The Promise and Perils of Academic Blogging

The following is adapted from a talk I gave yesterday at the University of Edinburgh’s IT Futures Conference

The purpose of blogging for me (and what seems to me its most valuable use for students like myself) is both to brainstorm ideas for my reserch, and to reflect on issues lying at the intersection of my academic work and the interests and experiences of more ordinary people.  This latter goal is perhaps easier for me, given my particular field of study, than it would be for many young academics.  After all, I am working in Christian ethics and political thought, and almost everyone has occasion to worry about how to live ethically and to dispute about politics.  Perhaps a biochemist would have more difficulty blogging in this middle space.  But where it’s possible, it’s very useful, since it helps keep you from becoming the kind of detached, super-specialized academic that can only talk to other academics.  If you’re planning to teach, this kind of blogging is very good practice. 

But my first purpose now is not, of course, to teach.  Rather, my blog serves, first and foremost, as a thinkspace, a place for me to brainstorm ideas on questions that I’m thinking of researching or writing, as a place to post book reviews or interesting passages as I research key sources, which I might use later in my writing, or even as a place to post initial drafts of my thesis or other projects.  

But the blog also helps keep me from becoming so narrowly focused on my research that I can’t think intelligently about other issues, as too often happens to Ph.D students.  Attending conferences and talking with fellow students is of course one good way to maintain some breadth, but for many of us, there’s no substitute for writing, as a way of processing and organizing information, and indeed generating new insights.  Of course, many students try to publish journal articles on topics loosely related or unrelated to their research, as a way of keeping some breadth in their studies, but this can be a very demanding and time-consuming process, requiring a level of thoroughness in research and care in citation that one can rarely justify given the demands of one’s primary research project.  Blogging is a great way to solve this dilemma.  It gives one an outlet to reflect seriously and carefully on issues that one is interested in, but without demanding the rigor and time investment of a journal article or conference paper. 


Now what makes the blog a truly useful way of accomplishing both these ends is of course the presence of other people.  Naturally, I could sit and brainstorm and write up thoughts on my computer to my heart’s content, but this would not be terribly useful, for any number of reasons.  For one, it would be difficult to be sufficiently disciplined; the temptation would always be to stop writing when a thought was half-formed and only partially articulate.  The simple awareness that others may be reading compels you to organize your thoughts, to clarify them, to qualify them where necessary; to anticipate objections, rather than simply trusting in one’s first instincts.  And, if you are writing with a largely non-academic readership in mind, as I am, then you’re also forced to think about how to simplify complex ideas, how to communicate them in lucid language, rather than hiding behind technical terms, and how to make the thoughts interesting and compelling to a non-specialist.  Ph.D students often have woeful writing skills, and the exercise of writing a Ph.D is not one that tends to improve them much, since your supervisor has to read your work, no matter how boring it is.  Although blogging was perhaps once associated with loose, careless, and sloppy writing, nowadays, quality blogs are in high demand, and blogging can provide a great opportunity to practice writing well, really engaging people’s attention.  And of course, if hypothetical readers translate into actual readers, as they almost surely will do if you have anything worthwhile to say, you can get feedback–criticism of poorly-formed ideas, questions that invite you to reflect and explain further, suggestions of sources that you could use in further research.  Your posts may also lure in other readers–potentially other postgraduate students, or even established academics, with interest in similar issues, giving you the opportunity to learn from them and form relationships.  Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find regular interlocutors, with your same interests but somewhat different perspectives, who will consistently challenge you to rethink and refine your assumptions, often opening up space for great intellectual breakthroughs that reshape your research and make it far clearer and more useful than it otherwise would have been.  This has been my own experience, and I have been enormously blessed by it.


Now it is important to note at this point an important tension that has been introduced.  I started off talking about blogging as something I do primarily for myself, but its usefulness depends also upon its being done for other people.  Now this tension turns out to be a persistent and difficult one. It is important, I think, not to start out with a more altruistic concept of blogging–“I am writing in order to help share my wisdom with others, and illuminate them about all these important issues.  I will use my superior learning to help correct popular misconceptions on a whole range of issues.”  Such a posture is actually ultimately more selfish, because more arrogant.  You may in fact have many useful things to offer the world, but it’s best not to start off by assuming that you do.  It’s easy to get an inflated idea of your own importance in blogdom.  It doesn’t take much for you to find that a couple dozen folks a day are popping in to see what you’ve been writing, for maybe one hundred pairs of eyes to read each well-written post.  If you venture onto a subject of popular interest (as I did when I wrote a theological critique of the final Harry Potter movie), then social media could turn you into a temporary celebrity overnight.  This can quickly go to your head, and this is bad for any number of reasons.  For one thing, even if you have a truly wide readership, and one that is well-deserved, that doesn’t mean you really know what you’re talking about.  1000 hits a day is no substitute for a peer-reviewed journal article or positive feedback from your supervisor.  If your #1 goal is to be a successful Ph.D researcher, then you need to keep your eye on the ball and maintain due humility about the scope of your knowledge.  

Even aside from that problem, however, too much of a focus on your readership can pose a real problem.  For instance, suppose you get in the habit of posting about three times a week, and then you get to a phase of your Ph.D where you have to focus really intensively on some research, and you find you hardly have any time to post.  Well, if you fall into too much of the mentality that your blog is for your readers, then you will feel a lot of pressure to keep putting up posts.  Otherwise, readers might start getting restless–or stop following your blog altogether!  If the pressure to keep posting means you spend time on your blog that you should be spending on research, then the blog has shifted from being a useful servant to a cruel taskmaster.  Another way that this can happen is through comments.  The payoff of a successful blog is that it demands more of your time.  Lots of people read your posts, and they comment–they ask questions, or they argue with one another, or they argue with you.  Naturally, you want to engage their comments, especially if they’ve been hard-hitting in their criticisms, and you start taking it personally.  But they may end of having much more time to keep arguing with you than you have to spare; it’s not hard to find yourself spending up 10 hours a week blogging and replying to comments.  And there’s also the danger of becoming so worried about projecting a polished, all-knowing, omni-competent image that you’re afraid to actually think through difficult issues on your blog or be honest about questions you’re struggling to answer.  That makes the blog less useful for yourself and your readers.  


 Now, all of this might suggest that the best way to blog is to write as if nobody is reading.  But, for obvious reasons, this is not a suitable solution.  As mentioned above, one point of blogging, instead of just jotting down notes to yourself, is to compel you to write better.  A false humility that assumes that hardly anyone is actually reading can become an excuse for carelessness and flippancy.  This can become particularly dangerous when expressing controversial opinions or critiquing other writers.  Controversy and criticism are of course an inevitable part of academic life, but they have to be managed very carefully.  Within academic writing, there are a host of unwritten rules about how one engages in these, attempting to ensure that even the sharpest disagreements remain gentlemanly, respectful, and restrained.  There is naturally a bit more freedom in a blogging environment, which can be useful, but it is very easy to go too far, indulging in colorful rhetoric or blunt attacks that will hurt your own image and may come back to haunt you.  In fact, it’s remarkable how quickly one may be brought to regret the carelessness that comes from this false humility.  Once, when blogging about a prestigious visiting lecturer’s presentation, I made some carelessly-phrased joking criticisms in the midst of what I thought was clearly an attitude of good-natured appreciation, assuming that only a few friends and students would be reading my post.  But tones of voice do not come through in writing, and 24 hours later, my supervisor was asking me to explain myself, the lecturer in question having seen my post and angrily contacted the school.  Since then, I’ve made a point of trying to always write with the assumption that anyone could be listening, and to guard carefully in advance against possible misunderstandings.  If I do have anything to offer in my blogging, I don’t want to turn people off by the way I say it.


So, in order to blog successfully, it’s important to simultaneously be always aware of your possible audience, and yet not preoccupied with them, remembering that the blog is first and foremost a tool to aid you in your own thinking and research, and that you will likely be of much more use to the world, and any potential readers, in the long-term if you successfully complete your research than if you spend all your time blogging.  It’s important to try to project an intelligent and respectable image through your blogging, but not to be so concerned with image that you’re no longer being genuine–the key is to use the blog as a way to explore your own interests and clarify your own ideas.  By making this your focus, you may well find that, as a by-product, lots of people–even important people, even potential employers–do want to listen to you and talk with you.  Through my blogging, I’ve formed lots of great relationships and hopefully made lots of good impressions.  But important as this result is, it’s more likely to happen if it remains no more than a secondary goal, not the primary purpose of all your blogging. 

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