Andrew Henry on Blogging and Graduate Students

Andrew Henry is a Ph.D candidate in Religious Studies at Boston University.  He is a scholar of Late Antiquity and the host and creator of Religion for Breakfast. Follow him @andrewmarkhenry Andrew is covering the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta for us this weekend.  Here is his first dispatch: “Religious Studies Blogging Comes of Age, but Grad Students Need Not Partake?”  –JF

Even a few years ago, academic bloggers of religion needed to defend their online endeavors to their colleagues. In a market where ideas are currency, why would you share these ideas publicly for free and especially without the careful vetting process of peer review?

It seems, though, that academic blogs of religion have come of age, or at least, that is what James McGrath announced at the start of the AAR/SBL panel on Blogging and Online Publishing. Formerly dominated by personal blogs, the religious studies blogosphere now features slickly designed sites ranging from non-profit web journals such as Ancient Jew Review to inter-disciplinary platforms like The Religious Studies Project which produces regular podcasts, interviews, and articles from leading scholars in the field.

The AAR/SBL panel featured several heavy-hitters to showcase this newly triumphant religion blogosphere—Bart Ehrman, Wil Gafney, and Lawrence Schiffman.

All three panelists shared a deep commitment to public engagement. An academic blog, they argued, can be a vital aspect to your teaching and research as you share complex ideas with a broader audience. Moreover, academic blogs offer an opportunity for academics to collaborate on projects, providing instant feedback to half-formed ideas that can eventually grow into a larger project such as an article or monograph.

Despite these benefits, all three panelists strongly cautioned graduate students away from blogging. Graduate students, according to Bart Ehrman, should be focused on their research. Blogging is a huge “time suck” that can slow down their progress toward finishing their dissertation. The other panelists warned that graduate students might inadvertently torpedo their careers by writing something that will be held against them in a hypothetical interview for a tenure-track job.  Of the three panelists, only Wil Gafney saw some benefit in graduate students blogging, though she did note the possible negative effects blogging could have on job searches outweighed the benefits. 

It seems that academic blogging is great, but, according to this panel, the risks outweigh the benefits.

After tweeting this unanimous opinion, something of a firestorm erupted on Twitter. Several newly-minted tenured professors cited their blog as a critical factor that secured their job. Others stridently defended graduate student blogging, saying blogs can help hone writing ability, develop ideas, and forge professional relationships between academics.

In a battle of anecdotal evidence, though, what advice should graduate students follow? The blogosphere of religious studies has clearly justified its existence, but where the graduate student fits into this community still remains tenuous.

Why Historians Should Consider Facebook and Twitter

Every now and then a post like this appears somewhere on-line.  Here are a few examples:

All of these posts (and others like them) provide very solid reasons for why academic and professional historians should use Facebook and Twitter.  I recommend reading them whenever they appear.
But let me offer a slightly different perspective.
When academic historians write and talk about using social media the conversation is always limited by the boundaries of the profession.  Social media can help historians network.  Social media can help historians share their work.  Social media can help historians share resources (usually in the form of links) with other historians.  All of this assumes that the people we follow or “friend,” and the people who follow and friend us, are all academic or professional historians.
My approach to social media has been different in the sense that I have not separated my professional life from certain aspects of my personal life.  Yes, there should be boundaries between the two and I have tried to keep them.  But people who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will also have to deal with the occasional (or not so occasional) photo of my family, a post on the New York Mets, or the latest fan-boy commentary on Bruce Springsteen.  I tend to approach life in an integrated fashion–perhaps to a fault.
The people who follow me on social media are very diverse.  I have conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, evangelical Christians and atheists, academics and aunts and uncles, Mets fans and Yankee fans, and everyone in-between.  I like it this way.  
Sometimes we argue on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes my liberal friends are shocked by the comments that appear on my feed.  Sometimes my conservative friends feel the same way. I prefer such diversity over the posts I read on many Facebook or Twitter accounts where all of those contributing to the conversation are of one ideological bent.  
Are you on social media?  How diverse is your following or list of “friends?”  Or do you find yourself preaching to the choir with every post or tweet?  
OK–back to historians.  As someone who wants to write for public audiences through blogging and other popular outlets, I love social media because I get to see what a diverse group of people are thinking about and how they are responding to the ever-changing world around them. The conversations that happen on social media–either on my sites or the sites of others–fuel my writing and provide me with ideas.   Sometimes it is less about posting and more about sitting back and reading the posts of others.
So join the conversation at Facebook or @johnfea1. Or perhaps open a Twitter or Facebook account of your own.

One more thing:  Those of us trying to provide bring solid content to social media outlets always prefer “retweets” over “favorites” on Twitter and “shares” to “likes” on Facebook

Christian Historians and Social Media: Part Five

Over at Religion in American History, Jonathan Den Hartog wraps up a week’s work of coverage of the Christian Historians and Social Media panel at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

For an introduction to the session and the series of posts that have appeared this week, see Jonathan Den Hartog’s post at Historical Conversations.  I also live-tweeted the session from the platform. You can read those tweets @johnfea1 or #cfh2014.  You can also read my contribution to the roundtable here.  Chris Gehrz’s contribution to the roundtable can be found at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.  And Paul Putz weight in here.

Here is a taste of Jonathan’s wrap-up:

In the session, we were fortunate to have some live-tweeting going on. Some of it even came from our panelists! Chris Gehrz collected the relevant tweets here. For even more, you can follow the twitter hashtag #CFH2014. (This may generate some reflection on how a live-tweeted session may be communicated differently to the twitterverse than as experienced by participants.)

We have also had some web feed-back, with reflections from Warren Throckmortonand John Wilsey.

We wanted to use the Comments section of this post as a final place for interaction. If this conversation is of interest anywhere, it should be to the readers of and contributors to this blog.

So, with all of that background material, the digital floor is now open for comments and questions.

Christian Historians and Social Media: Part 4

Paul Putz (tall guy in the back row wearing a jacket, blue shirt, and dark tie) was part of a very distinguished group of faculty and graduate students from Baylor University who attended the CFH meeting in Malibu

Today is Paul Putz‘s turn to post the presentation he gave at the Christian Historians and Social Media panel at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  Paul is a graduate student in history at Baylor University. I thought his presentation added a much-needed perspective on how we historians can and should use social media. Paul was MUCH more prepared for this session than I was.  While I tried to string together some random thoughts scribbled on a small piece of paper, Paul read a stirring paper that did a wonderful job of linking the practice of blogging with Christian virtues.  Somebody hire this guy!

For an introduction to the session and the series of posts that have appeared this week, see Jonathan Den Hartog’s post at Historical Conversations.  I also live-tweeted the session from the platform. You can read those tweets @johnfea1 or #cfh2014.  You can also read my contribution to the roundtable here.  Chris Gehrz’s contribution to the roundtable can be found at his blog, The Pietist Schoolman.

Here is a taste of Paul’s post:

I’ll begin with a potential drawback to online engagement: the issue of time management. Blogging and tweeting does not a historian make. I cannot put on my CV, “Had link to a blog post retweeted by Paul Harvey.” As a graduate student, I need to be learning how to understand and engage with the scholarship of historians who have come before me. I need to be digging into archives, writing and reading as much as possible, and learning how to effectively teach undergraduates. There is no doubt that blogging, tweeting, and facebooking can take up time that should be going towards developing the skills needed to be a historian.

With that said, thinking of online activity as merely superfluous to the serious work of the graduate student misses its potential to help one develop the skills needed to be a historian. After all, I do have the option to choose what I blog about. Most of my blog posts are either condensed versions of research I have done for a paper or for a class, or they are reviews of books that I would likely read even if I wasn’t going to blog about them. The blogging, then, becomes a public expression and extension of the activities that I am already doing (or should be doing) as a graduate student. With book reviews in particular, it forces me to carefully read and assess a book and think about how it fits in with relevant historiography. Since my words will be public for all to see, and since the author himself or herself might read my review, there is an added pressure for me to fairly describe the shape and argument of the book.

Of course, this awareness that anyone – and particularly, that established historians – could read what I write leads to another potential problem: the desire for affirmation. As a graduate student, I should be developing my own voice and beginning the process of stepping out with confidence in my own assessments. The unseen pressure of an imagined audience of historians waiting to pick apart a misstated phrase can hinder that process. This problem is not unique to online writing, however. Graduate students experience the same anxiety, perhaps on a smaller scale, when writing papers for their professors. Online writing, then, can become another arena in which to fight a tendency already present in the offline classroom. As for other measures of affirmation that are unique to the online experience – page views, favorites, likes, and retweets – I will have more to say later in this paper.

Christian Historians and Social Media: Part 3

Chris’s notes from the session

Today is Chris Gehrz‘s turn to post the presentation he gave at the Christian Historians and Social Media panel at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, held last weekend in sunny Malibu, California. Many of you will know Chris from his excellent blog, The Pietist Schoolman.  But did you know that he runs 3 other blogs as well?

For an introduction to the session and the series of posts that will appear all week, see Jonathan Den Hartog’s post at Historical Conversations.  I also live-tweeted the session from the platform. You can read those tweets @johnfea1 or #cfh2014.  You can also read my contribution to the roundtable here.

Here is a taste of Chris’s post:

Then there’s this blog, which started in June 2011 as a summer experiment and is still going strong over a thousand posts later. I’ve had several goals for this blog, probably none more important to my professional development than the way that blogging has forced me to work regularly at my writing. It’s also been my attempt to reach a public that goes beyond the academy: family, friends, fellow church members, and complete strangers read this blog.
Unlike John, I didn’t start the blog because I had a book to market. But blogging has no doubt provided a platform — e.g., for our forthcoming book on Pietism and Christian higher ed, for securing a handful of speaking engagements — and fundamentally reshaped my professional image at Bethel and well beyond. (“Oh, you’re the Pietist schoolman,” said the environmental historian who ended up sitting next to me at the CFH banquet last Friday night.)
Two problems that I emphasized at the conference:
1. I write less often than a John Fea, but I write much longer posts than John. On average, probably 1000-1200 words. (This one will end up around 1800, I think.) Granted, that often includes quotations of not insignificant length, but attempting to generate that much original content much five times a week (plus a Saturday links wrap that includes a fair amount of commentary) had me close to burned out this summer — when I scaled back to a thrice-weekly schedule and then started a four-week sabbatical.
2. “Exploring Christianity, history, education, and how they intersect” is broad enough that I regularly veer between audiences in a single week, and I struggle with the problem of striking the right tone. (I do have one technique that tends to serve me well in these struggles…)

Christian Historians and Social Media: Part 2

Tweeting from the platform

Today is my turn to post my presentation at the Christian Historians and Social Media panel at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, held last weekend in sunny Malibu, California.  For an introduction to the session and the series of posts that will appear all week, see Jonathan Den Hartog’s post at Historical Conversations.  I also live-tweeted the session from the platform. You can read those tweets @johnfea1 or #cfh2014  –JF

1.  How did I begin blogging?

When my first book appeared in 2008, a publicist at the University of Pennsylvania Press suggested that I start a blog to help promote it.  I took her up on her suggestion, signed up for a Blogger account, and began blogging at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Many of my early posts were related to the book or the character of Philip Vickers Fithian (the subject of the book), but as I developed a small (very small) readership I began branching out into other topics.  I eventually decided that I would narrow my focus to American history (with an emphasis on early American history and American religious history, my fields of specialization), American religion, and the academic life.  As my readers know, I reserve the right to take excursions into politics, Bruce Springsteen, writing sheds, and music.  After all, it is my blog.

2.  Platform Blogging

The Way of Improvement Leads Home has become an important part of my professional profile.  In this sense, I have sought to forge an alternative academic/intellectual life than most academic historians.  It has become a platform.  Most of my work as a speaker, writer, and teacher, builds off of this platform. There are several series of posts that have become staples at the blog.  They are “Sunday Night Odds and Ends,” “So What CAN You Do with a History Major?” “John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours,” and “The Author’s Corner.” Most recently I have been blogging my way through the writing of my forthcoming book on the American Bible Society. I have received book contracts and speaking engagements based on this platform and I have used the blog in my teaching and as part of my outreach to the larger public. This is why I spend anywhere from 1-2 hours a day blogging.

3.  My Philosophy of Blogging

Everyone blogs differently.  My model for blogging is Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish.  Though I do not post as regularly as Sullivan (blogging is not my full-time job), I do try to throw up at least 2-3 posts a day.  My posts are often links to other articles or blog sites that I find interesting with a sentence or two of my own commentary. Because I post so regularly, I have developed a loyal following.  Many of my readers check in every day, so when I have something important to say (or at least what I think is important) in an original contribution I already have a built-in readership.

4. Is Blogging Scholarship?

Not in the traditional sense, because it is not peer reviewed.  But I do think that blogging is a form of public scholarship and should be considered as a form of teaching or service when professors go up for tenure and promotion.  Having said that, if scholarship is understood in a much wider way–such as the various forms of scholarship promoted by educator Ernest L. Boyer–blogging could very well be considered scholarship.  A lot of this depends on the institution.  I discussed this last Spring at a session on blogging at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.

I blog out of a passion to reach a larger audience.  My readership at The Way of Improvement Leads Home includes academics, graduate students, history buffs, pastors, and Christian laypeople.  I think my blog bridges the gap between the study of American history and the church.

Christian Historians and Social Media: Part One

We had some technical difficulties with the screen

This past weekend I participated in a session on social media at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. It was a great session and I had fun being a part of it. For those of you who were not able to attend, the participants in the session will be posting their short talks at their respective blogs. Today, session chair Jonathan Den Hartog has posted his opening remarks at Historical Conversations.  I will post my remarks here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home on Wednesday.  Chris Gehrz will post his presentation on Thursday at The Pietist Schoolman, and Paul Putz will share his thoughts on his personal blog.  Finally, on Monday Den Hartog will summarize the session at Religion in American History.

Here is a taste of Den Hartog’s remarks:

Further, this development of history and social media is reshaping academic practice and perception. There is a growing conversation about what to do with social media in the academic historical realm. Our conversation today is thus part of a larger conversation going on in other venues. For example…
*Last September (a full year ago–practically ancient history!), Heather Cox Richardson appeared on the blog of the (now-suspended) Historical Society to ask, “Should Historians Use Twitter?” and argued in the affirmative
*At the Organization of American Historians’ meeting last April, a panel considered, “Is Blogging Scholarship?”
*Similarly, at the American Historical Association this coming January, a panel will consider “Blogging and the Future of Scholarship.”
*But, if you miss that one, you can attend on the same week-end two panels sponsored by the American Society of Church History, with one entitled, “The Digital Humanities and the Study of Christianity in Late Antiquity: Reflections on a Disciplinary Intersection” and another entitled, “American Religion Online: How Digital Projects Can Change How We Teach, Research, and Interpret Religious History.”
Clearly, there is a conversation going on, that I believe we can add to.
Stay tuned.  Tomorrow this piece of paper will be turned into a blog post

How to Get Your Blog Post to Go Viral

Noah Kagan, a web entrepreneur, analyzed 100 million online articles (he had help) and is pretty sure he knows what kind of posts earn wide readership.  Here are the “10 ingredients that will help increase the shareability of your content.” (From the Huffington Post–click the link to see how Kagan develops each point with evidence from his study):

1.  Long form content gets more social shares than short form content

2.  Having at least one image in your post leads to more Facebook shares

3.  Having at least one image in your post leads to more Twitter shares

4.  Invoke awe, laughter or amusement.  Appeal to people’s narcissistic side.

5.  People love to share lists and infographs

6.  If you make a list, make it with 10 items

7.  People share content that looks trustworthy

8.  Getting one “extra influencer” to share you article has a multiplier effect

9.  Re-promote your old content

10.  Tuesday is the best day to publish content

Follow Me As I Write a Book About the American Bible Society

Current ABS Headquarters–1865 Broadway, New York City

Earlier this year I locked myself in a hotel room for three days in order to churn out a 30,000 word consulting report for what I was calling The James Caldwell Project. In order to keep myself motivated and accountable I shared what I was doing here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Facebook, and on Twitter (@johnfea1–follow me).  Some people thought I was crazy for binge writing in this way.  They were probably correct.  It was unhealthy and not particularly fun, but I needed to meet a deadline and I had procrastinated long enough.

At the time I checked into the hotel (or the “undisclosed location” as I described it) I was in a real writing funk.  I just could not get started on this project and I was doubtful that my weekend writing binge would be successful.  I thought that sharing what I was doing online through my social media outlets would help me stay accountable during the weekend.  Soon people were sharing my updates and cheering me on.  I found this a useful motivational tool, not unlike the dozens of writers on Facebook who regularly participate in the GraftonLine Challenge
Over the course of the next year I have another writing challenge before me.  As some of you know, I have agreed to write a history of the American Bible Society (ABS).  The ABS is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2016 and I am working with the organization to produce a volume.  As I wrote in a previous post, I have complete academic freedom to write the book the way I want to write it and the ABS is not paying me to do the project.  I also get to pick the publisher (which means that I have to find one who will want to publish the book).  Here’s the catch: in exchange for some research help and full access to the ABS library and library staff, I have promised to have the book in print by the

bicentennial celebration in May 2016.  This means that I have just about one year (probably a little less) to write the book in order to get it into press (with a yet to be determined publisher) in time for a May 2016 release.  (If you are an acquisitions editor who might be interested in this book I obviously would like to hear from you  If not, you will probably be hearing from me very soon!)

I am probably crazy for taking this on, but I need a challenge in my life right now.  Moreover, I think this is a great opportunity to write about an organization that has had a profound impact on American religious life.
So in order to keep me on track and accountable, I have decided to write a daily post (except Sunday and blog vacations) on my research and writing progress throughout the year.  I think this self-imposed requirement will be a great motivator.
I also hope that my journey might prove to be educational for the readers of this blog.  I will try to cover all aspects of the book process–from research to writing to landing a publisher (let’s hope!), to bringing the book to press.  Stay tuned–I think it’s going to be a wild ride.

Sunday Morning at the OAH

I hope you are still in Atlanta.  If you are, I want to invite you to the 10:45 session: “Is Blogging Scholarship?” Historiann has already tipped her hand.  I am holding my thoughts close to the vest. Not sure what O’Malley, Pasley, or Alpers will say.  I hope to see you there.

Chair:  Jeffrey Pasley (University of Missouri)

John Fea (Messiah College)
Ann Little (Colorado State University)
Michael O’ Malley (George Mason University)
Benjamin Alpers (University of Oklahoma)

Should be fun.

I will be live-tweeting the 9:00am session on the state of religion in American history.  Stay tuned.

Spring 2014 Virtual Office Hours Are Coming Soon

Megan Piette and I have done some initial planning for the Spring 2014 “Virtual Office Hours.” (You can see dozens of past episodes at our YouTube page).  We have not yet come up with a title (feel free to suggest one), but I think we will be doing a series of 11 or 12 episodes on how to establish a writing and publishing platform in the field of history.  I have yet to sit down and plan any episodes, so if you have any ideas about what you might like to see in such a series please let me know.  I am thinking we might do some stuff on social media, speaking engagements, working with presses, developing a web presence, etc….  Again, let me know if you have any ideas.

In the meantime, here is our first and most popular segment of the Virtual Office Hours:

How I Spent My Snow Day

Yesterday we got hit with several inches of snow. School was cancelled for my kids and Messiah College closed its doors at 1pm.  Instead of trying to make it into the office I decided to camp out in my basement study and get some work done. Here is what the day looked like:

10:00:  Skyped with Eddie Carson‘s “Jesus in America” class at the Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts.  First of all, I am amazed that Eddie gets to teach an entire course on this subject to high school students.  Granted, it is a private boarding school, but it is still impressive.  I talked about my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction and the students asked some great questions.  We had a good discussion about the racial dimensions of the rise of the Christian Right. Later this week, the ubiquitous Ed Blum will be joining Eddie’s class in person (I hope you are not held up by the snow, Ed) to talk about he and Paul Harvey’s book The Color of Christ.

11:00-12:00:  Answered e-mail.

1:00-3:00: Finished reading Dave Eggers latest book, The Circle, for a book club in which I am a member.  I found it to be a fascinating fictional take on democracy and social media.  Perhaps more on this later.

3:00-6:00:  Answered more e-mail, worked on a few blog posts, worked on a few overdue book reviews.

6:00:  Interview with Gino Geraci on KRKS in Denver.  The topic: Why Study History?.  Gino pushed me a bit on my skepticism about providential history (KRKS is a Christian station).  Wish we had more time to chat.  Some of these concepts take time to develop.

I spent the rest of the night shoveling snow, hanging out with my wife and kids, and reading.

Today it is back to meetings and preparation for the Spring semester.

AHA Reception for History Bloggers and Twitterstorians!

The American Historical Association “cordially invites history bloggers and twitterstorians” to attend a reception in the Omni Hotel Governor’s Room on Thursday, January 2, 2014 from 5:30-7:00pm.  What a great event!  As Michelle Moravec recently tweeted: “I guess we’ve institutionalized.”

I have a commitment until 6:30, but I am going to try to get over to the Omni for the last 30 minutes.

Social Media and the Historian’s Craft

This past weekend a preeminent American historian asked me about my blog.  He wanted to know if blogging improved my long form writing. I told him that while I found it slightly more difficult to write long-form after I started blogging, in the end I thought it improved my longer pieces by instilling in me the habit of daily writing.  He seemed genuinely interested in the genre.

I thought about that conversation as I read Heather Cox Richardson’s post “What Blogging, Twitter, and Texting Do for the Historian’s Craft.”  I could not have put it any better.  Here is a taste:

Blogging also forces your writing up several notches. It has to convey an idea clearly and, with luck, engagingly. Those are not necessarily skills professional historians practice very much. We tend to fight over arcane theories and dig so deeply into our research that we lose all but a few other specialists. Blogging forces you to distill complicated ideas into crucial points, and then to communicate those points in such a way that a nonspecialist can understand. (Twitter and texting have similar value. Never is the importance of strong verbs more clear than when tweeting. You MUST use short, powerful verbs to keep ideas within 140 characters. Don’t believe me? Follow @JoyceCarolOates.)

Blogging and tweeting also let a writer develop a personal style that is terribly hard to find in academic writing. The form is much more epistolary than academic argument, and that very informality means that much more of your own quirks come out, which can bring your online prose to life. Blogging lets you develop a sense of humor in your writing. Hell, it encourages you to.

AHA Seeking New Director of Scholarly Communication and Digital Initiatives

The American Historical Association is seeking a Director of Scholarly Communication and Digital Initiatives. The Director of Scholarly Communication and Digital Initiatives will oversee the AHA’s communications with members and other constituencies. This includes print and digital publishing, web design, information management, and membership – all part of a strategy to enable the American Historical Association’s programs and activities to take maximum advantage of the new digital environments in which historians work. The AHA seeks a scholar with the skills and vision to help lead the development of the AHA as the nation’s most important hub for the work of professional historians in the 21st century.
Key responsibilities include:

  • Play leadership role for team developing new research, communication, networking, job market, and other professional tools for historians via a full-service AHA digital environment
  • Oversee all communication relating to AHA membership activities, and AHA digital and print publications (not including American Historical Review)
  • Supervise (directly or indirectly) seven staff members
  • Serve as liaison to the business operations of the American Historical Review
  • Oversee AHA relationships with publishers
  • Provide expertise on issues relating to scholarly publishing
  • Coordinate the efforts of the AHA’s governing Council and standing committees, including working
    with the Executive Director to organize Council activities
  • Oversee all information technology purchases, maintenance, and staffing/consultant support
  • Represent the Association in meetings and activities relevant to areas of responsibility

For additional details on the position, and how to submit an application, see the complete description of the position.