Nearly a decade ago, blogging was young, and its place in the academic world wasn’t clear. Back in 2005, I wrote about an anonymous article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a so-called “advice” column admonishing academic job seekers to avoid blogging, mostly because it let the hiring committee find out things that had nothing whatever to do with their academic job, and reject them on those (inappropriate) grounds.
I thought things had changed. Many academics have blogs, and indeed many institutions encourage it (here at Imperial, there’s a College-wide list of blogs written by people at all levels, and I’ve helped teach a course on blogging for young academics). More generally, outreach has become an important component of academic life (that is, it’s at least necessary to pay it lip service when applying for funding or promotions) and blogging is usually seen as a useful way to reach a wide audience outside of one’s field.
So I was distressed to see the lament — from an academic blogger — “Want an academic job? Hold your tongue”. Things haven’t changed as much as I thought:
… [A senior academic said that] the blog, while it was to be commended for its forthright tone, was so informal and laced with profanity that the professor could not help but hold the blog against the potential faculty member…. It was the consensus that aspiring young scientists should steer clear of such activities.
Depending on the content of the blog in question, this seems somewhere between a disregard for academic freedom and a judgment of the candidate on completely irrelevant grounds. Of course, it is natural to want the personalities of our colleagues to mesh well with our own, and almost impossible to completely ignore supposedly extraneous information. But we are hiring for academic jobs, and what should matter are research and teaching ability.
Of course, I’ve been lucky: I already had a permanent job when I started blogging, and I work in the UK system which doesn’t have a tenure review process. And I admit this blog has steered clear of truly controversial topics (depending on what you think of Bayesian probability, at least).
Attention Imperial Postgraduates*: I’ll be helping lead a course in Science Blogging this Friday, 6 July 2012 at Imperial, along with a couple of fellow (science) bloggers: biophysicist Professor Stephen Curry and biostatistician (and actual graduate student!) Erika Cule, both of whom write at Occam’s Typewriter, an excellent grassroots network of scientist bloggers.
Imperial students should still be able to sign up — if you’re taking the course (or even if you’re not), leave a comment if you’ve got any ideas for what we should discuss.
*Language note: In the US, anyone with a university degree is called a “college graduate” and a student pursuing a Masters’ or Doctoral degree is called a “graduate student”; here in the UK, they are just plain “graduates” and “postgraduates”, respectively. (And I won’t even discuss the inconsistent use of “college” here in the UK, which also encompasses advanced high schools.)
(Warning, scattershot blogging echo-chamber post follows.)
Partially because the event was mostly attended by science bloggers themselves, there was a bit of a preaching-to-the-converted sense to the proceedings. (I tried to engage in some good-natured tweaking, pointing out that probably the greatest influence of [supposedly] science blogging has been in absurdly dragged-out climategate saga, but I couldn’t get a rise out of the audience.) But it was heartening to see just how mainstream science blogging has become.
“Only” five years ago (scare-quotes denoting an eternity of internet-time), the academic-blogosphere chattered on about an anonymous article in the Chronicle of Higher Education which contended that bloggers were essentially unsuitable to be hired as faculty members, and a couple of years after that several of my colleagues felt the need to seriously restrict their blogging while searching for permanent positions. I was heartened to see that the question of whether blogging could actually hurt someone’s career seems to be less worrying. Although Petra Boynton said that one of her previous departments were less than enthusiastic about it, most of the panelists have found that, with an increased in impact and communication in general, blogging has taken its position as an effective way to engage with the public.
One of the more novel (to me) things going on at this meeting was the Twitter backchannel: the organizers projected a running stream of tweets marked with the #talkfest tag. It was a decent mix of jokes and apposite comments, especially including erstwhile MP Dr Evan Harris’ provocative comments about whether scientists should be forced to do public engagement at all. It’s certainly good that blogging and communication don’t hurt your career — but should they be requirements for scientific advancement? Not all scientists’ talents lie in that direction, and we shouldn’t expect them to. There was also a twitter discussion of the gender makeup of the panel, which was dishearteningly 1/6 female despite an audience of at least 50% women.
When science blogging started out as its own sub-genre in the middle of the decade, no one was quite sure what it would be for. Would it be used within science as an online lab notebook, or as a substitute or adjunct to papers? That doesn’t seem to have panned out — even in the post-’net open world, the structure of science encourages secrecy, at least until the work can be packaged into what are still more or less old-fashioned papers in what are still more or less old-fashioned journals (albeit with the important twist of pre-publication posting on the arXiv in many fields). Within collaborations, however, wikis, rather than blogs, have become ubiquitous as an easy way to communicate amongst scientists who are already expert — the easy ability to add small chunks of information is exactly what is needed. (Within the Planck Satellite collaboration, we actually use a wiki as a sort of blog — we keep a reverse-chronological list of “posts” discussing our latest results.)
Instead, blogs seem to be used almost exclusively as a window into the life, methods and results of scientists, directed at a knowledgeable but lay public. Indeed, it was suggested at the talkfest that someone could make a very useful living textbook from the scattered blog posts on a given subject. I’m not so sure — one of the advantages of a proper textbook is a single voice and, more prosaically, a single notation starting from scratch— but it’s probably worth trying if someone’s got the wherewithal to do the bit-work involved.
It was especially nice to meet several of my fellow Imperial College bloggers, including biophysicist Stephen Curry (whose own post on the Talkfest also has a list of other reactions to it), whom I was somewhat embarrassed to discover actually works in the same building as I do. As always at these sorts of events, much of the amusement was during the inevitable pub visit afterwards and especially the pre-panel milling about — thanks to the organizers for the excellent combination of cupcakes and beer.
I was sitting in the lecture theatre of the Royal Institution at the Science Online London meeting (of which I hope to write more later, but you can retroactively follow the day’s tweets or just search for the day’s tags) when I realized I had missed the fifth anniversary of this blog this past July. So: thanks for your attention for over 400 posts on cosmology, astrophysics, Bayesian probability and probably too much politics and religion.
Today is also a much more important date: the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope. Even Google is celebrating.
Right now, I’m at a meeting in Cambridge discussing Primordial Gravitational Waves — ripples in space and time that have been propagating since the first instants after the big bang. Despite my training as a theoretical physicist, I’m here to discuss the current state of the art of experiments measuring those waves using the polarization of the cosmic microwave background, which probes the effect of those gravitational waves on the constituents of the Universe about 400,000 years after the big bang. Better go finish writing my talk.
Thanks to The Telegraph’s digital chief, Ian Douglas, for his pointer to me as one of “Five Great Physics Blogs”. Despite its usually, erm, detestable politics, The Telegraph has usually had excellent science and technology coverage, and I’m happy to be picked in such good company: the four other blogs are Peter Coles’ In the Dark, Seed Magazine’s group ScienceBlogs, the anonymous Female Science Professor, and The Physics ArXiv Blog which discusses the latest physics preprints from the ArXiv.
Readers may remember the ongoing saga of my bottle of Stormhoek Wine: they gave bottles away to any UK blogger who asked for one, hoping that we would say something — anything — about their wine. I, unfortunately, lost my bottle, but they patiently sent me another. And another, after I kvetched about the lack of a personalized label. I’ve since met a couple of the committed Stormhoek guys, Jason and Nick, talked about wine and astrophysics, and wish them well in their oenological endeavors.
Today, The Telegraph wrote about the broader implications of that saga — the use of blogs as a marketing tool. Not, this time, blogging by marketers, or using blogs as thinly-disguised advertising, but marketing by (or through) bloggers, relying on bloggers’ opinions and, crucially, the reach of those opinions. One case is hard to draw too many lessons from, but Stormhoek’s rapid growth over the last six months shows that it seems to be working.
Any good suggestions for or case studies of using blogs as part of teaching?
The obvious possibilities: I could blog all of my notes (although I’m not actually teaching any lecture courses this year). But that’s just using a slightly different medium for an old task (and it’s hard to translate math into html!). Or the students could blog theirs -- I suppose that would count as a sort of “User-Generated Content”...
More ideas welcome -- from students and teachers!
Thanks to the fine blog-reading folks at Orbital Wines, the owners of Stormhoek Wine in South Africa, the sad story of my missing wine was noticed -- and the bottle has been replaced! (Alas, without a cool personalized label, but I think I deserve some penalty for my forgetfulness.) I look forward to imbibing this fine bottle of Sauvignon Blanc as soon as I'm back from my next road trip... If it lives up to the comparisons with Cloudy Bay, (famous for its vegetal scent, shading almost to the infamous “pipi du chat”) it should be very nice indeed.
They've also offered me more free wine in recompense for some lectures on astrophysics. Lush that I am, I'm likely to accept... Come to think of it, I can invite them to a meeting I'm helping organize in Durban, South Africa, next year. Hmmmm....
Unfortunately, due to the confluence of my own forgetfulness and the incompetence and/or larcenous tendencies of an unknown party, the bottle never made it home. I left it, safely (or so I thought) bundled inside a knapsack on the luggage rack during my train journey from Paddington to Oxford. Arriving, I grabbed my work-bag with my laptop and various papers along with a sack of groceries. Within about 30 seconds of leaving the station I had recognized a nagging feeling: I had left the wine on the train, already departed from the station. So I trudged to the Lost Property office, gave them all of the information, and fully expected to have the wine (and the nice bag it was in!) back the next day.
No such luck. It didn't make it back to Oxford station. So they told me to contact First Great Western Link trains, who (it turns out) had just changed the number of their Lost Property office. Eventually, in the event, they told me to contact Central Trains, responsible for Worcester Station, the final destination of the train. No luck there, either. But maybe it's back in Paddington? So I left a message (that's all you can do) at Paddington's Lost Property office. Still no satisfaction.
So what happened? It could have been taken by a fellow passenger -- but it would be a pretty bold move. It could have been confiscated by one of the train companies and disposed of with extreme prejudice -- not entirely unlikely in these times when an unknown knapsack might arouse a great deal of suspicion (especially one with a strange styrofoam cylinder inside!). Or -- and I admit with with all respect and apologies to the vast majority of people working the rails that I think this a likely possibility -- it was taken by someone emptying the trains and not given in to the Lost Property office.
Finally, then, my apologies to Hugh and Stormhoek who went through a lot of trouble and expense to get me my bottle, only for me to lose it. I look forward to actually paying for a bottle and trying it.