Revisiting a topic given changes in the landscape

by Eszter Hargittai on June 12, 2008

In the comments thread about homepages of academics, reader Oisin asks:

I’m a PhD philosophy student, entering my 2nd year; is maintaining a blog a good idea for a PhD student, in addition to having a homepage? Or is it perhaps a bad idea? And if so, why?

How having a blog may influence an academic’s career is a topic we’ve discussed at CT numerous times before over the years (example, example, example). Nonetheless, taking it up once again in light of changes in the blogging landscape makes sense. As I consider the question, I will note some significant differences among blog types and why the term “blog” has limited utility.

To blog or not to blog is not really the question. What parts of one’s self one wants to portray publicly and to a professional community is more the issue at hand.

What do I mean by “changes in the blogging landscape”? The practice of blogging keeps on spreading well beyond the geeky tech-savvy realms of its initial years. I don’t just mean the practice of authoring blogs, but the understanding of what blogs are and the practice of reading them.* Given this change in who is aware of and reading blogs, maintaining one may mean something different today than it did a few years ago so I think it’s worth another discussion.

I started blogging (in May, 2002) just a few months before going on the academic job market. I don’t recall concerns about negative repercussions, but by then I had already been maintaining a mailing list with hundreds of subscribers and mainly saw the value in an activity of the sort (e.g., dissemination of ideas, meeting people) rather than potential concerns. In any case, at that time few people on hiring committees knew what a blog was much less would have been reading them so I think it is easy to argue that blogging at that point may well have influenced an academic’s career less than it might today, for better or for worse.

As I have watched blogging become more mainstream in some circles (e.g., what’s up with the recent upsurge in bloggers among sociologists?), I’ve started to wonder, again, about the potential career consequences of blogging especially given that it is sometimes done in ways I would not necessarily consider conducive to one’s career.

But the general question of whether an academic should blog is complicated. There are several issues at hand and these may all influence its desirability.

First, should one blog under one’s own name or under a pseudonym and how does this decision influence things? Next, what are the types of topics one should cover? Should one stick to or avoid research, current events, professionalization topics, teaching, personal information, pop culture, anything and everything in between? What style should one use (professional, chatty, combative, arrogant**, etc.)? What should be the frequency of posts (several times a day, every couple of days, few times a month)? These are just some of the considerations and potential variations in blogs and how they and their authors may be perceived.

It is precisely this long list of variables that makes it nearly impossible to give general advice about whether an academic (at the grad student level, junior faculty level or any other level for that matter) should or should not blog. I continue to believe that there are potential benefits to blogging, both personal and professional. However, I also think, increasingly, as I come across all sorts of blogs, that some people are likely not being helped by their blogging. For example, if you write under your own name and do so in a style that suggests you think very highly of your smarts yet your posts seem to suggest that you are not very bright then it is hard to see how that would be beneficial (but perhaps it is not detrimental either). On the other hand, if you write really smart commentary, but do so under a secret identity, it is not clear how that is going to be helpful either. (On that note I should add that it seems extremely rare in the case of academic pseudonymous blogging that the identity of the author is not revealed eventually, at least to some, which is something for folks choosing that path to keep in mind.)

So my overall advice? Be smart about your online presence, whether on blog or on email. Realize that what you write – whether under a pseudonym or not – may well be connected to you later so it should be material you are willing to stand up for in situations other than the privacy of your living room (where much of blog writing is likely drafted).

What does it mean to “be smart” in this realm? This is where people will likely disagree, which is why I hesitate to give more fine-grained advice. Personally, I find it off-putting when people’s style suggests that they think highly of themselves, but little of their writing delivers.

But styles can also add something positive to otherwise mundane topics. For example, I don’t know if early in one’s career (or any other time for that matter) is the time to advertise a series of professional rejections broadly (e.g., blog post about having been rejected from a conference followed by a blog post about having been rejected from a journal followed by a blog post about having been rejected in a fellowship application process). On the other hand, even such information could be conveyed in a way that suggests a reflective and careful thinker.

Alternatively, if a graduate student is trying to be part of a professional blogging community – that is, s/he is mainly engaging in conversation with other people from the field – then it may not make sense to focus a string of posts on something like having spent a day at the beach, a day watching football, and a day baking cookies. Nonetheless, if done in a witty, interesting and insightful way, that could be fine as well.

Perhaps where I am going with this is that if it is more likely to be a personal journal of brief notes about one’s everydays then it is not clear why it would need to be linked to a professional community (and thus I would keep the blog separate from a professional homepage and I would not necessarily link to it when commenting on blogs of colleagues). However, if one engages in topics of broader appeal then it can make sense to make that part of one’s public persona as it can be beneficial to come to be known as an interesting and careful thinker.

All of this brings me back to a point I have been making for a while (but to which I cannot find a reference at the moment, perhaps mostly having made this point in talks): the term “blog” is of limited utility as it refers to so many different genres. This applies in the academic realm as well as others. Whether an academic should or should not maintain a blog is partly dependent on how one defines, understands and approaches the writing and communicating with others. Instead of asking oneself whether one should blog, I’d ponder its intended purpose and goals, and contemplate answers to the questions I listed above.

And one important final point. Ultimately, whether one gets hired or gets a promotion will have a lot to do with one’s academic record. In that sense, much of the above may be irrelevant except to consider whether blogging is eating into one’s research time or time otherwise spent on, say, watching reruns of Law & Order (totally random example I pulled out of nowhere;).

[*] That said, I have to share one of my recent Twitter messages here: “reality check: Man taking photos of pastry in store with high-end camera, seller asks if he’s a blogger; response: what’s that?”

[**] For the record, I don’t actually believe that many people make a conscious decision about wanting to write in an arrogant style, but some end up doing so and there is little appealing about it.



Tom Hurka 06.12.08 at 1:43 pm

I don’t read philosophy blogs much, partly because too often I’ve seen people talking off the top of their heads about some philosophical topic on which there’s a literature, and they don’t know the literature. Blogging isn’t publishing, but it isn’t the antithesis either. I think bloggers should make sure they’re properly prepared to discuss whatever topic they’re going to discuss.


The Dissertator 06.12.08 at 2:01 pm

I think you should finish your dissertation. Once you do that and you want to play public intellectual, then perhaps you should start a blog. In my view, now is the time to focus on being a scholar, teacher, and professional academic.


harry b 06.12.08 at 2:06 pm

I second what tom hurka says. Using the blog to work out ideas with a group of people you know and trust is a good idea, and won’t hurt unless in your writing betrays aspects of your personality that it would be better to mask until having a job. The way it might help is not by impressing readers on search committees, but by being a way in which you improve as a philosopher. Using it to ask people for literature is also a good idea. Or, and tom has lots of experience of this, using it to communicate philosophical ideas to non-philosophers is an excellent use, that will be respected (but won’t help or hurt in the job market, I’d have thought).


Sue 06.12.08 at 2:39 pm

Intrigued by your comment about a surge in sociology bloggers, being myself a sociologist blogger (for the past three years). Perhaps other sociologists (like me) are tired of journalists (whose professional training after all is in how to write) making money doing social analysis ineptly in columns and books.

Blogs did not exist when I was an untenured faculty member, but considering the amount of trouble I got into for expressing my opinions in other ways(denied tenure twice), I suspect that blogging as an untenured faculty member or graduate student has potential serious pitfalls.

As a tenured full professor, I feel fairly free to discuss what ever I wish (within the bounds of decency and legality) on my blogs. A piece of advice: if one wishes to blog about both professional/academic issues and topics and to blog about “a day at the beach, a day watching football, and a day baking cookies” then have two blogs. For purposes of discussion create a group blog.


paul 06.12.08 at 2:41 pm

Although tagging and categories and such can help separate some of the personal and professional, I think it may make sense to maintain separate blogs, or at least separate blog faces, for different aspects of a life. I’ve often wished, for most of the academic(ish) blogs I read, that the interface had a simple set of switches to say “I don’t care about that”.


Jacob Christensen 06.12.08 at 3:30 pm

A very good summary – if I should add my 5¢ (that’s Euro-¢, not devalued USD-¢) I’d say that if Oisin and others have this feeling “OMG, there are all of these really smart people out there blogging and if I don’t have a blog, then people (read: the hiring committee) will think that I’m really stupid and uncool” (I’m exaggerating the language here, but many academics feel that he or she is the stupid one in a room of really smart people) – then no: You shouldn’t maintain a blog because it will not give you anything.

If, on the other hand, you have the feeling that there is stuff related to your field that you would like to make notes about, is unsure of etc, then writing about it in a less formal public context can be a help to clarify your thoughts.

Finally, just because you are an academic (whether graduate student or grown-up) doesn’t mean that you can’t have a life – let me cite Matthew Shugart (Fruits and votes) and Laura McKenna (11d) as cases in point. I am still waiting for Eszter’s Chocolate Dessert Review Blog to hit the interwebs, though! :-)


Eszter 06.12.08 at 3:41 pm

Thanks, Jacob, I’ve thought about writing more on chocolate, but in the end, eating it is what I’m most passionate about.:-)


MSS 06.12.08 at 5:56 pm

Well, thanks Jacob. I feel better now, because I was engaging in a fair amount of navel (orange) gazing while reading this post.

Trying to find the balance between how much to talk about other things and how much to stick to the professional has been a constant tension.

On the switching off stuff you are not interested in (as mentioned by Paul), it was precisely to facilitate that process that I set up a bunch of specialized feeds, with clear links near the top of the front page. So, for example, if all you want to read is my occasional brilliance on baseball, you can subscribe to that and never bother with the rest.

I thought about separate blogs for some time, and decided against it.

Of course, it helps that I was already a senior professor when I started the thing.


nnyhav 06.12.08 at 6:06 pm

Should you change your mind, the domain is available.

Meanwhile, commenting on a philosophy [group-]blog aligned with one’s interests is probably a better place to start.


Peter 06.12.08 at 7:54 pm

Great post. One advantage worth adding applies to academia but also to so many other professions: writing really is a skill that improves with practice. If you’re going to do a blog seriously, you need to be writing more or less daily, which means thousands of words every week. The positive effect of months or years of this on the quality and quantity of what one can produce as a writer is not to be sniffed at.


chris uggen 06.12.08 at 10:03 pm

a characteristically thoughtful post, eszter. i didn’t start blogging until i was promoted to full professor, so it is difficult for me to advise grad students on this question. thanks.


Alex Gregory 06.13.08 at 7:06 am

I’d just like to emphasize a point made by Jacob and another by Peter. I’m a PhD student, and keeping a blog is really useful for (a) forcing me to make my thoughts more articulate as I write them down, and (b) gives me somewhere to keep an archive of thoughts and interesting quotes. I’d probably keep some notes on books I read etc. anyway, so I may as well keep them in blog form.


Thom Brooks 06.13.08 at 3:32 pm

I entirely agree with the main post: be somewhat careful about the image you portray with your blog, but I think — if run well — it is a real treat to blog. Now if only I could do it well . . .


laura 06.13.08 at 5:15 pm

Thanks, Jacob. Actually, I been worrying all day whether I fit into Eszter’s category of dumb bloggers who think they’re smart.


kris olds 06.13.08 at 6:23 pm

Thank you very much for this enlightening post. I included it in a post today to a human geography listserver as we are debating the uses (if any) of blogs.

I co-edit and contribute to a group blog (GlobalHigherEd: and you have helped me to frame what I’ve been feeling, but have not really condensed. I might add that we find the blog term to be a misnomer too as we use our blog as a vehicle to develop 650-2000 word entries that act as archives for relevant (for us) debates, links, summaries of arguments, profiles of developments, interesting graphics, and stage 1 of eventual articles. In addition, from a researcher’s perspective, blogs have the potential to generate all sorts of connections to future collaborators, sources of data (i.e. people and institutions often reach out and make contact versus the opposite), attention to the output of research projects, debates going on in other disciplines (e.g., it is easier to reach across disciplines with open access outlets versus via disciplinary-specific journals), and so on. This form of engagement is not captured in the “comments” section but it is much more important from a researcher’s perspective. Indeed while the blog has required a fair bit of time to get up and running, it has also saved time in broadening our research networks on a number of levels. Given this, perhaps, we just have to skip 50% of Law & Order. :)


a very public sociologist 06.14.08 at 9:44 pm

I’m a blogging sociologist too, and I’m a PhD student. Before I entered into the blogging fray I intended it to be an academic affair focusing just on academic issues, but the trouble is I’m an activist too and I couldn’t resist commenting on politics and activisty things.

The way I’ve managed to get round to try and make it interesting from a sociological point of view is by occasionally commenting on my PhD work and report on conferences and seminars I attend. You can see some examples here, here and here. It’s helped me work through my own thoughts as well as seriously reflect on the thoughts of others.

In these times when public debate is regularly debased by lazy journalism and bigotry, I think it’s a good thing for sociologists to take up blogging and trying to get their informed commentary out there.


eszter 06.15.08 at 1:03 am

Laura, I was referring to people whose writing oozes unwarranted self-confidence. I don’t actually know many such folks, but I’ve seen it and thought it was worth a mention.

Thanks for all the comments about what one can get out of blogging, in particular, the benefits of practicing writing. I very much agree with this so I’m glad several of you brought it up. (The point of my post wasn’t to focus on the benefits per se, that’s why I didn’t get into this in much detail, but it’s definitely worth bringing up in the discussion thread so thank you!)

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