Category Archives: Blogging and Social Media

Posts that discuss blogging and social media in academia

Local vs. Global: A World of Advice

In June of this year, I went to the International Writing Across the Curriculum conference in Minneapolis. One of the many interesting sessions that I saw looked at the role of  local writing resources in a globalized world. The session, given by Roger Graves from the University of Alberta and Stephanie White from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed the relative merits of creating materials specifically for our own institutions as opposed to designing initiatives to connect our institutions with the broader world. The discussion was thought-provoking for me because it helped to frame the work of this blog in a new way.

Even though I have been blogging for over three years, this was the first time that I had thought so explicitly about the way that writing support on social media must negotiate the gap between global and local. Since local resources will not necessarily be sufficient for all graduate student writers, it makes sense to seek out non-local resources. Those ‘global’ resources certainly exist, at least in part because of the affordances of social media. I am able, by generalizing from the needs of my own students, to create content that I hope will be helpful to readers outside my own institution. In turn, the existence of readers from around the world helps me to be mindful of aspects of my advice that might involve particularity masquerading as universality.

But while it is easy and appealing to speak to a broad audience, are these perspectives necessarily good for graduate students? In a recent post, Pat Thomson asked whether we are heading towards a ‘DIY PhD’, one in which doctoral students pull together the support they need from a range of sources. This description certainly rings true, but, as Pat argues, we don’t know enough about what this growth of non-local support means for doctoral students:

We know too little about how doctoral researchers weigh up the advice they get from social media compared to that of their institutional grad school and their supervisors. We also don’t know much about how supervisors engage with this DIY sphere, particularly about how much they talk with their supervisees about what they are doing online. We don’t know what support doctoral researchers get to work out what is good and bad online advice. We don’t know how supervisors and academic developers build on what doctoral researchers are learning elsewhere (Thomson, Are we heading for a DIY PhD?).

While we don’t yet know what this change in available forms of doctoral support means, we do know that doctoral students are supplementing local support−both supervisory and institutional−with social media support. Are there ways that graduate students can orient themselves in order to maximize the benefits of that advice? I would suggest that graduate students need to develop three sorts of filters to help them navigate social media support. At the simplest level, they need to translate advice that reflects a foreign locale. It is easy, for instance, to find advice on when to start writing; needless to say, that decision requires a sensitive cognizance of local dissertation writing conventions (be those institutional or disciplinary). But while it is important to contextualize some advice, the inherent value of the advice can make that worthwhile. I often link−both here and on Twitter−to the Thesis Whisperer, Patter, and Writing for Research, none of which originates in Canada. A Canadian graduate student may have to do a bit of translating, of course (What’s the difference between a viva and a defence? And what even is a REF?), but the insights are so valuable that those barriers don’t ultimately matter.

Second, graduate students need to learn to disregard advice that just doesn’t make sense for them. For me, this meant learning that I actually write pretty well when I’m a bit distracted; trying to create someone else’s ideal writing situation hampered my writing for years. I write well in short bursts when there is a lot going on around me, and big chunks of time intimidate me and lead to a paradoxical lack of productivity. I spent ages trying to cure myself of that flaw; it may genuinely be a flaw−I certainly wouldn’t wish my magpie brain on anyone−but I can work around it. In some ways, I think it is easier to resist inapt advice when it comes from social media than when it comes with the weight of a supervisory edict. Lastly, graduate students need to avoid advice that is genuinely bad or at least tone-deaf in its insistence that there is a magic bullet or a simple act of will that can improve the doctoral experience. Here I think it may be a bit harder to discern bad advice online because we are less able to draw on our intuitive faculties when we don’t have an in-person interaction to go on.

Once those filters are in place, there are so many wonderful sources for insight. And given the complexities of getting all the necessary support in situ, it is wonderful to be able to look for new approaches to problems in an anonymous and stigma-free manner. Yes, it requires discernment but that ability to identify good advice and bad advice and good-for-someone-but-not-for-us advice is a crucial aspect of our professional lives; there is tremendous benefit to being able to source and assess the help that we need without relying on a single locus of authority. As long as we are explicitly aware of the need to make any advice consistent with our growing understanding of our own locale and of our own temperament as writers, we stand to benefit from a world of advice.

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Social Media and Writing Style

In the early days of this blog, an old friend and fellow blogger asked me whether I thought social media had implications for the way we write. My first thought was that it must; my second was that I had no idea what those implications might be. At a broad level, it seems clear to me that social media is beneficial for us as writers. When we write on social media, our natural ability to express ourselves may remind us that writing per se isn’t always the problem. Formal academic writing for an audience that seems both inscrutable and implacable can easily undermine our confidence. An opportunity to write more freely—with less anxiety about audience—can be a great reminder of our own writing ability. This reminder alone won’t solve our academic writing problems, but it can help us pinpoint what they are. Similarly, blogging allows us to find smaller topics and articulate what we want to say about them in a compact format. This blog, for instance, has accumulated somewhere in the range of 100,000 words thus far; if I’d had to figure out in advance how all those words fit together, you’d never have read any of them. (Pat Thomson had a great post recently about the value of the exploratory character of social media.)

But is there also a relationship between social media and the act of composition at the sentence level? Using social media often means learning to use language in a somewhat different way: our register is different; our vocabulary is different; our grammar may even be different. We embrace certain forms of informality (because Twitter). We develop a store of short words—‘apt’ is particularly handy when space is tight—and a greater appreciation of strong verbs. We treat grammar in ways that we daren’t in our academic writing; that is, we assume a sympathetic audience who will know what we mean even when we bend the rules. Even though we don’t turn around and write these terse but friendly sentences in our academic writing, the process of writing on social media can give us great insight into the boundaries of a strong sentence.

Even in the more spacious confines of a blog, our style may be affected by the fact that a blog post is written in a compressed time frame. Blogging works best for me when I put some pressure on myself to compose reader-ready sentences. I still experiment and tinker way too much, but I try not to make a big compositional mess that I then have to clean up. As I’ve said countless times, allowing ourselves the space to think through writing is an essential aspect of constructing complex academic prose; for me, the mess is an essential part of the academic writing process. Writing for immediate consumption, however, requires a more disciplined approach to writing.

As I thought over the implications of writing for social media, I came up with three ways that social media writing can inform our development as writers.

CONCISION: The first thing that will come to anyone’s mind when we think of writing on social media is brevity. Trying to say something in less than 140 characters, for instance, requires that we bring a whole new level of attention to concision. Even if we don’t always use those strategies in our everyday writing, we are forced to notice the potency of concision. If you regularly write extremely short sentences, you are inevitably honing your brevity skills. In doing so, you are bound to experience some of the benefits of limitation. Sometimes we will encounter the limits of limitation—i.e., the point at which something can’t be any shorter—but we will also learn the value of expressing ourselves in fewer words than we thought possible.

TONE: One of the best ways to understand the role of tone in writing is by having to shift that tone. Academic prose isn’t necessarily good or bad writing, but it is very particular in its tone. Social media writing, on the other hand, can give us a sense of a different style of writing and thereby help us see the distinct contours of a piece of academic writing. The benefits of this sort of relativism vis-à-vis writing seem evident to me. While people worry that the unique demands of Twitter or the text message will undermine writing ability, it seems entirely possible that the experience of writing in multiple registers will actually strengthen writing overall. Greater awareness of the conventionality of writing will increase the chance that we will be able to find ways to work productively within those conventions.

NUANCE: Short-form writing is also a great reminder of the importance of doing justice to ambiguity. For instance, I find that Twitter is great for sharing things that I like, but not so good for those things about which I have significant reservations. Without room for caveats, we are left without an easy way to disagree respectfully. Think about your average statement of scholarly reservation: “While I found the decision to highlight X extremely helpful, I was ultimately troubled by the reliance upon traditional categories of Y.” That’s 145 characters, even without actual content. So I don’t share that link; Twitter becomes for me a place to talk about the things I actively like or that I like enough to forego qualification. The limits of social media writing thus confirm one of the great strengths of academic writing: the creation of a space expansive enough to contain both agreement and disagreement. (This helpful Twitter chat on the relationship between academic writing and social media also touches on this theme).

Overall, composing text for social media is instructive for our non-social media writing. By writing things that are more direct or casual or polemical, we are better able to understand how those qualities may or may not operate within our formal academic prose. And, ultimately, being able to shift registers and understand how tone, evidence, vocabulary, and syntax all affect that shift can only improve our academic writing.

So those are my current thoughts about writing for social media. What did I miss? What has your experience been? Has social media changed the way you write or altered your awareness of writing style?

Social Media and Expertise

This summer break from blogging was entirely necessary, but I have missed writing here. I’d like to ease my way back in with some reflections on the nature of the ‘expertise’ presented in a blog like this one.

In June, I was at a conference and, as usually happens, I found a theme emerging over the weekend. Not the explicit conference theme, but rather a notion that came up again and again regardless of the stated topic. Of course, to some extent, we all inevitably hear what we are primed to hear. And for me, this conference was about notions of expertise. How do we establish expertise about writing? In particular, given the topic of my own presentation, I was interested in questions of social media and expertise.

My presentation concerned the way social media participation might act as academic production for writing instructors in Canada. While allowing that a marginal status within the university might lead some writing instructors to adopt a more traditional attitude towards the established norms of scholarly publishing, I ultimately argued that writing instructors have much to gain from an expanded notion of academic production. In particular, I focused on three ways in which social media participation based around blogging might prove useful to writing instructors. First, a non-traditional appointment of the sort that is common for writing instructors gives latitude for exploring emerging styles of academic communication. Second, most writing instructors have limited time for research while still needing research engagement to thrive in our roles; social media participation offers a more flexible model of engagement. Third, our work as writing instructors requires that the needs of students be primary. As a species of academic publishing, blogging allows us to speak in a way that can reach students as well as peers.

At its root, blogging is about sharing expertise in a way that relies upon a crowd-sourced, DIY form of peer review. I give writing advice here on the blog in the same spirit that I give writing advice in the classroom. That is, I openly acknowledge that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach, and then I make very particular suggestions. In doing so, I am claiming a certain expertise about writing based on my previous work with writers. Readers and students alike have to decide if the approach is valuable to them. Advice about writing is always idiosyncratic, but tends on occasion to present itself as universal. In my view, far too much of what is said about academic writing underestimates its own specificity. In fact, writing advice gains value precisely by being framed as a matter of particular experience. Rather than rejecting the particular or framing the particular as universal, we should be offering support and concrete suggestions to improve the writing process.

Taking some time away from blogging has helped me to reflect on the status of the advice that I give here. I also had a chance to spend two amazing weeks at a research methods seminar; this experience gave me the time to think more about the way epistemological questions affect how we teach and talk about writing, both in the classroom and through social media. I’m so grateful to the seminar organizers and participants for giving me so much to think about as I embark on my year’s sabbatical.

I hope you’ve all had enjoyable and productive summers. I’d love to hear what topics you’d like me to cover in the coming weeks and months; if you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments or via Twitter.

My Very Own Blog

I think it’s probably a bad sign when your own blogging delinquency becomes your subject matter for a post. As I’ve said before, I understand that neither apologies nor explanations of the worthiness of my non-blogging activities are of any interest. But I do actually have something to say about blogging and not blogging.

Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson, in an interview in the Impact of Social Sciences blog, said recently that we ought to move past the idea of single-authored blogs. They make a good argument for the value of the multi-authored blog: the group blog benefits from the emphasis on collaboration and from the sharing of the responsibility among many writers. The collaborative approach, they suggest, also benefits the audience since a multi-authored blog is much more likely to be updated regularly. According to estimates that Dunleavy and Gilson mention, eighty per cent of single-author blogs are either inactive or rarely updated; they call these ‘desert blogs’, which is such a sad phrase (I tried to find out if this was their coinage or an established term, but all I found were a lot of gorgeous dessert blogs!). Reading their stark assessment of single-authored blogs made me want to defend my little solo project, but I was constrained by my awareness of the stale post that had been sitting on my site for over a month.

What does all this mean for my neglected single-author blog? I assume that nobody is wasting their time checking my blog for new content; you all have better things to do and anyone who cares to can receive some form of notification (all the notification options can be found in the left sidebar: email, RSS, Facebook, Twitter). Given the rhythms of my work life, I accept that this blog will need to be a some-times-more-than-other-times proposition. Despite the inevitable fallow times, I know that this blog benefits from having a single author.

A blog that offers an approach to writing needs authorial consistency to allow readers a chance to evaluate its value for them. I think you’d be crazy to show up here out of the blue and accept what I say. Taking the writing process seriously means not accepting one-size-fits-all ‘writing tips’. You need to find a source of writing insight that addresses your general writing situation and that resonates with your specific approach to writing. I’m not saying that a group blog on writing can’t be valuable, of course; the Lingua Franca blog is a great example of a blog that is consistently updated and consistently excellent. But the multi-author model doesn’t encourage the same sustained interaction between a single author and the audience. Given the nature of my project, that sustained interaction is important to me.

All of which is to say that I’m committed to this blogging format. But this ‘commitment’ raises an obvious question: why don’t I write here more often? The reason isn’t a lack of enjoyment—writing here is one of my very favourite things to do. And the enjoyment isn’t just derived from the creative process; I love knowing that the posts are read, shared, and used across a wide range of networks. The act of writing these posts is also very helpful to me as a teacher; crystallizing my thoughts about writing allows me to teach these topics more effectively in the classroom.

This rosy picture makes blogging sound like a winning proposition all around. But there is, unfortunately, a predictable impediment: this blog is all mine and thus I’m not responsible to anyone else for what happens here. Everything else in my professional life involves some degree of obligation to other people: preparing to teach; looking at student writing; handling administrative responsibilities; meeting with colleagues; making presentations. These are all things that I genuinely enjoy doing, but the manner in which I do them means that a failure to do so would negatively affect someone else. Blogging—or not blogging, as the case may be—is something that matters only to me. As such, it is the first thing to go when I am busy. Sound familiar? Where does writing fit into the have to/would really like to split in your own life?

The problem for many graduate students is that they have to write, but their lives end up organized in such a way that writing is neglected in favour of other things that feel more urgent. That sense of urgency is real, of course; the non-writing activities of graduate students aren’t just hobbies. Often those activities generate essential income or develop key professional competencies. But successful writers will find a way to place writing within the confines of their essential activities. I realize this sounds like a very self-serving conclusion: it’s okay if I can’t find time to blog, but it’s not okay if you don’t find time to write your thesis. Convenient, perhaps, but also true. The more you can think of writing as an obligation, the more progress you will make towards the goal of a completed thesis.

Finally, I know I said I wouldn’t bore you with what I’ve been doing while neglecting the blog, but I can’t resist sharing a few photos from my recent trip to Savannah. I was there for the International Writing Across the Curriculum conference, and the conference and the city were both delightful!

Blogging as an Academic Activity

In my last post, I mentioned that I was taking a week off from this blog to attend a conference at which I would be making a presentation about this blog. Since I have been so preoccupied with thinking about blogging, I thought I would devote today’s post to a consideration of how blogging relates to other academic activities.

Five months into this blogging adventure, I realize that it is premature to draw any definitive conclusions. But having to make a presentation on this topic forced me to come up with some provisional conclusions about the difference between blogging and other academic pursuits. Here are four themes that seem to characterize the singularity of the blogging experience:

  1. The blog allows me to craft my ideas into a form that endures outside of a particular class setting (blogging as permanent).
  2. The blog allows me to reach a broad number of people with whom I might otherwise have no connection (blogging as public).
  3. The blog allows me to share my thoughts in short bits at frequent intervals (blogging as periodic).
  4. The blog allows me to express my ideas in whatever way I choose without going through anyone else’s editorial process (blogging as personal).

Looking at these four themes together, I think it is possible to think of academic blogging as the creation of a hybrid space that combines aspects of traditional publishing (because it is permanent and public) and aspects of teaching (because it is periodic and personal). This hybrid space seems to be well suited to meeting the needs of graduate students who want to improve their academic writing skills: because it is public, a blog can be accessed whenever readers need it; because it is periodic, a blog can provide readers with information in manageable bits; because it is permanent, a blog can give readers the opportunity to pursue an issue further through earlier posts on related topics; and, finally, because it is personal, a blog can adopt a clear authorial stance that allows readers to determine whether it suits their writing needs.

The conference itself was great. Thanks to all CASDW members for an interesting and congenial weekend in Fredericton!