Scholarship and Blogging

By December 10, 2012

I think it was in 2005 when I came across Times and Seasons and I was rather enchanted by it. “These people are talking about interesting things.” “I want to be part of this conversation.” “I have important things to say.” “I’m working on important things right now that would inform these conversations.” “I would like it if these people knew who I was and thought what I had to say was important.”

Yet I quickly saw that all these feelings suggested that the blogs could be a dangerously seductive place to the aspiring scholar. I’m probably not just speaking for myself when I say that aspiring scholars badly want to be recognized. To be recognized we need to publish and that can be a long and difficult process. The time and effort between “brilliant idea” and “brilliant idea in print” is often significant. What if I could just skip all that and just throw my ideas up on a blog? Very tempting.

But blogging doesn’t “count” in academia for that very reason. It skips the painful process of peer review. So it quickly became apparent to me that blogging could turn into an illusory place where I could receive the gratification of having people (potentially) be interested in my ideas without actually publishing. But without publishing I would have nothing to show for my efforts. I would be trapped in a academic land of the lotus eaters.

So I kept a safe distance (I think I left a grand total of one comment on Times and Seasons) and when my good friend David G. started up the Juvenile Instructor, I refused to join. “You can blog or you can write,” I would tell myself, “and would-be scholars need to write.” It didn’t help that I felt my first guest post went badly: I didn’t feel like I communicated exactly what I wanted to say and I was checking the damn thing every five minutes! This confirmed my suspicions and I was determined to stay away.

But I did end up joining. I went from distant observer to participant in the bloggernaccle because of prop. 8 (after the vote I felt like I needed to “talk” and the bloggernacle seemed like the right place). My participation went up at the Juvenile Instructor as well and I sent them another guest post a few months later. There was a quote in William Appleby’s journal that I thought was worth discussing and sent it to David. He told me to add some more background but I considered that too much effort so he did it and put it up. I was amazed at what happened next: a conversation quickly ensued where people were able to add further context to the quote, all of which turned into a significant contribution to Mormon history on the subject of blacks and the priesthood. The bloggernacle had turned my little anecdote into something important.

I joined the JI shortly thereafter and have not been disappointed. I’ve liked being able to stick up random musings, historical or otherwise. The JI was most valuable to me during my big crunch of exam reading. I really like academic writing, so much so that I had gotten behind on my reading schedule and soon discovered that I had to drop everything and just read for a year. I was sort of unhappy that I couldn’t write so the blog became a really nice outlet for me where I could put up book reviews and other musings that didn’t take too much effort. Without that I think I would have been rather unhappy during that stretch.

Now that I’m back to writing, I blog less often, but I’m still glad to have this outlet. At the same time, blogging can have it’s pitfalls so here’s some advice that I would give would-be scholars who want to blog.

1) Blogging can be a big time drain, like the internet in general. Learn to manage your time well.

2) Keep your publishing efforts your top priority and blogging as secondary. Don’t get sucked in to instant blogger gratification.

3) As with blogging in general, think before you type and don’t feel like every battle is worth fighting.

4) While I don’t think you have to be overly paranoid, do keep in mind that what you put up on the blog is now free to everyone on cyberspace. Blogs are not published articles, so if you have some really brilliant scoop, you probably want to save it for the publication. Learn how to keep some things to yourself until it’s published.

5) It’s all a learning process with lots of little mistakes along the way from unfortunate comments to blog posts that turn out to be duds. If you don’t take yourself too seriously it can be well worth it.

So fellow bloggers, what benefits have you derived from blogging and what have you learned from the process? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. If you keep points 1-3 in mind, then point 5 can become incredibly valuable. Blogging is a great way to discover that you completely suck as a writer, and that you bore or enrage people when you least expect it. All that extra writing and instant feedback can make you a much stronger writer of academic prose.

    The hardest part, something like a point 4b in your list above, is learning how to accommodate the skeptical search committee in your head. It’s incredibly hard to blog if you can’t tune out the voice of the person you imagine studying your CV and digging through your blog posts to discover the least flaw.

    Comment by D. Martin — December 10, 2012 @ 11:01 am

  2. Steve, Thanks very much for your experience and thoughts. I’m relatively new to these forums, and maybe it’s a generational thing, but I frankly have somewhat mixed feelings about blogging. On the other hand, as a social enterprise, I think it’s great. It can build and nourish communities; it addresses feelings of loneliness; it’s like an occasional meeting of friends. It may also help to stimulate fresh thinking and new insights. On the hand, it seems to reward incivility, sensation-mongering, bad writing, and to encourange elitism and cliquishness. Then again maybe this is just me?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 10, 2012 @ 11:03 am

  3. Great post, Steve; you summarize nicely most of my thoughts on the issue. (I still have yet to master #1…)

    To me, I approach blogs as a digital version of graduate seminars and/or intellectual discussions over lunch. JI provides a forum in which we could discuss issues as if we were all in the lobby of MHA. Every once and a while it could be more than that–our various roundtables are an example–but for most of the time, I think we should remember blogging for what it is: digital discussions with limited academic merit.

    Comment by Ben P — December 10, 2012 @ 11:40 am

  4. Thanks, Steve. I think your post, along with Ben’s comment, really gets at the issue. 99% of what appears on blogs ultimately just stimulates thoughts and discussions, but doesn’t further an academic career (and can, in fact, hinder one). But the other 1% includes networking that can lead to more academically-palatable things, like panels at conferences, blog book reviews or roundtables that later appear in print journals, and invitations to contribute to print sources (like the Reeve and Parshall Encyclopedia, which had a significant number of contributions from bloggers). For grad students hungry to get anything on a CV, these sorts of publications can help, although they certainly wouldn’t do much in terms of getting tenure down the road.

    Comment by David G. — December 10, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  5. Thanks D. I’m pretty good at tuning out “the skeptical search committee in [my] head.” Perhaps a little too good (see typos).

    Gary, I think the bloggernacle is a love/hate relationship for most people (just hate for some). All those things you mention do happen. Some people find it worthwhile anyway, lots of people get tired of it and quit. But it’s always here to lure new people in like a glorious train wreck.

    Ben and David such conversations really are valuable. To be able to have them at your fingertips is really nice in grad school, which can feel a little isolated at times. Thanks for having me.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 10, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

  6. For me in Europe, blogs are a way to keep an eye on what is happening in the (US) Mormon (Studies) community, even if it’s skewed towards the experiences of online people. As a non-Mormon, it really helps me learn the Mormon language, so to speak. But I recognize your concerns, Steve, and I think it’s something to be wary about.

    Comment by Saskia — December 10, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  7. I started blogging at T&S in 2003, shortly after I graduated from law school. While in law school, I had a regular lunch/reading group of LDS grad students at Harvard. I thought of T&S as a way of having something like that social and intellectual outlet once I’d left Cambridge and lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. I kept blogging regularly when I was in legal practice mainly as a break from the often tedious work I was doing.

    Once I got an academic job my blogging fell off. In addition to T&S, I use to blog at a relatively big academic law blog called Concurring Opinions. I eventually with drew from that blog because I felt like if I was taking the time to write something on law that I wasn’t embarrassed to have my academic colleagues read that I was spending enough time on it that I should probably just be working on an article.

    My blogging at T&S fell of for related but slightly different reasons. The most important was time. I simply needed to be putting that effort into writing publishable material for tenure. I also wanted to be careful to show that my interest in Mormonism was a “real” academic interest as opposed to an intellectual hobby, so I tried to focus on publishing in ways that would “count” for my tenure file.

    I also think that blogging can breed bad intellectual habits. It gives you a kind of instant gratification, which is fun but potentially dangerous. Also, extensive participation in the comments section is sometimes a very bad idea, as your smartest readers and your most vocal readers are not always the same group. I remember going to an MHA meeting and having lots of people come up to me and mentioned that they had read my posts at T&S and liked them. Initially, this was really flattering and my ego basked in the attention. Then, however, I started thinking, “You know, I don’t think that my big ambition in life is to be know as a blogger and I don’t seem to be know for anything else. This is not good.”

    Still, blogging is a lot of fun and at times the discussions are really good.

    Comment by Nate Oman — December 10, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

  8. Sorry for the typos. Imagine that they aren’t there.

    One other thing: I think it is healthy to blog under your own name. It disciplines you a bit in what you say. Also, too often anonymity on the internet is an illusion and folks will find out who you are. Best not to live in that illusion.

    Comment by Nate Oman — December 10, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

  9. I think Nate hits a lot of important points there.

    As for anonymity, there are important issues there. I used to blog under my full name, but then shortened it to “Ben P” for primarily pragmatic reasons: I didn’t want blog comments to show up on the first page when people google my name.

    Comment by Ben P — December 10, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

  10. Thanks, Steve. This resonates.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 10, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

  11. Thanks for the thumbnail sketch of all this Nate. Clearly lots of people want to talk and you pioneering efforts in this are appreciated.

    Saskia, that sound like a good use of blogs. I imagine it gives you a useful window into this world.

    Thanks Ryan.

    I guess my concluding thought would be that as with any new tool, it can either be used in useful ways or it can become the latest toy. Toys have their place, but wise people will learn effective uses. I’m curious to see what the future holds for all of this.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 11, 2012 @ 5:08 pm


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