The WordPress Workshop: Blogging as a Method for Theory Development

The following text is an expanded version of a Twitter conference paper I presented in 2019 for the PressEd Twitter Conference on the importance of blogging for me as an early career researcher.

The case for using blogs as a workshopping space, based on accessibility and flexibility (from the original presentation)

The general perception of blogging has undergone drastic changes in the past two decades. What was once considered a niche hobby for those technically-savvy enough to be online in the early days of the World Wide Web has now become such an easily accessible platform that many are able to make their blog a full-time occupation. More recently, the blog format has also been adopted by academics as both a means of outreach to general public as well as an interactive and educational tool amongst their students. Much has been written about the “Academic Blog”, as a form of digital scholarship (Fox 2012; Maitzen 2012), as an extension of one’s academic identity (Kirkup 2010; Estes 2012), and its usefulness as a method of education (Chong 2010; Potter and Banaji 2012; Sun and Chang 2012).

For this paper, however, I would like to focus specifically on the blog as a space for theory development. I believe that blogs can provide the space necessary for academics, particularly those who may be early in their careers or similarly marginalised by the great academic body, to develop new and radical ideas through peer support and the freedom of expression that the blog as a platform can provide.

Early versions of the blog format have existed since the World Wide Web was opened to the public, although they mostly consisted of online diaries or lists of interesting links to other websites. By the early 2000’s, millions of blogs existed on the Internet in a variety of forms (Walker Retberg 2014: 6-13), including what I refer to as the “academic blog”. For the purposes of this paper, an “academic blog” is any educational blog written specifically by those in the academy, such as professors, lecturers, and students.

Early academic blogs were first categorised as a distinct variation of blogging by Saper (2006), who originally referred to these as “Blogademia”. This category was not limited to the more educationally-directed blogs, but also included those that were more personal and opinionated in tone, with posts on institutional gossip and complaints. However, for this discussion, I will not be focusing on these blogs, which I believe may be more classified as “blogs by academics” rather than “academic blogs”. 

Academic blogs can be divided into two major groups: blogs for outreach, where the author is writing about their field of research for a non-specialist audience, and blogs for education, where the author is usually a student who is utilising the blog as a means of demonstrating their knowledge of a particular subject.

With regards to outreach, blogs are a way for academics to discuss their work on more informal terms to a broader audience, without the gatekeeping boundaries such as journal access or conference attendance. Academic blogs also allow for interdisciplinary discussion amongst researchers across the world, allowing both specialist and non-specialist alike to provide their own perspective and exchange information (Mortensen and Walker 2002: 251).

Blogs have also found effectiveness in the education, where students are able to use the format to demonstrate knowledge and understanding. For example, some lecturers have found that the blog format is useful as a tool of supervision and evaluation due to the comment system (Chong 2010); others seen the blog as an informal space for students to practice their language skills (Sun and Chang 2012). In a similar vein, many academics have created blogs geared specifically towards students, providing lessons and advice for things such as doctoral writing (Guerin et al. 2015).

Despite their demonstrated usefulness and widespread adoption by many academics, blogs as a whole are not considered by the traditional academy as on par with publications such as journals or books  (Kirkup 2010: 76). This is a disappointment, as I think the blog, while wildly different in character and concept from more conventional methods of publication, has its place as a legitimate and vital component of academia in the Digital Age. With this in mind, I propose that perhaps the best way to view the blog with respect to academia is from the perspective of a workshop, of sorts.

Clearly, the blog format has shown promise as an educational tool, particularly for students at the secondary and higher education levels. It is also clear that there is a growing emphasis on the flexibility of the blog for self-expression. In proposing the blog as an ideal development space, I will draw from both of these statements: that it is the accessibility and the flexibility inherent within the blog format that makes it a valuable tool in theory development.

The accessibility of blogs has certainly improved over time; it is no longer a prerequisite for bloggers to be fluent in coding and other technical languages. Anyone can start a blog, regardless of technical expertise, and there are now many platforms available that can host your blog for free. Unlike the more traditional forms of academic publication, blogs allow academics to write in a jargon-free, informal way that can expand the sort of audience that your writing is accessible to. Finally, blogs are an equal ground for academics and non-academics alike; this can allow for a wider and more varied range of perspectives on your theories and ideas.

As for the flexibility of blogs, I have already mentioned that there is a freedom of expression inherent in the blog format; without the standardisation that is associated with conventional academic publishing, authors can express their thoughts and ideas in various ways. This is not limited to text, either – blogs can make use of both visual and auditory media as well. Developments in a blog, such as updates and new posts, are made at the discretion of the author. This allows for a less stressful development period without time restraints or deadlines. Most importantly, blogs can be as informal and personal as one would like, allowing the author to also be self-reflective at times and comment on their thought process throughout their theory development, which may be helpful to both the author and their readers.

To end this paper, I wanted to include some personal reflections from my own experience as an academic and blogger. In 2017, I took some time off from my PhD studies after a nervous breakdown. It was necessary, but I also found myself needing to have some kind of connection to the outside academic world. As an informal way to continue writing about my research – as well as archaeology in general – I began a blog using the WordPress platform (www.animalarchaeology.com). I wrote very basic posts on zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains in the archaeological record), with photos to help others learn how to easily identify bones.

Over the next year, however, I found my blogging evolve from these standard “Introduction to Zooarchaeology” posts. As a way of better organising my work (as well as providing more inspiration for myself), I experimented with “writing series” – collections of posts based on a specific premise or topic. However, I made a point to make each series rather unique by attempting to make connections between archaeology and popular culture (recent video games, big name franchises, theme parks etc.). Not only have these proven to be my most popular posts on the blog, but they have also challenged me to really think out-of-the-box in order to connect it to my field of research; for example, writing about the archaeology of theme parks has forced me to question my preconceptions about archaeological landscapes and how we interact with archaeology beyond what we consider “ancient artefacts”.

Today, I have fully embraced my blog as a sort of workshop for radically different perspectives on archaeology as a discipline. Many of my latest posts are part of the development process for creating new and different frameworks to consider archaeology. For example, I’ve recently been working on developing anarchist approaches to archaeology (Fitzpatrick 2018a) and exploring various facets of this praxis through a combination of blog posts and conference papers for feedback from anarchists and archaeologists alike. Another example is my current work on exploring the concept of ethics and emotion with regards to animal remains (Fitzpatrick 2018b), which I’ve played with on my blog and hope to eventually develop a fully-fledged paper based on these posts.

I wholeheartedly believe that blogging has changed my process as an academic for the better; my blog gives me the space to tackle difficult concepts, with a dedicated readership that has often provided useful comments and suggestions that have inevitably evolved my original concepts into something even better. I do not think I would be as engaged with research and academia as I am today without this space available to me in the first place.

As we rapidly progress through the Digital Age, it often feels incredibly easy to miss opportunities to adapt to new methodologies within the digital space; after all, you can argue that even academic blogging is now passé and has been made obsolete by more popular platforms for digital engagement such as Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

And while I would, of course, encourage fellow academics to utilise these platforms, I still maintain that the simple blog still holds advantages for those who are interested in developing their theoretical and methodological frameworks, particularly for early career academics. Putting oneself “out there” has its disadvantages, but from personal experience, I have truly valued the support network that has become established across fellow academic bloggers who engage with my work (and I with theirs, of course) and have helped me develop the perspective from which I now utilise in more “formal” outlets, such as conferences and journals. Other academics have echoed this sentiment, particularly within collaborative blog projects that utilise forums as a method of research communication and networking (Maitzen 2012: 350).

Having this informal space to workshop my more unconventional and radical ideas has led to further collaborations with similarly unconventional and radical academics without the need for engaging with a more traditional and conservative academic sector, which gives me hope that perhaps one day we can organise into an unconventional and radical new form of academy.

References

Chong, E. K. M. (2010) Using Blogging to Enhance the Initiation of Students into Academic Research. Computers and Education 55, 798-807.

Estes, H. (2012) Blogging and Academic Identity. Literature Compass, 1-9.

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018a) Black Flags and Black Trowels: Embracing Anarchy in Interpretation and Practice. In Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference. 

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018b) The Sadness of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains. Retrieved from https://animalarchaeology.com/2018/09/24/the-sadness-of-skin-emotional-reactions-to-remains.

Fox, J. W. (2012) Can Blogging Change How Ecologists Share Ideas? In Economics, It Already Has. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 5, 74-77.

Guerin, C., Carter, S. and Aitchison, C. (2015) Blogging as Community of Practice: Lessons for Academic Development? International Journal for Academic Development 20 (3), 212-223.

Kirkup, G. (2010) Academic Blogging: Academic Practice and Academic Identity. London Review of Education 8 (1), 75-84.

Maitzen, R. (2012) Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice. Journal of Victorian Culture 17 (3), 348-354.

Mortensen, T. and Walker, J. (2002) Blogging Thoughts: Personal Publication as an Online Research Tool. In Morrison, A. (editor) Researching ICTs in Context.   Oslo: University of Oslo. 249-279.

Potter, J. and Banaji, S. (2012) Social Media and Self-Curatorship: Reflections on Identity and Pedagogy through Blogging on a Masters Module. Comunicar 38, 83-91.

Saper, C. (2006) Blogademia. Reconstruction 6 (4), 1-15.

Sun, Y. and Chang, Y. (2012) Blogging to Learn” Becoming EFL Academic Writers Through Collaborative Dialogues. Language Learning and Technology 16 (1), 43-61.

Walker Retberg, J. (2014) Blogging. 2nd Edition edition. Digital Media and Society Series.Cambridge: Polity Press.


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My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

A Few Tips for Conferences When You’re Super Anxious All the Time Like Me

Hi, it’s your friendly neighbourhood academic with anxiety here to talk about one of the scariest things in academia: conferences! Unfortunately for many of us, “traditional” academia requires that we make appearances and presentations at conferences (even though they’re expensive…and we don’t always get the financial help needed to attend…and it takes time off from our research which is already limited to a specific time frame…well, that’s a conservation for a different day).

At this point in my life I’ve attend many conferences. I’ve also presented at many conferences, both papers and posters. And there’s definitely been a range of experiences throughout…from getting so nervous during a paper presentation that I start making self-deprecating jokes that fall flat and make things a million times worse, to giving such a great paper that I actually receive a couple of collaboration opportunities from it.

So with conference season in full swing, here are some tips from my own personal experience on how to best combat anxiety and stress in a conference environment:

A recent conference poster I created and presented for last year’s Association for Environmental Archaeology (AEA) Conference.

Bring a Friend/Co-Author

Probably one of the easiest ways to make going to conferences less stressful is to have a friend or supportive colleague with you. You could see if any peers in your department want to co-author a paper/poster or tag along – splitting the costs will make things cheaper, plus you have someone you at least know around (and can maybe get to know a bit better, too!).

If I’m travelling solo, I will usually make a beeline for people I recognise during tea breaks – usually that’ll get you introduced to a couple of other people, which I will promptly add to my mental compartment of “People Who I Will Cling Onto If I Don’t Know Anyone Else“. While its great to network and make connections with people outside of your institution, its also good to develop a friendly and supportive group of similarly minded people that are on similar conference circuits as you – it definitely makes finding seats at lunch less awkward, that’s for sure.

Recently, I actually managed to convince a friend from the US in a completely unrelated field (creative writing) to co-author a paper for last year’s Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference. I’m not sure if I would have been as calm presenting my paper in front of some of the most important figures in my field of research without her by my side.

Nothing like tricking a non-archaeologist friend into writing and presenting an archaeology paper with you!

Take Advantage of Scheduled Social Events

Many conferences will also include events, like field trips and dinners, alongside sessions. If you have the means to attend one of these events (unfortunately most cost money), they could be low-key, informal environments to socialise with other conference attendees. For example, field trips to local museums and monuments can provide great ice breakers for conversation among academics you don’t know.

I’ve had some excellent luck where I’ve gone on a conference field trip, made friends with some attendees, and had them come to my session the following day for support – it really helped to see some friendly, familiar faces in the crowd!

Plus, it’s just nice to see the sights – here’s me taking time off from a conference in the Orkneys to visit Yesnaby.

Remember to Get Their ‘Deets’!

This is mainly a tip for general networking, of course – but if you end up connecting with attendees during the course of the conference, be sure to swap contact information. I’ve ended up staying in touch with many people I’ve met through conferences, which has led to the increase in familiar faces in my audiences when I’m presenting papers. Of course, there’s also opportunities for future collaborative research (and, if you’re really fortunate, employment) with people you meet at conferences, so you’ll definitely want to be able to keep in touch somehow.

It may seem a bit silly and unfashionable these days, but it can still be handy to have a few business cards on hand! Exchanging business cards with someone is an easy way to quickly get contact information, or to introduce yourself without awkward small talk – plus, it feels very adult and cool. Many universities have business cards available for postgraduate students, but if yours does not, there are many cheap options online for printing your own.

Eat your heart out, Patrick Bateman. Maybe not literally, though.

Look into Alternate Conferences

If you’re looking into presenting at a “traditional” conference (read: in-person conference with poster and paper sessions in front of other academics) and are nervous about speaking in public, I would suggest you start with submitting and presenting a poster. In most cases, I’ve found that poster presentations won’t give you the impression that you’re being left to the mercy of a huge audience the way that paper sessions might. There’s still a bit of public speaking involved, of course, but its certainly a bit more informal than presenting a paper.

If that still feels a bit daunting (and I don’t blame you, believe me!), you could also look into something that’s recently become more common – alternate conferences! In response to the financial and environmental burden of “traditional” conferences, many academics have been experimenting with alternative approaches. For example, Twitter conferences have become more popular recently; for example, look through the #CAATCO hashtag to read through paper presentation from the CAA Twitter Conference, which was held in conjunction with a more traditional conference.

For those with anxiety, alternative conferences that allow you to present papers in a safe and comforting place, such as the comfort of your own home, may be a good compromise. With more academics looking to utilising the Internet to its fullest potential, these kinds of conferences may become more prevalent in the next few years – stay tuned!

I recently presented a paper at my very first Twitter conference hosted by the CAA (Computer Applications in Archaeology) – and did so while riding a bus! Super easy.

If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.