The Whys and Hows of Academic Blogging 

I was asked to write a little something about academic blogging by the communications committee at ACSP for their new blog. The content appears here and over there. Please do check them out. It looks like they are going to have a good lineup of students and scholars writing for them

To me, my blog is a digital seminar that I can use to float out my ideas, make connections, and hear objections and criticisms from other smart people out in the Interwebs. We have departmental seminars at USC, and they can be tremendously helpful, but one can’t go demanding one’s colleagues read everything one is thinking about at every stage

But blog readers can skip and skim, and they might even enjoy the ride. Thus blogging is simply something I do for two reasons: 1) to try out new ideas and start conversations in a quicker way than via traditional publication, for both new research ideas and current issues; and 2) to keep my writing muscles loose when I am stumped on my writing for publication.

1. Trying out ideas    

Some events come and and go, and they make for good natural experiments; we wrote a paper about Carmageddon, for example (first author, the brilliant Andy Hong now at UBC). But that paper came out nearly four years after the event. I got to talk about Carmageddon and the research we were doing long before that. Blogging is a way to get in on discussions about urban development and politics as they unfold, and as such, it can help you identify some of the movers and the shakers, who are also people who might need to be interviewed for later research. Recently in Los Angeles, we had a ballot box measure on development called Measure S. Since I am doing research on the measure, I wanted to avoid doing any public endorsements or op-eds either way. There were, however, important perspectives and ideas that I thought were missing from the discussion that I brought forward on the blog. The Measure S discussion got pretty hot, and even people I had considered friends started badmouthing me pretty badly for failing to follow their perceived party line. Feelings run hot in politics: if you are going to step into politics with your blog, you had better be ready for vitriol mixed in with legitimate critiques of your ideas. 

Trying out new ideas, even if they are unrelated to current issues, is also really useful. The peer review process is good for many things, but it can be hard on innovation. Some of my most innovative research projects were greeted with scorn or derision by reviewers who are probably perfectly nice people and great scholars. But peer review tends to keep things incremental; you get a paper out of the blue, you don’t really know the person writing, sometimes the writer hasn’t done a great job of setting the stage or the context, and blam! The reviews veer sadly towards the Land of Carping and Dismissing instead of into the Realm of Generous Critiques That Improve Innovative Thought. The blog is a way to jump out of that box before you get to reviewers and say “hey, I don’t have a full argument or set of evidence yet, but here is what I am thinking about.” It gives me a way to try out ideas with people to see how I need to frame issues to get past the blank stares and question marks that are going to accompany iconoclastic thought or weird connections. 

2. Writing as a daily practice 

There are people out there, I suppose, who get up and write every single day on nothing other than their research for publication. I envy them, so much in fact that I hope they drop their cell phones in a toilet bowl. 

  Since I got tenure and began working more on theory writing, drafting and composition have become even more difficult for me. When I am actively working on research writing, I am crabby, spacey and wretched, like a little drenched cat wishing I could do anything else or be anywhere else. Why do I do it? Because not unlike Dorothy Parker, I hate writing but I love having written. Drafting makes me crazy. Revision is my thing; with my jolly blue pencil and black Sharpie, I’m as happy as I ever get. 

 Thus I do not write for publication every day. You should, you really should. I have never been able to manage it. But I do write, on something, just about every day. I journal. I blog. In addition to my scholarly writing, I’ve written two novels under a pseudonym. For somebody who hates creating new drafts as much as I do, I create a lot of text, and I credit blogging for helping me do that. Blogging gives me something to write when I am circling around my scholarship like Jack Palance circled Alan Ladd in the movie Shane. Writing on the blog and writing fiction reminds me that writing can be fun. These serve as relief valves when I am ready to set fire to my research and anybody unfortunate enough to ask me how my research is going that day. Blogging requires sufficient rigor that you can’t just post any old nonsense or people will yell at you. It does not, however, require the sort of rigor one wants from one’s scholarship. Blogging is to wind sprints what the marathon is to a book. 

Those are the why for blogging. Here are some nuts and bolts. 

1. Attach a blog to your scholarly home page, which I think should be hosted outside of your university. Some units have  wonderful media people who actually want to help you develop a web presence, but at most public universities, limited staff time means that they work exclusively for administrators, and administrators are focussed on web content for their charges–departments and programs. If you have to go through staff to get your publications updated online, it is a hassle for you and them. But if you host it yourself, you update as you like, and you don’t have to start all over if you move universities. In addition, you have to take care of your own self-promotion online. The blog should be part of a whole web suite that presents “You, Inc” as a total scholar. Look at authors’ websites or other scholars for inspiration. (Justin Hollander is a good online promoter of his work, for just one place to start.)  

2. Be patient. It takes time and networking to get readers. I blogged to myself for about 5 years. I have found the best way to self-promote is simply to promote and amplify the work of other people. When you link and discuss other people’s ideas, they like it and are grateful. They remember you. They link back to you; you retweet them; they retweet you. Over time, this builds into an audience. No amount of networking helps if you don’t have the ideas to put out there there, though. 

3. If you are a woman or person of color, or blog from difference  or marginality in any way, people will try to bully and silence you. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s advice may be steeped in the privilege she’s had in her life, but it’s still damn good advice: cultivate selective deafness. People have called me every name in the book from “disingenuous” to “empty-headed” to the c-word. Women should not have to put up with the verbal abuse I have experienced in order to write about the city. The luxury of tenure is that I tune it out. I really do not care that I’ve rubbed some loudmouth urban bros the wrong way. I go out of my way to give them a wedgie sometimes because they richly deserve it at times. But if you are easily hurt, that hurt will come to you online if you have anything new or nuanced to say. Bllogging has trained me towards more self-control and thicker skin–two things I always need. 

4. Do not blog when you should be researching. I know, I know I just said above that I use blogging to keep the writing muscle loose. I do. I also know full well when I am blogging to procrastinate. You will catch yourself doing that, too. So don’t do it. I may hate like the very devil to draft new work, but I do it because I couldn’t get and keep a job in the academy without it. Content has to come first; your research and scholarly publication are what you do to invest in yourself as a scholar. You continue your own education by doing research, and you educate others about your discoveries through publication and speaking. You have to create knowledge before you can promote it via a blog or anything else. So that is job #1 on most days. 
I am happy to read and promote others’ blogs. If you would like me to post your blog on mine or you have good content to share, feel free to forward it to me at lsschweitzer589@gmail.com or hit me up via Twitter @drschweitzer