“Blogging on the career path” at ScienceOnline 2011

At the recent ScienceOnline 2011 meeting (#scio11), one of the panels I participated in was a “Blogging on the career path” with Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection, Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science, and John Hawks of his eponymous weblog.  Though the session was more broadly concerned with the opportunities and challenges that blogging can introduce into one’s career, it ended up focusing primarily on the question of blogging on the tenure track: how should a tenure-track academic present their blogging in their tenure package, if at all?

I feel somewhat well-positioned to comment on this subject, as I just received tenure this past April — and I included a page in my academic statement on my blogging activities.  Though I did not get any direct feedback regarding the pros or cons of different parts of my statement, it was overall received very well, and used as an illustrative example for the next year of up-for-tenure faculty.

In this post I thought I’d review some of the ideas that came out of the ScienceOnline session (and the one following, by @drisis and @tomlevenson), as well as describe my own strategy for including blogging in the tenure package.  My conclusions should be taken with caution, because my case represents a single data point, but hopefully this will give folks coming up for tenure themselves some inspiration and ideas of their own.

First, let me briefly describe the tenure-track process, for those unfamiliar*.  A beginning faculty member is brought into a department as an assistant professor for a 3-year contract.  After the first two years, the professor’s performance is evaluated and, if acceptable, he/she is given a second 3-year contract.  At the 5-year mark, the professor’s performance is again evaluated; this time, if acceptable, he/she receives tenure, which is, in essence, a “permanent” faculty contract along with promotion to associate professor.

Faculty members are evaluated on the basis of their research, teaching, and service.  “Research” includes publications, research grants, and generally making a name for oneself as a researcher in one’s chosen field.  “Teaching”, of course, includes teaching courses as well as supervising graduate students and any other unconventional educational projects at the university.  “Service” includes service to the department (administrative committees), service to the community (lectures to pre-college students, for instance), and service to the discipline (journal refereeing, meeting organizing), and other forms of outreach.

Faculty provide summaries of their achievements every year, and receive feedback on their progress.  Major documentation must be provided for the first 3-year reappointment, and for the final tenure decision.  The final tenure package must include a personal statement of academic activities on Research, Teaching and Service, and include hard-copy documentation of everything that is mentioned, usually resulting in a 2″ (or larger) binder full of papers.

So this brings us to the questions: where does blogging fit into one’s academic achievements, and how can one present it in such a way that doesn’t hurt one’s tenure chances?

The first question is easy to answer: it doesn’t really fit into one’s academic achievements, at least not yet.  Blogging doesn’t seem to be on the radar of most departments as of yet, and doesn’t seem to be considered by most faculty as fitting nicely into research, teaching or service.  If one includes this in one’s tenure package, it won’t serve as a substitute for the traditionally required work; at best, it will count as “extra credit”.

All of the panelists seem to have been in agreement about this.  For tenure to really be viewed positively as part of a tenure package, it must really be perceived as, “Wow, he/she did this on top of their already impressive R/T/S package?”  I described a tenure package as the main course of a dinner, with blogging counting as dessert: dessert adds to an already good meal, but diners will be pissed if they only get dessert when promised a full meal.  Tom Levenson rightly described blogging as a “tertiary activity”, and Dr. Isis beat my analogy by referring to blogging as the icing on a cupcake — which doesn’t help if it is a “shit cupcake”.

So first and foremost, one should really keep in mind that blogging isn’t going to replace any of the other required activities.  Most of us who do some sort of online outreach, however, really consider it an important part of our identity as scientists.  The natural question then becomes: how can we present our blogging as something positive?

John Hawks had the best advice: read your university/department mission statements and think about how blogging fits into those stated goals.  Do you use blogging to help in teaching?  Do you use it to perform outreach to the community and beyond?  Does your blogging promote your university/department and show it in a positive light?  I personally didn’t read my university’s mission statement when I was planning my tenure package, but I did keep in mind that I needed to sell it as something in line with the university’s vision.

Another thing to keep in mind: since most faculty are unfamiliar with blogging, it needs to be explained and quantified —  and the benefits explained.  In my own tenure package, I included site stats, examples of my best writing, and recognition from other bloggers and the community.  Things like books (OpenLab, for instance), presentations, and meetings (such as ScienceOnline) give “cover” to show that blogging isn’t just a hobby that is being done for one’s own edification.  In my own statement below, you will see that I include my ResearchBlogging Editor’s role, my formation of The Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival, and my panel participation at ScienceOnline, as part of the evidence that I’m working as part of a larger community.

One other thought occurred to me recently, inspired by Jim Hathaway, who does research communications at UNC Charlotte.  Jim has taken the initiative to organize a social media workshop at UNC Charlotte to introduce faculty to all these new forms of electronic outreach.  The workshop is a great idea, and represents one of the first times I’ve seen a university actively encourage such activities.  This made me realize that it couldn’t hurt academic bloggers to contact their own university communications and outreach people.  These folks are often already looking for more opportunities to get faculty involved, and such a connection can make the blogging appear more relevant to the university’s interests.

Before I present parts of my own academic statement, let me say a few more words about my own path to tenure.  I started blogging in August of 2007, around the time I was going up for reappointment.  I didn’t include blogging in my reappointment package, and in fact I started my blog with a pseudonym: I wanted to avoid having the blogging held against me if I gave up on it or made any high-profile blunders (e.g. insulting the leaders of my university or academic field).  As I started to get more recognition and my blog became more established, I started to show off some of my favorite posts to sympathetic colleagues, including my department chair.  When it was time to put my tenure package together, I decided to include all my blogging activities; I was, and am, quite proud of all the things I’ve accomplished online!  It should be said, however, that the description of my blogging work was one page of a 12 page personal statement — I also had a solid base of other research, teaching and service, upon the top of which I put my blogging work (icing on the top of a not-too-shitty cupcake).

I won’t provide the entire personal statement here, though anyone who is coming up for tenure who wants to take a look at it is welcome to ask.  The overall statement includes an introduction, sections on research, teaching and service, and some concluding remarks about future goals.  I first discuss my blogging in the introduction, in the context of my teaching:

“Communication is good” also serves as a good summary of my philosophy on teaching.  There is no simple, surefire method for conveying physics ideas to a class and counteracting negative perceptions of the subject; a good teacher much adapt to the specific needs and weaknesses of the students at hand, in large part by talking to them and encouraging asmuch feedback as possible.

The topics can be made more interesting and comprehensible by looking at their historical context. To achieve this, I have extensively studied a large number of classic science papers, and have even carved a small role for myself in the online science community as an amateur historian of science. I run one science weblog online entitled Skulls in the Stars, which has received attention from some of the top physics blogs on the internet. I have also started a“blog carnival” on the history of science called The Giant’s Shoulders, and every month a different blogger hosts the carnival and collects writing on the history of science from around the internet.

Here, as you can see, I was interested in stressing that my blogging about history of science allows me to approach my physics teaching in a rather unique way.  I stressed this again near the end of my section on teaching,

Physics can be an especially difficult subject to teach because of the negative preconceptions students have coming into the field: physics is difficult and mysterious, physics is boring, only “geniuses” can understand physics. My teaching philosophy consists in first acknowledging that there is no “magic bullet” technique for correcting these views; rather, a good teacher must constantly adapt to the specific attitudes of the students at hand and their responses to the material. Specifically, I try and engage the students, and entertain them, with stories about the history of scientific discoveries and anecdotes about the people who made that history. Attempts are made to put difficult concepts in context by explaining common pitfalls in understanding, clearly distinguishing between rigorous proofs and plausibility arguments, and describing the topics which caused me trouble as a student.

I have more to say about using the history of science at the end of my service description.

Again, I was making the connection: history of science is a good for teaching, and my blogging allows me to explore the history of science.  In the service section of my statement came the main discussion of blogging:

As an unofficial activity which falls somewhere between service and teaching, I have been running pseudonymously in my free time a science-related weblog called “Skulls in theStars” at [Link 2]; an example of a typical science post is given in [Service, 7]. My goal on the site is to help popularize and make user-friendly topics in science in general and optics in particular. The blog has a current average of between 300 and 400 page views per day, and one post [Link 3] has received over 100,000 views since December 2008 [Service, 8]. The blog has been quite successful and has received notice from some of the top physics blogs online [Service, 9], including Uncertain Principles [Link 4] and the APS own physics blog,“Physics Buzz” [Link 5]. In April 2008, I “challenged” my fellow science bloggers to find and write an analysis of a classic scientific paper. The challenge was very popular and has led to my founding a monthly “blog carnival” about topics in the history of science, known as “The Giants Shoulders”, viewable at [Link 6]. An image of the website and a typical carnival (hosted by me) can be seen in [Service, 10; Link 7]. The carnival has been very successful and running for almost a year now. I have become (almost by default) an expert on the topic of promoting the history of science on the internet**, and was asked to be a co-moderator of a session on “The Web and the History of Science” at ScienceOnline09 [Link 8], the third annual science-blogging conference which was held January 16-18 in Research Triangle Park, NC. The session was, by all accounts, a success, and I have already been asked to consider doing a follow-up in ScienceOnline10 [Service, 11]. I was also recently asked to be a topical editor for ResearchBlogging.com [Link 9], a popular site which collects scienceblog posts about state-of-the-art science research [Service, 12].  My weblog was originally started pseudonymously as an experiment in science communication; due to its success I will probably be dropping the pseudonym at the beginning of the next year. I consider such blog outreach to have a significant role in future efforts to both communicate and popularize science.

A few observations: first, note the emphasis on blogging “in my free time”!  If my blogging work didn’t go over well with my review committee, I at least wanted to cover myself a little by pointing out that this is an extra-curricular activity.  Second, note that I included site stats and as much outside recognition as I could find, including the good will of other bloggers such as Chad Orzel linking to my posts.  Third, I made sure to note that I would be dropping my pseudonymity; my blogging can hardly be called a benefit to the university if nobody knows about the connection!  Finally, I ended the statement by pointing out that I consider “blog outreach” to be important, and that it is something that I would like to continue to do.

I even noted another side-benefit to blogging in my concluding remarks:

Even before my first textbook is completed, I am already considering a new, popularized, book…  I am also thinking about consolidating my history of science blog posts into a book about little-known experiments in the history of science. I feel comfortable saying that a number of topics I’ve discussed cannot be found anywhere else on the internet; for instance, see [Link 10].

I’ve removed the specific description of the proposed pop-sci book contents, which I don’t feel quite ready to discuss yet!  Books can be another important part of an academic’s success, and I wanted to note that my blogging has opened up opportunities for writing that I likely would never have considered otherwise.

So these are my thoughts, and my tenure package-related writings, on blogging in academia.  My approach seems to have been successful for my department and my university, but one should always keep in mind that every school is different.

What do all of you think?  Anything I left out?  Anything that seems wrong, or misleading?  Any questions?  Let me know what you think in the comments!

**********************

* Some of the details will be different from university to university, and can be different for different fields.  This post describes my thoughts on the process at my institution, and for a physics department.

** In hindsight, this sounds kind of offensive to historians of science and egotistical on my part!  The personal statement is all about self-promotion, of course.  To clarify, my impression is that there weren’t many professional scientists talking about history of science when I started blogging about it.

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10 Responses to “Blogging on the career path” at ScienceOnline 2011

  1. rhettallain says:

    Nice post. Glad to see others considering some of the same things I had to consider. For my case, I didn’t start blogging until after tenure. However, there is still the issue of what to put in annual evaluation. At first, I was like you in that it was ‘extra stuff’. But blogging can be serious stuff. My university has 15,000 students. It is possible to reach WAY more students than that with a blog.

    I think blogs can be great advertising and promotion for the university.

    • “I think blogs can be great advertising and promotion for the university.”

      Totally agree; fortunately, my university seems to agree as well, for the moment!

      • rhettallain says:

        For many institutions (I won’t comment on mine) , I would say they are neutral. The closer admins (the science ones) get it. They understand that blogs are great for outreach and stuff. Higher up admins probably say “What is a blog? Isn’t that part of BlackBoard?”

      • “For many institutions (I won’t comment on mine) , I would say they are neutral.”

        That’s why I consider it important to clearly state what advantages blogging brings to my career. I’d rather the university views my blogging as a net positive, rather than a “meh” sort of activity, especially if I want to keep doing it.

  2. Interesting posting, and some good advice there. But overall, it seems very defensive. While blogging will not replace academic publishing anytime soon, I think many people these days will recognize it as very effective and useful outreach. If your department doesn’t care about that, it’s obviously of little use to even mention it, but if it’s considered to be of value, I think you can be a bit more confident in talking about your blog.

    So let me add a second data point: I’m in the tenure process right now, and I also mentioned my blog in my tenure package. I did not write a whole lot about it, but I did add it in with the other outreach I do, it’s among my career highlights, and I point to it when talking about impact. Both my department chair and my dean mention it in their letters, and apparently most (all?) of my references spoke well of it. I also included some stats (visitor stats and feed subscribers, as well as Twitter followers), but did not make the case why blogging was a good idea. I also wrote a few articles for American Scientist a while ago, and I didn’t feel a need to explain those, so why make the case for the blog?

    Getting my name out through my postings has helped make people aware of what I do and has arguably increased my standing in my community. I’ve spoken to several people whose opinion I highly respect and who have essentially said that the vast majority of people in my field read my blog. That’s not a bad accomplishment for a little assistant professor just starting out in the field.

    Of course, you have to consider who will be reviewing your tenure case, and make a call how much explanation and justification to add. But it seems to me that while we still need to get more people to actually start blogging and tweeting about science, most people these days understand what blogs are and don’t require so much convincing.

    • Thanks for the comment! Hopefully I don’t sound too defensive about blogging; I prefer to think of it as “cautious”. I suspect the appreciation of social media depends heavily on the field. In physics, I don’t personally know *anyone* who uses Twitter, for instance, other than those who are already involved in online outreach, and I know of very few colleagues who read blogs with any sort of regularity. Many of those colleagues have responded to the idea of blogging with a more dismissive, “Oh, that’s cute,” sort of attitude. Things are changing rapidly, of course, and blogging can open up lots of opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available (my guest blog post on Scientific American is one example, and others will be mentioned in the near future). I’m guessing that most people know what blogs are at this point, but I still get the impression that lots of researchers don’t appreciate the advantages. It seems to me that it is still important to point out those advantages to a tenure committee, just in case.

  3. Brian Romans says:

    This is a very valuable post, thanks for sharing all your thoughts.

  4. Jim Lehane says:

    Thanks for the great post. As a PhD candidate who soon hopes to join the faculty road it is good to see that at least in some cases, that blogging can be viewed as a positive thing. I hope to spin my blogging that way but some view it as simply bitching with a forum.

    • You’re welcome!

      “…some view it as simply bitching with a forum.”

      That’s why I believe it’s key to give examples of posts to RPT committees, to demonstrate that it is a legitimate form of outreach. (Unless you *are* only bitching on the blog! :) )

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