In November I gave a talk on Academic Blogging as part of the English Faculty’s ‘Get Your Writing Out There’ series of talks for graduate students. (Thanks to Eleanor Baker for inviting me!). Naturally it made sense to write this up for my blog, so here are my reflections on the ways in which my own blog has evolved since I started it in 2015 and some top tips and advice if you are thinking about starting a blog as a graduate student.
One thing I would preface my remarks with, however, is that you shouldn’t feel obliged to start a blog. Graduate students are under so much pressure these days (far more than when I was a grad student a dozen years ago!) that blogging and social media can feel like one more thing to add to the ‘to do’ list, and I don’t think you should blog if you don’t want to! If you do decide to set up a blog, however, make it work for you. Think about why you want to blog and how it might benefit you, and then blog accordingly! As ever, if you have any questions or comments on the suggestions below, please comment or tweet me.
Me and My Blog
So I began my blog when I was in a bit of a slump with my research. I was struggling to finish my monograph and I needed to reinvigorate my passion for my work, and I wondered if writing in a more informal, less pressurised arena might help. And it did! My first post was a short 500 word piece about a medieval proverb that I had come across about the church. I was intrigued by the implications of this proverb and I wanted to use it in my monograph and so I wrote a post about it.
My second post was timed to coincide with National Poetry Day (which happens in October in the UK). The theme was ‘light’ and a friend of mine told me that she was going to write a blogpost for it so I decided to write a post about imagery of light associated with the Virgin Mary in late medieval religious poetry. This poetry wasn’t directly part of my research, I had come across it during my teaching, so I wrote a 1000 word post that also included some images from stained glass and manuscripts (I always think images add interest and texture to a blogpost, and they are important to me as I do interdisciplinary work). I then shared this post on twitter with the hashtag for National Poetry Day and it seemed to appeal to a general audience (I made sure that I included translations of the Middle English texts, more on this below).
My next post was topical. I had seen a tv show called Midwinter of the Spirit which was set at Hereford cathedral and involved exorcism, and the priest at the centre of the story described the sanctity of the cathedral in a way that directly related to my research. So I wrote a blogpost which connected the show’s representation of sacred space with the medieval sources I was working on.
So my first posts were related more or less tangentially to my research or to my teaching, and I took the opportunity to blog about topical issues or on relevant ‘anniversaries’ or ‘days’. I also took inspiration from fellow medieval bloggers, including Eleanor Parker, better known as ‘The Clerk of Oxford’, and Jenni Nuttall, ‘Stylisticienne.’ Eleanor writes beautiful posts about medieval religious culture and she always includes translations, which enables her posts to be accessible to all, which I think is so important. Similarly, Jenni includes translations and highlights important points in bold or a different coloured font. (I think it’s important to consider how your blog will look to its reader, does it look enticing and how can you foreground the key takeaway points?) Jenni’s blog also contains brilliant resources for teaching Middle English poetry, that have arisen out of her current book project on medieval poetics and from her work on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for example her Poetics Primer. I’ve learned a lot from both Jenni and Eleanor’s writing about how to make medieval texts and ideas accessible to a non-specialist reader. One of the benefits of blogging for me is that going ‘back to basics’ really forces me to clarify my ideas and it can be very helpful to think again about familiar texts and to consider the aspects that we might take for granted.
Opportunities for Blogging
So once I had started my blog, how did I keep it going? Firstly, I kept my eyes peeled for opportunities to blog. In my field, we have a couple of yearly hashtags that I decided to blog for. One is #WhanThatAprilleDay which was set up by @LeVostreGC as a day for the celebration of Middle English poetry. For my first post, I decided to write about a Middle English lyric on the pieta which I had come across in the course of writing an article on Margery Kempe and the pieta, but I hadn’t been able to use in that piece. I focused on the emotion generated by the pieta (pity or compassion) and because I’m a big Tolkien fan, I also wrote about the importance of pity inThe Lord of the Rings(when Gandalf explains that Bilbo’s pity for Gollum, in not killing him, may yet have a role to play in the plot). One of the things I enjoy about blogging is the freedom to write about what interests me and to explore cross-period connections. (And in fact, two years later this work came in handy as I ended up writing an article on the medieval idea of pity in the Harry Potter series, which will be published next year in the journal Studies in Medievalism! I don’t think I’d have written this article if the seed hadn’t been planted by my blogpost).
Another annual day in the medieval twitter calendar is Hoccleve Recovery Day, which happens in November, and aims to bring Hoccleve’s poetry to a wider audience. This year both Jenni Nuttall and I produced new translations of Hoccleve’s poetry (Jenni’s Complaint and my Complaint Paramont). I’ve taught Hoccleve for a number of years now and in 2018 I talked about his Complaint Paramont on a roundtable at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference, focused on teaching medieval gender in the modern classroom. After the conference, I wrote up my contribution as a blogpost because this was material that, at the time, I didn’t have a home for elsewhere and I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the discussions at the conference and share them with the medieval community on twitter. Since then, I have begun to make some very loose notes for an article on feminism and the Virgin Mary in Hoccleve’s Complaint, and the blogpost I wrote for my translation started the work of thinking these ideas through. Blogposts are great for exploring a work-in-progress, especially something adjacent to your main research area, which might provide helpful material for a conference paper or an article at a later date.
You will know for your own field what opportunities might be available for blogging, such as topical issues (in the news; exhibitions or new publications; anniversaries of births/deaths/battles etc; important conferences). I’ve found it useful to practice writing a quick post on a topical item because more recently I have written short pieces in response to literary events in the news, and I was glad I had done that before! Often we agonise over academic writing, so it can be liberating, and scary-but-empowering, to write a quick response to an issue of public interest.
Now at this point, rather like a Pokemon, my blog evolved!!
I started to use my blog to think about processes and practices. Having become a regular user of twitter and coming across examples of colleagues teaching with twitter, I did my own experiment with my second years on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and I wrote up the experience. This generated some great discussions on twitter, about using social media and modern technology in teaching, and so I started to blog about my teaching practice (including: preparing students for dissertations, and teaching race and Middle English literature).
I also began to blog about more personal topics, beginning with a very long and cathartic post about finally completing my monograph!! I was a bit nervous about this post but the feedback I received was really lovely and also, importantly, revealed that many fellow ECRs had found the process similarly challenging and that there were a lot of unanswered questions out there about the various stages of turning the thesis into a book (from writing book proposals and choosing a publisher to indexing and the more technical aspects of the process). Since then, I’ve blogged on lots of topics that I find cause a lot of worry and stress for grad students and ECRs (article rejections, imposter syndrome, to name but two), and I hope that sharing my experiences has helped. (All of my resources are linked here and please let me know if there are other topics that you’d like me to blog about! I’d also like to give a shoutout to the brilliant Rachel Moss here, whose posts on her blog have given me the courage to talk openly about issues that mean a lot to me)
These kinds of posts are targeted at an audience within the academy, so they have a different target audience for my research-based posts. I recognise that I am writing them from a position of considerable privilege (but that is one of the reasons I write them, it is a way of giving back and because when I first began my career, I struggled a lot and didn’t always feel able to talk to my peers about the things that were worrying me). Recently, the brilliant Daniel Sawyer wrote a guest post on Approaching Palaeography for new graduate students and it might be that you have an idea for a ‘how to’ post or an ‘advice’ post from your own experiences. I’ve also written a post on how to organise a conference– I organised one and learned a lot from it so thought I would share a post with the kind of information that I wished I’d had access to myself!
Why do I blog and why is it useful?
Firstly because I find it enjoyable! And secondly, and importantly, because the freedom of the form is liberating and it gets me writing.
It enables me to explore ideas that are interesting to me but are, at the moment, only tangentially related to my primary research interests (although more recently, exploring ideas in blogposts has given me ideas for future academic articles, so you never know when something might turn out to be useful!)
I’ve found blogging useful for me, for my students, and hopefully for the wider graduate and ECR community. I’ve used my research posts on religious culture in my teaching (and I’ve used other people’s blogposts as discussion points in teaching too, such as Rachel Moss’s brilliant post on Chaucer and rape). This summer I blogged about imposter syndrome, negative thinking, and anxiety and that was, in some ways, self-interested! I am always on the look out for ideas for things to blog about that might be useful to the academic community, so do let me know if there’s a topic that you’d like me to consider.
I’m also someone who thinks by writing. Those of you who know me will know that I’m quite organised and I love planning, but I also know that at a certain point, I have to start writing in order to really figure out what I want to say. The process of writing about a primary text that I may have read a dozen times always reveals something new as I try to articulate a point. So I write and I blog in order to think!
Writing for a more general audience has also been enormously helpful in enabling me to find a suitable voice for public engagement (which is especially important for my Du Maurier work and the book that I am currently writing!).
Tops Tips and Practical Advice
- If you decide to blog, make it work for you! Think about why you want to do it and how it will help you with your current and future work, and make sure that there is a balance with all of your other commitments.
- Keep it short to begin with! A 500 word post on one idea is a great place to start. Remember a blogpost is not an academic article!
- Identify material that would make a good blogpost (and think about what material you need to ‘save’ for the thesis / other publication opportunities; you can discuss with a colleague or your supervisor if you are unsure whether to blog about something or not)
- Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to blog (hashtags, anniversaries etc).
- Think about the ‘hook’: what question or idea will make someone want to read your post? (Thanks to Jenni Nuttall for this tip!)
- Think about clarity: what are the key ideas that you will need to explain here for a non-specialist audience?
- You can write about ‘process’ as well as ‘results’. A ‘how to’ or ‘how it worked / didn’t work for me’ post can be useful too.
- Make it engaging and interesting! Blogging can help you share your passion for your research!
- Promote your post via twitter and on the hashtags for your community
Thank you for reading, and if you have any comments or suggestions, please comment below or tweet me. And follow this link to see the full range of my posts for grad students and ECRs.