Sunday, April 07, 2019

By Request...

I got a request this weekend to address how to get started as an education blogger.

I started unimaginably long ago -- 2004, for those keeping score at home -- and the interwebs have changed tremendously since then.  What was once “the blogosphere” is now fragmented and more like a series of appendices to Twitter. Blogs have either gone small or become de facto columns.  I always thought of mine as a column, so when IHE came along and offered to treat it like one, I was on board. I still consider that one of my best decisions.

Having said that, I can still offer a few observations for potential newbies.

First, and most basically, don’t wait for permission or a tap on the shoulder.  Don’t wait for someone to give you a platform to see what you can do with it. There are plenty of free blogging sites out there; pick one and start writing.  Then, keep writing. The way to prove that you have something to say is to say it. The way to prove that you can write consistently is to write consistently. Musicians call it “woodshedding.”  The relative obscurity with which you start is a blessing in disguise; it will give you time to hone your writerly voice. That is not a bad thing.

Over time -- and yes, feel free to enlist the help of friends on Twitter -- people who like what you have to offer will find you.  It may take a while. Just keep writing.

Second, specialize.  “Random thoughts of some middle-aged dude” is a saturated niche.  Over time, the occasional foray into other areas is fine; it can humanize you, and offer comic relief.  But you should have a discernible beat. In my case, it’s community colleges specifically, and public higher education generally.  Whatever your beat is, be faithful to it, and dig deep.

Be who you are.  Some people have made great names for themselves as polemicists.  If that’s who you are, go for it. But if it isn’t, don’t try to fake it.  This one took me a while to figure out. The pieces that hold up the best over time, at least for me, tend to be the ones in which I’m openly ambivalent about or struggling with something.  I try to treat tirades like garlic: a little bit, once in a while, adds spice, but too much can easily overwhelm. Over time, if you gain a reputation as relatively thoughtful, the occasional “here I stand” piece has more impact.  Besides, honest ambivalence tends to attract honest and thoughtful responses.

Having said that, you’ll need a strategy for dealing with people who come after you heatedly and unfairly.  It will happen. It’s a hazard of the form. Strategies vary, but in general, I’ve found it useful to separate what looks like good-faith disagreement from trolling, acknowledging the former and stonewalling the latter.  

In the early days of blogging, pseudonyms were all the rage.  They were a sort of necessary protective cover, because blogs were considered vaguely unseemly.  Over time, though, blogs went mainstream and pseudonyms lost favor. When I dropped the pseudonym and started writing under my own name, I noticed my readership grew significantly.  I wouldn’t bother starting with one now. They’re very last-decade.

Learn the contours of discourse on a given subject.  If you don’t have anything new to contribute to it, that’s not the subject for you.  For example, despite my own training as a political scientist, I don’t write much about Trump.  That’s not for lack of opinions; it’s more because there’s plenty out there on him already, much of it better than I would write.  I’m content to leave that mostly to others, except when and to the extent that it intersects with community colleges.

Use the Oxford comma.  

Read a lot.  Read people different from you.  They will see things that are in your blind spots.  And give credit where it’s due. Neither academia nor internet culture is terribly good at being gracious.  The occasional tip of the cap costs nothing, and spreads goodwill.

For me, at least, the main benefits of blogging are twofold.  The first is that it has introduced me to people I otherwise would never have met.  The second is that the act of repeated writing, over time, helps me figure out what I think about various issues.  If you compose at the keyboard, as I do, sometimes you’ll find that a piece that you thought would be about topic x wound up being about topic y, or that once you thought through a topic, you wound up in a different position than you thought you would.  There’s value in that. When day jobs require hopping from topic to topic and putting out fires, it’s easy to default to knee-jerk positions on big questions. Carving out space in which to think provides a useful counterweight.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or subtract, or change)?