Thanksgiving; a state of the blog report


It’s now the 10-week mark since the launch of this site.

I wasn’t sure to what expect when I started, but I’m pleased at the early, and evolving, outcome.

I want to thank the scores of you that have helped out one way or another, as well as consistent readers, especially those of you who have chatted up the site with colleagues and more broadly shared posts of particular interest.

I’d like to specify thanks to a few who gave me a great push in my first moments. If I had to make a list of only three, in alphabetical order, it would undoubtedly be:

Chris Buddle of Arthropod Ecology, Jeremy Fox of Dynamic Ecology and Alex Wild of Myrmecos. Thanks, guys.

These three gents have distinct and engaging approaches to science that are useful and enlightening. If you haven’t clicked on over to their sites, please do (though odds are you’ve found this site because of them). And buy some spectacular prints from Alex, as he’s got a great sale going on at the moment.

The rest of this post is something like a state-of-the-blog address, in case you wanted to know more about the site and its trajectory. If you want a detailed look under the hood, read on.

Bloggers seem to keep their viewership numbers tight to their chest, maybe like how people don’t openly specify their weight or their salary. I don’t know if I’m violating a tacit code of honor, but here goes: To date the site has been viewed almost 20,000 times; on a run-of-the-mill day, as of this week, a few hundred people are visiting. I imagine that’s a blip compared to many other blogs, but I also expect that it’s uncommon for a blog that’s only 10 weeks old. I’m fortunate for what I think is early rapid growth. Each day, several people find this site by specifically seeking it out on search engines, which suggests some word of mouth. That’s encouraging. (There was one day when a post made the top of Reddit Skeptic. That was fun.) I’m in this for the long haul, and as long as I continue to invest, then I hope to continue growing.

In my first post, I tried to identify five characteristics of a successful blog. I think on all five marks, I’m doing well. First, I work to maintain a clear focus with a useful perspective. Second, I have maintained frequent entries, with one per day, and aiming for an absolute minimum of one substantial longer-form post per week. Third, I am steadily building a community of commenters, which is a diverse crowd with all kinds of academic backgrounds. Fourth, I think I have built up a much larger group of consistent lurking readers (I suspect), and lastly, I hope that I have maintained a high standard of writing quality. It feels that way, at least, because whenever I proof a piece I always catch screwups and typos. (I might write parenthetically too often, but that is better than David Foster Wallace’s copious use of footnotes, right?) Do I still think those five things are the properties of a successful blog? I’m not sure. My views on blogging, and this site, have evolved a lot in the last ten weeks.

I’ve evolved into some patterns that work well. Each weekday, there will be a single post, unless I feel hugely compelled to write something fresh that can’t wait (such as trying to make sense of why E.O. Wilson would tell young scientists to not worry about math). I aim to have at least one substantial and longer-form piece each week, and to make sure that every post introduces or revisit a concept that matters, even if not on a large scale. I’ll save Friday afternoons or weekends for additional posts that might be more relevant to dedicated followers to discuss things about the site (like this post). I’m planning for an ‘efficient teaching’ post weekly, and there are some other plans in the works. I’d love to hear from you via comments or email about what is working and what isn’t.

Summers will be quieter. Come late May, when I’m away doing fieldwork and on some extended travel, posting frequency will drop to 1-3 per week, but will pick back up in late August when the academic year starts back up again. I imagine that a lot of these posts will be about travel, fieldwork, student mentorship, conferences, and writing. Because that’s what I’ll be doing this summer.

If you want to be notified when a post comes out, you can subscribe to the blog with your email address, or sign onto tweet face. (In addition to the blog’s official page on facebook, you can connect with my personal facebook profile, too, using my email address. I don’t do much there and keep is mostly professional, but it’s been good for staying in touch with people.) Or you could just check in at some point in the day or week and get caught up. Or you could do a crossword puzzle instead.

Blogs are, perhaps by definition, a personal medium. I use the pronoun “I” frequently, but notwithstanding that fact I am intent on making this site about ideas, and not about myself. When I insert my own stuff into the picture, I’m doing it to serve the mission of the blog.

Broadly, my mission is to make sense of our jobs as scientists and teachers. Specifically, the mission is to represent, advocate for, support and provide a venue for researchers in teaching institutions. I’m not pleased to hold myself forth as a model, but I recognize that this is a necessary consequence of creating such a site.

Because we at teaching institutions inherently lack credibility with those at research institutions, I couldn’t have done this blog pseudonymously because part of the credibility is derived from the fact of my actual existence. Someone at a teaching school could claim that they’re a researcher, but people at R1 universities wouldn’t put much stock in it without looking at that person’s CV. It’s no accident that the CV on my lab website is being scrutinized a lot more closely now than it was 10 weeks ago. It’s not a strong CV by many R1 standards, but I hope it does show that I am a genuine researcher at a genuine teaching campus. I’ve yet to receive negative feedback for being uppity or self-centered, but the site is young. The challenge I have to face, then, is to live up to my own expectations for what a researcher at a teaching institution should look like. I won’t always live up to this, I realize.

I am aspiring to build something that is rare among academic blogs. There is clearly a niche for researchers in teaching institutions. More importantly, there is a niche for a substantial journalistic approach to writing about the relationships among research, teaching and academia. This is particularly true since Female Science Professor scaled back to a few posts per month.

I want this blog to be read by people who don’t typically read blogs. Most academics in many fields don’t read blogs, or at least don’t admit to it. I don’t know how to reach that audience. I imagine it just takes time and word of mouth. I’m reluctant to say something crazy or argue unnecessarily just to get temporary eyeballs. I realize that might slow my growth rate, but it will also help me to attract an audience that may otherwise be deterred by the general tenor found in most blogs.

I hope that this site can, at least by raising awareness, enhance the underappreciated role of teaching universities in research and academic life. If all kinds of researchers visit this site, they can examine their options and form a realistic view of what is possible (and yes, what isn’t possible) at teaching institutions. They also can adopt a more informed view of their colleagues.

The reason that I want to reach out to people who don’t typically read blogs is not (just) to gain a bigger audience. The hard-working and researchers and teachers in teaching institutions are overlooked, and this community that I want to represent doesn’t live in the internet. We work on campuses, publish in journals and make valuable academic contributions to our own fields. If I’m successful in this blog, then the conversation only starts on this site and makes a difference elsewhere, including campuses, professional societies, editorial boards, and funding agencies. Is that ambitious? Yes, it is. Is it overambitious? Time will tell. One measuring stick would be if we see an emergence of academic bloggers at teaching campuses, who choose to join the community of bloggers that now are mostly in research institutions. We’re all equivalently busy and overworked, in different ways. I want those of us at teaching schools to realize that we belong as much as everyone else.

I’m working towards that goal, of reaching out to many, by providing a broader value and respect for your time than I find in most blogs. I am working to do this by maintaining quality, focus, an absence of in-jokes, and emphasizing constructive engagement with whatever issue is at hand. I may have plenty to gripe about, but I don’t want to spend your time, nor mine, that way. I rarely have the answers, but I want to ask the right questions and get people to think about issues that might not have occurred to them before.

I suppose I should have photoshopped a picture of an ant standing at a podium with an American flag, flanked by Joe Biden and Boehner. But this is the best I could find.

7 thoughts on “Thanksgiving; a state of the blog report

  1. Re: traffic, if you’re up to a few hundred views on a typical day, that’s already a substantial audience for an ecology blog, or even for a broader blog aimed at academics. Back when I was starting out Oikos Blog, I asked a few other ecology bloggers what sort of traffic levels they got, just to get a sense of how Oikos Blog was doing. At the time, Oikos Blog was getting about 200-300 pageviews/day, and I was told that was broadly comparable to what established ecology blogs were getting. Dynamic Ecology gets much more than that these days (20-25,000 pageviews per month, though we’ll get more this month because of the E. O. Wilson kerfuffle). Sounds like you’re already getting in the ballpark of our traffic level, which is amazing after only 10 weeks! And well-deserved, too. If you keep up this pace of posting (and really, I don’t know how you do it–you talk about one substantive post a week, but from where I sit you’re doing one per day!), I wouldn’t be surprised if your readership was as big or bigger than ours before too long. Of course, I’m sure people like Female Science Professor get much more traffic than either of us (though maybe we’ll catch up one day!), but I don’t think you have to grow as popular as that to have an impact.

    Keep up the great work Terry! I love the ambition.

    • Thanks much for the perspective. It sounds like I’m getting about half the traffic of you at this point. I think the majority of people reading are ecologists, but it’s growing bit by bit. I’m trying really hard to not focus on that, and just make sure that I have something of interest and worth each day. I’ve now got a list of topics that could carry me for months. I’ve just got to squirrel away the time each day and build a buffer. I’m excited about what’s in stock for next week.

  2. I’m a blogger, a reader (lurker? I think I’ve left one comment maybe?), a just-finished-my-second-year tenure- track assistant professor of biology at a tiny liberal arts teaching college, and a fellow lover of ants and all things tropical.

    I just started reading your blog a couple weeks ago. I can’t remember how I found it, but I am shocked that it is only 10 weeks old! Honestly, with the quality and quantity of your content, I would never have guessed. I’ve also told man ycollegues about several of your posts, and have emailed particularly relevant ones to my department chair.

    You’re doing a great job, and you are filling a niche that we NEED. Nearly every post I’ve read has been followed by the thought that I am so glad I am not the only one thinking/going through this. If not that, the rest of the posts have been followed by a “huh. I never would have thought of it”. Both are equally important.

    In short, thanks and keep on posting. I’ve got you in my reader!

  3. Congrats on hitting the big 10 Terry! Being mostly lurking reader here, I guess this is a great opportunity to tell you how much I’ve been learning from your blog, and enjoying it too! It’s really addressing questions I have about working at teaching institutions that aren’t really addressed in depth anywhere else. I’ve been finding it very though-provoking, and its given me many topics to reflect on personally and discuss with my colleagues. Thanks also for the book recommendations. I just started reading my copy of “Getting to Yes” :)

    Wishing you many more blogging weeks/months/years!

  4. Thanks for the kind and specific thoughts. They’re appreciated tremendously, and remind me that I’m glad I’m doing this! And thanks for spreading the word, too. I don’t want to blog much about blogging, but I also thought I should let people who are regular readers know what the heck is up and give folks a specific chance/invitation to remark on the blog, rather than just remark on a post.

  5. Keep up the good work Terry. It’s been really helpful to get an insight into life 5-10 years into the future at an institution similar to mine. And, sort of helpful, to realize the ubiquity of the administrative/red tape that makes it harder to get research (and teaching) done.

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