I recently heard someone (Nathan Jurgenson) advise first-year sociology graduate students that they should all blog and tweet.
I blog to read the sound of my own sociological voice, to contribute to the community of social scientists thinking about the questions that move me, to provide information and ideas to the public and hear their responses, and to organize my own thoughts on research and writing. This project may have reduced my peer-reviewed scholarly output in the last several years. But it has enriched my sociological thinking, enhanced my intellectual environment, improved my writing, and made my job more fun.
But every sociologist blogging might seem like overkill. Who is going to read all those blogs, and how would we have time for anything else if we all wrote and read blogs all day? The wired cacophony we endure already competes with academic reading and writing, as we struggle to wade through a growing stream of random chit-chat (or, as Andy Borowitz put it, “Twitter would be a great way of telling people what we’re doing if we were doing something instead of being on Twitter”).
And yet we all know there is no better general advice for young intellectuals than to read and write a lot. Setting aside tweeting, which I’m too old to call writing, blogging can be an important part of your process – even before you become another tenured blowhard.
Like many sociologists of my generation, I came to see myself practicing a craft when I read the appendix to C. Wright Mills’s 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, titled, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Applying some of his ideas has made me a more productive and satisfied sociologist, and my blog is a big part of that – playing the role of “the file” in his model.
“By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits,” he wrote, “you learn how to keep your inner world awake.”
Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.
In Mills’s practice, the file was a set of topical folders, the organization of which was itself an intellectual exploration (“the topics, of course, change, sometimes quite frequently”) – these are the blog topic tags. As the file develops, the list of potential projects and research ideas outruns one’s ability to pursue them, providing the impetus to review and prioritize. If that review is part of a “widespread, informal interchange of such reviews … among working social scientists,” the result is collaborative agenda-setting.
Doing it with a blog
Writing a blog – as well as reading and contributing to the blogs of others – seems the most practical and engaging means of achieving the intellectual ideal that Mills described, which requires “surrounding oneself by a circle of people who will listen and talk.” Today’s blog platform is ideal for that.
There is a difference between Mills’s idea of “the file” – which is written and curated in private, punctuated by episodic exchange with select social scientists – and blogging a stream of notes and commentary, broadcast to anyone who will read it. The result is noisier than what he had in mind, but I think it’s an improvement, especially because it encourages one of the other practices he thought so important: developing a jargon-free intellectual voice and readable writing style.*
There are other ways that a blog can achieve, and improve on, the craftspersonship model Mills proposed, some of which are dear to me. For example, making many visual representations of data:
Charts, tables and diagrams of a qualitative sort are not only ways to display work already done; they are very often genuine tools of production. … Most of them flop, in which case you have learned something. When they work, they help you to think more clearly and to write more explicitly.
This process surely is only enhanced when such work-product is shared with the community of readers which the blog permits. For me, the cost of moderating the few less constructive comments is outweighed by the benefit of receiving feedback from the many more constructive.
There are reasonable objections to the suggestion that all sociologists blog – from the time they begin their careers in graduate school.
Some people are not intellectual extroverts. Not everyone wants to shout their every idea into the Internet tube. That’s fine. But although academia may be kinder to introverts than some other professions, developing a public voice is an important part of being a successful sociologist. Like speaking up in a graduate seminar, the only way to grow more comfortable is to do it. In fact, what’s good advice for seminars works here as well – speak up every time, early in the discussion, to break your ice and get it over with. For blogging, remember there is no need to write everything. You can post selectively your reading lists, discussion questions, minor observations, and annotated links to the writing of others. Save the political declarations, scathing takedowns of your department chair, and obscenity-laced poetry for after you have tenure.
Having few readers will be discouraging. It shouldn’t be. A few friendly readers – such as fellow students or people in the same subfield – might be all you need to motivate your writing habit. No need for a massive following to achieve your goals. Consider getting together with a few others and each posting to a group blog once per week. (Departments or graduate student associations would do well to facilitate this.)
Bad ideas or immature writing today is a job opportunity blown six years from now. If your potential future department Googles you and hates your blog, maybe they won’t hire you. But that risk has to be weighed against the benefit of having richer ideas and more mature writing later as a result of all that practice. Plus, anticipating the possible negative consequences of your writing is an important skill to develop. And you can always delete (if not completely expunge) those posts you later regret.
Personal history addendum
I came to sociology with an identity as a writer. And some of the best training I had was in my writing jobs. I wrote for daily radio news (arrive at work at 5 AM, call the police and fire departments, write up accidents and DWIs, on the air by 5:30); for the Ithaca Times (find a band worth reviewing every weekend, review due Tuesday morning); and for the Michigan Daily (editorial board decided positions, editorials due within a day or two).
Each job required writing whether I felt like it or not, on a quick deadline. So a big part of my blogging advice is because it’s a straightforward way to get yourself writing. If you have others, that’s great, too.
* That doesn’t mean all scientific writing must be comprehensible to everyone. Mills admired the clear writing of Paul Lazarsfeld, even though it was sometimes highly mathematical: “When I cannot understand his mathematics, I know it is because I am too ignorant; when I disagree with what he writes in non-mathematical language, I know it is because he is mistaken.”