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 (more…)

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The value of a track record in blogging

At the moment I am writing a rather large grant application for a postdoctoral position to step into next year when my current teaching contract at Flinders University runs out. I’ve written a few successful funding applications but this is by far the most challenging application I’ve yet attempted, which is no surprise given this scheme is the major funding program for Australian researchers. For years I have moaned about blogs not being seriously ‘counted’ when it comes to getting jobs or promoted, however at about 2:14pm  on Tuesday in a chocolate inspired burst of writing, it struck me that blogs do serve two important purposes that are critical in the competitive world of academia. Let me elaborate.

This particular grant application is difficult not only because of its scale, but because it requires me to do two things that are each quite difficult in themselves. The proposal must be innovative on a national and international level and firmly locate the idea in relation to a gap that needs attention now. That means it should be academically rigorous, demonstrate a degree of mastery of the relevant literature and meet all the requirements of any major grant proposal, i.e. clear aims, sound methodology and sensible budgets. It also should be carefully crafted for a general academic audience, not of archaeologists but of readers whose specialisations are different to your own. So writing 10 pages of archaeology jibber-jabber won’t necessarily help you get money. You need to convince people outside of your narrow field what your project involves and why it must be funded now.

Meeting both requirements in one document is by no means easy, at least  not for me. But for those who lay awake at night wondering what the point of blogging is, particularly when everyone around you is saying ‘publish or perish’ (and I have made that very point myself), heed my words: having a track record with blogging has been very useful in developing this application, despite my modest and patchy approach to posting.  There are two reasons.

Blogging potentially demonstrates a track record in community engagement and can be utilised as part of a communication strategy to maximise the social benefits of academic research.  If you’re a student or an early career person looking to demonstrate that they have a track record of community engagement, then blogging helps. It shows you’ve been trying to bust open the academic silo, in your own small way, and it also shows that if given the chance (i.e. via a job or large grant), you could easily apply these skills as part of a communication strategy for an organisation or on a large project. That’s important, particularly when it comes to people giving you money. They want to see their investment promoted, plain English blogging helps that and sits nicely alongside formal communication in journals and at conferences and the like.

Blogs also help you to develop your ‘plain English’ writing skills. They allow a great deal more freedom and unlike the real world you can write plain English posts that are accessible to a wider, non-academic audience. I’m an academic and even I find high brow, specialised posts very dull and I’m rarely interested in reading them unless they’re near to my specific field.  A good blog is a readable one and developing that skill is very useful when it comes to convincing others outside of your field about why they should employ you or give you money. So write for people outside of your field.

Publications are of course critical, and without those you are dead in the water so I still maintain that blogs are secondary to this. But they serve a purpose, and if now or in the future you need to demonstrate plain English writing skills or  a track record in community engagement, start  now. If you write about one thing, write about your specific field and the work that you are doing (if I want to read about some new research, I’ll usually read the publications themselves not your blog post ‘covering’ it). Don’t cover the big stories in archaeology if they’re outside your field, for that is the way of two paragraph quotes and blog spam and we don’t need more of that rubbish if we want to make a genuine case about the value of blogging in archaeology.

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Four Stone Hearth 115 this week

A gentle reminder about the upcoming Four Stone Hearth blog carnival that I’m hosting here this week. The post will go up on Wednesday/Thursday Australian time, so please try to get your contributions to me within the next few days. I’m collating them now, so if you have something that you have written yourself, or a post that you have found that you think should be included, contact me on twitter or via my contact form.

This is the first time that I have hosted 4SH here. I briefly toyed with the idea of a themed carnival however it seems to have been a proposal that regular contributors either missed or may not have agreed with, so I am looking forward to seeing the usual diverse range of posts from across the anthropology ecosystem. If you have a post that you would like to promote that relates broadly to anthropology (in the American sense) please consider posting it here. It’s very easy and takes no time at all…

To be frank, I’m a little ambivalent about 4SH and I wonder if the carnival is diminishing in its appeal. I suspect this is in part due to changes in the way anthropologists are using the web; a few years ago, blogging was the key mechanism that anthropologists used to build and participate in online communities however an increasingly diverse social media has perhaps diluted the importance of these kinds of carnivals. Does 4SH need to shift a little to keep up?

In this edition I’d like to include contributions in the form of collections of twitter posts. Thus, if you’ve been using a hashtag to tweet about a  conference, field trip, or project that you are involved in please point it out to me or (even better) write a blog post that pulls them together.

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The risks of professional blogging

Colleen at Middle Savagery has been facilitating a discussion about archaeology and blogging for the past few weeks and this week the question she poses is:

What risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

I thought I would participate in the discussion this week by considering blogging in relation to University students and recent graduates. In my experience, a large proportion of those who actively use blogs to write about research are students or recent graduates and I think there are specific risks associated with this (there are also many benefits, but I’ll come to that!).

I fall into a category that is sometimes termed the ‘early career researcher’. I’ve worked as a professional archaeologist for about a decade or so, have recently completed a PhD and I now teach at an Australian University. I have blogged since about 2005 however I have never been a prolific blogger because I’m often very busy with other things.

There is one standard that I have tried to maintain in my blog writing for the past couple of years: is the post professional? By that, I mean is it ethical, accurate, logical, well written and appropriately sourced? Writing unprofessional posts is a very risky business, regardless of how established you are in your chosen career. We simply do not know who will be reading our work: academic colleagues, members of committees (ethics, jobs, funding), community members, developers, school students? If your work does not meet basic professional and ethical standards of the discipline in which you work, then what is the message that you are sending to them?

People who are well established in their chosen career usually have a clear sense of just what is unprofessional and the kinds of impacts that unprofessional work can have when released into the public domain. I think this is less so for recent graduates with limited experience of professional life. However, as we might all  agree, the media landscape today is not the same as it was even ten years ago and there are umpteen opportunities for professionals to get their message into the public sphere and to interact with each other via various kinds of new media. This is a new problem – and opportunity – for archaeology.

There are several key risks associated with students or recent graduates who maintain blogs. First, there is the risk that they unwittingly post material that is unprofessional and that this will negatively impact on their career. We all know that an unprofessional post in your archives that was not very widely read at the time may come up in a web search two or five years later when you are applying for a grant or job. Most bloggers whose work I have time to read are very cautious about what and how they write; however, this may not be the case for those who are new to writing professionally and whose sense of professional standards may not be very well developed. If you seek a career as a professional and you run a blog you will be judged (in part) according to the professionalism of your blog, whether you want to be or not.

Second, there is the risk that an unprofessional post can be influential and attract a great deal of attention. A blog post about a research result or heritage management project that is controversial, for example, may attract the interest of mainstream media outlets or simply be promoted widely through social media: we all see examples of poorly researched and inaccurate popular archaeology stories that are uncritically promoted by dozens of people using social media. Also of concern though is the potential for inappropriate information to be released into the public sphere. For example, a blog post containing information that is culturally sensitive (e.g. about Indigenous heritage), commercially restricted or that includes results that have not been through a peer-review process could potentially have very significant ramifications. I’m not aware of any examples of this occurring in Australia, but very few archaeologists bother with blogs here so that is not entirely surprising.

Some may argue that the beauty of blogging lies in the way that peer review occurs in the comments and that the flaws of unprofessional posts are quickly pointed out by readers. I agree that this can be the case, but it is not consistently so. For most archaeo/anthro-bloggers, our audiences are very small and a problematic post may not be subject to very much criticism at all. Further, it may not be the correct kind of criticism, since readers of blogs may themselves not have the appropriate skills  to identify flaws and may not necessarily even be aware of relevant professional standards. One way around this may be to create a ‘research blogging’ style blog where  posts are to some extent peer reviewed in relation to an editorial policy (see my suggestion about Four Stone Hearth here). But I digress.

I am certainly not suggesting that students and recent graduates should not blog. Learning how to write good research blog posts is almost as important as learning to give a  conference presentation or prepare an academic poster. Blogs are clearly not recognised as a form of academic publishing, but the benefits of writing them are diverse and significant, particularly for students. However, students and recent graduates face unique risks when they decide to start blogging and as such, they should be learning about blogging at University level and encouraged to write and critique blog posts in a sheltered and supportive learning environment. That doesn’t mean telling students to simply “go write a blog”, but rather, incorporating it into the assessment process, providing feedback and helping them to develop and improve their skills. That way, when they do go out into their various professional careers they will better positioned to use blogs professionally rather than as professionals who use blogs poorly.

Edit (16 March):

You can read Colleen’s wrap of contributions on this question here. Some great work, including some contributions from a few CRM/heritage management archaeologists that I wasn’t aware of, as well as a post from Terry Brock on maintaining integrity in archaeological blogging. However, I don’t tend to agree with Colleen’s implication that maintaining a professional stance means writing boring, dry blog posts – I think the best kinds of blogs are those that are engaging and of wide appeal, provided they don’t send the wrong messages. Colleen’s own blog is a good example of an engaging style that sends the right kinds of messages to readers. Let’s face it, blogging doesn’t count for anything in relation to measurable academic outputs, and so there’s not much point writing posts that 10 people might read. Better to write openly and accessibly so that others might enjoy reading your work and to learn about archaeological ethics and professional standards.

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Digital archaeology: a workshop

I have agreed to present a half day workshop in my Department here at Flinders University on what I am calling ‘Digital Archaeology’. It’s aimed graduate students in our archaeology and cultural heritage programs who want to know more about how digital/web technologies are radically changing how we go about doing archaeology. It’s a little similar to what some in the USA seem to call cultural heritage informatics, but that’s not a term that is in very wide use here in Australia at this stage.

The workshop will be a three to four-hour long introduction to the technologies that students can use to improve how they collect, analyse, manage and share archaeological data. I want to focus on things that students can use now, and that will likely be around in one form or another for some time. Where possible, I want to advocate open access/source approaches. It will be entirely introductory and assume that participants have little or no experience using many of the technologies being covered. I may be assuming that they know too little, but I think we need to offer a basic entry point into this material for people who are not at all familiar with it.

I am, however, keen to make sure that this workshop is useful to participants and that it covers things that are of widest possible value. This may be a little cheeky of me, however I am posting my brief thoughts here on what I am planning to include in the hope that you, dear reader, might spare a minute to comment. I’m glad for people to adopt ideas too, but be kind and acknowledge where possible: in this regard, I have benefited from talking to/reading stuff by Ethan Watrall and others associated with the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative.

Core concepts:

  • What is digital archaeology?
  • What are digital data?
  • What are ‘open access’, ‘open source’ and ‘creative commons’ and why are these things important?

Digital research tools:

  • Web feeds and archaeology (or keeping abreast of what’s going on)
  • Managing bibliographic data with Zotero
  • Google Earth and its application to archaeology (managing GPS data, creating basic maps and some discussion of the way it has been used in research)
  • Geographic information systems – QGIS (this will be brief)

Digital images

  • What is metadata and why is it important?
  • Scale, resolution and formats: a quick primer
  • Managing and sharing images with Picasa
  • Sharing your work: Flickr and Picasa Web

Finding, collecting and cleaning digital data

  • Why is it important to standardise archaeological data?
  • Cleaning up other people’s data (using Google Refine or basic functions of a spreadsheet)
  • Creating geographic data (using Fusion Tables to create KMLs for gEarth/gMaps/QGIS)

Communication and collaboration

  • There’s more to the web than Facebook!
  • ‘Bloggy’ media (Tumblr, Twitter, Blogging)
  • Web collaboration (Google Docs at this stage)

Yes, it is a lot however its an introductory workshop that aims to increase awareness of these issues and technologies rather than how to actually use them all. I’m hoping that it may prompt a few of our research students to get more interested in this stuff. Comments appreciated!

Post image is Portable GPS Device – Finished (Kinda) by 3D King (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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