Blogging your way to better writing

[B]logging is in and of itself academic writing and academic publication. It’s not an add-on. It’s now part and parcel of the academic writing landscape. As such, it is of no less value than any other form of writing. Even though audit regimes do not count blogs – yet – this does not lessen their value. And therefore those of us who engage in bloggery need to stop justifying it as a necessary accompaniment to the Real Work of Serious Academic Writing. Blogs are their own worthwhile thing.

Pat Thomson, “Seven reasons why blogging can make you a better academic writer” Times Higher Education 2 January 2016 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/seven-reasons-why-blogging-can-make-you-better-academic-writer  (Originally posted 7 December 2015 on https://patthomson.net/2015/12/07/blogging-helps-academic-writing/)

Thomson argues that blogging “informs and supports other academic writing” in the following ways. Blogging:

  1. Establishes writing as routine;
  2. Allows you to experiment with your “voice”;
  3. Helps you focus on one point;
  4. Helps you find and write to your audience;
  5. Develops concise writing;
  6. Allows experimentation with different writing forms; and
  7. Develops writing confidence.

Blogging is academic writing

I’m guest curating at @wethehumanities this week!

I’m guest-hosting at @wethehumanities this week, February 27 to March 5. Here’s an introduction to me–what I do and what I hope to talk about this week. Come join the conversation on Twitter!

Hello! I’m Alison and I’ll be curating @wethehumanities for the week of February 27th. I’m looking forward to chatting with you about diverse topics: social media, blogging, podcasting, pedagogy, and public engagement in the humanities. 

A bit about me: After completing a BA Hons in history, I worked in the museum field for several years before deciding to return to university to do a second degree and graduate school in Classics. I eventually received my MA in Classics at Brock University, Canada, in 2013, with my thesis “Gender and Healing in the Hippocrates Corpus.” I made the difficult decision not to continue with PhD studies but to look for other ways I can stay connected and contribute to the academic community. 

 One way I stay connected is through my work as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Classics at Brock University. I started there in 2009 as part of my MA funding plan and found, through the mentorship of professors and the professional development opportunities on campus, a passion for teaching and working with students. I have been fortunate to TA for a wide variety of courses, including topics such as Greek and Roman history, cities and sanctuaries, Cleopatra, women in the ancient world, and Greek mythology. 

I found towards the end of MA my academic interests had shifted somewhat. I remain very interested in ancient ideas about gender, medicine, and science, but I am also interested in how Greco-Roman ideas have influenced modern ideas about gender and the practice of health care. I have also developed interest in the reception of Greco-Roman mythology and female figures within mythology. 

More recently, I began work as the Social Media Coordinator for the Faculty of Humanities at Brock University. This has been an exciting venture, as it is a new role within the faculty. I manage the faculty’s social media accounts—Twitter, Facebook page, Instagram (@brockhumanities), and blog—covering the news and events within the faculty. This has allowed me to connect with students in a new way and to experience the diversity of humanities from a new perspective. 

My social media work has been a great fit, as I am passionate about communicating the relevance and necessity of the humanities to an audience beyond the university. The idea of public engagement is an important conversation happening now in the Classics community and I have been fortunate to participate in this conversation somewhat through social media. I am interested in hearing about the conversations happening in other disciplines.  

In addition to my own Twitter and Instagram (both @innesalison), I also blog at http://AlisonInnes.wordpress.com, where I work out my ideas about academia, pedagogy, and social media. I am interested in hearing from others how they use social media in their academics and ways we can use it to encourage interdisciplinary work and engage non-academics.

Finally, I am also a podcaster. I co-host and produce MythTake with Darrin Sunstrum (@DarrinSunstrum). Podcasting is experiencing a surge of popularity at the moment and I am interested in ways that the academic community can capitalize on this for both pedagogy and public engagement.  

So that’s me! I look forward to meeting you and sharing ideas February 27- March 6. I hope you’ll join in! 

What is academic twitter, anyway?

On Wednesday, @savasavasava threw out the following question on Twitter:

It’s a pretty big, and pretty important, question. When I’m asked, I usually say something along the lines of it being academics on Twitter, but that’s not quite right. It’s more than that, but it’s hard to explain until you experience it.

I’ve brought together some of the responses to @savsavasava’s question here, so that those not on Twitter can hopefully get a glimpse of why some of us like it so much.

The modern water cooler

I like to say that Twitter is the modern agora. It is a (privately owned) public space where people come together to chat, exchange knowledge, do business, complain, share cat pictures, and generally try to make sense of what’s going on in the world.

A broad community

Twitter–any social media, in my opinion–should be about the people who use it. Social media is simply being social through a medium. This allows broad communities and networks to form, which in turn fosters creativity, connection, knowledge exchange, and public engagement. Academic Twitter breaks down the barriers of status–tenured faculty, contract, independent scholars, alt-academics, para-academics– and becomes about the ideas people have, not the rank a person holds in an institution or organization.

A “time-shifted” conference

A never-ending conference may not sound like fun to some, but in some ways, that’s what Twitter is. But don’t worry: It’s the fun networking in the bar after the panel presentations part of conferences, and you can dip in and out of it as you wish. Also, no expensive hotel fees or air fare.

A way to do academics publicly

Twitter is public and provides a platform for us to do our discipline publicly. But it’s not just about sharing facts on ancient Greece, say. @OmanReagan hits the nail on the head: Twitter allows us to humanize our work. When we allow our personality and personal interests to come through on Twitter, the public can see scholars as relatable. Our enthusiasm comes across. We are interesting people doing interesting things, no more or less human than anyone else. Engagement is about connection, and we best connect with people when we allow ourselves to be seen as people.

 A disability resource

The importance of Twitter and social media to the disabled community is often under-appreciated, but it is a vital tool. Live-tweeting may make a presentation easier for someone to follow. Networking on social media doesn’t require the same energy investment that travel and meetings do. In addition, Twitter is a way to find other marginalized people who share the same challenges and can provide support during difficult times.

 A network that breaks down institutional hierarchies and silos

Twitter allows us to engage with other people as people first, and gives us access to people who we might not otherwise meet. It’s pretty awesome to be able to tweet to someone you respect, and even cooler when they reply or RT. I know I’ll never forget getting a RT from an academic hero!

Twitter gives space for the voices that are often marginalized and unheard in traditional spaces. By listening to –and amplifying–people from marginalized groups, we learn to be better people and better academics. Twitter is a classroom where, if we choose to listen, we can learn from each other.

A venue for trans-disciplinary collaboration

Twitter, if used well, breaks down barriers of disciplines, departments, faculties, and hierarchical rank to encourage cross collaboration. It’s way to work out ideas and get input from other perspectives.

Academic Twitter is complex. But however we describe it, it is a community: a community we create as individuals coming together to listen and learn and share with each other.

How do you define academic twitter?

More on Engagement via Social Media

Classics has been in crisis over its relatability for the entire time that I have been a classicist. But increasingly there are classicists who are interested in speaking to an audience beyond just the one which has typically been granted access to a classical education — and for these scholars, “outreach” is an ethical issue. There are groups of people, underrepresented and/or maligned in the past, which are now becoming more visible than ever. And one of the ways in which these groups have become more visible, is due to the power of representation which social media give them. When scholars engage online – even if their research has nothing to do with social issues – they can be witnesses to the kinds of problems which their students and their colleagues face that don’t necessarily occur to them from just their own experience.

Hannah Čulík-Baird, “Review: Social Media for Academics–Mark Carrigan

If you enjoyed my post “Thoughts on Twitter Outreach,” please take the time to read Hannah Čulík-Baird’s post “Review: ‘Social Media for Academics’–Mark Carrigan” . I am currently reading Carrigan’s book, and it is a great resource on how to think about social media and academics. While specific social media platforms will come and go, social media itself is not going anywhere, and Carrigan provides an excellent argument for how engaging with social media enhances our work as academics.

As scientists, we owe it to the world to do a better job communicating the wonders of science, and the incredible discoveries being made by our field, to everyone around us. And in this moment of history, when addressing scientific issues has never been more urgent and important, we have a special duty to share our knowledge, expertise, and passion with the wider world. It is part of our social compact as scientists.

….

Naturally, I am not suggesting that everyone should do everything — run a big lab, teach several courses, and then write a blog, regularly engage with journalists, publish a popular book, get on social media, speak in public forums, produce a podcast, do a TED talk, and so on. There are always limits of time, energy, and skill to consider. But each scientist can at least do something to communicate their science to broader audiences — and find a niche that works for them. Try something. Experiment. Be willing to invest the time needed to master another aspect of your profession. And stick with it.

Jonathan Foley “Science Communication as a Moral Imperative

Shortly after I wrote my post, Hannah brought this to my attention via Twitter. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) wrote “Science Communication as a Moral Imperative” on The Macroscope.  While it’s written for scientists, it is equally applicable to the humanities.

 

Thoughts on Twitter Outreach

I had planned to spend a day off from my social media work doing non-social media things, but then I checked Twitter, where @RogueClassicist had shared a recent post (excerpt below) on the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) blog.

My experiment with Twitter proved to be a failure. I began by obeying the rules of etiquette, then breaking them deliberately to see what worked. For example, I retweeted my own material (a big no-no on Twitter), I pestered others to retweet for me, I stopped following others when they got political, and I refused to discuss politics myself. Many followers soon unfollowed me, but I still ended the year with more followers than I started (c. 600). The problem is that from start to finish, most of my followers were either classicists or friends of mine. My conclusion—again, an unpopular one—is that Twitter is an echo chamber. It’s terrific for communication among classicists and highly educated fellow travelers, but not beyond—certainly not for reaching millions of non-classicists.

Michael Fontaine. “Blog: Promoting Classics to the Public—What Worked, What Didn’t, What Could.” 6 February 2017. https://classicalstudies.org/scs-blog/michael-fontaine/blog-promoting-classics-public—what-worked-what-didn’t-what-could 

While there are quite a few things in this post that I would like to discuss, I am going to focus on just two: Twitter and outreach.

Reaching Out–Why and to whom?

Let’s talk about the idea of Classics outreach first.

Before we can use social media effectively, we need to know what it is we want to use it for.  We need to have a clear idea of what we want to communicate and with whom we wish to communicate.

We talk about outreach, but what do we mean by this term? Do we all mean the same thing? What does outreach look like?

As I mention in my tweet, I’m not a fan of the word outreach. It’s far too vague–what are we reaching out about? Who are we reaching to? Is the focus on those doing the reaching or those being ‘reached’? Why are we trying to reach them? What, exactly, do we hope to achieve by reaching out?

There are other words that might better reflect what we’re trying to do. My personal preference is the term humcomm–humanities communication, modelled after science’s scicomm. I also like the term engagement, as it conveys the idea of a two-way exchange. I believe that is what outreach should be about–communicating the importance and relevance of humanities (and in this particular case, Classics), to others. It is about engaging people in conversation, talking with them rather than at them. I believe humcomm–or outreach or engagement, if you prefer–is about people communicating.

Social media is simply being social through one of many various platforms, be it Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. It’s strength is that we can now have conversations with people around the world and across time zones about all sorts of shared interests.

My own goal with my humcomm work is to share the diversity of what we do in humanities and its relevance to people today with people beyond the university’s walls. I want people to see that the humanities are engaged and interested in the world. I want to have conversations with people outside the university environment to demystify what academics do.

We can use social media such as Twitter to break down the university walls and give outsiders a glimpse of what we do and why it matters.
As part of this, in 2015 my colleague Darrin Sunstrum (@darrinsunstrum) and I began voluntarily live-tweeting the Greek mythology courses we were both teaching assistants for, and I also used Twitter to engage with current events (such as the destruction of Nimrud/Mosul) with archaeology students.

While most students use Twitter passively, reading tweets rather than actively tweeting, we did engage with some of our students directly on Twitter. What was really encouraging though, was seeing how our tweets about myth got picked up and shared around the world. People were interested!

We experimented to see what resonated with people and played to our own strengths. Darrin connected mythological themes to pop culture and superheroes; I tended to connect themes to art history or astronomy. Anything related to archaeology or that could be illustrated with coins always seemed to do well. People are interested in the past and its stories.

Our Twitter conversations also brought about professional connections that have continued. Through our tweeting, we connected with two Classics professors at other institutions who also taught myth and we shared each others’ tweets and hashtags. This not only amplified each others’ voices, but also gave anyone following the course hashtag insights from other scholars.

Some people seemed to follow the hashtag regularly and engage with us, while for others it was probably more a retweet of a neat image popping up in their time line and passing it on via RT, but the point is this: for two hours every week we had a conversation about Greek mythology and heroes on Twitter with interested people from around the world, and those people got a glimpse into a university lecture hall. The university’s walls disappeared.

Twitter: A lost cause?

Which leads me to the second aspect I wish to address: Twitter itself.

I began by obeying the rules of etiquette, then breaking them deliberately to see what worked.

Fontaine’s social media strategy here really baffles me. I’m not clear what he was trying to accomplish.

The “rules” of etiquette exist to make people comfortable interacting in a given setting. Social media has its own etiquette. Being aware of and respecting these guidelines is important to fostering positive interactions.

I am puzzled why Fontaine would deliberately break the “rules” of Twitter. While some Twitter errors are less egregious than others, it seems counterproductive to actively choose to engage in potentially obnoxious behaviour if one’s goal is engagement. We would hardly show up at a dinner party and put our feet on the table, so why do so when someone has invited us, literally, into their hand?

Many followers soon unfollowed me, but I still ended the year with more followers than I started (c. 600).

Despite the prominent place Twitter gives to the followers/following numbers, it isn’t actually the best metric for assessing one’s Twitter effectiveness. While it’s a number we always like to see increase, it needs to be considered alongside reach, impressions, and, most importantly, engagement.

The followers number can be misleading for two reason: firstly, a person does not necessarily need to be a follower to see your Tweets (provided your account is public). They may find your tweet through Twitter’s suggestion algorithm, by someone else retweeting it into their feed, by searching for a particular hashtag or keyword, by subscribing to a Twitter list you are included in, or by seeing someone they follow engage with it. Your tweets reach more than just your followers.

On the other hand, your followers likely include a number of business or spam accounts that have followed you in the hopes that your account will automatically follow them back and they can advertise to you. Or it may include people who liked the pics of your cat but scroll past your other tweets without reading them. Or people who didn’t want to get inundated with your Twitter chat and muted you and forgot all about you. It happens.

Fortunately, Twitter provides more useful metrics. Impressions tells you the number of times your tweet got served up in users’ feeds. Reach tells you how many individual users got your tweet in their feed.

And engagement–that’s the magic number. That number tells you how many users actually interacted with your tweet. They clicked on your tweet to expand it, they liked it, replied to it, retweeted it, followed a link, played the video–in short, they interacted with your tweet. Twitter provides an engagement rate as a percent; while the number seems small, a rate of 1% is actually good.

My conclusion—again, an unpopular one—is that Twitter is an echo chamber. It’s terrific for communication among classicists and highly educated fellow travelers, but not beyond—certainly not for reaching millions of non-classicists.

The accusation that twitter is an echo chamber gets trotted out so often, I’m starting to think I should get a t-shirt made:

Yes, Twitter can be an echo chamber. So can Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. So can our newspaper and magazine subscriptions. And our book club, our coffee club, our drinking buddies, our lecture hall. In short, we can turn any social interaction and information consumption into an echo chamber if we wish.

But as Hannah Čulík-Baird points out, it’s only an echo chamber if that’s what we make of it. Twitter can be a fantastic window on the world. It can be opportunity to engage with people we may never have talked to otherwise. I know that I have met many interesting people via Twitter that I may never have struck up conversation with in real life, either on account of geography or life circumstances. My Twitter network goes far beyond Classics, or even academia, and I don’t think that’s at all unusual.

  The SCS needs new networks beyond Facebook and Twitter.

While I agree with Fontaine’s conclusion that SCS needs networks beyond Twitter and Facebook (Instagram and Snapchat are major players with our current generation of students, and who knows what will take off next), I strongly disagree that Twitter is a lost cause.

Each social media platform has its own demographics and is used in different ways. Current students, for example, do not use Facebook the way we did in its early day, and they generally tend to consume Twitter passively, rather than actively tweet. (I recognize that even these generalities can be dangerous because every user is unique in their preferences.)

When we know who we want to engage with (other scholars? students? future students? parents? retirees?) and what it is we want to achieve with this engagement, we can choose the medium that will be most effective. There is no one social media platform that is going to reach everyone all the time. The key is to find what suits our audience.

Not everyone has the inclination to engage with Twitter, and that is perfectly okay. But, if we dismiss Twitter as an effective communication tool, we are also dismissing those who are already using it for Classics outreach and devaluing their work (which is a whole other post for someone else to write!). I can easily think of a half dozen Classics people on Twitter who are doing a great job engaging others and fostering conversations: @opietasanimi, @rogueclassicist, @AvenSarah, @greekhistorypod, @SarahEBond, @EllieMackin, among others.

Every public conversation these scholars have about Classics on Twitter is outreach; even if that conversation is with a fellow scholar, it may be followed by anyone. Direct outreach with non-Classicists is important, of course, but we can also think about ways our engagements with other Classicists on social media can also function as outreach.

Oh, hi! Two goats peer at each other around the corner of ruined baths in Turkey.

We don’t need to start from scratch

I think there is much we can learn about outreach on social media from our colleagues in other disciplines, both within the humanities (#medievaltwitter and history twitter come to mind), but across the university as well.

Scientists seem to have recognized earlier than us the necessity of communicating what they do to the public–to demystify the white lab coats and experiments with high-tech equipment. While perhaps we were generally complacent that the greater public understood the importance of humanities, scientists were breaking a new trail and leveraging the power of social media for scicomm– communicating the value and importance of science to the public.

There is much in Classics that I believe the general public would be interested in–people are still fascinated by archaeology and the past, and I don’t need to explain to fellow Classicists the relevance of many themes we deal with to today’s society.

We don’t need to start social media outreach from scratch. We can look to what our colleagues in other disciplines are doing and learn from them. How do they capture the public interest? How do they engage the public in conversation? How do they capitalize on current issues and interests to bring their discipline into the spotlight again and again?

As Hannah Čulík-Baird points out, the key to successful social media is to listen, listen, listen. Listen to what others are saying. Watch what others are doing on Twitter. For example,  @alongsidewild (David Steen), @whysharksmatter (David Shiffman), and @astrokatie (Katie Mack) do a wonderful job engaging the public on Twitter and are well worth following.

It takes time, patience, and experimentation to build a social media presence that fosters conversations with non-academics. It doesn’t happen over night–it can take months and years. It’s never quite finished. It isn’t easy–there’s no formula to follow– and it’s not for everyone. As academics, we’re not always comfortable with the nature of such public experimentation, but it is necessary.

Social media is not going away, so let’s embrace it with enthusiasm and make our discipline part of the public conversation. It isn’t a problem, but an opportunity to shape a new conversation.
Enough from me! Please share in the comments examples of academic Twitter accounts (any discipline!) who you think do a great job engaging non-experts. I would also love to hear how you have used Twitter to break down the university walls. And give me your thoughts on humcomm/outreach/engagement, too–who should academics be trying to reach and why?

What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

The truth is: YOU ARE WRITING EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even if you are sending emails to a coauthor about how to craft a specific section, THAT COUNTS AS WRITING. Why? Because you are sharing concept notes. You are shaping how your argument is going to be structured. You are discussing the data. Are you reading and taking notes off of each paper you read? You are WRITING.

Are you drawing tables by hand to decide how you’re going to present them in your paper? YOU ARE WRITING. You are, in fact, WRITING.

Source: What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

I highly recommend following Raul Pacheco-Vega on Twitter (@raulpacheco) and his blog. He offers great resources on planning, organizing, and writing. In fact, reading his Tweets has motivated me to make this blog more of priority in 2017. I’m setting modest goals (surely I can manage just one post a month?) in the hopes that maybe I’ll exceed them.

I found this particular post, which he shared recently on Twitter, very encouraging for thinking about my own writing practices. I don’t consider myself a writer, as I don’t write as much as I think I should.

I like the idea that all the various bits of writing I do every day– emails, social media posts, jotting notes–all count as writing. So maybe I do write more than I think and maybe I can produce a blog post (or two or three?) a month for a year.

Source: What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

how twitter can make me a better human being

My experience with Twitter is changing me as a human being.

Twitter challenges me to pay attention to how I use gendered language. How do I talk about groups of people? Do I choose words that are inclusive of all genders, or do I fall into the familiar trap of thinking and speaking in the old male/female dichotomy? Am I willing to accept and to try to understand people whose presentation does not fit with traditional ideas of ‘man’ or ‘woman’? Do I listen to their experiences and allow their voices to be heard or do I participate in silencing them?

Twitter makes me pay attention to how people are shamed and stigmatized in my ‘real’ world. Do I participate unwittingly in shaming those who are different from me? Do I make judgements about people based on their size or clothing choices? Do I think less of people who struggle in a system that seems set on keeping them in poverty? Do my words and actions make people feel valued and beautiful and strong? Or do I distance myself from them by my words and actions and attitudes?

Twitter lets me listen to people’s lived experiences. Will I listen only to the stereotyped stories on the evening news or will I listen to the experiences of those whose lives are so different from mine? Am I buying into the systemic racism (which benefits me) or am I willing to challenge it? Will I give less weight to a woman’s word when she speaks out against a famous man? Whose version of events do I choose to believe–the versions told by perpetrators of injustice or the stories of the victims of injustice?