A few blogging lessons learned after two years of leaky grammar

There’s been a whole blogging phenomenon that’s exploded over the past decade or so, and according to Wikipedia, the accumulated-knowledge-bucket of the human race, there were around 160 million blogs in 2011 when I started mine…

I was checking out my archive tab on the right side of my blog which let’s you see the posts for a certain month, and I realized I’ve been blogging/rambling on for exactly two years this month!

That’s a good chunk of time, and I feel pretty good about myself for not throwing in the towel, although It’s definitely crossed my occasionally blogged-out mind more than a few times.

Somehow I’ve managed to get over whatever motivational hurdles there have been along the road to this two-year bench mark, and it looks like I’ll be at it for a while to come, so I thought I’d reflect on a few of the lessons/challenges/successes I’ve seen after this blog’s second complete rotation around the sun.

Got Jargon? Finding (discovering) an academic blog’s audience and purpose

“…Who wouldn’t love this jargon we dress common sense in: ‘formal innovation is no longer transformative, having been co-opted by the forces of stabilization and post-industrial inertia,’ blah, blah. But this co-optation might actually be a good thing if it helped keep younger writers from being able to treat mere formal ingenuity as an end in itself.

MTV-type co-optation could end up a great prophylactic against cleveritis—you know, the dreaded grad-school syndrome of like “Watch me use seventeen different points of view in this scene of a guy eating a Saltine.” The real point of that shit is “Like me because I’m clever…”

— David Foster Wallace

There are loads of reasons why people decide to begin writing a blog; maybe as a diary of their daily thoughts, or to promote some kind of product.  In my case, it was to share some of my thoughts about a particular area of research I’ve been interested for quite a while: second language studies.

I felt the need to write down what I was feeling and thinking about the things I was reading in my grad school courses, and a blog seemed like a good way to do it for at least a couple of reasons.

It gave me the opportunity to get my thinking down on (cyber) paper and be able to create a kind of journal: I  noticed a while ago that writing down my ideas gave me a chance to flesh them out a bit more, or connect them to other ideas I wouldn’t have thought about connecting them to before.

This leads to a couple other reason why writing down my ideas on a blog seemed like something worth doing: it gave me a potential audience that would require me to write something that wasn’t total gibberish and had some coherency.  But also, it would be a kind of extrinsic motivational force: if I told readers on my ‘about’ page that I would be writing a post at least once a week, then unless I was totally full of crap, this published-for-the-world-to-see-self-inposed-requirment would act as a kind of invisible time-keeper, making sure I keep it up.

So, having an audience (however small or large it may be) seems to help out with a few things when it comes to getting my ideas out of my head and into the world so I can start working with them and connecting them to all the other things in the world I might not have connected them to if I hadn’t gotten them out of my internal monologue.

The “target audience” of a research blog: a “moving target”?

But when you start to envision an audience that you’re writing for and become sensitive to the possible interpretations your posts might receive, it tends to influence how and what you write about in more than just a few ways.

As a grad student studying linguistics and language acquisition, I originally envisioned this blog as a fun way to track my thinking process across the intellectual landscape of academia.  But as I continued with it, I discovered other blogs that explored language learning, sharing personal insights and ideas on how to go about learning an additional language and why you should in the first place.

I thought these language learning blogs were interesting because they divulged a fair amount about the things I was thinking about on my own language learning journeys (with French, Portuguese, and Japanese).  I envisioned connecting with this community of ‘everyday language learners’ in some way through my writing.

But in writing about research on language and language learning, it became clear rather quickly that indulging in the jargon-filled, informationally-dense prose I was being socialized into during my studies would alienate me from many readers and defeat the whole purpose of why I was writing a blog in the first place, to share some personal thoughts and insights into an area of social science research that people in other fields as well as outside academia might be interested in…possibly.

For anyone writing about a ‘field of specialized knowledge,’ in my case second language acquisition (and other related fields such as multilingualism, linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, etc…), I think the following quote from an old Time Magazine editorial is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind and practice as you blend your voice with the science that you’re interested in:

“In fields of specialized knowledge, we aim to render an account that is plain and simple, yet does no violence to the difficulty of the subject, so that the uninformed reader can understand us while the expert cannot fault us. We try to keep in mind a saying attributed to Einstein—that everything must be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”

Subjectivity or objectivity? Where am I supposed to be in all of this?

This leads to a second thing that’s been a bit of a challenge too: how much of me should be in these posts?

One thing I learned fairly early on in grad school is how to extricate myself from the research (avoid writing in the first person) as if I conducted the research in a vacuum, absent of all human presence (this isn’t necessarily the case for all research, and in fact this objectivity/subjectivity divide is a rather interesting thing to explore in the social sciences, and I’ve actually written a post about this too).

But the verbalized presence of the researcher, when I’m reading a study, is also a good thing to consider  when deciding how reliable certain concepts or variables are in social science: I generally feel that grappling with the import of ‘subjectivity’ should be something worth thinking about in a field that basically consists of human beings scrutinizing each other’s behavior and psychology.

But when it comes to writing blog posts, I notice myself slipping into that impersonal style of writing I’ve been socialized into over the past few years in grad school.

I’ve wrestled with whether the point of this blog was to simply ‘report’ on the research, or rather to jump into it with my full personality intact and say what I think is awesome, and what is crap; why it’s fascinating to me, or why it’s not; and why I think an idea, some research, or weird little insight I might have is worth thinking about and sharing with others.

This blog is already a reflection of what I find interesting in the the field of SLA and linguistics more generally, so to think I’m offering some kind of objective view into the field of SLA would be wishful thinking.  By reading this blog, you’re not getting a clear overview of a field of research.  Rather, what you’re getting is one little slice of the language learning pie through the sometimes blurry goggles of a grad student who has taken it upon himself to babble about his own research and broader research interests (see, there goes that third-person thing again!)

This blog has been an interesting experiment to reinvigorate the personal reasons I have for being totally astounded and captivated by a seemingly tiny sliver of research on the planet: how and why people learn additional languages.  I say seemingly tiny sliver because researching language and language learning has shifted my perspective in sometimes dramatic ways of viewing our human circumstances on this planet:

“Language takes us through our human world. It is the theme of myths, philosophy, literature and science.”

– Daniel Everett

So another thing I’ve learned writing this blog is that if you show people clearly enough why you find something totally mind-blowing and intriguing, you might just have a chance to leave others’ minds blown and intrigued as well.

I think Roger Ebert, an American movie critic/blogger, put this best in his usual crystal clear, and subjectively rich blogging style:

“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to. I didn’t intend for it to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way. … the Internet encourages first-person writing, and I’ve always written that way. How can a movie review be written in the third person, as if it were an account of facts? If it isn’t subjective, there’s something false about it.”

– Roger Ebert

“Speak up and matter”

Lastly, I just wanted to mention a few things about the role of a blog in the career of an academic.  Geoffrey North (the editor of Current Biology) wrote a short op-ed in which he expresses some reservations (dangers) of research blogging:

But there is also, I think, a danger here, which lies in the very speed of response, and the way that blogs are essentially “vanity publications” which lack the constraints of more conventional publishing — they are not reviewed, and do not even have to pass the critical eye of any editor. In principle, anyone can write a blog and criticize anything — they do not have to have any specific expertise. And the criticism can be picked up, advertised and amplified, for example by Twitter, by those who feel a post supports their agenda.

Such criticism can of course be harmful — at the least there tends to be a “no smoke without fire” effect. And once a scientific reputation has been tainted, it can be hard to restore confidence.

John Hawks, a fairly prolific paleoanthropologist blogger took issue with this statement however in a recent post on his eponymously titled blog:

I have little patience for the risk-averse culture of academics.

The bottom line is: People need to decide if they want to be heard, or if they want to be validated.

I have long been an associate editor at PLoS ONE, and once I edited a paper that received a lot of critical commentary. That journal has a policy of open comment threads on papers, so I told disgruntled scientists to please write comments. The comments appear right with the article when anybody reads it, they appear immediately without any delay, and they can form a coherent exchange of views with authors of the article and other skeptical readers.

Some of the scientists didn’t want to submit comments, they wanted to have formal letters brought through the editorial review process. “Why?” I wrote, when you could have your comments up immediately and read byanyone who is reading the research in the first place? If you want to make an impact, I wrote, you should put your ideas up there right now.

They replied, “How would you feel if someone published something wrong about Neandertals? Wouldn’t you want to publish a formal reply?”

I wrote: “In that case, I would probably get a blog.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Hawks’ perspective on this, one thing that I’ve slowly discovered when writing this blog is that it not only serves as a platform for my own ideas and research but also provides an instant platform for contributions and critiques from my readers or anyone who happens to stumble upon my blog.  There’s also the ‘risks’ of publicly revealing your ignorance on certain topics, misrepresenting others’ research you don’t fully grasp, or perhaps placing your ideas and research findings out into the public domain before they have been ‘properly reviewed’ by other experts on some kind of forum.

As a big proponent of “open science”, leaning more towards an open approach to sharing research ideas and findings outside of confined academic circles, John Hawks, concludes his blog post with the following question and answer:

What is the difference between being heard and being validated? It’s whether you are contributing to the solution or to the hindsight.

This statement, I feel, encapsulates a steadily growing ethos in the ‘blogging’ of academia, perhaps due to a whole slew of economic, political and social factors, that sees the communication of science as being done in a vastly more open way than it has been done in the past.

But I don’t think the distinction between contributions to solutions and hindsights is this clear cut in science. Blogging and peer-reviewed academic publishing operate on different timescales.  On the one hand, blogging provides a personalized kind of access for readers to a person’s ideas that is instant, subjective and direct, although a bit rough around the edges.

On the other hand, peer-reviewed journals provide (hopefully) polished research in the form peer-reviewed articles that stand as clear benchmarks, or at least markers on the road towards increasing our understanding of the world and explaining ourselves and our place in it.

The articles in peer-reviewed journals, although written by specific researchers, almost represent a kind of super-conciousness that doesn’t necessarily exist as an individual in reality, having gone through the gauntlet of peer-review.

Equipped with the cumulative knowledge of a field, successfully published academic articles are expected to come out the other side as robust survivors of an intellectual gladiatorial showdown.

I had never considered any of these things before I started blogging, a small insight gained from experience which makes me realize how very difficult it is to anticipate the role this blog will play in my future career in academia.

And before I can come to any strong conclusions on the role of research blogging in academia, seeing as there are both well-established academic researchers taking a stance on the open communication of scientific research and thinking through their blogging as well as those from the non-blogging academic world advocating for a ‘slow-science‘ to be more appreciated among researchers and the public, I’m led to believe that research blogging will continue to play an influential role on researchers’ efforts to communicate research both within and outside of academia.

The featured image is…

…of me rummaging through the linguistics section in Powell’s Bookstore (the best book store in the world) in Portland, Oregon.


3 responses to “A few blogging lessons learned after two years of leaky grammar

  1. Great post! I liked the more personal style exhibited. It’s amazing how I identified with what you said. I’ve struggled with the same things you mentioned in my blogs short life; how personal, me vs fact, who is my real audience, etc. it’s very cool to hear someone else express this as well! Keep up the good work. I’m very interested in SLA and would love to study it further some day.


  2. Hey Jeff, glad you enjoyed the post and good luck in your future studies if you decide to give it a go!

  3. Pingback: blogging fast, sciencing slow | Leaky Grammar·

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