Post # 101 – So what’s an academic blog?

Huzzah! (OK, I’ve been reading the Aubry/Maturin series before bed) A hundred posts. A few thousand words. A few thousand hits. A whole lot of fun. I want to thank everyone who subscribes or has stumbled upon Ships on the Shore for reading, contributing and making this a great experience. Writing a dissertation, even one about shipwrecks, is a long, laborious and isolating experience. This blog has offered the perfect outlet for me to nerd-out on shipwrecks and share all the fascinating research tid-bits I happen upon that would be otherwise lost to the proverbial dustbin. I still have a chapter and a half to write (not to mention the intro and conclusion) so Ships on the Shore is here to stay for at least another 100 posts. I’m looking forward to the months ahead!

But today seems a prime time to dive into the “what is an academic blog” debate raging, more or less, across a sliver of the internet. (note: I’ve only been following the humanities/history side of things.) Nothing new here: blogs are scary to most academics. They’re wastes of times, navel-gazing, or–worst of all–unacademic. Now the irony of this “irrelevant-blog” criticism is curious coming from humanities scholars renowned for studying ever-more specialized, myopic (read: irrelevant) topics. And while a cohort of digital activists has been actively promoting the “digital humanities” since there was a viable internet, the balance of opinion still seems to side with the undigital humanities folks. I was with them until participating in the University of Delaware’s Public Engagement and Material Culture Institute (PEMCI). Ships on the Shore is the result of my digital conversion.

In the past few months a flurry of blog posts has addressed the “what is an academic blog” question (click here for an overview). This is a significant development — when I started this “academic blog” in June I had very little to go on besides Dan Cohen‘s seminal 2006 post “Professors, Start You Blogs.” Yes, there were hundres of blogs by academic historians (both gainfully employed professors and struggling graduate students like myself), but I was a blogging neophyte and finding them proved to be surprisingly difficult. Even more, the blogs I did find were hardly models of what I wanted/had to time to do. Here is what I didn’t like:

1. Posts that were way too long.

2. Blogs where every post promoted an article, talk, &c., &c. by the blog’s author.

3. Blogs devoted to complaining about the difficulties of research, writing, teaching, or being a graduate student or professor.

4. Insider blogs that only specialists would read, never mind understand.

And here’s what I did like:

1. Frequent short posts with images, preferably moving ones.

2. Blogs that highlighted the past in the present.

3. Blogs that curated a specific topic.

4. Blogs aimed at a broad audience.

The current academic blog debate has focused less on these issues of content and form than on recognition. A recent Gradhacker post offers one take, arguing blogs should count as a “legitimate publication,” a credit to one’s “scholarly accomplishments” that should be considered in departmental rankings and promotions. The author goes on to provide a five-point strategy for demonstrating “the rigor and merit of the blog as scholarship … [to] show the blog in a more traditional way.” This way of thinking misses the point–the potential for academic blogs.

Academic blogs should be about public engagement, about breaking down barriers between scholars and the googling public–not supporting the ivory tower.  It should be a place for people who spend a lot of time thinking, talking and writing about very particular topics to engage the contemporary world. Want to write traditional scholarly articles? Send it to a journal or magazine (their form may change, but they’re not going anywhere). Want to talk to your field? Join a list serve. Go to a conference. Want to share the fruits of years in the library or the field or the classroom with thousands of people, many of them not “academics” but thoroughly interested in learning about the world we live in? Start a blog.

Hyperbole? Undoubtedly. Still, academic blogs represent a new type of publication that should complement, not replace, traditional modes of scholarly work. I can’t speak for tenure-track bloggers, but considering all we (graduate students) hear about the horrible/nonexistent job market for humanities Ph.D.’s–why should we (academic bloggers) shape our blogs according to the caprices of academic departments and the undigitalists? So what, then, should an “academic blog” be?

Want to read more history blogs —  History Carnival, a great place to start.



Filed under Notes from the Field

10 responses to “Post # 101 – So what’s an academic blog?

  1. Buck

    I never gave ‘academic blogs’ much thought before this interesting post. Thanks for this. And happy hundredth!

  2. Lance C.

    Huzzah indeed on your 100th post.

    Your list of things you don’t like about academic blogs reads like a list of the ills of author/publishing blogs, of which there are seemingly millions. It’s refreshing to get actual information. Keep up the good work!

  3. I was curious as to what your opinion is of long posts. I usually stick around to 1500 words (on average) trying not to bore my readers. Also I post only once a week. Enjoyed your post!

    • Jamin Wells

      Thanks for comment. Certainly there is room for all types of history blogs and it would be criminal if every one had less than 500 words per post. My problem is when writers stray off topic. As I’ve often been told: “concision is a virtue.” Since I post four or five times a week and try to stay on top of contemporary events, I keep posts short. You have a different agenda, so longer posts (1500 is perfect, I think) is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, I’ve enjoyed your blog very much. It’s a treat to read concise, well-researched and focused essays about interesting historical episodes. (Though I wish you gave us suggestions about where to look for more info.) Keep up the good work — I’m looking forward to your next post!

  4. Interesting. I didn’t know there was a debate going on, though now that you point it out, it makes sense.

    I think it is great that you want to share your knowledge with us, the uneducated masses. We do care about your subjects, whether they pertain to our present/future or not. We just don’t have the time to be an expert in all the things we are interested in, so a summary blog allows us to dip our toes into subjects we wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn about otherwise.

    If academia is so afraid of sharing their knowledge, then that is a loss for humanity. I think it is great that you are willing to engage us in seemingly myopic topics. Blog on.

    • Jamin Wells

      Many thanks for your comment. I hacked out this post over morning coffee and pressed publish–so it’s far from polished. (Speed of publishing is one of the best parts of blogging — write and get it out — but also one of the most dangerous). I didn’t mean to come off as an all-knowing academic dispensing knowledge to the “uneducated masses.” In fact, the best part about this blog has been everything I’ve learned from people commenting and emailing me. There are a lot of folks out there who know a whole lot more than I ever will about shipwrecks and the shore, past and present. As important (if not more) has been the questions people have asked–questions that have made me rethink, rewrite, reargue and reresearch. Everyone’s comments and links have helped me with this dissertation in ways I never expected six months ago. For this dialogue I am truly grateful. (I hope it continues!)

      I guess I was trying to say that academics should engage in a dialogue with people outside their discipline about what they do. I think blogs are a great way to do that, but I’m worried academics are going to turn “academic blogs” into another forum for talking to themselves. Some of my criticisms were purely personal: not every ‘academic blog,’ for example, should consist of short, daily posts. But the humanities have not effectively engaged a general non-specialized audience for a long time, and as you rightly suggest, the result has been a loss. Specialized blogs with 2,000-plus-word pedantic posts don’t help the cause. I can only speak for historians, but good history addresses a “so what” question. And good history (in my opinion, though not widely held) should be relevant to our contemporary world. Otherwise, what’s the point? Shipwrecks are definitely a myopic topic–prone to antiquarianism among other things–but they can tell us fascinating things out our collective past and they can help us understand, if only part, of our modern world. This blog is my attempt to have a dialogue about a topic I’m very interested in. Yes, I want to share what I’ve found or conjured up. But I really just want to keep learning. So I blog.

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