I recently received an email from a professor who want to start a professional blog. "What advice would you give about having a blog?" she asked. "Is there anything you wished you knew at the start? Anything you did and wished you hadn't? What are the best ways to get out the word about the blog?"
My usual answer to would-be blogger: "Try standing in the garage and talking to yourself for twenty minutes a day. If you find it satisfying, you might also enjoy writing a history blog."
That answer is too flippant--and wrong. I began this blog with no particular expectations of readership or impact. And Northwest History remains a small fish in the blogging world--even in the history blogging world. I am sure that I do not receive a fraction of the readers that Kevin Levin enjoys over at Civil War Memory or that read AHA Today. But this blog has brought me a modest professional reputation in my field, some interesting collaborations with people whom I have met through the blog, and serves as a resource for my students. At history conferences someone usually comes up to me and introduces themselves as a reader--perhaps the only one at the conference, but still. And when I went up for tenure this year I presented this blog as a work of public history scholarship and my Cliopatria award as peer review. I received tenure. Not bad for something I began on a whim in 2007.
My mission statement covers some of this ground. Here is my advice:
- Decide what your blog is about, and stick to it. This blog covers the history of the Pacific Northwest, digital history and resources, and sometimes teaching. You topic does not have to be a straight jacket (perhaps 10% of my posts are outside of my usual topics), but keeping a tight focus helps you build an audience and reputation.
- Don't make it about you. Blogging about your academic work is fine, but if you find yourself posting pictures of your cats, it is time to retire from academic blogging.
- Don't make it about politics. It is so tempting to become political--what the hell is wrong Eric Cantor anyway?! And political posts will get you an audience more quickly that anything else you could do. But the political quickly drives out the historical, and soon you are running a miniature version of the Daily Kos.
- When you have an idea for a post, go ahead and start it. Save it as a draft and come back later. The 'Blog This' browser button helps you get a fast start to a new post.
- Not every post needs to be an essay in miniature. Sometimes sharing a video or a new online resource requires only a few words of introduction. Blog posts should be pithy.
- Share what you are working on. The other day I posted a brief letter from William F. Cody that I had just transcribed, along with a video clip I found online.
- Don't expect comments. According to Google Analytics I have a readership. 35,000 people visited Northwest History last year (either that or 1 person 35,000 times--same thing right?). Most of these people came here on purpose-my leading referrals are from Facebook and Twitter and other history blogs. But I don't get 100 comments a year.
- Try to keep a semi-regular posting schedule. My Google calendar nudges me to post something twice a week.
- It is OK to stop. A blog is not a lifelong obligation. With a blog as in life, when you run out of things to say you should stop talking.
- I don't have any insights into promoting your blog beyond the usual advice--comment on related blogs, put the URL in your email signature, and sign up with a service that automatically published your new posts to Facebook and Twitter (I use Networked Blogs).
- Have fun! When blogging begins to feel like a chore, your days are numbered. (See #9.)
Do you have an academic blog? Tell me about it in the comments.
So what's academic? I've proposed to be a "public intellectual." I'm not sure what that is, except that I feel I'm entitled to use big words. At the moment I'm doing the same thing I used to do in the seminar that was supposed to be prepping for a doctoral thesis (Doctor of Ministry, an off-brand doc). In fact, I'm finishing that thesis now. But I find that if I don't mix in a little local politics and some lyrical weather observations now and then, I lose my audience.
Of course, I started out to be academic in the sense that I wanted to put Blackfeet in touch with the academic stuff about them -- augmented with a few of my own memories. Then I wandered off the topic, but I return now and then.
The main thing about my blog -- Prairiemary.blogspot.com -- being academic is that I'm writing about things I really care about and feel I know about, but I don't have to please either an older scholar intent on preserving his reputation or any competitors looking for ways to kneecap me. Though I do hear an arrow whiz by now and then.
Ah, well. Life needs a little excitement.
Prairie Mary AKA
Hi Mary! Good point--I framed this as for "academic" bloggers because that is where I live and what I know. And also--and you may not know this--because a lot of untenured academics are afraid to blog. I know that sounds ridiculous (because it is ridiculous) but they have a real fear that their colleagues will look at blogging as evidence of a lack of seriousness. Sad but absolutely true.
Maybe I should have titled the post "Advice to History Bloggers?" Because after all most of my favorite history blogs are not written by academics. Yeah, I think I should have done that...
I would have to agree with your advice. I have found myself working through these very obstacles you answer. Particularly vexing to me are the implications of #3 with a bloggers desire to accrue traffic. In my experience searching over the web for dialogues in American history, blogs are either about the Civil War, are political in nature, or represent sites which might more rightly be called antiquarian. While these are all quite valuable in their own right, they have not satisfied my want for a public presentation of academic history. While this discussion could go much further in regard to the seeming inability of academic history to attract popular audiences (wether thats a function of our professionalism or wider culture), I only hope that blogs such as yours could move us in the right direction. My blog @ gildedempire.wordpress.com is my latest attempt at merging academic and public history looking at the American West during the Gilded Age. Partially, my blog is also an attempt at honing various narrative and presentation styles in type.
Maybe I should remind us about the present split between history as an academic discipline full of theories and "facts," versus popular history, which is full of memories and tales that confirm the world-view of people with no particular investment in objectivity. "People's" history in a particular way.
But maybe more explosive IS "people's" history which is often from a previously unacknowledged point of view, a minority's POV, which may have a lot of emotional force behind it. It seems to me that history is in the crosshairs where structuralism crosses deconstruction. (I do think the two approaches are enmeshed in each other.)
"history as an academic discipline full of theories and "facts," versus popular history, which is full of memories and tales that confirm the world-view of people with no particular investment in objectivity."
That is really well said. I was just looking at the NY Times bestseller list yesterday. Six of the top 15 non-fiction books were history titles, but all of them were devoted to offering comforting confirmation of the reader's existing world view.
A sociologist friend once told me that if you want to write a best seller you should tell the readers things they already believe but make it sound new.
Mark: Wow your blog is beautifully designed. I have to get up the energy to switch over to Wordpress.
I do disagree with the idea that a blog cannot be historical and political. If political concerns are central to your historical work, it makes total sense to talk about both. Where I blog, the majority of my posts are political, but as a historian, I include a reasonable number of historical posts. It depends on how you define yourself as a blogger. To use your example, asking what the heck is wrong with Eric Cantor would just not be very helpful in the world of political blogging or historical blogging. But, as a labor and environmental historian of the Pacific Northwest, I talk about labor and environmental issues in the present and the past.
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