Should Graduate Students Blog?

blogger-logoOn Thursday I’m speaking to our graduate students’ “professionalization” seminar about academic uses of social media, particularly blogging. I’ve given related talks a few times now, but this is the first time I will have led a session about blogging specifically for an audience of graduate students, for whom some of the issues I typically address have somewhat different implications. Thinking about this, I was reminded that last spring Leonard Cassuto (with whom I had a couple of initially testy but ultimately amicable exchanges about the place and value of academic blogging) asked me for my thoughts about whether graduate students should blog. He was working up a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the question that, as far as I know, never ended up in final form — at any rate, I didn’t see it, and he never got back to me to ‘preview’ his use of any quotations from my reply, which he had promised to do. I thought I might as well “repurpose” the response I sent him, as I had taken some pains over it, so here it is, lightly updated. I’d be very interested in any responses, qualifications, objections, or counter-arguments, not least because they will help me refresh my own thinking about this as I head into Thursday’s seminar.

Should Graduate Students Blog?

Should graduate students blog? That’s a tricky question with at least two important aspects to it. One is whether graduate students should blog with the specific aim of advancing their professional academic careers (that is, improving their chances of getting tenure-track work). Another is whether they should blog for its intrinsic benefits.

These are not, of course, entirely separate questions: some of the things that can be gained from blogging (greater ease and confidence in writing, experience with the give-and-take of post-publication peer review, connections with other people in your field but also with a wider audience, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, freedom to experiment with topics and with voice) can contribute to professional success by making better scholars, teachers, and intellectuals of us all. It can also inculcate work habits conducive to producing more conventional publications: regular bloggers can all testify to the ever-present awareness that the blog needs to be fed!

But it would be naive to ignore that blogging (for some good and some bad reasons) is not yet widely recognized as a legitimate form of academic publishing and that the case for it as productive academic work at all remains a difficult one to make. Graduate students aspiring to tenure-track positions hardly need to be told that for most hiring committees, the crucial measure of their competitiveness as candidates will be the number of conventional peer-reviewed scholarly publications on their c.v.–and the more prestigious the venue, the better. Though blogging one’s research projects can be a useful stage en route to achieving those conventional publications, or even to finishing the dissertation (Scott Kaufman’s Acephalous blog was once the place to look to see this in action!), in itself it is not the same thing and will almost certainly not be valued in the same way. And maintaining a good blog takes time–not necessarily or exactly time away from that kind of clearly marketable scholarly work and publication, but time that might be better used to focus directly on finishing that thesis and getting those lines for your c.v. There are definitely risks involved, then, in deciding to blog.

That said, blogging is increasingly acknowledged as having a place in the overall ecology of academic scholarship. Graduate students who choose to blog should by now be able to make a thoughtful and well-supported case for the value of that effort as part of their overall scholarly portfolio. I think a crucial point is that this case needs to be backed up by faculty members who can explain, to their colleagues and to administrators, the role blogging can play in developing original scholarship as well as in knowledge dissemination and outreach. Those of us who have used the protection of tenure, for instance, to experiment ourselves with alternative modes of writing and publishing need to be advocates for graduate students who take the risk of doing less conventional kinds of work. (See, for instance, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s piece on supporting students working in Digital Humanities, which is not the same thing as blogging but raises many similar issues, including how such non-traditional work can be recorded and evaluated).

There’s one more angle that’s maybe worth considering: with tenure-track positions so rare, graduate students may look at blogging, not just as an activity related (however equivocally) to their potential academic careers, but as one way of turning their skills and knowledge outward from the academy. Though this can hardly be counted on, blogging can help someone establish an identity and a following that might create new kinds of opportunities–in online journalism, for instance, or in other ways not strictly imagined at the outset. Again, there are risks in investing time and effort in something without a clear professional pay-off, but just what that profession or pay-off might be should certainly no longer be defined in solely academic terms. Aaron Bady, proprietor of the blog zunguzungu and one of my former colleagues at The Valve, comes to mind as a good example of someone who has established a significant online presence.

So, do I think graduate students should blog? I do think they should consider it, because I know from my own experience how intellectually beneficial blogging is and how it creates contacts and opportunities. It would be hypocritical of me to recommend against graduate students engaging in work I believe to be good for us and for our profession. But I think they need to be aware that as far as I can tell, my view remains a minority one, and they should think carefully about how they manage their time and about what kind of blog, if any, might serve them best. Defining a niche, for instance, might be important; collaborating in a group blog might be a way to spread the work around (see, for instance, The Floating Academy, whose contributors would be good people to ask about blogging — I’d be happy if they weighed in here). If graduate students do decide to blog, I think they should be ready to explain clearly how doing so contributes to their professional development and to the advancement of understanding in their field, and I think we should listen to them and find a responsible way to evaluate the value of the work they’re doing. (Blogs are just a form, after all; their value and impact depend on how that form is used, on what it is used for. We should be well past the point of generalizing about blogging as such.)

I certainly don’t think we (t-t faculty, administrators) should expect or demand that graduate students blog, at least not until we’ve normalized giving professional credit for blogging: that just adds one more thing to the already daunting set of expectations they labor under.

What do you think?

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15 Responses to Should Graduate Students Blog?

  1. Sarah Creel says:

    I think this post addresses some fantastic points about the pitfalls and high points regarding academic blogging for graduate students. You cover the full range of what a grad student can expect from blogging, and I’d like to add that for me, blogging has been a salve for isolation. I’m working on my PhD from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and living with my partner in Atlanta, so having the blog and twitter feed have really helped me feel in touch with a graduate community. Additionally, many academics on Twitter and in the blogosphere are incredibly helpful (that’s not always the case, of course, but it’s been overwhelmingly my experience). There is something about social media that seems to tear down the barriers between, say, grad students and TT who are involved in digital humanities, which makes asking for advice and feedback easier. And, often, the feedback comes very quickly.

    I also concur with your point about blogging and tweeting being a time suck, but I find that they simply need to fall under the same rules of time management that I apply to other aspects of my day. I’m not always good at managing my time on social media, but I do try to limit it, or use it as a reward for a work day well spent. Blogging also gives me another genre of writing and frees me from thinking about my project (if for only a few hours). I find that I harbour so much angst about my dissertation writing that I’m often impressed that I’m able to crank out a decent, witty blog post in an hour or two. It’s a definite confidence builder for me.

    Okay, I think that’s about it! Sorry for the long commentary; you’ve just touched on something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. Cheers and thank you for the thoughtful post!

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful reply, Sarah. Your point about isolation is a key one – that’s actually one of the reasons blogging (and twitter) matter so much to me, as even though I am on campus, I’m far from family and old friends and also not surrounded with a large cohort of people who share my specific interests. And as you say, social media has (or at least can have) a wonderfully leveling effect, and the feedback can be quick, smart, and thus motivating.

  2. I’m not an academic, but I’ve struggled with many of the issues you raise in this post. On the one hand, I’m absolutely certain my writing has improved since I started my blog. On the other, this also happened during a period when I began writing for various newspapers and magazines, then found myself on staff at one such outlet. So, at the same time I was blogging, I was also being professionally edited, and immersing myself in an environment where journalistic editing is a daily occurrence. That editorial process was at least as significant as the practice of regular blogging.

    Comments on a blog can help the writer refine his or her opinions in a general way, but I truly believe they are no substitute for hands-on editorial work of the kind that occurs in the academic peer-review process, or between a thesis candidate and her supervisor.

    I would also be lying if I said that blogging did not distract me from opportunities for professional (read: paid) writing. And there are some 1,500- or 2,000-word pieces I wrote for my blog that I’d probably have been better off saving and submitting to magazines or journals.

    One thing a blog can provide is a sense of community, a sense that you’re not alone in your interests, concerns, or ideas, no matter how idiosyncratic they may be. Feedback is useful, and even negative feedback can be helpful in developing practical skills and a coherent approach to one’s subject.

    Still, the lack of oversight that results in a whole lot of poorly written, ill-considered material getting thrown up online probably means that blogging will continue to be viewed with suspicion in academic circles, at least for the time being. In the same way you suggest normalization of rules for crediting graduate students’ blogs, it seems to me that the quality of the blogs people create and use as sources in articles, dissertations, etc. need to achieve some minimum standard of excellence in content and writing before they are admitted in this context. (Which is maybe another way of saying the same thing.)

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Steven, I know what you mean about the value of hands-on editing, though I’d also have to say that I have rarely received much really constructive feedback on my writing through academic peer-review processes! But another set of (smart, well-informed) eyes on one’s writing — that is indeed a great thing. The problem of filtering will probably always, as you say, result in skepticism about blogging, especially in circles where otherwise there are clear and very hierarchical processes of evaluation. There’s really no substitute for actually reading someone’s blog — and not just one post, but following it for a while — to figure out if it meets any kind of ‘minimum standard.’

      You make an interesting point about blog posts that you could have used in some other way. I never used to think about that, but every so often now I think about ‘pitching’ a piece and I wonder if it would be possible or acceptable to build on something I already wrote as a blog pot. I’ve written here about so many topics and books that are the same ones I might want to try an article on!

      I agree wholeheartedly about the sense of community blogging can provide.

      • Suse Cairns says:

        I’ve had a couple of people chase me down to ask for me to work posts up into different formats for publication in other sources. It can definitely be a thinking space for ideas to be developed further.

  3. Ann Gagne says:

    This is a wonderful post and a great question. I started blogging when my funding ran out during my PhD (after 4th year) and I was looking for sessional work while trying to complete my dissertation. My main motivation to start blogging was to maintain a sense of academic community even if I was not teaching or physically present on the campus where I was enrolled.

    Blogging turned out to be a great motivator and allowed me to speak to larger issues I was tackling in my dissertation but also other socio-cultural issues I encountered in trying to crack the sessional market. Luckily I did find a position (a few months after I started blogging) and I have been teaching at the same college for over 3 years. I finished my dissertation 2 years after I started my blog and I truly feel my blog helped me complete my research. Since that time the reach of blog has definitely improved due to the amazing Higher Ed community present on Twitter.

    You raise an important issue about graduate student blogging in that it is often yet to be recognized as academic publishing or work. I think this is why at times advisors discourage graduate students from blogging, citing that it is a waste of time, not valuable for tenure/promotion etc. However, my personal experience with blogging has been very valuable in creating contacts and connections. You can even think of it as an alternative to conference going, and the blog you mention, The Floating Academy, is a perfect example of maintaining community and networking. (Full disclosure: many Floating Academy members are former colleagues and cohort-mates so I might be a bit biased).

    In a nut shell I feel blogging can do more good than harm for graduate students and I would encourage any student I was advising to try blogging as a way to connect, expand their research, and hone their writing skills.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Thanks for your response, Anne, and for the illuminating context you provide from your own experience. I like the idea that blogs can be seen as an alternative to conferences or other forms of networking. I am wary about the risks for graduate students who are already over-extended if they take on blogging and don’t continue to pursue the standard professional products (articles, books — and, increasingly, digital projects). But especially once courses are over and students move into the dissertation phase, many of the isolating effects of academic life can really be offset — and as you say, it helps with writing skills and confidence as well.

  4. Thanks for this post, Rohan, and for inviting those of us at the Floating Academy to weigh in. You’re absolutely right that being part of a group blog – one that has no fixed schedule for contributing posts – does relieve the pressure to constantly write posts…or, at least, the pressure is shared nine ways. I find, too, that the shared blogging has worked really well for the changing priorities and schedules of our group of bloggers as we move through our early careers. For instance, when we started the blog, I was a postdoc and was able to contribute significantly more posts than I did last year, which was my first, hectic, year on the tenure track. Sharing the blogging with colleagues allows for that kind of flexibility and might be an ideal format for graduate students for that reason.

    The main reason I wanted to start the Floating Academy was the one that Sarah Creel and Ann Gagne mention above, and that you have written about in some of your previous posts about blogging. I was looking for a community of like-minded scholars and for conversations about the research we were doing. I think this may be another great reason for graduate students to blog. In some departments, a graduate student may be the only one in his or her particular subfield or theoretical orientation. I thought of blogging an alternative way to build a research community.

    I agree with you, Rohan, that writing regularly – in blog form or elsewhere – is a worthwhile practice that can support more formalized academic writing. Aimee Morrison wrote a terrific blog post on Hook and Eye on this topic that captures the way I think about blogging too:
    “The more you write, the more you write.”
    (http://www.hookandeye.ca/2011/10/more-she-sleeps-more-she-sleeps.html)

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I appreciate your weighing in, Jennifer. Once again it’s the sense of community that we all keep coming back to, isn’t it? You can partake of that even if you don’t write your own blog, I think: reading and commenting and just being part of the conversation could be a compromise for students who really don’t think they could sustain a posting schedule of any kind. But the regular writing is both a discipline and a reward. Thanks for the Hook and Eye link – Aimee is so right.

  5. Suse Cairns says:

    I’m a PhD candidate who has just moved into my third year of candidacy. I started blogging very early into my PhD, and am approaching the 2nd anniversary of my blog. There are a few things I’d like to contribute to this discussion.
    The first is the positive. Blogging has absolutely changed my research and my life for the better. Thanks to my blog, I have been able to meet people right across my professional and academic sector including very high members of the profession; people who would have been far beyond my circle without the blog. I have been invited to speak at numerous conferences, both national and international, and will be speaking on my first plenary sessions at two separate conferences in coming months, all prior to finishing my PhD. I have won grants and scholarships on the basis of the international impact my work is having. My writing has improved, the quality of the questions I ask has gone up, and I am now surrounded by an incredibly generous community of thinkers. I also know that my research has value to my community, which is very motivating. In addition, my blogging has drawn attention to my peer-review published work, and helped open many other opportunities.
    But there are drawbacks which I think grad students considering blogging should be aware of. The first is that because of my growing visibility in the sector, it will be challenging to find any examiners who are not already aware of my work (for better or worse). My blog posts often contain ideas that are still in sketch, and can be rudimentary for that. This means that any examiner will have the opportunity to see how some of my work has evolved, rather than just viewing the completed dissertation and argument.
    I have, at times, written posts that did upset people in my sector. Although I have learned a lot from such experiences, this again shapes the way that people will come to me and my work in the future.
    Being visible and known opens lots of doors. But it can also be quite confronting to have strangers approach who are intimate with you and your work when you don’t have the same sense of them. It becomes harder to attend a conference, for instance, and hide away. People start to come to you with expectations.
    Maintaining a blog does take work and time away from other research and writing. For me, it has absolutely been worth it. But I am something of a workaholic, and I love what I do. It would not be the same for everyone, and not everyone would want to prioritise it over their other activities.
    But then there is the terror. If you are a blogger who is at times provocative, pressing publish on a post can be highly anxiety-inducing; not always the best thing for those already under the pressures of academic work.
    So I don’t think blogging is – or should be – for everyone. Go in with eyes open. It can be life-changing, and often for the better (it has been for me). But nothing is uncomplicated, and growing up as a professional in the public eye is no different.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Yours is a very interesting perspective, Suse. I hadn’t thought about the visibility issue being at once so positive and, potentially, so stressful. Those are definitely factors someone would want to consider. I know a number of academics who blog pseudonymously: that means you can’t take full advantage of the benefits but are freer to take risks or speak out. You can hardly discuss your own work in progress, though, and so this is a strategy more for people who want to write about ‘academia’ in general than to further work in their specialized fields.

      Your “go in with your eyes open” advice seems sound to me — and also, think about the kind of personality you have, the kind of persona you want to have online, and about how much else you are trying to do and under what conditions.

      • Suse Cairns says:

        Rohan, I absolutely agree with your advice on thinking about your personality, and your online persona. I recently had a long chat with a friend (via Twitter) who, like me is both a PhD student and a blogger, about her discomfort with ‘faceless networks.’ Her blogging voice is somewhat different to my own, and I’m sure that everyone comes to find their appropriate approach with time and practice. Not all blogs are the same, nor all bloggers. But it is such an amenable platform that whether retiring or recalcitrant, it is possible to use blogging constructively as a grad student, or at any other time in a career.

  6. Colleen says:

    I began blogging near the end of my PhD, in part to answer someone’s question about how many books I read per year, but much more importantly, to also remind myself why I’d ever thought studying literature was a good idea. I was tired of my degree and falling out of love with books generally which, for me, was a development leading to despair! I wanted to be reminded that I loved books. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing that to grad school too.

    It worked, and not because of community at all–I think I was blogging for at least 6 months before I had even one comment! For me, it was useful because it brought me back to the basic pleasures of reading and writing about books. This might not sound important, but it enabled me to finish my PhD–which I’d seriously been considering dropping out of before it occurred to me to begin blogging.

  7. Geocities says:

    Dear Rohan,

    I just wanted to thank you for your lovely talk this afternoon. Sometimes I think the Professionalization Seminar can be a deeply demoralizing experience; so much seems dedicated to pounding in the bleak realities of academia for our generation, or even *dissuading* students from pursuing academic work. I don’t think you dismissed any of the real challenges here, but it’s nice to know that someone else finds the unrelenting focus on earlier and earlier peer-reviewed publishing (even as readership sharply declines) problematic, disappointing, and perhaps deeply misguided.

    It seems so small, but I really needed to hear that as a student. I know that I want to teach and to be surrounded by learning my whole life– but sometimes it’s so easy to forget why you fell in love with the humanities in the first place. I’m afraid that the joy of learning will lose its charm in the exhaustion of constantly chasing stable employment. But everyone seems to go with the flow even as our world is eaten up from the inside.

  8. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Geocities – I appreciate your comment very much, and I’m glad that I brought something to the session that was valuable to you. It is a shame that the professionalization seminar can be demoralizing, and yet of course, all those bleak realities are realities. Wanting to “teach and to be surrounded by learning” is a great thing, but academic careers involve a lot more than that, especially in the early stages. And the other reality, as I’m sure you’ve heard over and over, is that those careers are also scarce. I have found a way to sustain some of the love that brought me here, but I think it’s worth considering whether chasing academic employment will, indeed, kill that for you! Universities do not have a monopoly on reading, writing, or learning — and certainly are not the most joyful environments, especially these days.

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