The benefits of blogging for professional archaeologists

In a post earlier this week I provided a brief account of why blogging is of interest to archaeologists and also touched on aspects of the history of ‘archaeo. blogging’. I’ve taken the time to do this to provide students in my Introduction to Professional Archaeology class with a background to blogging and social media in archaeology, which I argue is an important part of professional communication in the discipline today. Here, I focus on the benefits of blogging and also collate some ideas as to how archaeology students should start out with blogging and social media. For those on twitter, see also #profarch.

Publish or perish? Research blogging helps to develop a wide range of important academic skills that will help you to advance your career

The benefits of blogging?
I have long argued that writing blog posts is of distinct value for aspiring academic archaeologists. The foremost reason is that writing blogs helps you to develop your ‘plain English’ writing skills. This is important because there is much more to professional communication than writing technical academic prose. To effectively engage in dialogue with non-archaeologists, we need to be able to clearly explain this technical material to non-specialists. A blog is a wonderful way to practice and demonstrate that skill.

Some archaeological bloggers do take a more technical approach in their work and even if this is the case, writing frequently for a wider audience will still help to improve your writing and research skills. Writing publicly forces you to take much greater care with your work. Although mildly terrifying, the remote possibility that someone whose opinion you value—a well respected archaeologist or science blogger for example—might read your blog is a great source of motivation to only publish good material.

The benefits of writing regularly are also considerable. Doctoral Student and blogger Katy Meyers noted a distinct improvement in her writing through regular blogging. As she says, “I now have the power to sit down at my computer and pound out 800 words with little difficulty”. That’s impressive, and it is also a skill that will help her to finish that PhD!

You will probably never be famous from blogging, at least not in archaeology. You have a greater chance of attaining some fame through high quality, internationally significant research and for researchers, this should always be your primary focus. However, blogging is an excellent way to publicise good research and to supplement your academic publishing plans. For example, on her popular blog, ‘Powered by Osteons’, Kristina Killgrove extolls the benefits of professional blogging, explaining how her blogging work resulted in some attention in the mainstream media and, in turn, at a professional conference. Summing it up, she suggests that “this sort of notoriety has greatly helped my job. Interest in my posts has generated interest in my publications, and vice versa”. These are all very good outcomes that are difficult to generate through traditional publishing alone.

This does have longer-term benefits. John Hawks explains that blogging helped him to obtain academic tenure and provides advice to other aspiring academics on how to do the same. Hawk’s post, which came at a time toward the end of my own Doctoral research, influenced my own thinking about blogs and academia. A few years later, when I applied for an academic position in Australia, a central platform of my own bid to the selection panel was that I blogged. This was a far cry from blogging behind a pseudonym in 2004-05!

So, contrary to the non-blogging nay sayers, blogging can result in career benefits. There are other reasons too, that stem back to public benefit rather than individualistic professional benefits. Carl Feagans, author of ‘A Hot Cup of Joe’, observes that “With the advent of the Internet in the last 20 or so years, pseudoscience and ‘weird things’ have proliferated and it seems as if there is also a decline in science literacy”. He goes on to explain that he writes partly in order to feed accurate information and opinions back into the web to help counter these ideas. This is echoed in a great post at PLOS Blogs that highlights the essential qualities of good science bloggers. Producing accurate, accessible and high-quality blog posts in your subject area is a great way to contribute to this goal.

I could go on, but the wonderful thing about blogging is that many people routinely write reflective posts on the value of blogging. Last year, Doug Rocks-Macqueen ran a blog carnival and conference session that was later converted into an e-book that collated a range of material by bloggers about their experiences of and motivation for blogging about archaeology (several of which are readings for the students in my class). It’s a great resource, and the editors and authors should be commended not only for generating such a useful resource but also for making it available freely on the web.

What will you write about?

Delving into the technical detail of how to start a blog is not something I want to get into here, though suffice to say it is fairly simple to get started. The Guardian has prepared a great guide that is worth reading as a starting point. The more difficult aspect of starting out is choosing what to write about. What could you possibly say that other people will want to read about?

It depends where you are at in your career. Established professionals who are active in teaching, research or in commercial archaeology should have lots to say. For students though, it may seem very daunting and difficult to carve out your own space and so my suggestion is to write professionally about your experiences of learning about archaeology. Write about your participation in field schools or write posts about visits to public sites. Aim for a local audience by preparing posts that your fellow students, lecturers, family and friends might be interested in. Write about debates or sites that you are reading about, and share resources—links to papers, upcoming conferences, interesting news items—that others may also like to read. Also, learn about web feeds and use this as a way of keeping up with other blogs and comment and respond to those where relevant. People might start doing the same in response to your material.

Research students completing a thesis at any level are potentially on the threshold of a career as a professional archaeologist. Your emerging research speciality is a great focus for blogging. Well known palaeo-blogger John Hawks provides quite a good perspective on this:

If I were starting out today, I’d blog my dissertation. Why not? Is there really anything so secret in your history and literature review that it couldn’t be read by the few hundred people who will find your blog?

Now, you don’t want to write things that would allow someone to scoop you. As a graduate student, you can’t afford to lose your projects, because they create the publications that build your record. So don’t write about research methods if they’re new and don’t blog results that you want to publish in a journal.

I agree completely. Share your research as you do it! Tell us what your project is about, and share your experiences along the way. Of course, don’t put material out that is original and should be published, but focus on breaking down some of the ideas and previous results influencing your work for the benefit of others. There is so much literature out there to read, and you are (or are becoming) a master of the literature in your particular field. Share that knowledge or the experience of acquiring it. There are many examples of people who are good at this, but one local example of a student blogging about her research that I quite like is that by a current Master of Archaeology student Susan Arthure, who writes at ‘Don’t forget your shovel‘. It’s a very good blog and a good example for students starting out.

Mid-way through my own Honours degree a senior archaeologist said to me, “Honours theses are meant to be forgotten”. While I don’t agree with that point, it is  true that research theses are forgotten because they are read only by your supervisor(s), your examiners and, if you’re lucky, a few interested specialists. It’s not until you publish that work that you gain some wider recognition for your contribution. Establishing yourself as a professional archaeologist is a competitive business, and you can’t afford to make that thesis the only public face of your research efforts. By writing a good blog along the way, you increase your visibility in professional networks and develop a measurable track record that displays your research and communication skills for anyone who is interested. That’s important—not only for getting jobs, but also for getting PhD positions and large grants. If you do this, you should list your blog at the top of your CV.

Share your thoughts

I want to finish up today with the following questions, which I’ve also posted to #profarch on twitter:

  • Are you an archaeology blogger? What started you and what are some of the most distinct professional benefits you’ve encountered so far (for bloggers, please feel free to shamelessly plug previous posts on the topic!)
  • If you do not blog—or are not convinced that it is helpful—then tell us what factors discourage (or prevent) you from blogging as a professional archaeologist.

The point is to generate some discussion to benefit students of archaeology who might be thinking about the value of blogging.