What I said about my blog in my promotion file


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.

14 thoughts on “What I said about my blog in my promotion file

  1. Thank you for sharing! As a PhD student being “trained” for academia at a well-respected research-focused institution, it is still here that I often find the insights into navigating that path. By doing research and teaching assistantships we do gain some necessary skills, but still often few stories about what has worked and what has not from our trainers. The stories here are about the people who write them, and to me that is essential. I may or may not have had similar experiences, and maybe I can learn something about how to avoid an experience I don’t want to have! Regarding opinions/valuation of blogging, I am hopeful that there is a change in winds for the institutional mind sets. It seems that if you write a “blog” under the umbrella of (for) Scientific American or perhaps a publishing group such as Nature you are given legitimacy. That doesn’t automatically make what you have to say more relevant. Hmm…this may be turning into a blog post.

  2. I do see your point and largely agree that blogging does not really ‘count’. Nor does social media. The thing is, blogging and Twitter are more for me than anyone else currently. It was about building a writing habit and processing my way through adopting better mindsets, habits, and strategies to manage career stopping depression. it has opened up some opportunities for me too.

    For me, this blog has helped me get back into science and push myself to do more…because I am not known for my science right now. I’m trying to be and trying to figure out where I fit in the world as a postdoc…and not a great one, but blogging has made me better. And though I don’t have a huge following and not all my posts are brilliant, I’m sure, I am pretty proud of maintaining it.

    Of course, by traditional institutional metrics, it does not matter, doesn’t count, and it’s something that it seems like everyone is doing/can do (which is true, but not everyone does…maybe I’m just foolish for doing it). However, I know I have helped a few people within academia deal with anxiety, impostorism, and depression, and that is worthwhile to me. I like helping people shine even as I remain in the shadows.

  3. Terry,

    I have now been reading your blog for over a year and want to encourage you that it is a good service to the community and a worthwhile endeavor. I have sold most of my faculty on the value of your blog and it has exposed me to things that I would not have been exposed to had you not been doing this. That you have achieved tenure gives you the freedom to engage in an activity that others find useful but does not fall under the standard definitions of either scholarship or service. And the topics you talk about also speak to the fact that you are still very engaged in your field, in many cases more broadly than you might if you did not write this blog. My guess is that that has also enhanced other aspects of your job at your institution.

    As a faculty member at a primarily teaching institution that still requires research productivity for tenure and promotion, I find your and your collabotors’ insights useful and refreshing. Keep it up and if you ever need a letter of support, just ask any of us who benefit from your blog.


  4. Thanks for sharing this Terry. As you know, I’d say much the same (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/jeremys-blogging-faqs/), though with minor differences. I’m probably less worried than you that my blogging might be viewed as a net negative by people who don’t read blogs.

    Probably worth emphasizing to others who might be tempted to follow your example (or mine) that we can cite big traffic numbers. In my anecdotal experience, even people who don’t read blogs are impressed if you tell them that your blog gets thousands of unique visitors and pageviews per week. If I couldn’t point to big traffic numbers, I wouldn’t bother mentioning my blog at all on tenure and promotion applications, grant applications, etc.

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