I’m taking some time out in this post, to talk a bit self-indulgently about my approach to blogging – partly because I’m still asked pretty regularly about how and why I got started with writing a blog. I suppose it seems a bit random; this still isn’t really a common activity in academic circles, so it’s not something most people think about doing. On a related note, I’m genuinely surprised to find that this blog is a finalist (for the third time, even!) in its category in the Canadian Online Publishing Awards. So that’s prodded me to ponder how I ended up “here”, as it were.
This is how blogging began for me: because of having participated in Twitter chats and read others’ blog posts, I knew there was a conversation going on beyond my “local” academic environment. I wanted to participate in that conversation because I felt it was relevant to my research, and I knew I could contribute commentary that exceeded several 140-character tweets. Blogging seemed like the logical next step, and there were plenty of good examples to follow. All this happened as a response to something ongoing and fairly nebulous, rather than as part of any deliberate strategy.
At the time, I had not thought about the “risks” of having a public space where I discussed academic issues, nor the perception of blogging within academic culture (all that came later!). It was just something I wanted to do because it was a way of sharing ideas with others who might be interested, and it was accessible to me, and relatively quick. It seemed like I could jump right into the fray just as other bloggers had done.
So now I’ve been writing these posts for over four years. Before and during that process, I’m lucky to have been motivated, provoked, encouraged, inspired, promoted and supported by a lot of different people who have participated in that bigger (higher education) conversation through blogs and Twitter, and some of whom I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with and/or meet in person. I’m extremely grateful to have been a part of all this. Here are a few of them (shout-outs ahoy):
- Janni Aragon;
- Kate Bowles;
- Malcolm Campbell;
- Léo Charbonneau;
- Mary Churchill;
- Joey Coleman;
- Martin Eve;
- Sara Goldrick-Rab;
- Richard Hall;
- Jeffrey Allan Johnson;
- Tressie McMillan Cottom;
- Raul Pacheco-Vega;
- Tamson Pietsch;
- Ernesto Priego;
- Rhonda Ragsdale;
- Lee Skallerup Bessette;
- Liana Silva Ford;
- Alex Usher;
- Jo Van Every;
- Mary-Helen Ward;
- Audrey Watters; and
- Kim Wilson.
Back to the award nomination, briefly: the reason I’m surprised by it is that I know the supposed “rules” for finding an audience via blogging, and I know I’m not following most of them. Short posts (around 700-750 words is considered ideal) produced regularly (every day is ideal, but several times a week will do). Focus on one or two main points and flesh them out clearly. Make the points consistently relevant to the audience you seek. If you can send posts out via some kind of daily or weekly email list, that’s even better. Share each post through all your social media profiles; add the request to “please share”. Ask readers a question at the end of the post, soliciting responses; engage with readers in the comments.
My posts, on the other hand, reach 1,500 words on a regular basis. I struggle to post regularly, because I keep wanting to think a bit more and add a few more words. I often cover a lot of different points in a single post (though I try to tie them all together coherently). I like sharing posts through social media, but I don’t like tweeting something repeatedly or bothering people with requests. I’m no good at responding to blog comments, because each one of them makes me want to write a whole other essay, and eventually I run out of hours in the day. I don’t tend to write in a deliberately “punchy” way, and I’m not into invoking dramatic metaphors or superlatives or the language of exaggeration, or hitting people repeatedly over the head with a blunt argument (see what I did there!).
The posts I write have actually gotten longer over time, and that’s partly because blogging (like other forms of writing) changes as the writing becomes more about building on what you’ve already said. It’s boring to simply repeat oneself, and personally I want to go somewhere new with the analysis, so this affects how I approach each topic. In that sense, blogging’s been great for research ideas because it’s a way push myself in directions I might otherwise avoid. I still keep a virtual scrapbook full of snippets of ideas that I’ve thrown into documents “for later”.
The length and relative infrequency of my posts is part of why I no longer get annoyed when I receive “you didn’t include the point I think is important” comments. It’s a blog post, and it can’t cover everything – there is “more” to every issue and I have to be OK with drawing a line somewhere. On a related note, blogging teaches you that you have to have some faith in your own arguments, and the flip side of that is learning when and how to stop caring about every person who disagrees with you and/or criticizes you – because someone always will. That doesn’t mean ignoring other people’s comments or critiques, it just means that the point of writing is not to try to please everyone or agree with everyone, since that only leads to paralysis.
After all that, I’m really thankful to find that some people are still reading, commenting on, and sharing my posts. Below I’ve provided a bit of a re-cap past work – a list of some of the posts I’ve written since I last took a look back (which was more than 2 years ago). These posts reflect a number of themes that I’ve seen recurring in media coverage and public debates about higher education, and in my own research on universities and organizational change:
- Academe is of the world: Taking a closer look at the myth that the university provides a rarified environment that is separate from, and does not need to face, issues like racism, sexism, and workplace harassment.
- Beyond puppies and yoga: In media coverage of student mental health issues, we too often see an individualization of problems; in this post I argue for as analysis that addresses systemic failures as well.
- Can education be sold? and The supposed failure of student choice: Examining how education becomes objectified through consumerism; and how students are expected to behave like consumers, yet are blamed when they make the wrong “choices” about education.
- Failure, crisis, disruption: the (perpetual) end of higher ed: What do we expect from education and why are its outcomes somehow never “enough”?
- Fight and flight: The academic “quit lit” is shaped by constructions of success that centre the tenure-track faculty role, and this is a significant part of the culture that influences PhDs’ career aspirations.
- Mixed Messages: How do universities communicate with students, and what’s the larger message they’re sending through the nature of that communication?
- MOOCs, access, and privileged assumptions: A discussion of the ways that many proponents of MOOCs, and education technology more generally, invoke an idea of “access” that is simplistic and exclusionary.
- Priorities and “productivity” and By the numbers: Academics too often apply the language of efficiency and productivity to their own work, without considering the assumptions underlying that framing.
- Public intellectuals – A losing game; Risk, responsibility, and public academics; and The politics of the public eye: These posts look at how “intellectuals” are imagined, and how engagement with non-academic audiences is promoted rhetorically but given little professional recognition in academe (especially for early-career researchers).
- War of attrition – asking why PhD students leave: Research on doctoral students addresses how PhD “dropouts” are (incorrectly) assumed to have left primarily because of their own weakness or lack of competence.
Lastly, I want to offer my thanks to University Affairs for giving me the opportunity to share my posts in this space, with additional kudos to UA’s skilled and long-suffering editors – Peggy Berkowitz, Léo Charbonneau, and especially Tara Siebarth – since between them they have proofread every one of these blog posts, and have been very supportive of my writing. I’m looking forward to another year of blogging and the surprises it always brings.