Monday, September 30, 2013

The Three Phases of Academic Blogging

As I have taught blogging to students over several years, I've noted that the best academic blogging happens in three distinct phases. This post is written for those who are in phase one of academic blogging and preparing to take it to the next level.

While I am describing the blogging of undergraduates in literature, I believe these phases to be just as relevant for students in general and for scholars of all disciplines. (See, for example, how Jessie Daniels describes going from a tweet, to a blog, to a published scholarly article). 

Elsewhere I have written on using Twitter for academic research. While I am not focusing in this post on such microblogging services as Twitter and Google+, they are a significant means for finding and testing ideas and can greatly complement academic blogging. 

Blogging doesn't automagically result in anything. It requires thought and discipline to lead to something worthwhile academically. It can. Here's how.

Phase One: Exploration
In this initial phase blogging was probably new to you, and you were learning the basics of how to post and what to write about. You were learning how to incorporate media and links, and to design your posts for readability (following a journalist's rhetorical approach of front-loading your ideas, and making use of visual layout tools). The frequency of your posting was determined by an assigned number of posts rather than anything more organic. As for the content of your posts, you have been experimenting with topics, but mostly responding to current lectures and readings. There may be analysis, but of a tentative and exploratory nature--not particularly definitive or rigorous. Interaction with others has consisted mostly of responding to other students' or to instructor posts.  You've also been experimenting with tone, trying out the informal and personal approach that makes online content more inviting, even while trying to say things that are meaningful from an educational point of view. 

Success in this phase can be seen in terms of frequency of posting, an openness to experimenting with form and topics, and generating a critical mass of content from which more developed content can arise. Across your posts can be seen emerging themes and prospective claims. Success in this phase is also related to fashioning a bit of an identity -- at least a characteristic style, approach, or set of topics. This is an identifiable ethos for your writing. You are most promising as a blogger at this phase if people recognize you as being committed to and interested in certain ideas and if you are responsive to others -- explicitly referring to and building upon their work. You're not just a solo thinker and writer.

Phase Three: Launch
I am passing over phase two momentarily just so that you can be pointed toward an ultimate destination for your academic blogging. You are going to launch something -- put something into broader circulation that you have developed during the middle phase of your academic blogging. This will be formalized into a recognizable genre that can be valued independently of your blog. For example, you submit a manuscript for publication, or you submit an abstract for a conference presentation, or you make something else that can stand on its own. This requires finding communities that are actively interested in the topic you've been developing and it means qualifying your work to be introduced to such a community. In short, the final outcome of the very informal medium of blogging is to succeed in a more formal venue beyond it. 

Success in this last phase can largely be measured in terms of being taken seriously by serious communities (academic or otherwise). It is most evident when others evidently refer to and build upon your finished and published content, but is also evident when gatekeepers or professionals legitimize your content in some formal way (peer review, an acceptance, an invitation to speak or publish, etc.). Other measures of success can include this content leading to employment or academic opportunities, or one being consulted as an expert (even if one is not a PhD!).

How do you get to this point? Through the very important second phase of academic blogging.

Phase Two: Development
Academic blogging requires one at some point to apply some discipline to one's thinking and some structure to ones content. It means going beyond Op-Ed type editorializing and the casual observation. During phase two of academic blogging, randomness goes down and coherence goes up as  you pare down the breadth of your exploration and aim now for depth. You are reflective, returning to prior posts and identifying the themes and potential arguments latent in them, and creating subsequent posts that pull together those ideas, restating and clarifying them -- setting aside many things you could comment on superficially so that you can narrow and deepen. It is much like the middle phase of traditional academic writing -- but not entirely, as you should note.

In this phase the academic blogger digs deeper into ideas and texts, analyzing primary texts and bringing to bear secondary texts. Books begin to appear in one's writing, and quotations, and serious sources of any other variety. This does not mean that one reverts to traditional, paper-based writing. Blog posts can still be short, and individual posts need not be tightly coherent (as the paragraphs of formal academic prose should be). Posts can include images, video, and media beyond text. But what is present in this phase is that sense of discipline -- one is controlling and cultivating content, and reaching for authoritative content, including from standard academic disciplines and publications, to buttress one's thinking. 

Phase two is also characterized by curation: you explicitly bring together data, media, lists, or other components that provide some of the organized information that you are analyzing or referencing. One might create a wiki, or an annotated bibliography, or a slideshow. There is evidence of organizing material that is not necessarily a discursive essay or even a finalized, finished product (like traditional published bibliographies). Academic bloggers embrace in-process knowledge products that are provisional and purposeful (and others can also profit from this "para-scholarship," too).

Above all, this phase is characterized by something almost entirely absent from the writing process of traditional, print-based scholarship: social proof. (See this post about social proof). Following a launch-and-iterate model, you try out your ideas in short form in front of various audiences, getting feedback from others that proves there is interest in your idea enough to take it to another level. This goes hand in hand with researching and reading, which the academic blogger never limits to the dead audiences of print or texts. You research online and in-person communities where your subjects are being discussed and you target individuals within those communities with whom you interact -- offering informed responses to their content in expectation of reciprocation. The academic blogger is not a private writer. He or she connects with multiple people and audiences in order to vet his or her ideas in process, and not simply when ideas have taken a finished form. 

Before long the randomness of posts pretty much drops away and every post is about some aspect of developing this focused content and targeting it to those who care about it.

Getting from Phase One to Phase Two
I've seen many people get stuck in their academic blogging. They fall into a rhythm of reposting isn't-that-cool media and a series of casual opinions and first-level analysis, but they don't advance their thinking or organize their thoughts. At a certain point I just don't take someone seriously as a blogger (for purposes of advancing learning) if that person is content with making endless, not-that-connected, observations. Let's start getting somewhere.

My first suggestion for moving from Phase One to Phase to is to circle back to one's existing content and to one's half-developed ideas. This is something I describe thoroughly in a separate post, "Consider the Spiral." My next suggestion is to make use of books -- to find the ones that are current on the topics in question and to use those books as a way not simply of making more informed observations, but of finding and developing social connections (with other readers of such books, or even with the authors of those books). See my "Ten Ways to Bring Books into Your Digital Life" (or the video version) and "Beyond the Book Report: Better Book Practices in the Digital Age." For an example of connecting with an author, see the example of a student, Neal, in my post, "Social Discovery."

Conclusion
That returns us to Phase Three (above). While this may seem to be a way of using blogging to produce traditional academic outputs, it is not. By using a social medium in an appropriate way, in the end, academic blogging really becomes less about content or even publication; it really ends up being a form of entry into various communities who value serious thought about serious subjects.