Wednesday, March 27, 2013

You gonna blog that?

Doris Mable Cochran (1898-1968), measuring a turtle shell

Readers of the MT might recognize folks like Briana PobinerKen MillerLauri LeboNorman JohnsonMelissa Wilson SayresDonald ProtheroT. Ryan GregoryBrian Switek, Josh Rosenau, Cara Santa Maria, and  Bora Zivkovic. Last weekend, along with maybe twice as many others, we took part in a "Catalysis" meeting about science communication at NESCent. It was the first time I'd ever been in a room vocalizing while holding concurrent twitter discussions--here's Brian's storify of our tweets.

Just one among the flock of topics: scientists are encouraged to go public. So to help roll out the welcome mat, I thought I'd share my experience and perspective.

You might be thinking, is this something I have to do? Should I be tweeting, Facebooking, and blogging?

I'll go ahead and let Brian answer that one:

I agree. Which is why this post isn't a how-to for everyone.  But everyone, whether they go public or not, should know why-to.

Why I blog, Facebook, tweet, talk to journalists, ...

Socializing is fun.
It's common for me to feel squirrely and defensive from interactions on-line but the good far outweighs that.

Internet = People who know things and want to share them with  you.
I'm in a constant state of awe-filled gratitude when I'm reading my Twitter feed. This blog is a big part of my continuing education and I shudder to think how ignorant, behind the times, and understimulated I would be without this online MT family and without the online community on Facebook and Twitter. Sure the socializing is all mixed up, sure there are corgi pics sandwiching science news in my feeds, but how is that bad?

Writing, words, and wordplay are integral to my life.
It was 1983. I was six. Kids' Writes put out a call for poems. I sent one in and they read it on television. Here it is. My mom helped with the cummings-esque format and much more...
My Mind
My mind can
Think. And
my mind can help do
Art. And
my mind can help me to
Read. And
my mind can
Dream. And
my mind can help
Write. And
my mind can help me to
Learn. And
my mind can help me to do the
Right Things. And
my mind is good.
Fast forward to 2006. I submitted an essay to the national This I Believe site. Once you do that, and it passes some sort of editorial filter, it's there publicly. So, I emailed the link out to my friends and then put the link in my email signature. I think that traffic got the attention of the editors and they asked me to tweak the essay (adding all that personal stuff) and then read it for NPR's Weekend Edition. I think it factored largely into why when Ken and Anne were going to be traveling for a while in 2009, and they were looking for a guest to keep the MT going while they were away, they asked me. When they came back from their trip I stayed put.

Hardly writing about fieldbookish things in my field notebook. (thanks Rutger Jansma)

Internet = me too.
This blog provides me with motivation to think immediately and deeply through new discoveries and to reflect on old ideas too. What results is sometimes lecture or class notes for my courses, even large scale curricular changes or lesson plans. Sometimes it's old dialogue I've already journaled and pull up in the context of a new science discovery. Sometimes I just have to tell my story about a doctor and her vibrator. Sometimes it's just something I need to get off my chest, by thumping it a bit.

Many of my posts, and many of Ken's and Anne's, I assign to my students to read.  And I've even had two courses create blogs for voluntarily posting their experiences with 23andMe (here and here). I wouldn't have had the wherewithal to go through with the 23andMe curriculum if it wasn't for the MT and my online connections with geneticists.

Science is everybody's. And I get a kick out of helping with that.
I've had a big paper come out since joining the MT and being able to blog about it not only got the word out to colleagues about it but helped me to put it in a context that other academics and educators, my students, and journalists could potentially appreciate. Especially if they didn't have access to the article.

When that paper was accepted we wrote up a press release (so he wouldn't have to) and sent it to my university's press office. He sent it out through his channels and when it caught people's attention I got phone interviews, like with Scott Hensley at NPR. Some writers noticed my blog posts which got quoted/sourced in some of the articles written on-line. Most notably here.

Kate Clancy, a super duper online science communicator, was kind enough to suggest to editor Bora that this was fodder worth considering for the guest blog at Scientific American. So I was fortunate to get that opportunity too, especially since it was an immediate reaction to the public reaction to my research!

This is academic communication. 
It's legit. In fact, I instruct my students to use quality science blogs (and I don't mean just MT posts) as resources or to kick-start their brainstorming and their research for course projects. There are quality assessors compiling blogs and feeding them out to us through social media.
Not all blogs are created equal. The blogosphere is mature enough now that there are connoisseurs with discerning palates. You will not be served up junk to read. If you do good work, you will get noticed and your peers might come to rely on you, like with Ryan:
Writing publicly has perks.
This, all of this, is a writing lab and practice gym. [See the article "How social media improved writing."] Constantly reading and writing hones your craft and your voice. And it gets noticed. Thanks to friends who voted enough to get me considered and then thanks to the monkey-loving cosmologist judge, I won a prize for a post on the MT about my dissertation. And thanks to the gumption I grew by writing here, I now have an agent who's got my popular science book on reproductive consciousness up for auction right this second.

Increased visibility has perks.
It's a way to get who you are out there. I don't have a web page. This is what I call "my web page": a list of links to my writing. It's like a calling card. And it's handy when I want to quickly find a link and share it.

It's difficult to know how much of my public web behavior has caused the following but it certainly hasn't hurt: Invitations to join a research workshop and to participate in symposia at conferences, invitations to speak on college campuses, filming about obstetric dilemma for the BBC show Horizon, filming about ape tail loss for an upcoming PBS program, new friendships with potential scientific collaborators in anthropology and beyond. It's a big part of how the folks at the Leakey Foundation heard about my 23andMe experience which got them to ask me to come speak at the Cal Academy and to visit two schools to talk about science. Tweeting about using my dogs to teach the scientific process indirectly, through a new teacher friend, got the attention of Understanding Science folks who are putting it on their iTunes U.

This web presence and online writing tags me as someone who engages in scientific outreach, which means that others kindly provide me with more opportunities to do outreach. This is why I was invited to the NESCent meeting that sparked this post, and am involved in absolutely amazing educational projects with the Smithsonian Human Origins crew.  These activities definitely do more for me and my teaching (and therefore my students) and for my scholarship than I do for the public but I hope that one day with enough experience that will flip around.

Some important points and tips...

In science, Verbal < Math?
This is a non-question. Writing science is still science.

You don't need to be a blogger to have a blog. 
You can do as much or little as you like on a blog and still get so much out of it. From day one, back in 2009, I've been convinced of this. And before that, I was only reading blogs and still getting so much out of this.

There are seemingly infinite uses for a blog.
If you read blogs or write on them, then you are constantly surprised by this already, but here's a nice use of the blog that you might not have seen applied yet.

Blogging need not be snarky or antagonistic. Although it can be. 

Don't take blogging so personally, or do.
No one will read it. Or they will and won't comment. Or they will and won't share it. Or they will and will never tell you they read it, even if they liked it! So what? Take a page from Oprah Chopra and just do it for yourself if you want to.

For cultivating readership, be social. 
If you want people to read your blog (... you might not care, but if you do...), then you need to be on Facebook and Twitter too, posting your links, and links to others' blogs, and sharing news, networking and befriending other bloggers and writers and colleagues who are engaging in similar ways with each other and the public.

Twitter is not just for starf*ckers.
Contrary to my prior assumption, Twitter is not just for narcissistic, needy celebs building up masses of  "followers." However, Twitter really is for so many crazy a$$holes. I'm one. I tweet for my dog who discovered evolution and wrote a book about it @Elroybeefstu.

Downsides to going public

Negative value judgments from colleagues, especially senior colleagues.
Still happening.

Social media makes every day a conference day!
Social media also needs a sarcasm font.

It sucks up time.
Like right now.

Being a target for the trolls, pedants, haters, and grandstanders isn't so fun.
But that's obviously not going to stop us.

You could make a mistake. 
And you will.

You will be misunderstood and misinterpreted and quoted out of context.

There is still no category for this in most P&T portfolios.  
It falls under "service" or "outreach." Here's a snippet from my Dean's annual review letter:

Next year I'll tally up my hit totals which are over 40,000 now. Then maybe she'll be even more intrigued... even though these are measly numbers compared to many other science blogs!

That she mentioned my blog activity is something, at least. But even if she hadn't, I'd still keep this up.

This is where and what science is now.

Updated: 8:49 am


Ken Weiss said...

You said it right: This is where and what science is now.

Every point you made shows why our faculty missions of teaching, research, and service are all involved in the social media. Deans and Chairs must learn to evaluate faculty performance according to the new way of doing our jobs. The must--they will.

Our work, professional and public, is melding and becoming much, much more accessible, interactive, and interdisciplinary than ever before, and with no loss of rigor or quality. Of course, the web is loaded with chaff, but so are the professional media. Indeed, there is almost a race among the traditional media to go off-line and get on-line--and with comments.

The shelf life is increased greatly by the huge readership and the long-term accessibility of work because of it is so eminently searchable, to anyone and everyone, worldwide.

These are all terrific turns of events, and young people like you, Holly, are leading the way!

Holly Dunsworth said...

I am massively grateful to you and Anne.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, in every possible positive sense, the gratitude is wholly mutual! Not only that, but you exemplify the fact that the blogosphere is not just uniform, but that exceptional skill and talent are very easy to see.

Holly Dunsworth said...

This has been updated mostly for grammar but some content was added too. The longer I think about this, the more I remember...

Holly Dunsworth said...

What I wish I'd emphasized is that so many of us are relatively isolated on our campuses. The people who hold the power and pull the strings in our disciplines are often surrounded by real life colleagues with whom they collaborate. Not I. Not yet at least. And I've been on the tenure-track since 2008. This is my way of participating without a program/group/team around the lab/dept.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Wish I hadn't said "real life" because this is real life, but you know what I meant: IN THE FLESH.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Also, more clarifying: I have no journal clubs, brown bags, etc... This is that for me.

Ken Weiss said...

So, you're being forced by the quirks of circumstance to go to broadreach. Such are the quirks of fate that lead to change!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Broadreaching for the stars!! Not sure it's not destiny.

Ken Weiss said...

Hey, just look at how much spark and energy it puts into you--and how many people you affect as a result!