It’s March. I’m running a chainsaw, the Cantos of Dante pounding in my headphones over a techno beat. While this might seem like a confused union -- European trance music and high art -- for Robert Harrison’s small online audience it is just another typical opening segment for Entitled Opinions, a literary podcast. Topics range from the extraterrestrial origins of Jimi Hendrix’s musical genius to the ritual of sacrifice. Bizarre at times, pretentious for some, and unapologetically devoted to the aestheticism of literature, Entitled Opinions is not your traditional literary podcast. But it’s a show that has perhaps done more for promoting the humanities than any scholarly monograph in my recent memory.
Harrison's personal project, which I see as basically as a blog in auditory form, provides an example of the work blogs can do for higher education. If you listen regularly, you will meet Harrison’s diverse audience — tenured professors, a retired military colonel, Jesuit priests, a Stanford tennis coach. In an age when the intellectual has largely disappeared as a public figure, pulled behind the closed membership of obscure journals and expensive print monographs, I think that academics can still do some valuable work with personal online projects. Harrison is doing his small part, creating a community of like-minded intellectuals who come to simply enjoy the act of thinking, the pleasure of learning about history and art. And there is space for others to share in that work.
For those of you out there in academia wondering how to better use blogging to extend the reach and influence of your scholarly and personal projects, this article is for you. I’m going to share some technical and theoretical aspects of using the Internet to extend the reach of your academic blog.
My own story with blogs began in 2010. After taking a hard look at the tenure-track job market, I declined a Ph.D. fellowship at a prestigious university, taking a job as a landscaper. As I ran chainsaws, mowed lawns, and took care of wealthy estates, I had little connection back to my former academic life. This life change led to a small personal blog, recording my own decision to leave academia.
Since then, I have found a small community of other young frustrated academic bloggers. And without blogs (and shows like Entitled Opinions), I would have little connection to my former academic self. Twitter, Facebook—these help to build friendships, but our blogs really offer powerful platforms to share ideas, stories, and work through the challenge of living an intellectual life outside of seminar rooms.
But you can’t tell a story, build an audience, or impact people’s lives with your blog without first learning how to get and keep readers on your site. Talking to an empty room is uninspiring. So here are some common mistakes to avoid and techniques to use to help you transform your personal writing project into something that can have a larger meaning in the academic community.
Don’t Use Hosted Platforms. Popular “hosted” platforms such as Blogger, Wordpress.com, and LiveJournal brought blogging to the masses. While these hosted platforms allow you to set up a blog within a few minutes, they are also extremely limited.
The problem with hosted blogs is that Google and other search engines don’t trust them. Millions of people set up blogs every month on platforms such as Blogger and Wordpress.com; most are abandoned within a month or so.
As Google and other search engines are essentially curators of a massive library, they have little interest in inactive sites. So when you set up a blog on a hosted platform, you carry the blame of all those millions of terrible blogs out there -- the ones that are filled with typos, broken links, and lousy posts about the inner lives of cats.
A better route is to buy your own own domain name and to host it through Wordpress.org. No other blogging platforms compare to Wordpress.org -- trust me, the flexibility and power of Wordpress.org is worth the initial learning curve. If you have already started a blog on a hosted platform, a developer can move your existing site to a self-hosted domain. This would not cost very much and you would notice an increase in the number of readers.
Also, opt for buying the domain name for 3-5 years (rather than year-to-year). Once again, persuading Google to send you readers is about developing trust. A site that has paid for 5 years of hosting looks like it will stick around for a while and will gain more trust in the eyes of the search engines.
Write descriptive titles. As blogging often attracts a literary breed of writers, most academics will write short, obscure titles such as “reflections on art” or “musings on tenure.” These little titles might make you happy, but they make it very hard for search engines to figure out what your post is about. As a result, it will be very hard for people to find your blog, even if your content is excellent and relevant to them.
Search engines have been hard-wired to place a lot of emphasis on the titles of posts. So if your post “Saturday reflections” is really about “5 ways my life has improved since I received tenure,” include that information in your title. While these titles might not be as aesthetically pleasing, they do help people (via search engines) find and enjoy your post.
Eclectic is a nice way of pretending random, boring stuff has a theme. Most academic blogs never gain attention because they don’t have an overarching theme. To avoid low readership, focus on a specific topic.
The best blogs are written more like books rather than like personal diaries, exploring in a thematic way a particular skill, life stage, or career objective. You could focus on a new research area or a particular aspect of academic life, such as trying to raise children and produce research.
The reason why blogs with a theme get more visitors is because search engines look at the entire thematic structure of a website before deciding whether it has anything of value to offer people.
A site with 100 posts on “your first year as a tenured professor” (one that covers all the nuances of this topic) will gain much more trust with a search engine than a blog that alternates between ecological rants, posts about obscure literary figures, and any other topic that momentarily occupies the author’s mind.
Your goal should be to own a particular space on the Internet, much like you do with your professional research in your respective field.
So put some thought into your blog’s concept -- a blog about higher education isn’t a concept; it's just a vague category. A blog about writing your first major research book, filled with thoughts about productivity, editing, and tactics to avoid procrastination, is closer to a project that might attract readers with similar interests and goals.
An easy way to figure this out is to simply ask: Who will this blog serve?
If you can’t answer that question in a concrete way (e.g. my blog is aimed at new Ph.D.s in the humanities, thinking of leaving academia for jobs in the government), then chances are your project is more for your own ego, rather than helping to serve an academic community.
Don’t moderate comments. When I first created my first blog, I didn’t like the idea of comments (what if they say something negative?) and I always moderated them.
Now if you want to write something on my site, you can post it, and it appears within seconds. I don’t approve or delete anything. By not moderating comments, you allow your readers the freedom to participate in a dialogue on your blog. They don’t have to wait for your permission to speak. This innovation of instantaneous exchange between writer and reader is a new feature of online writing that you should celebrate, instead of repressing.
Another benefit is that comments add a natural keyword richness to your blog — this is an excellent way to convince search engines to send you more visitors. Search engines look for a semantic richness within posts in order to determine human content from spam. Open the doors. Let them speak.
Comment on other blogs. Find relevant blogs in your niche and comment on their posts. This can both build relationships and get other bloggers to spread the word about you via links.
Getting other blogs to link to you is incredibly important in building a community of readers. From a search engine’s perspective, when other sites link to your blog these links act like citations. Naturally, the blog with hundreds or thousands of other blogs citing it means that this is a site that people enjoy and find valuable. If you are recognized as an authority in your subject, search engines will promote your site.
Also, if you are trying to use your blog to raise awareness about an issue in higher education, a good tactic is to add an insightful comment on articles in major publications. Authors (even national authors) often keep a close eye on comments, especially right after publication. If you add something insightful and direct other readers back to your blog, this will put you on the author’s radar and could result in them using you as an expert in any follow-up articles. (This strategy personally resulted in my own personal blog being cited twice in national media).
By the way, sign every comment with your name and blog name (Prof. Smith, theacademiclife.com). You should also consider adding a few words to explain what your site is about (e.g. theacademiclife.com, a site about surviving your first year on the job market).
Think outside the blog. The Internet is a contextual universe, organized by small networks that connect individual sites to larger groups of sites. A key way to extend the reach of your site is to put content on other sites relevant to your chosen topic. In other words, don’t just post your best stuff on your blog. Pass it around the community.
Places like Scribd.com are sites on which you can post articles, linking back to your own blog. The idea is to work outside the traditional journal concept of the blog. Post videos on Youtube. Use iTunes if you have a podcast. Create a Facebook page and post some articles there. Or post an important article on Tumblr. You can also see if a fellow academic blogger would be interested in your doing a guest post.
Or, you can list your site in blog directories such as the famous dmoz.org directory. These outside links help to build a contextual web around your site, helping search engines to better classify your blog and to send you the right type of readers.
A word of warning about directories, though. Never pay to submit a directory. It’s not worth the money and there are plenty of free directories. Every blog should be listed in at least a handful of free directories.
Make people hate you. “Trying to get everyone to like you,” says Colin Powell, “is a sign of mediocrity.” I don’t generally listen to Colin Powell, but this particular statement is very relevant to building an audience with your academic blog. Blogs are best used to promote conversations, rather than places to report the facts. So don’t be afraid to tell a bit of your story, and to say things that some of the general public might not agree with. The point is to find your own little pocket of readers, not to reach a mass audience.
You don’t need to be bombastic. Just take a stance and tell the story that you and your readers believe in.
While not exhaustive, the above list provides a rock-solid foundation to start transforming your personal blog into a project that could make an impact and build a small community of readers.
Some of these tasks involve a bit of grunt work, but your readers will thank you for doing that work. It is the sense of having a community of people out there like you that reduces much of the inherent isolation in academic pursuits. With these small steps, you can turn a personal writing project into something that becomes meaningful for both yourself and others.