Sometimes when I’m staring at a blank computer screen, the words of Steve Martin’s delightful 1996 New Yorker piece, "WRITING IS EASY!," come back to me: "Writing is the most easy, pain-free, and happy way to pass the time of all the arts.” I wish. If you believe that, then you must think academic bloggers are complete hedonists. (I’ve also got a nice piece of property in the Everglades to sell you.)
Despite what Forbes thinks, most academics these days are notoriously overworked, with increasing demands on our time and escalating publishing expectations. Why, then, are so many of us blogging on top of it all? Why, in my busy first year of graduate school, did I decide to start Lady Economist, a feminist blog about the dismal science?
It’s not simply that we’re gluttons for punishment. Nor is it the instant gratification that comes from hitting “publish” and seeing our work pop up on a website. (Though there is that.) It’s because academics are writers and, well, as every struggling writer knows, practice makes perfect.
As Theresa MacPhail, an assistant professor and dissertation coach at New York University, notes, the problem for most of us—from grad students on up to tenured profs and even published fiction writers—is getting in the habit of sitting down and writing. The only way to conquer that problem is to write regularly, and then write some more.
Blogging can help with that. In fact, one of our blog’s contributors reached out to us at the recommendation of her dissertation advisor, who told her that writing for a popular audience—about economic inequality, access to health care, and so on—would make working on her thesis seem a bit less daunting. Maxime Larivé, who has a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Miami and now serves as a research associate at the European Union Center of Excellence there, agrees. He says blogging not only upped the frequency and quality of his writing but also gave him the confidence boost he needed to finish his dissertation.
Finishing is still a (hopefully not-too-distant) dream for me. But blogging has definitely helped me find my voice and make writing more routine, and it’s been a much-needed creative outlet. (All quantitative work and no play make Katherine a dull lady economist.)
But Katherine!, you say, Blogging and academic writing are so different. True, but therein’s the fun. While academics can appreciate even the most turgid prose on the basis of the ideas buried beneath it, most general readers don’t want to work any more than they have to to get to the point. That makes blogging an excellent way to learn to write accessibly and to engage with a broader audience. In my case, the potential to reach a more diverse readership and yield a different kind of discussion is what drew me to blogging in the first place. And honing my nonacademic writing skills could pay dividends (I hope) if I ever decide to seek a job outside of academia, become a public intellectual, or just want my work to be read by more than a handful of people.
While we’re on the subject of jobs, blogging can be a great way to connect with people in and out of the academy. Thanks to my posts on Lady Economist and Vitae, for example, I now count scholars from Sweden, Germany, Belgium, and Brazil as professional acquaintances. And both platforms have offered me an opportunity to learn from researchers with overlapping interests in the areas of political economy, the welfare state, and labor relations. Recently, I’ve heard from scholars and activists working on securing women’s economic rights within the context of the European financial crisis and the austerity agenda.
Meanwhile, my public writing is helping me develop an online identity as an economist who cares deeply about my discipline’s impact on issues such as poverty and inequality. We’ve come a long way since Ivan Tribble declared that "Bloggers Need Not Apply." These days, having an online presence is essential; the trick is to make sure you’re putting your best digital foot forward, says ProfHacker’s Ryan Cordell. If a search-committee member, publisher, or colleague Googles you (and odds are she will), “you want them to find something that piques their interest in your work even more,” he says. You don’t want them to find embarrassing Facebook photos—true—but I would argue that you also don’t want them to find nothing.”
A blog can be that something—your beacon in the busy online universe. While there’s no guarantee that it’ll give you a leg up on the academic job market, if you do it in a thoughtful way, it shouldn’t hurt. That’s why you’ll find more and more smart voices encouraging blogging as part of an academic’s online portfolio.
That doesn’t mean I blog at the expense of my real work. I’m well aware that blogging does not equal scholarship. In academia, print publishing—in peer-reviewed books and journals—is still the coin of the realm. That said, while being online doesn’t in and of itself make research “relevant,” I’ve found blogging to be a good way to experiment with ideas and get feedback. I was delighted to receive so much input on my piece about “MOOCs, Mechanization, and the Modern Professor,” not only from economists, but from scholars who study education and the history of technology. A blog can likewise be a home for research or ideas—particularly on controversial or dissenting perspectives—that may not be suitable or ready for a scholarly journal, says James Hartley, a psychology professor at Keele University, in the United Kingdom. My blog, for example, provides a platform to raise awareness on how economics and politics impact women and girls, and it serves as a hub for alternative approaches to economics.
Truth be told, feeding a blog can occasionally feel like a chore. And putting yourself out there isn’t without risk; it’s not for the faint of heart. Writing for an online audience can be scary, especially for women—particularly when comments sections can, at any moment, reveal readers’ disappointment with your mistakes or inadequacies. Let’s just say that it’s not always the most relaxing hobby.
But it’s a hobby I’m glad to have. As an academic, I’m constantly being judged, anyway. So the criticism is a fair tradeoff for the connections I make, the practice I get, and the chance I have to drive some conversations of my own. Blogging isn’t easy, and it’s not pain-free. It does happen to be worthwhile.