Historians, Social Media and the Internet

Why blog about academic history?

by Dr Will Pooley (Past and Present Fellow, IHR; Oxford)

The question is almost as old as academic blogs themselves. (For instance: I like Helen Roger’s explanation of why she blogs about nineteenth-century prisons (http://bit.ly/Zqpzh9) and I also learned a lot from this mini-history of history blogging from the American Historical Association: http://bit.ly/1o97IY2.)

In fact, some bloggers think we are almost too conscious of this question. One writer has called it a problem “that academic bloggers seem to be drawn to like seals to herring.” (http://bit.ly/1o994lA)

I disagree.

I suspect that good academics often ask themselves why they publish articles, write books, teach classes, mark essays, supervise research students, and write book reviews. And the answers we come up with are often quite personal. Some academics (I’m not among them) dislike teaching. Some see publishing articles as a kind of necessary gauntlet, or book reviews as simply a very weird form of community service.

Perhaps we ask why so much more often about blogging because it is one of the few activities which isn’t part of the complicated and conflicting semi-responsibilities of academics today. It’s hard to imagine many researchers being promoted to lecturer, reader, then professor without producing a steady flow of articles and books, taking on formal responsibilities running conferences, journals, and societies, teaching students and designing new courses.

But blogging is kind of just for fun. No-one is making you (http://bit.ly/1D9y1R6).

Personally, I started doing it after I enjoyed reading other people’s blogs about their research and teaching. Matt Houlbrook writes about the process of writing a book, or shares images he has been looking at, engages with debate about the public functions of history: http://bit.ly/1scFQAF. Rachel Moss takes a similar approach to me, writing about a mixture of things she is researching and issues she is thinking about: http://bit.ly/1xOTBr8. An all-time favourite is Jonathan Healey’s wry blog on being a historian. Maybe you saw the post he wrote about ‘A Cynic’s Guide to University’… http://bit.ly/1tr7L3q

My blogging started with enjoyment. At a time when I was trying to finish my doctoral thesis, it reconnected me with why I love doing the research that I do. But from this basic starting point, I quickly realized I was getting other benefits.

My blog is writing practice, but practice of a different kind from academic publications. I think this less formal kind of writing is most useful in terms of preparing oral presentations, where I want to sound a little chattier, more accessible, and entertaining than I do in published academic pieces.

I can experiment here in a way that I never would have in my doctoral thesis and journal articles, and may not ever be able to in academic publishing. I can use little loose ends, ideas and stories that I don’t know what to do with, strange characters who I have come across, and may never have a chance to research in depth (http://bit.ly/1qodlNe).

And I very quickly found that when I tweeted links to my posts, other researchers would start conversations with me about what I was doing. Without really meaning to, I stumbled into a friendly and useful community of other researchers.

This fits with a widely-publicised recent research article which suggested that most academic blogs function like a kind of ‘global common room’, as the Guardian put it (http://bit.ly/11jhf4e). But I don’t think of myself as blogging only for other academics, and in fact I have found that plenty of non-specialists wander into my pages, especially since one of my posts was ‘Freshly Pressed’ (http://bit.ly/1sCJ2qw).

Who are these netizens and what do they make of my mixture of sausage songs and archive journals? Often it is hard to tell. Yet blogging has also deepened my appreciation of a terrible fact. I am awful at explaining my research in conversation. Friends and family tell me they finally ‘get’ what I’m talking about only after reading my blog posts.

These ideas about the benefits of blogging are – as I said at the start – far from original, but it’s one thing to be told something by a blogger and quite another to experience it for yourself. I see tangible benefits of writing for my blog, people I have subsequently met in ‘real’ life with whom I was already in digital conversation, analytics numbers suggesting that people have clicked on thousands of posts on my blog, which is probably thousands more engagements with my research than my journal articles and monographs will ever produce.

Try it. I don’t think the audience and appetite for research and academic blogs is necessarily finite. The more people blog, the wider our conversations range and the more connections we make. If no-one else, I’ll read it.

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