Why would anyone start a blog? It’s a big commitment. A blog can be seen as an “extra”, as a “vanity project” as “not scholarly”, particularly if it doesn’t directly hit a “public engagement” or “impact” target. It’s so much easier to write for other blogs. So why bother with your own?
Well, I can give you all the obvious reasons. Blogging is a way to develop your ideas, to find like-minded readers, to engage in discussions about issues that matter, to develop a public academic communication practice. In conjunction with other social media platforms, blogging is also a way to build networks.
But the answer to the question why start a blog lies, I think, in the title of this post, an obvious riff on Virginia Woolf’s famous feminist essay, “A room of one’s own”. Woolf argued that if women were missing from the arts is was because they had neither the financial independence, nor the intellectual, emotional and material space for art-making in their lives. Artists need thinking time and a place to think in.
Thus the analogy to the blog. A space for scholarly work.
The very idea of space for slow contemplation is probably pretty attractive to many of us as we think about how to manage increasingly crisis-driven and precarious lives. Finding room for un-pressured independent work likely appeals to many busy researchers/writers beset by deadlines, escalating expectations and measures of performance. And in lockdown, the notion of a material room of your own surely has particular pull for the very many PhDers who’ve had to retreat to bedrooms in shared houses to try to do any work, or who are sharing the kitchen table with their children as everyone works from home.
While a blog won’t fix all scholarly problems, it can nevertheless offer an affordable little virtual space that is just your own. Where you can write without having to think about what you are expected to say, where the content, style, frequency, pace and focus of what you write is something you can control and own. A blog can be a retreat. A tiny uncluttered oasis. Something that is perhaps just the slightest bit preciousssss (said in best Gollum voice).
And there is something very specific about a scholarly blog I think, something particular about the room that we occupy.
Room to profess
Most people suggest that you start thinking about your own blog by working on the holy trinity of blog agenda, blog target audience, and blog identity. In other words, you have to consider what your blog is about and who you want to read it. Based on your answers, you decide how you will signal message and audience through your blog title, strap-line and design. I’m not disagreeing with this advice. I’m just going to twist it around a bit to connect this with scholarship, and suggest that you think about what academic work you stand for and how your blog will help you explain it.
I equate an academic, as opposed to a personal, blog space with the somewhat old-fashioned idea of professing. To profess something is to affirm its importance – and in the academy professing is acknowledging the value of scholarship – reading, writing, thinking, researching, imagining and reasoning, perhaps within a particular discipline, perhaps within a pedagogical frame. We are called professors because we profess – we stand for a collective community with a shared practice. We also avow the importance of a particular research agenda, our specific contribution to making meaning of and in the world.
So the first issue with a blog of your own relates to the primary question of why – and it’s What am I going to profess in my blog? Is the blog a room of my own where I can address the value of thinking in public? Is it an ongoing engagement with a particular topic? Is it about sharing my ideas and engaging with an asynchronous academic conversation? Am I exploring what I am reading/researching? Am I teaching academic practices that matter? Is my blog about an academic life? Is it about ways of working? Any combination of these? Other things? These professing questions are of course a way of saying that you have to have something to say if you are going to write a blog.
And there’s two important further aspects professing that are important – the scholar and scholarly time.
Any piece of academic writing not only shows the world who you are as a scholar, it also makes you a particular kind of scholar. The things you write about, combined with the way you write, who and what you refer to, not only represent your work, they also (continue to) produce you as a scholar. As you write, you also create your scholarly self. So it’s worth thinking about the kind of scholar you want to be and become, as well as what you profess, in your blog.
Of course, you might decide to use a blog to present only part of your work. That’s what I do here, in Patter. I write about – in other words I profess – building a writing and research practice. This is not simply something I do myself but I also research, and teach others to do too. But this is not all that I do. I do have a not-work self and I occasionally let little pieces of that drift into Patter, just as I do in teaching or in a scholarly conversation. But as Patter is not a personal blog but a place to profess, there is not so much of the personal.
I’ve already suggested that a blog might be a place to do a bit of slow thinking. A slow making of an agenda. Not an unrolling per se, as the blog itself continues to construct the topic as well as the scholar themselves. Thinking about a blog as an ongoing part of scholarship takes a bit of the heat out of the writing – well it does for me. I don’t expect every Patter post to be an outright winner. I know that some posts get read a lot and used, and others are just part of a body of thinking and writing that you come to know if you read the blog regularly. But if you are an occasional Patter reader than there ought to be enough in the post you stumble over, or in nearby posts, to make it worth your while reading again at another time.
Of course you all know that a blog takes time out of your week. Quite a lot. It’s up to you whether you want to commit to posting regularly or not – there’s no rule that says weekly, or daily, or monthly, or sporadically when you feel like it, is better than anything else. I’m rather fond of a routine so I publish weekly and always around the same time of day. But I have an un-evidenced hunch that regular posts get more readers (maybe this is a research project in waiting, feel free, I’m not going to do it or even look to see if it’s been done.) The point is that you get to choose whether how frequently you publish. You do you as the saying goes.
Above all, you don’t want your blog to become another obligation. Another thing to feel guilty about or to feel you’ve failed at. Here’s where blogging as a room your own comes into its own. If the blog is a pleasurable space that you control, where you can pursue your agenda, where you profess what matters most, then you are less likely to see it as an imposition. Something that just has to get done. Blogging is voluntary and worth doing. Well, that’s my take anyway.
But it’s also OK to stop the blog when it ceases to be a good place to be. You might just have outgrown it, and need another room somewhere else. Some blogs absolutely have a shelf life –
- the blog that is attached to a time-limited research project ( I have several archived blogs associated with particular funded projects)
- the blog that is a particular time-boundaried part of a scholarly career – it’s about the PhD or being an early career researcher or having particular job.
If your blog does have a built-in end point, then you have to give yourself permission to stop when the logical end arrives. You’ve done it. You and blog have reached a parting of the ways. It’s also OK to change the blog into something else as your need to profess, and to become and be something else, evolves over time.
If you can work your way through these issues and at the end you still want to blog, then it’s time to find out the techie stuff about platforms and domain names and the like. Just google these things – there’s loads of technical advice out there. The tech is easy. What matters is getting the scholarly answer to the why start a blog question.
I’ve been writing this mini-series and post as Patter turns 9. Appropriate eh. And planned!! This is the 841st post I’ve published here since July 2011. I began with weekly posts and then moved to twice a week. I went back to weekly a few years ago when it started to feel less like a room of my own and much more like my work office.
I get no workload points for my blog, I profess and teach at large on my own time. That’s my choice and you may well not want to do this. I agree that it’s not a great political example for people to follow and one I can only sustain because I am employed, and one of those senior prof people. On the other hand, professing outside of my institution, free of charge, to people who don’t have access to expensive books, militates against the voluntary “additional work”. One of my continued pleasures is seeing patter blog posts translated into a variety of languages, helping ( I hope) people who have to write in English and get little support to do so.
And of course more people read what I have to say here than anywhere else. A couple of million blog reads a year stands up pretty well against my H-index. I have been sustained over the years not only by the knowledge that the blog is widely read and used (thankyou all for the feedback), but also by ongoing conversations with other bloggers, you know who you are. So here’s to all of us blogging on into 2020 and beyond.