Blogging Within and Beyond the Academy

 

Katherine Walden, a PhD Candidate in the American Studies-Sport Studies program and is also enrolled in the Public Digital Humanities Certificate. Her research explores race/ethnicity and gender in representations of baseball in American popular culture, with a particular focus on baseball and music intersections. She also teaches a self-designed Rhetoric of Sport curriculum in UIowa’s Rhetoric Department. Her Twitter handle is @KWaldenPhD, and she has an online presence at www.kwaldenpond.wordpress.com.

On Thursday, March 2, UIowa’s Next Gen PhD project brought Slate columnist and German PhD Rebecca Schuman to campus to join with our own Classics Department’s Sarah Bond for a panel on blogging and public writing.

I had the opportunity to engage with Rebecca and Sarah throughout the day, from a grad student lunch to an ill-fated podcast recording session with Sarah (that tragically won’t see the light of day because sometimes remembering to be sure I’ve actually pressed “record” is hard), followed by the public flipped Q&A.

The blogging advice both panelists offered was simple, without being simplistic:

  • Build versatility, conciseness, and precision in your writing skills. Let your training as a humanities scholar shape your writing as you make sense of particular events or trends. However, a blog post isn’t the condensed version of a seminar paper. Most graduate students are being trained to communicate specialized knowledge to a specialized audience. Jargon isn’t the enemy, but imagine you are writing for a general education undergraduate audience. Not your Department’s upperclass majors—rather, the freshmen and sophomores who need convincing that your discipline’s way of seeing the world matters.
  • Find a way to produce consistent, quality output for a specific audience. Developing an audience and accumulating a body of work requires years of consistent output and quality content. Trying to build that while managing grad school teaching, research, and coursework loads can be daunting. Start with micro-blogging on a platform like Twitter. Find an online academic community or group of scholars/writers who are working in your area. Many academic organizations have an online presence with a blog; see, for example, the blogs of the American Musicological Society or the North American Society for Sport History. The African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives site gives graduate students the opportunity to be in conversation with established scholars in a vibrant, thriving online blogging community. I’ll be writing a post on Major League Baseball’s Opening Day in a couple weeks for the Sport in American History group blog.
  • Have a network and don’t be afraid to use it. Sarah Bond’s first piece in the New York Times was published after she reached out to a faculty mentor who wrote for the Times. Her evolution as a public historian was shaped by other classicists she identified as role models for the types of writing and public engagement she wanted to cultivate. Rebecca Schuman’s “Thesis Hatement” piece appeared in Slate after she reached out to a Slate editor.  Find the people further down the line who are doing what you want to do. Comb their resumes/CVs, make connections, and be willing to invest in those relationships.
  • Avoid predatory or exploitative publishing models. Recognize that freelance blogging can provide some financial compensation—but likely not enough to support you full time. The peer-reviewed academic publishing model assumes writing and research labor is being undertaken by scholars who are receiving compensation for their work from an employing institution. Blogging when research and writing are part of your job description, subsidized by your employer, is a unique set of circumstances. I appreciated Rebecca’s clarity in this area. She doesn’t read, edit, or comment on pieces for free. She wrote a piece in the Chronicle on “The Academic Book as Expensive, Nihilistic Hobby.” Talk to a professional faculty member in a journalism department or someone you know who actively freelances. Start to figure out the business side of publishing. Learn the etiquette. Know what practices and publications to avoid.

Detailed advice, thoughtful advice, given by those with a lot of experience pursuing these types of writing opportunities. I’m looking forward to applying it when writing my own baseball-related blog post. If you came to the site wanting a recap of the Next Gen blogging event, you have now reached the point when you can stop reading, close the browser window, and go watch Lin-Manuel Miranda do carpool karaoke with James Corden.

Maybe it was the midterm fog that always seems to set in before Spring Break. Maybe it was the stress of a hectic week overshadowed by my own looming comprehensive oral examination (now successfully DONE). Whatever the full reason, trying to recap and process this Next Gen event has been hard emotionally, mentally, and intellectually.

Interacting with Schuman and Bond was a study in contrasts, for me encapsulated in a moment from the Q&A. Judith Pascoe asked what the panelists would do differently if they could redo their graduate education. Rebecca immediately responded with something along the lines of “I wouldn’t do it,” expanding on her answer to talk about the need for graduate students to get real information about job market prospects and legitimate, substantive support for finding alternate paths.

When asked the same question, Sarah responded “I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe make my interest in GIS clear earlier.” [Apologies to both panelists for my butchered paraphrasing.]

In the graduate student lunch, Rebecca talked about how her graduate school experience required her to shut down or set aside parts of what make her who she is.

In the lost podcast recording session, Sarah talked about her rich formative graduate school experiences, and about mentors who were supportive when her advisors and colleagues didn’t support her public writing.

A study in contrasts.

For Schuman, a negative post-doc experience and unsuccessful prolonged academic job search has led to her annual practice of deconstructing and grading MLA job ads.

Bond went from dissertating at UNC to a year-long Mellon Junior Faculty Fellowship at Washington and Lee, after which she was hired for a tenure-track position at Marquette University before taking up her tenure-track position at Iowa.

A study in contrasts. These are two people who had very different graduate school experiences and experienced graduate school (and academia) very differently.

From the conversations I’m having with other graduate students, I think coming face-to-face with someone like Schuman can be terrifying. Many of us want to believe we’re going to be Sarah Bond, but we know somewhere deep down that the job placement data in our fields suggests we’re more likely to have a job market experience like that of Schuman.

Both Bond and Schuman talked about the power and influence of mentors and role models, positive and negative. I’m grateful for the Vanderbilt University faculty who were brutally honest with a naïve PhD-bound undergraduate senior four years ago. They talked about tiered hiring. They talked about the real academic job market. They were as transparent as they could be about the challenges and pitfalls of graduate school. I wish every college senior with an inflated GPA and decent writing chops could receive the same level of candor. I came into graduate school with the rose-colored glasses mostly already off.

Emotional support and self-advocacy matter. I’m grateful for an American Studies department and advisor who are at least somewhat open to my zig-zagging path through grad school. Hearing about Rebecca Schuman’s graduate school experience, I was reminded that openness and receptivity aren’t universal. I’d like to believe the advocacy work that initiatives like the Next Gen PhD project are doing will help shift the conversation and expectations for future graduate students. I might hope that future Next Gen PhD students are provided with support, resources, and community, rather than being expected to figure it out and seek it out on their own. Speaking from experience, trying to build a new infrastructure and communicate alternate goals can be stressful and exhausting, even when faculty are receptive.

Beware the pitfalls of the gig economy. Labor that’s valued should be compensated. Perhaps I’m trying to make a statement about graduate student labor, but I’ll go back to Rebecca’s comment about not freely sharing her time, labor, and expertise. Since the Next Gen event, I’ve started paying attention to the amount of “free” labor expected in academia. [Hint: it’s often gendered emotional labor.] My students skip office hour appointments and expect me to reschedule. I’m irked when a faculty member doesn’t respond to my spring break email. In the now-infamous lost podcast, Sarah Bond talked extensively about the female mentors she leaned on in order to grow as a publicly-engaged scholar. Academia’s culture of undefined work/life boundaries doesn’t translate well into the freelance alt-ac market. To quote Rebecca Schuman, “We don’t live in a Marxist utopia.”

All of this is to say that being realistic matters. I’ve heard Sarah Bond talk in other forums about how her Mellon fellowship was an entry point back into an academic career. Without that experience, her digital and technical skills would have likely moved her toward the alt-ac market. Schuman’s point about getting real job placement information is well-taken, but at some level graduate students have to internalize and personalize the reality of those job placement numbers. “Special snowflake syndrome” is a great coping strategy but a horrible professional development strategy. In my first semester at Iowa, I saw the experiences dissertating students in my program were having on the academic job market. I found myself at the Grad College’s “The Malleable PhD” event, featuring the Lilli Research Group’s L. Maren Woods. It was the Next Generation PhD before we had a Next Generation PhD, and made the degree seem like more than an unemployment death sentence. Transferable skills. Converting CVs to resumes. Identifying skill sets and career sectors. Seeing the PhD as being about skill acquisition and professional development, as well as about subject specialization and research training. Yes, those are all buzzwords, but I’ve got to believe somewhere in there is a path through graduate school that leads toward sustainable, feasible careers for graduate students. Don’t be dismayed or unsettled by Schuman’s contrarian perspective. Visit the Versatile PhD website. Go to the Graduate College’s Open Doors Conference in April. Start to broaden the horizon toward which a PhD can lead.

Grad students take stock at mid-year

Sara Hales, Katie Walden, and Mary Wise (with friend)

History PhD candidate Mary Wise, American Studies PhD candidate Katie Walden, and Classics PhD candidate Sara Hales contributed to this post. Katie and Sara’s Twitter handles are @kwaldenPhD and @saralynnhales.

In this final mid-year assessment of Next Gen activities accomplished thus far (the first two are here and here), three participating graduate students, after polling their peers, list priorities and future goals.

Some discoveries made through planning process:

Interest in discovering new ways to make research more accessible

Discovery that Next Gen is not only about Alt-Ac careers

Interest in priority given to transferrable skills

Appreciation for model (provided by Amanda Visconti) of making research more public

Interest in possibility of adopting more collaborative research model, perhaps drawing on strategies used in the sciences

Enthusiasm expressed for working outside of the academy—appreciate diversity of topics that Next Gen PhD planning process has covered

Some concerns identified through the planning process:

 Risk factors in making research public at an early stage

Need to offer options to graduate students earlier

Importance of preventing Digital Humanities training from becoming one more thing, supplement to existing structures

Need to make sure graduate students have the resources they need in order to accomplish alt-ac work and alt-diss work

Would welcome more attention to divisions between scholarly writing and public writing

Need more discussion of interdisciplinary research and creation of actual collaborative processes within the university

New ways of showing are new ways of knowing

Matt Gilchrist

Matt Gilchrist, a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department, is Director of the Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning Initiative (IDEAL), which supports students and instructors who use new media in course assignments.

The University of Iowa’s Next Gen PhD planning initiative, The Newly Composed PhD, is an important part of the growing acknowledgement that humanities PhD graduates thrive in diverse career tracks not bounded by academia. The NEH grant program that supports Iowa’s initiative asserts that “Humanities knowledge and methods can make an even more substantial impact on society if students are able to translate what they learn in doctoral programs into a multitude of careers.” How do we prepare PhD students to make such a substantial impact? The NEH wants us to “transform scholarly preparation at the doctoral level.” At Iowa—the institution that proudly calls itself The Writing University—the transformation begins with writing. The Newly Composed PhD asserts that the understanding derived from study in the humanities should be composed in many forms.

The scholars who took part in last year’s symposia hosted by The Newly Composed PhD demonstrate that much can be learned by meaning-making in varied modes. Dr. Amanda Visconti composed her dissertation, titled How can you love a work if you don’t know it?: Critical code and design toward participatory digital editions, as a hybrid of digital edition, white paper, and hypertext. But such a stripped-down description doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the project, the composition of which involved software design, database design, interface design, graphic web design, and more. Along the way, Visconti tweeted, blogged, created data visualizations, and spoke on a variety of digital humanities topics. As her dissertation shows, Visconti has discovered new possibilities for inquiry through the process of composing in many forms.

Like Visconti, Dr. Nick Sousanis composed his thesis in a non-traditional form. Sousanis’s dissertation is the comic Unflattening—a form that allowed him to use image as a primary semiotic resource. Like Visconti, Sousanis told us during the symposium dedicated to discussing his dissertation that he blogged about his work as he was composing it. For a hint about what Sousanis was thinking early in his dissertation process about the power of composing in comic form, see the quote from Susanne K. Langer he offers in a blog post. In his discussion here at the University of Iowa, Sousanis put it this way: “My comics are smarter than I am.”

Our Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Dan Reed, pointed out in a recent blog post on this site that writing a traditional book-length dissertation is commonly understood as the means of documenting and communicating ideas privileged in the humanities PhD, but that this format isn’t very effective at spreading those ideas. Dr. Reed writes that, if the form limits the reach of important ideas, then scholars should look for another medium—one appropriate to the message. This semester, Dr. Reed will visit a course I teach for graduate students in the sciences called “Science Communication in the Digital Age.” Much like the NEH’s support for The Newly Composed PhD, the NIH provided grant funding that helped to launch this course in order to prepare scientists for careers beyond the academy. The funded project at Iowa, directed by Professor Dan Eberl (Biology), focuses on communication skills and rhetorical forms. The course acknowledges the importance of addressing audiences outside of academia as crucial for achieving the NIH’s goal of “broadening training to better prepare students for research careers in a variety of venues, such as industry, government or entrepreneurial enterprises.” The support of both federal grant agencies responds to a long-standing need for pragmatic communication experience in the new media landscape, extending and complementing the efforts of those who seek and offer such training at the graduate level.

If the humanities is to move beyond the “write only” paradigm Dr. Reed calls “one of the biggest challenges we face in academia,” humanities students will need courses—corollaries to Science Communication in the Digital Age—specifically targeted at their needs. The write only paradigm cannot be justified amidst the range of rhetorical forms now readily available to scholars. These new forms—or new media—require a new approach to the fundamentals of composition. No longer can we assume that fluency with the conventions and grammars of alphabetic text represents the fundamental or most significant means of developing and sharing ideas. Instead, communicating ideas now requires awareness of image and visual design, sound and audio design, code and software design, data and database design, and etc. Humanists remain writers, but we are called to write and. Scholars and teachers in the field of composition use the term multimodal composition to describe, analyze and assess texts that incorporate writing and other modes of representation. Thinking in these terms makes clear that writing is one of many overlapping semiotic resources available to a rhetor. Meaning-making is a central goal of the humanities, and ignoring compositional modes other than alphabetic text cuts us off from many kinds of meaning-making and discoveries.

This semester, Professor Judith Pascoe offers a course that allows PhD students in the humanities to practice with digital humanities methods and multimodal composition. Pitched as a “pilot model of a humanities interdisciplinary methods course,” this seminar offers the benefits of such courses extolled by Katie Walden in her recent post on this site. Aligned with the goals of the Next Gen PhD, the course “[a]ssignments will be aimed at helping students showcase their research in a variety of formats that could include the blog post, the grant proposal, the data visualization, the network analysis, the map, the 3-Minute Thesis, the podcast, the PechaKucha, the illustrated narrative, and the tweet.” The course offers practice and training in genres—other than linear, alphabetic text—that are relevant to humanists but too often ignored in humanities education.

As we have seen in the first semester of The Newly Composed PhD, forms other than the manuscript have been crucial to the scholarship and integral to the career success of the scholars who have visited our symposia. Visconti, Sousanis, and others have extolled the benefits of taking ideas from one semiotic mode into another. All agree that new and important ideas emerge from multimodality. So, in addition to the likelihood that scholars who tweet, speak, draw, code, map, record, and design will be more successful in career searches within and beyond the academy, humanists should consider what important insights are lost when we over-emphasize one modality. The humanist endeavor depends on leaving behind the write only paradigm and engaging the possibilities of write and.