I’m periodically asked about the role of social media and blogs in my career and campus interactions. Here’s some information.
I make a point of (almost) never bringing it up. If I were to mention that I have a blog, to someone who hasn’t seen it, I’d just get a roll of the eyes. I’ll shamelessly plug this site on twitter, but that’s an audience accustomed to this medium. On facebook, I rarely share my posts on my personal page, and just have a separate page for the blog for those who care about it.
There are some people on my campus who are occasional-to-regular readers, but as far as I know, this project is mostly under the radar. Which is the way I like it. My job here is to teach, do research, and serve the campus and the community. This blog is just a small, and voluntary, part of my job description.
Nonetheless, this site is not a small part of my professional work. So when I came up for promotion to full professor this year, I included the site in my narrative under the “service” category, along with the verbiage about my time with campus committees, editorial work, outreach, and professional societies.
Rather than describe what I wrote, it’s easier to just share it with you:
For the past 18 months, I have been working on an outreach project to serve the community of scientists in teaching focused universities, called Small Pond Science. This website, smallpondscience.com, is an academic blog with regular posts from myself, and other occasional contributors, about many aspects of being a scientist outside research institutions. I treat this site with the attention that I would give to an additional course that I am teaching. I spend a minimum of a few hours per week on the site, including the associated online outreach and engagement. While the site has several subscribers on our campus, I have received anecdotal reports that it is well known on other campuses, and is influential for younger scientists such as PhD students, postdocs, and junior faculty.
If it is difficult to fairly assess the impact of the research by a scientist, then it must be nearly impossible to gauge the impact of a blog. Nevertheless, here is my attempt: The site has been viewed more than a quarter million times, with more than 4,000 visits per week since the start of this academic year. The site does not have posts that go viral – it is designed to avoid this phenomenon – though it is often distributed through social media, and I have built a steady and reliable audience among professionals in my discipline.
Does it matter that Small Pond Science is being read? Does this represent genuine service to my field, or is it mere self-aggrandizement to increase visibility without making a genuine academic or social contribution? Those are valid questions, and it’s up to you to decide. To help that make decision, I recommend that you spend some time visiting the site, read the comments, and search the internet to find out what others have been saying about the site. I set up the site to promote awareness of the quality and quantity of research that happens at places like CSUDH, and as much as a website can assist in that endeavor, I think it’s worked better than I ever could have imagined.
I doubt I’d have mentioned this site in a tenure file, because I would want my tenure bid to be evaluated on my teaching quality, the impact of my scholarship, experiences of my students, and service to the institution. I think I’m reasonable, but it’s normal for a reasonable person to get screwed over for just expressing differing, but reasonable, views. So this site only exists because I have the academic — and career — freedom to be free with my views.
I view this site as an important part of my role as a scientist. However, at this point in time, the broader scientific community doesn’t yet value this kind of blog. I’m not inclined to be the person to push that envelope, other than keep doing what I’m doing here.
In the currency of academic science, the value of my time here is cut by the liabilities. In the environment outside the “blogosphere,” including my own campus, I’m guessing that the net value is nil to negative. Among readers of the site, I think it’s a win for me. But nearly everybody in the world does not read this site. And for non-readers, my work on this site is a negative. If I’m more known by reputation as a blogger than for my work in ecology, social insects, and tropical rainforests, that’s not a win for me as a scientist. At least, not yet.
It’s unfortunate, but true, that my job at a teaching-centered university reduces my credibility as a scientist. I exacerbate this problem by regularly writing about non-technical issues on this site, reinforcing the bias that I’m not focused on enough on research. So, I’m not going to further deepen the deficit of respect by pretending that this blog somehow makes me a better member of the scientific community. If this blog is here to promote the role of research in teaching institutions, then the fact that it is a blog about the topic could be self-defeating considering the general opinion of blogs at large.
Is doing this site rewarding? Heck yeah! Is it helpful to others in the community? I sure hope so. Should I think of it as an important part of my career as a scientist? I don’t think so. Or, at least, I wouldn’t dare admit such a thing. Oops.