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Why I Blog


Why I Blog

Thomas Whitley

I was prompted by Russell McCutcheon, professor of religious studies and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Alabama, to write a post on why I blog. This was after he wrote two such posts (here and here) and after Adam  T. Miller also wrote a post taking up the same question (here). These posts came in response to McCutcheon's recent trip to the University of Chicago Divinity School and conversations he had with students there who were earnestly concerned about whether those on, or about to go on, the job market should have an active social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc.). McCutcheon, if you don't know, is quite active on a number of social media and blogging platforms and he rightly points out the connections he has made with other scholars (particular early career scholars - like myself) through these means.

This question, as McCutcheon and Miller have tackled it thus far has been largely focused on blogging as an academic and the role that it might have as an academic tool. My blog archives go back to 2008, though I'm sure I was blogging before then. Blogging has never been for me solely academic. In the early years I wrote a lot about politics (still do), religion (still do), and technology (a little less so now), though I think I provided more "hot takes" back then. For me, then, the question is more, "why do I continue to blog?" There is plenty in my archives, I am sure, that would be less than flattering for me now, and by blogging on a regular basis, I open myself up even more to this possibility (which, obviously, could be problematic in my quest to find a job in academia). Even so, I continue to blog for three main reasons.

Connections and Conversations
Social Media and blogging are all about making connections and having conversations. It may be cliché, but it's true. It is a direct result of my social media presence and blogging that McCutcheon even thought to ask for such a post from me (or even knew my name in the first place). I have long been a proponent of Twitter (ever since Sam finally convinced me to join in July of 2008 - yes, my first tweet was as mundane as most first tweets: "trying to figure out this twitter thing."). It has allowed me to follow the "Arab Spring" from people on the ground in Cairo and to connect with other scholars of Late Antique Christianity across the country. Most of the new people that I meet in academia now, I "meet" first on Twitter. The ability to have these conversations and to make the world feel a little smaller are why I keep coming back.

Blogging allows me to extend these conversations, to share what I'm reading or watching, my thoughts on these things, and to serve as a curator of sorts for those in my social networks, pointing people toward news items they may have missed or pushing them to think of something differently than they did before. These conversations don't usually happen on my blog, but rather on Facebook posts or Tweets where I've linked to something I've written. (Side note: We seem to have moved past the "should you allow comments on your blog?" discussion and have settled into one of two norms. Either don't allow comments or allow them but never read them.)

These conversations, though, are able to happen much more quickly as a result of social media and blogging than they do as a result of traditional print publications. These are still important, and, indeed, much of the conversation is about print media (the success of Marginalia Review of Books is a prime example). Thus I am able to discuss a new book or journal article that came out with scholars from across the country and across the world in real time.

Further, social media and blogging have allowed me to get involved in conversations in which I'm not usually a participant. I am a scholar of early Christianity but write a decent amount about ISIS, for instance. These platforms allow me to pursue other interests in a thoughtful and informed way while not necessarily trying to publish articles about them right now.

The second reason I continue to blog is that it increases the reach that I can have. I write here, but I also write for the American Society of Church History's History of Christianity blog and for Marginalia Review of Books' MRBlog (I have written for other outlets in the past too). I even recently wrote a guest blog for Alabama's Department of Religious Studies' blog (here). None of the latter three would have been possible without my first writing here and making the conscious decision to write more regularly. This coincided with a "resolution" of sorts to "write every day" this year. The more I write, the easier it is to write, and, I think, the better my writing gets, even if only incrementally.

My reach has been significantly increased over the past year or so because of my blogging and the opportunities that have resulted from it. I now have people reading and sharing stuff I write with whom I have no connection at all (we have no friends in common, they don't follow me on Twitter, etc.). My ideas, my name, and the way I think about the ancient world, early Christianity, and modern politics now have more reach than they used to, and significantly more than they would were I not blogging at all. Indeed, people I have never met have talked about how much they've enjoyed reading my work. This is encouraging for most, I would imagine, but quite so for a graduate student. My increased writing in multiple outlets even led to my being asked to be a respondent for the North American Association for the Study of Religion's Annual Meeting this fall. In other words, the "non-academic" practice of blogging helped me land an academic invitation (and allows me to add another line to my CV, every graduate student's dream).

What is more, blogging has forced me to write for a public audience. It is no secret that much of the academic writing that one reads is dense and difficult to understand. Some of this, I am convinced is done intentionally as a status marker, but a lot of it is done because many academics have trouble translating what seems so clear to them to someone who has not been studying the text in question for two decades. This is an important skill to have for teaching and for the inevitable conversations in the airport. It may be even more important, though, at a time when those of us in the humanities are being forced to defend our fields and to explain their "value" and "worth" to administrators and politicians. If we cannot do this for ourselves in ways that non-specialists can understand, then we have no future. Appeals to the intrinsic worth of the humanities simply will not suffice.

Beyond this I think it is important, if we want an educated public, for us to do the work of taking our knowledge and expertise to the public in a way that they can understand. We cannot lament that people do not understand what we do if we are unwilling to explain it to them in non-patronizing means.

My friend Sam (mentioned and linked above) has been relentless in our almost decade-long friendship about preaching the idea of "bringing it all back home," or, in other words, publishing your material on your platform so you have control. Blogging allows me to retain control of my message as well as what happens to my content in a way that a Facebook post does not. I do, of course, lose some of this control when I write for other outlets, but in a different way (and the outlets I am writing for have missions with which I can identify and often license their content via Creative Commons). Being able to control my content (and import of from one blogging iteration to the next) allows my content to have the home I want it to have.

Related to this is the larger idea of controlling my "brand." Though many academics have resisted the move toward "branding," it has long been a part of academia. One's credentials, what they've written, and where they've taught make up their brand and determine, to a large extent, who reads them, who assigns them, and who thinks of them for panel invitations and professional society nominations. Branding has only become more important with the ubiquity of information readily available on the internet. It is important for me, as an academic in general but also as someone on the job market, that when someone searches for me on the internet, they find me and find what I want them to find about me (namely, my website, my work for other outlets, etc.). Moreover, as I think about my personal brand, it forces me to think about where my priorities are and what impression I want people to get of me. This is, of course, no different than how we should be thinking even sans internet (the same thinking goes into job application materials, for instance).

I am fully aware that this may hurt me on the job market. Potential employers may not want someone so publicly engaged, as it might be perceived as potentially bringing negative attention on a department or school. However, I work to combat this by trying to make sure that what I write for public audiences is produced with as much care as what I write for academic audiences. In other words, do good work. Doing good work is never a guarantee of opportunities or a job, but not doing good work is a guarantee that these will not come your way. This is another way, then, that I have control over my narrative.

Final Thoughts
Writing regularly for an audience brings with it a certain amount of pressure, and this is a good thing. The pressure to perform well/write well/be engaging has pushed me to work harder at what I do and to try to be a better writer. Blogging can be this, but it takes time and commitment. A graduate student must weigh their current commitments to coursework, conferences, teaching, etc. It is probably not a coincidence that I have become more active blogging at a time when I am writing my dissertation. I am mostly able to set my own schedule, which makes things like blogging easier.

As with everything these days, everything you post on any social media platform, regardless of your privacy settings, should be considered public. Breaches happen, people can screenshot your posts, and data can be sold. Much more of our lives are public now and this should force us to be diligent about what we share, but it does not mean that we should not share. Testing out ideas is helpful and can help you hone arguments you're making elsewhere (in class papers or conference presentations, for instance). You do not need to blog about the main thesis of your dissertation (in fact, you should not), but the feedback you receive can seriously strengthen your thinking and sharpen your skills.

Finally, because I often blog about "current events" and politics and attempt to relate them to what I study, I am forced to actually stay current on world events. Likewise, I am also forced/able to stay current on what scholars both in and outside of my field are reading, writing, and thinking in a more real-time way than even the latest journal articles allow. Blogging should not be reduced to mere thought exercises, but it has helped me more closely examine the lenses through which I typically analyze. So, while I rarely write about my dissertation in any detail, I am convinced that my blogging has helped me think through larger issues I am dealing with in my dissertation so that I can (hopefully) provide a more coherent and cogent argument.

I can't tell you if blogging is for you, but it's definitely for me.