Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ten Tips for Academic Blogging

An academic blog isn't like other types of blogs. It isn't a Mommy blog, nor a political blog, nor a personal diary blog. It is a blog devoted to developing and sharing ideas. However, at the same time, an academic blog is not an academic paper. Student bloggers must balance their posts between less and more formality in what they post.

Here are 10 suggestions. Most of these are tips for good blogging in general, but toward the end the tips are more focused on academic sorts of blogging.

Tip #1: Be personal
This morning, the tuna sandwich I was supposed to save for lunch got eaten on my way to my 9 a.m. class. Will my wife laugh at me or scold me? Okay, that was not the most earthshaking content in the world to post, but suddenly this crusty English professor has a little less crust -- literally, since he ate his lunch for breakfast! Yuk yuk.

If an academic blog is boring, it's probably because the author is foregrounding ideas over personality. Blogs don't work that way. Readers may find a blog due to its ideas, but they stick around because they get interested in the person doing the posting. How do you express personality on a blog? Partly through your writing style, partly by referring to things from your current life or your past. A really good way is to tie your personal experience into an academic topic, as Danny Patterson did when he discussed the Atomic Age in terms of his experience growing up in a town that produced plutonium.

Tip #2: Design Your Blog
Don't just make a blog; take some time to design your blog. Put your personality onto it by your choice of colors and fonts, your choice of widgets on the side or banner on the top. Of course, the title of your blog is also something that can express your personality and not just your topic of study. What? You think making your blog look nice is only for Mommy bloggers or for teenage girls? Wrong! You don't have to spend hours on this, but a little thought on how your blog looks will help people get a feel for you and for your approach to your topic. Consider posting a picture of yourself in a side widget. People like to see people. Don't you? Do you get a sense of my former student, Becca, from her blog design? Or how about Matt Harrison, who was exploring comic book characters in his academic blog?

Tip #3: Use media
Use images or video to catch the attention of readers and hook them on your topic. When possible, use personal media (images or video that you have created or that feature you in them). Here's an example:

I saw this in an Arizona grocery store
but did not buy or taste it myself
Tip #4: Use subheadings and lists
Blog posts that are one big block of text look like a wall of boringness to readers. Using media will help to break up the text. But using ubheadings and lists are also a good idea. They provide order to your blog post and provide readers a way to quickly scan your content. This post is a good example. Obviously it is organized according to a series of tips, each of which is set off with its own heading.

If you aren't familiar with lists, these are also a good way to break up the text and to organize your content. There are two types of lists:

  1. The ordered (or numbered) list (which is the list type being used here)
  2. The unordered list (which uses bullet points, and is exemplified in the sublist that follows here):
    • sub point
    • another sub point
    • another sub point

Lists can be nested and mixed, as this shows, and you just use the list icons across the top of the blogger toolbar to insert them. Try not to have too many points or too complex a set of sub-points.

Tip #5: Use the "jump break" to divide longer posts.
Have you seen where many blog posts begin with a couple of paragraphs, then you get a "Read more" message that you have to click in order to see the remainder of the post? That comes about from using the "jump break" command (see this "jump break" tutorial by my former student, Erin Hamson). This isn't just a minor convenience; it's crucial for both readers and writers. For the reader, he or she can scroll through your blog and see lots of posts, each with their own post title. Many academic blog posts tend to go on longer than the length of one screen. When the jump break is used, it simply allows for better sampling of your blog as a whole.

See the link at the bottom?
The reader only clicks it if the summary or "teaser" content
at the beginning has intrigued him or her enough.
For the writer, the jump break helps you to "front load" your content, much as journalists have learned to do in writing copy for newspapers. Essentially, you want to get the essence of your content "above the fold," to use a newspaper metaphor. You can see how I have done this on a long post about the Long Tail. The executive summary of my much longer post can be found in those couple of paragraphs that are visible "above the fold" (before the jump break).

Tip #6: Post frequently
How frequently one posts to an academic blog depends on many factors, but the bottom line is that people need to have a sense of your blog being active, and that won't happen if you only update the blog monthly. You build your authority on a subject not just through posting thoughtful and substantial content; you build your reputation by showing that you are in the game, regularly updating content in response both to your own learning and to events within that field.

Why does my former student, Derek Clements, appear to be such an expert on all things Pixar? Well, several reasons (including the design of his blog and his use of multiple media), including the fact that he posts weekly on this topic and in response to current happenings.

It is better to post frequently than to post formally -- especially when you are just getting started blogging. You have to find your voice, find your main topics, and find your audience. None of that happens if you blog infrequently. This is why we require at least two substantial posts weekly from students. That's a minimum to show that you are in the game.

Tip #7: Post your drafts, notes, and outlines
A great departure from traditional academic writing comes from the fact that process proves to be as vital as product when writing an academic blog. Not every post needs to be a set of finished thoughts, or even complete sentences! One of our best students from Digital Civilization in 2010 was Kristina Cummins. Look at this post, which is just a list of notes she took during class one day. What? Post your class notes? Not every time, but sometimes this can give others (and yourself) a quick snapshot of what you've been thinking about. Later, you can cull out from such notes or rough drafts items that you wish to develop at greater length and in a more cogent manner.

Tip #8: Blog about Books
Tree-pulp knowledge may seem to be on the run, but it has a long run left in it. Academic bloggers don't paraphrase Wikipedia; they read and research in BOOKS. For an example, see Brandon McLoskey's blog post in which he gives info about three possible books that he and other group members in the class will choose among for an assignment. Another way to blog about books is to create an annotated bibliography. See this annotated bibliography example about the effects of printing on medical knowledge from Mike Miles, or current DigiCiv student Brett Riley's annotated bibliography on publishing from last semester.

Books are a major part of academic life -- no matter how digital you may have become. I hope you will take the time to read my prior post, "Ten Ways to Bring Books into Your Digital Life."

Tip #9: Blog about possible reading and research
Remember, knowledge in process is a kind of knowledge product that has value in the digital age. So, one of the best uses of an academic blog is not necessarily reporting on what one has already studied, but outlining what one might read or research. Essentially, this shows you curating knowledge, making judgments about things, and indicating the range of your thinking. I've written a separate blog post all about what I call the "In-Process" post genre. Check it out.

Tip #10: Blog about others and their ideas
Academic bloggers are not like those Mommy bloggers who can only post pictures of their kids. They know that knowledge is a collaborative affair that requires referring to alternative points of view, or supporting one's own points by referring to the books, articles, blog posts, or media of other people exploring the topic (whether they are scholars or not). So, don't just write whatever pops in your mind. Show that you're reading and researching. Reference other good thinkers on the topic, whether those are classmates or scholars or anyone.  Interviews are a great way to jump start good content on an academic blog. Check out Morgan Mix's post reporting on her interview with a professor about Phoencians. There's much more to be said about this sort of thing, especially with respect to finding out who is talking about your current topic. I call this "social discovery" (please see that post!).

Just be sure that when you are blogging academically that you show awareness of the world of thought on your topic that is beyond your initial response or gut reaction. Also, show more resourcefulness in blogging on topics than merely paraphrasing Wikipedia. It really does not take that much time to find quality content nowadays. If you need help on that score, please see my post Ten Ways Out of the Google or Wikipedia Rut. A sixth grader can crib from Wikipedia. My college students can do better than that. And why wouldn't they? Their academic blog is a chance for them to be playful and creative and interesting as they explore and synthesize a world of great information and media that is so readily available to them.

Not to beat a dead horse here, but in case you missed it, there are four posts I have written about academic blogging that are referenced in this one. I'd hate for you not to benefit from these important posts. Prior students have particularly valued these: