Why and How
While all blogs share general characteristics, just as all books share general characteristics, there are differences depending on what aim the author/blogger has and who the intended audience is. The term research blogging or science blogging can include anything from philosophy to physics and they can be run by individuals as well as teams. The aim of a research blog is quite simply to put the spotlight on science, whether through personal stories about your everyday experience to in-depth discussions about recently published works. It is up to the blogger to determine the scope and aim.
I started blogging as a PhD student in 2007 and over the years I have read a lot of science blogs and exchanged thoughts with their creators. The following is an attempt to outline some good advice on how to start and perpetuate a research blog, based on these experiences. The best advice I can give upfront is to be patient, because a blog is far more than the sums of its posts, as I hope to show.
Why blog? No seriously – why?
This is the first and most important question you need to ask yourself if you are thinking about starting a blog. I may be an ardent supporter of this particular social medium, but that doesn’t mean that I think that there is any intrinsic value in a blog. If you are interested in communication and participation in online conversations then there are many different web formats that you can use.
Depending on your needs and aims it might suffice with a static homepage presenting your research, bibliography and contact information. Or you could take an interest in a web forum dedicated to your research interests. Or you might just limit yourself to reading and commenting other blogs, without starting one yourself. You don’t have to register your own blog just because a friend, colleague or university press officer praises the medium to the sky. It is ok to say no.
Ask yourself if you are doing this because you want to, if you are really curious, or if you just feel pressured to jump on the band wagon. Also, asking yourself why you want a blog is a good start as it forces you to articulate your expectations a bit more clearly in advance.
Don’t take it so seriously
Just because you need to ask yourself why you want a blog, doesn’t mean the answer has to be super serious! On the contrary, the fewer expectations the better, as an open mind and willingness to adjust will bring much better results and fewer disappointments. When I started my blog I had very fuzzy ideas about what a blog was and what I wanted out of it. I mainly did it to comment on news affecting my field and to get to write in my native language Swedish (as almost everything I read and wrote at that time was in English). I also hoped that this would help me find the joy in my subject again, which 5 years of research studies had almost knocked out of me…
It turned out the blog was to generate a whole slew of other things that I couldn’t have anticipated at that time. But this happened gradually over a couple of years. Anyone who thinks a blog will instantly change everything and bring attention and renown will end up bitterly disappointed.
You don’t need to know everything about blogging before you start! You don’t have to do everything right immediately – in fact you won’t! It will come to you over time. It’s better if you learn in your own time, in your own way – and it’s also more fun. Researchers in general are probably more nervous than most people about doing something in public that you may not feel completely in control over. We are afraid of making fools of ourselves. One of the most difficult tasks to master is to let go of that need for control, that fear of the not-quite-perfect. Relax. Try it for a few months before you throw in the towel, it gets easier with practice.
It’s not about you!
As strange as it may seem, despite the fact that it’s your blog it’s not you and your wishes/expectations/needs that are at the center – they are just the starting point. If you only care about what you want to say, and how you want it to be said, most will simply tune out and move on. If you have a research blog you should have some sort of desire to communicate, educate and problematize. Your best tools here are the same pedagogical tools that teachers use (or should use).
- The first time you are assigned to teach a class you tend to focus on what you feel the students need to know about this particular subject (e.g. the Bronze Age/cognition/nanotechnology). Everything they need to know! You prepare to include every vital fact you can think of, even if it means preparing 200 slides and causing the students to collapse with seizures.
- Hopefully, as you become more at ease with the assignment you can start to incorporate a bit more what your students are interested in knowing about, what their background and experiences are. You take your eyes off the prepared text and slides and get eye contact, adjust to make them interested, experiment with what to say and how to say it in a way that will keep them interested and awake.
This is good, but it can mean sacrificing substance for show, preparing eye catching materials, focusing on popular trends and telling funny anecdotes. The students will be entertained, but they will often have a hard time remembering if they actually learned something at your class.
- Pedagogues want us to reach a point where A meets B. When the teacher reflects on what the students need to learn, as well as how this can be taught in a good and creative way. This is an ideal that is not easily attained, but it should be a goal to strive towards.
So to sum up: What you know, what you feel is important and interesting knowledge, should be at the heart of your research blogging. Don’t forget about it; don’t lose your faith in it! But also don’t forget the person you wish to reach. Take time to reflect on how you can transfer your commitment and enthusiasm to a second party.
In Part 2 we will go more into this.