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Context and Variation

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Networking, Scholarship and Service: The Place of Science Blogging in Academia

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I submitted the first round of my materials for my third year review recently. The third year review is the half-way point between one’s hire as a tenure-track professor and going up for tenure. You can be fired at this point. But the most common outcome is that you get a strongly worded letter from the college detailing what you’ve done and what will be necessary from here on out if you want tenure. If you then don’t do as they say (get a grant, increase the number of publications, improve your teaching) then they have the grounds to deny you tenure.

If you’re in a supportive department as I am, then your third year committee’s job is to make the best possible case for you for when your case goes before the college. They pore over your curriculum vitae (academic resume), your papers, your teaching evaluations and research program. They observe your teaching, read your grants, and try to figure out how to articulate just how important you are to the department.

However, the job of an academic, and our expectations, are largely increasing. More papers are expected, more grants, even while teaching and service loads are increasing. And what it means to be an academic is changing. More online instruction actually means that teaching is more time-intensive – it takes a lot longer to build a week of good online material than it does to write a few lectures. Students no longer wait to talk to you after class, they email you at all hours – and will resend their email repeatedly if you don’t answer within 8-12 hours. Being slightly removed from our students but supposedly available 24 hours a day makes for a demoralizing, full inbox each and every morning.

But there are many wonderful things about how our jobs are changing, too. As depressed as end of semester emails make me, I am thrilled the other fourteen weeks of the semester because I can identify the ways in which my students have grasped basic skills and concepts better in my current blended teaching style, compared to the passive lectures they once received. For some academics, blogs and social media serve as both public outreach and scholarly work; for others they are an important place to give and receive mentorship. And the shrinking of many PhD programs mean undergraduate research experiences are on the rise as some of us look for other students to mentor, and I find these experiences especially rewarding.

So that third year review committee has a tough job ahead of itself in a case like mine. I don’t look like most of the people who have gotten tenure before me, at least in terms of how I allocate my time. They can figure out how to talk about my educational activities, because they can recognize components even if the medium or students look different. The research part should be a breeze too. But what they really want to know is, how do they talk about my blog?

It doesn’t help that “blog” doesn’t sound very academic (oh, if only I had thought to call this the Context and Variation Monograph). And it doesn’t help that this writing isn’t just for scholars, but for everybody. That’s not because non-blogging academics don’t see the point of interacting with the public, but because this particular way of doing it is so strange to them. This isn’t a radio interview, or a book, or a talk at the local library, but a style of writing where the jargon is not academic but from the internet. We talk in ALL CAPS, we use emoticons and use extra exclamation points!!1!!1 :D We use the word “fail” in a way totally different from its traditional meaning, which led to members of the American Anthropological Association getting angry and hurt when online anthropologists referred to the removal of science from its mission statement last year as #aaafail.

Then there are the takedowns.  Blog posts can be a number of things, but within science blogging two of the more common are explainers and takedowns. Explainers are when you provide background information or context for a particular topic – this may be timely, as when there is a new primate fossil discovery and several anthropologists then explain its meaning in the context of the fossil record or modern primates, depending on their expertise. Or it may just be interesting or timely to them, as with my piece on inducing labor last month.

Takedowns, though, are critical and controversial. They are intentionally provocative. They do not write behind a veil of careful academic prose that weighs and measures each sentence. They take the criticisms that many academics privately share at the nearest coffee shop (because we so rarely have a watercooler) into the public sphere. And so these are particularly unsettling to read and categorize, if you are trying to understand a blog’s place in academia.

At Science Online last year, John Hawks said that “blogging is at best a tertiary activity.” And I would agree. But that still puts it on the radar for those of us blogging pre-tenure today. I have no desire to alter my writing style or choice of topics on my blog to help me get tenure. At the same time, I would like to be able to articulate the ways in which the process of blogging, the networking from blogging, and scholarly blog posts are a meaningful part of my identity and production as a tenure-track professor. ETA: I’m embarrassed that I missed this important and delightful post by Greg Downey on this topic, just last month. Read it! Thanks to Kristina Killgrove for pointing it out in the comments!

* * *

Blogging to build a network

One part of blogging that is easy for most academics to understand is that it helps you network. Blogging has given me connections to anthropologists I might otherwise have never met (to name just a few). It exposes me to potential students, potential employers, potential external letter writers (those are the people who write letters on your behalf when you go up for tenure, and can make or break your case). When graduate students and junior faculty become fans of my blog, they tell senior faculty, and recently several of those senior faculty have told me. Now those senior faculty also read my blog.

This increased exposure also means that more journalists know who you are. When a journalist needs an anthropologist or scholar of ladybusiness, they are more likely to call me. And while academics have for a long time feared talking to journalists because journalists will “get it wrong” or fellow academics will think they are grubbing for fame, times are changing. For one, you can certainly say no if a journalist’s time table is too short for you to give the considered response you want to give, or you don’t feel she or he is from a reputable organization. But you can also set some ground rules that allow you to see your quotes ahead of time. If you are in the blogging community and the journalist also blogs, there will likely be a mutual trust that will allow you to answer honestly and without fear.

I would also add that the stigma of interacting with journalists is decreasing in a climate where universities are competing for the best students and looking for ways to set them above their rivals. My university LOVES that I write for Scientific American, because every time you read one of my blog posts you likely note that I am an assistant professor at the University of Illinois. Now you won’t just associate that university with having had a terrible football coach (our bowl game sure will be interesting), but as a place that appreciates public service. Public engagement is a priority that is growing in Illinois’s mission, which is a good thing since many other people from here do amazing online science writing and outreach.

Finally, and this may be the most exciting part of how blogging improves networks, is that it can lead to giving talks at other institutions. This demonstrates our impact on the field, and how much respect we have from our colleagues. Every talk I have been invited to give so far this semester (and upcoming next semester) has been a direct result of this blog. Every single one. Yet many of them have been research talks or hybrid research/blog talks, which has allowed me to put my own work out there in front of another set of anthropologists. These have an enormous benefit for me, because I get to test out my ideas and receive constructive criticism from my colleagues. And, if the talk goes well, I’ve gained their respect as a scholar.

Blogging as scholarly writing

Blogging is scholarly writing in that it is writing as thinking. I put ideas out here, or explain basic concepts like life history theory, in a way that has enormous benefit to me, because the writing secures it in my brain. I am a more broadly knowledgeable anthropologist because of this blog; I read and write more than I would without it. Some of my posts are drafts of actual papers I hope to write. And other posts are ways to help me get through something about my job that is keeping me from fulfilling my potential as a scholar.

Blogging has improved my writing and analytical skills. For instance, while many aspects of evolutionary psychology have been unsettling to me for over a decade, it is only in writing about it on my blog that I have been able to better articulate why. And while I have been critical of the clinical study of women’s health for some time, I rarely get the opportunity to discuss the historical or cultural context except for in this space.

But blogging is not just a writing exercise. Blogging is a different way of having an academic conversation. I have had many important interactions with other scholars about evolutionary theory, the biocultural approach in anthropology, women’s health and other topics that have helped us each develop our own thinking. It’s just that the conversation is more public.

Finally, writing a blog can lead to peer-reviewed manuscripts. I’ve now been selected to be in the Open Lab anthology twice – last year and this year. This is a peer-reviewed process, and I do list my contributions to these anthologies on my CV.

Examples of posts as scholarly writing:

Blogging as service

Finally, my blog provides three kinds of service: mentoring to junior colleagues, outreach to the public, and post-publication peer review. I’ve met with undergraduates and graduate students from other institutions as part of invited talks to discuss issues for women in science and academia as well as my research. I do a fair bit of email correspondence with young female students. I also write honestly about the “work/life balance,” one of the dumber terms for a near-permanent state of sleep deprivation. In fact, I’ve discussed my third year review in the context of my attending the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women, and that post led to emails from novelists, doctors, and academics in all disciplines all over the country.

Other posts are intended for a more general audience, in order to raise awareness of the disconnect between women’s knowledge from peers and doctors and the often different information gleaned from anthropological science research. I have written on iron-deficiency anemia, labor induction, homebirth, and hormonal contraception, often contrasting medical assumptions with evidence-based reality.

A third kind of post serves as public outreach and a new form of scholarly writing: post-publication peer review. The peer review process is imperfect, and a growing number of blogs are devoting a significant portion of their space to analyzing published papers. This takes private academic conversations public, which is useful for layreaders and fellow academics. In addition to many solo efforts, I have collaborated twice with Scicurious, a pseudonymous postdoc in neuroscience and all-around kickass person. Our most recent tag-team, on a paper about maternal tendencies and facial femininity, resulted in an exchange with the lead author of the paper on the Scientific American Guest Blog, on its comment thread, and even spawned a separate post by another psychologist.

Post-publication peer review makes the scientific process more transparent to the layreader and, I hope, demonstrates the ways in which science is not straightforward but requires creativity and thoughtfulness alongside objectivity. This may prove increasingly important for young people, who see scientists as smart and good at taking tests, linear thinkers, and people who don’t need help understanding anything (Shanahan 2011). This scientist archetype prevails in graduate school and beyond, manifesting itself as “impostor syndrome” if the scientist doesn’t feel they have these attributes or otherwise occupy an othered space in their field.

Finally, the main reason this type of scholarly writing is important is that it makes critiques public among fellow scholars. By airing our grievances, we may arrive at new ideas, or at least achieve a grudging respect for our differences. And this type of post-publication peer review can happen more quickly than letters to the editor in a journal, allowing for faster transmission of ideas. So far, daring to be critical at times has made me a more bold scholar, allowed me to articulate for myself and others why an anthropological lens is so important in understanding human physiology and behavior, and given me space to engage not only with people who agree with me, but with those who don’t.

Examples of posts as service:


Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. killgrove 12:02 pm 12/14/2011

    Thanks for this post, Kate. The role of science blogging in academia is an important one, and I’m glad to have another post to point people at (the other one being the awesome “Blogging for Promotion” post and discussion at Neuroanthropology –

    I’ve similarly described my blogging as “a public form of the informal communication that I have all the time with my colleagues,” but this is helping me see that many of my posts would be considered scholarly writing as you define it.

    Good luck with your review! So glad to hear that other anthropologists have found institutional support for their blogging activities.

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  2. 2. kclancy 1:04 pm 12/14/2011

    Ack! Can’t believe I missed that post and the comment thread. I’ve now mentioned it in the post and credited you for pointing it out to me :) . And I love the idea of our creating crowd-sourced letters of reference about our online activities!

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  3. 3. caleb_scharf 1:56 pm 12/14/2011

    Terrific post, and I think your comment “Blogging is a different way of having an academic conversation” is absolutely spot on, and I’m going to pinch that phrase when I try to explain to colleagues what it’s all about!

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  4. 4. killgrove 3:02 pm 12/14/2011

    Kate – wow, I’d assumed you were writing a complementary but separate piece to the Neuroanthropology one. But this is even better – it shows that several of us are considering how to “count” our science blogging towards grad student performance reviews, (pre-)tenure cases, and the job search.

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  5. 5. Melanie Tannenbaum 3:39 pm 12/14/2011

    Oh! What a pleasant surprise it was to be reading this article and see my own blog linked in the word “do”! :)

    Egotism aside, what a great post. Consider it bookmarked, printed out, saved, etc. I can’t wait to send this to people when they (inevitably, as always) ask why I bother using precious time that could be spent on “real research” to blog. Wonderfully written, and made me prouder than ever to be a part of this community. I can’t wait to meet you on Monday!

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  6. 6. holly_dunsworth 4:15 pm 12/14/2011

    Thank you Kate. So much of this post is illuminating and inspiring and in particular I relate to your comments about how blogging makes you a better scholar and teacher. For sure!

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  7. 7. kclancy 8:37 pm 12/14/2011

    Kristina, yes, it appears I must have absorbed the great conversation happening at Neuroanthropology, because I didn’t know about their posts or the AAA panel! I’m glad that I know now — we can pool our ideas.

    Melanie, I’m also looking forward to our coffee Monday!

    And Holly, thanks so much. I suppose now the question is to figure out how to get the naysayers to understand what we seem to get about blogging!

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  8. 8. holly_dunsworth 9:18 am 12/15/2011

    I figure there’s always going to be someone wagging their finger at what I’m doing outside the box that they’re stuck inside.

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  9. 9. kclancy 1:38 pm 12/15/2011

    I agree. I just wish they weren’t so frequently full professors ;) .

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  10. 10. gregdowney 5:15 pm 12/15/2011

    Hi Kate,
    What do they say in the call-in request shows, ‘Long time listener, first-time caller…’ I’ve admired your blog writing for a while (and was even preparing a piece drawing on some things you had written before final marks intervened).

    The issue of how to include blog writing and other online publications in output is complicated, on the one hand, and quite straightforward in others: I’ve sat on promotion committees and will be going up in 2012 myself, and I know firsthand that a LOT depends upon what people write and say about your work at every stage of the process. Much as Richard Handler pointed out (from a vastly more experienced perspective than mine) in the AAA webinar on the subject, promotion and tenure committees have to really take account of things like the references and what we call the ‘disciplinary statement’ here. That statement is usually prepared by our Head of Department to contextualize the application, explain to the committee the standards within each discipline. Then, at least in my experience, the committee reviews the application (with the discipline statement) against a very rigid and formulaic evaluation template, with each criteria laid out and committee members speaking to the relationship between the evaluation template, the discipline statement and the candidate’s materials for the case.

    Admittedly, Australian universities can sometimes be bureaucratic nightmares of ‘Brazilian’ (the movie, that is) proportions, but I suspect that something quite similar happens in most universities, if for no other reason that decisions can be defended in case their are questioned or actioned by disgruntled candidates.

    So it’s not just our own applications that we need to seek to affect to get online publication recognized, but these other documents and collateral processes. For example, while it’s all well and good for anthro-bloggers to talk about how bloging is ‘service,’ my advice is that you look closely at the criteria your university uses for evaluating ‘service.’ Fortunately for me, although ‘service’ is massively, disproportionately tipped toward doing the kind of awful administrative tasks at departmental and university level that I find soul sucking, there are several criteria under the heading of ‘service’ that I can really argue apply to my online work.

    If you put your online writing into a format where it’s not clearly linked to one of these formal criteria (at least in our university), or if the discipline statement coming from your Head of D is really olde schoole and doesn’t seem to have a place for counting your online work, the committee will have a hard time marking you up in any specific criterion, even if they are sympathetic (roll your eyes, but I’ve seen it happen).

    In other words, my advice is to study the criteria and documentation about promotion CLOSELY. Figure out where your online writing fits and make sure that you break down your application so that you clearly match your credentials to the criteria. This may sound really, really lame, but my experience is that too little analytical attention goes to the documents about promotion and standards that do exist. We think it’s all vague (and sometimes, I’m sure it is), but in fact, it may be our understanding that’s vague or we may not have gotten to know the documentation that does exist. As in so many things in academe, behind many seemingly open and humane processes may actually lie a bureaucratic machine.

    I’ll admit, about 6 mos ago, I had a long, hard think about my own career and my online writing when I realized that I had probably written more than 200k words in blog posts in the previous couple of years, and I potentially had nothing to show for it in my promotion case. It left me demoralized and stopped me from writing on line for a while (so did a really heavy teaching and formal writing load). Now, especially after having sat on a promotion committee, studying the expectations for promotion, and talking with my head of department, I’m more confident.

    I guess the short version of this long rant is, make sure that you have cased out what documents on standards do exist, talked to someone on the committee, and make it easier for them to say ‘yes’ to you.

    In the meantime, if you want someone to write you an endorsement, you know where to find me. I love your stuff…

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  11. 11. kclancy 1:52 pm 12/16/2011

    Thank you so much for writing this, Greg. I think you make a marvelous point, reinforced by your blog post about the AAA session, about the broader committees and disciplinary statements we need to impact. I also loved your idea about creating crowdsourced references about our online work, and will try to set up something like that soon (and yes, I will definitely be tapping you to contribute to it, am flattered you would even want to, and I hope you will allow me to do the same).

    Perhaps as we move forward, we need to be the ones to produce a first draft of that document. I think several of us have done a good job articulating the meaning of blog posts in our scholarly lives. I wonder what a document would look like that pulls together our ideas, identifies the worth of blogging, and situates that in anthropology?

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  12. 12. gregdowney 3:03 pm 12/16/2011

    I agree, Kate, about writing the first draft. As anyone knows who reads student papers, providing good, clear material that can be cut-n-pasted into a document someone else doesn’t want to but must write is a guaranteed way to get your language widely distributed.

    I’ll distribute the call, but maybe we can take the lead on this — you and me? And then we can post it publicly, or share it somehow? The statement would sort of be, ‘What does blogging mean for academic anthropology?’, written for the administrator or olde school academic who doesn’t get it?

    I’ve got to have my application together by March at the latest, and I’ve already committed to posting my section on my online writing so that people can use it, cite it, plagiarize it, whatever. But it would be good to get a full complement of the sorts of documents and explanations we need to produce.

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  13. 13. JasonAntrosio 6:09 pm 12/22/2011

    Thank you for this great take on blogging. On a somewhat related note, Context and Variation is of course included in a list of anthropology blogs and currently can vote for 10 favorites (through 31 December 2011):

    Link to this

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