a prestigious scholarly post would give me the inspiration and permission to take a step away from peer-reviewed and sometimes esoteric writing. Quite simply: Blogging doesn't "count" in academe; it holds no weight when we apply for tenure, promotion, or research grants. It was precisely this moment's grace from the pressure of constant peer review that gave me the liberty to try something new.
My venture into the blogosphere is not unique. Blogging has slowly become part of academic life. Blogs regularly appear on university Web sites with posts from deans, professors, and students. Here at The Chronicle, many academics have discussed how blogging is useful in teaching, building community, and fostering new collaborations.
Mary Churchill has argued that blogging not only engages wider audiences outside of academe but can also push us to answer a question that scholars rarely ask: "Why do we write?" Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing on the University of Venus blog, maintained that blog posts enable academics, who often write in isolation, to make "reflective moments public." Deborah Siegel of Girl with Pen recently gave an excellent teleseminar on blogging for scholars at the Council on Contemporary Families. She has long advocated for a paradigm shift in scholarly writing. In her words: "I blog not in addition to what I do, but as part of what I do."
I am convinced that blogging can and should be part of scholarly life. Yet after several months of trying to blog—both successfully and not—I have come to think that the story of the scholar meets blogger is a bit like the tale of the tortoise and the hare. It is the slow and deep against the fast and thin.
Why I blog. Many writers and editors argue that blogging can help scholars to build a platform and reach a wider audience. The writer-reader relationship is important to novelists, journalists, and bloggers, but academics are not trained to cultivate that relationship. We do research. We write. We put our work out there. Sometimes there is no response. I want my work—something I feel deeply passionate about—to be read, heard, and to resonate with readers both inside and outside of the university. Blogging can help to achieve that.
As a scholar, I know all too well about the slow and laborious research and writing process. It takes years to do scholarly research and then to write the articles and chapters from that same research. Even when our work seems done, it still has to go through multiple peer reviewers until it eventually appears, slightly worn out, after one or two years. Blogging is another way to get parts of that same work into the world—fast.
When I started blogging, I asked myself: How hard could it be? After regularly writing 9,000-word pieces, it would certainly be easy to write a 1,000-word post, right?
Not exactly. To my surprise, blogging has been one of my most challenging writing endeavors. Ironically, there is a high learning curve for a genre that is considered so lowly among many of my peers. As a scholar engaged in traditional academic writing for more than a decade, I have also constantly questioned my own comfort level with blogging. How do I fit it into my writing practice? Can one really move between the two worlds in a seamless way?
Scholar meets blogger. Bloggers are like hares. They move with blazing speed. They write posts in a few hours or days, often responding to or connecting with current events. Timeliness is key. Push a button and the post is up. The blog travels the globe in an instant with one tweet. The terrain is flat and vertical; there are no gatekeepers.
Scholars, in contrast, are like tortoises. We plod along. Our research is in depth, informed by theory, methodology, and wide reading. Our articles and chapters are the result of weeks, months, even years of work. Academic writing is a hierarchical structure filled with many gatekeepers. The terrain is one of valleys, hills, and long delays.
When I started blogging, I tried to be like the hare. I sought advice from leading bloggers who told me: "You should be able to write blog posts in an hour or two." I failed miserably. It took me a while to figure out why. And, in doing so, I also realized this: The scholar who blogs faces complementary and conflicting sets of practices in relation to writing, reading, and promotion. Let me tackle each in turn.
Writing. Blogging has helped me as a writer. It pushes me to be crystal clear. It strips out the complexity and brings my fundamental points to the forefront. Blogging makes me answer questions that can help me be a better scholar: What is my message? What is the core of my story and why does it matter to my audience?
I have also learned this from bloggers: Titles matter. Bloggers, and their readers, pay a great deal of attention to titles. Flashy, provocative, counterintuitive titles. Posts can go viral because of a title.
Yet if the blog is the art of distillation housed under a great title, it can also be the art of reduction. My greatest challenge in combining scholarly writing with blogging has been finding a balance that doesn't compromise the complexity of my work.
Reading. At its best, a blog post can move and inspire in what seems like the blink of an eye. The combination of brevity, focused vision, and engaging language creates a storytelling style that could make a scholar green with envy. But blogs also generally call for a form of reading that verges on consumption.
As argued by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, online life, including blogging, can lead to a subtle shift in how we read and think. He writes: "I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. ... The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
Academic writing requires deep reading; it also entails what Carr calls "a slow excavation of meaning." Blogs, generally, do not. They implore people to read quickly, to "Like," to share, to comment. Is it possible that the move from scholarly writing to blogging constitutes a fundamental ontological shift in who we are as writers and readers?
Promotion. Here is a little-known fact about why blogging can be challenging for scholars: Blogs thrive on promotion. "Page views," Facebook "likes," and tweets are all crucial to how, and if, the blog gets read and promoted. When I blog, I find myself getting caught up in that web of "likes" and "tweets." On the one hand, it can feel like an exhilarating roller-coaster ride; on the other hand, it strikes me as completely and uncomfortably at odds with how my work is usually received and appreciated.
Page views? Think about it. Page views are only a measure of whether someone has showed up. They could be spending one second or one hour reading the piece of writing. Scholars seek understanding, not viewing, of our work. The same applies whether the writing is published on a Web site or in an academic book.
I admit that scholars can learn from bloggers about the importance of promoting our work within a wider circle of readers. Yet for many scholars, including myself, promotion can sometimes feel forced, artificial, and a bit showy. My own approach to the issue of fast and overt promotion is to blog a little, promote a little, and then take a break from it. I've heeded the sound advice of William Powers in his book Hamlet's BlackBerry: "Life in the digital room would be saner and more fulfilling if we knew how to leave it now and then."
Am I a blogger? Blogging is fast and thin; the process of academic writing is slow and deep. It's important to ask: How much, how fast, and with what gains and what compromises? I find Powers' thoughts illuminating on this, too, when he calls for "a new digital philosophy" as "a way of thinking that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart."
The issue of how to balance these distinct ways of writing and disseminating our research is something that we all need to figure out for ourselves. As a midcareer scholar with a leadership position, there are times when I do want to "connect outward" via blogging and social media. But there are other times when I need to strongly claim some "time and space apart." That is when I actually do what I consider my very best work; it is when I am lost in some real or metaphorical library doing what I have been trained to do; it is when I remind my graduate students to take time to sink into, and revel, in a slow and deep approach to research, writing, and reading.
I started blogging just last year. And I realized this: I am not a blogger. I am a scholar who blogs. Sometimes. And slowly. I like to think that I can move with the grace and speed of the hare. But I'm still guided by the mantra of the tortoise: "Slow and steady wins the race."