Research Blogging in the Arts and Humanities: The Full Story

research bloggers

On the 19th and 20th of August 2015, we organised a training event focused on the practical skills and key dos and don’ts of blogging as a PhD student. This workshop was funded by the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities through their Cohort Development Fund.

Lots of very useful hints and tips came out of the two-day event and through the magic of Twitter, we’ve managed to keep track of these. You can view a Storify of the whole event here.

Take a look to read some great advice on blogging as a PhD student, SEO, wordpress and social media. Happy Blogging!

Author: Maxine Branagh

Five post-graduates in search of a blog

Speedily put together at the SGSAH research blogging event

Late 17th Century commonplace book

By Beinecke Flickr Laboratory (Commonplace Book, late 17th Century) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The question we collectively want to ask: why are we doing this? [laughs]

[long pause]

* To document and reflect on a practice!

* To connect with like-minded folk.

* To reach source material that isn’t available in the archives.

* Umm…

* To create an online portfolio through which to present myself and my work to the wider world.

Haven’t we forgotten something? -Wha? Exactly! – ‘…’?

Perhaps a question we should address first is what are we actually planning on doing?

* A blog, of course. I would like my blog to pull things together, but also to get stuff and dissect it – tear it to bits.

* Have you heard of the practice of using commonplace books? I think they were popular in the 18thC … It’s somewhere you would provide common entries in the same book. People wrote down and recorded medical and cooking recipes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulae, etc. You can read more about it on wikipedia. Do you remember autograph books!? People would make little personalised entries into your book, drawings, etc. It’s a similar kind of thing really.

Late 17th century commonplace book

By Beinecke Flickr Laboratory (Commonplace Book, late 17th Century) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

* Well, I like the idea of a blog as a sketch book… Through the perspective of your methodology to look at your research and your interests… I like the idea of my blog as a muse!

* I would like to design an online persona for myself. I want to be somebody on the internet! I plan on defining and classifying myself for all the world to see, though I have to say this is a bit of a scary thought.

* I like the idea of a looking-glass, or prism, through which my research can be refracted to the world. So there.

Shall we do some “whos”? Cause everyone in a way is trying to reach someone different, and there are any number of audiences to reach. Good idea.

Who are you going to write for?

* I struggle on how to address …. How do we even call “them”? … The ordinary folk? [i.e. non-academic audiences, of course, haha] The members of the general public… the Muggles [haha] Is that offensive? Are we really that sheltered?

* … artists, audiences, or maybe researchers. I don’t know, should I be more specific?

* Oral historians, special interest groups specific to certain regions, writers… and readers I suppose. Oh, and former lace workers as well as sound archivists! They would be important to reach.

* Nobody.

* My peers!

* My mum.

Okay okay try and stick to serious answers, please.

* Because I am drawing from lots of different fields, I feel really enthusiastic about them… but they might not be so interested in me. I would like to reach out. I especially want to talk to anyone interested in the WWI Centenary given the timeliness of the topic! And I would absolutely love it if people who had no academic affiliation would like to read my blog.

* Who am I?

This is getting ridiculous, I’m going for coffee.

[researchers leave the room for more coffee]

I think we should be careful for our whats and our whys. The what was the content, the why was the function. –but wouldn’t why be the aims? –No, we did what. Did we? –Oh, I don’t know. Whatever, we need an outcome.

So in writing these blogs, you would like to:

* Improve my writing, write on a regular basis. Make a practice of it.

* Promote and provoke interest in historical archives. Encourage the engagement with history outside of academic history.

* Create a market for myself!

* Start a conversation.

* Develop an online persona and make myself employable.

FYI: There were remarkably few Smiths in 18th C Wiltshire, but lots of Tugwells and Yearburys.

My first blog is going to be:

* Canceled

* Finished. [harhar]

* “Costume and conflict”: A key aim will be to show people that my subject is a useful historical tool that can be used and applied by all and any. I want to show the story-telling power of objects.

* I feel bad now. All of my thoughts were about developing my profile as a researcher. What am I going to do? I don’t know.

* I would like to resurrect my research centre’s blog and use it to promote activities on campus.

Can we touch on when a little bit?

* I think for me it will be an end-of-the-day task, after academic writing …

* Twice a month. I want the possibility to react spontaneously if something comes up though.

* When I feel compelled to. Then and only then.

* When my brain needs a bump start!

* Friday, 4pm

* Right now.

* One time I was out and about, stuck in a queue in fact, and as I was waiting there for what felt like forever I had the time to write a whole blog post in my head.


* On the train, in the quiet carriage.

* On the internet.

* On the move! I like to think about my writing when I walk.

* In the kitchen with the keyboard.

* Somewhere between my thoughts and their articulation.

* Somewhere no one will find it.

Let’s end with a few statements. Finish this sentence: “My first blog post [after this event] will be …”

* Shorter, braver, and more useful.

* Finished.

* Called “Why I like earwigging.”

* A response to something I have seen.

* Written in an impersonal voice.

Who am I when I blog? Who will I become?

[researchers walk off into the sunset]

[music plays, end credits]

Late 17th century commonplace book

By Beinecke Flickr Laboratory (Commonplace Book, late 17th Century) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Authors: Helen FosterAndrew GordonPaul Moorhouse / Lucie Whitmore / Harry Wilson

Research Blogging: the First Hurdle


Writing a blog allows budding researchers to develop a network of peers and engage with the public, beyond the confines of academia. It offers a platform to hone writing skills and explore new ideas. However, for researchers at the outset of their career, there are a number of issues to consider before setting off. After attending a two-day workshop on Research Blogging in the Arts and Humanities, four PhD researchers voice their anxieties around blogging, and offer some advice on moving forward.

Starting a post! 

Whilst we have material and ideas that we want to write about, it’s often difficult to establish where to begin and develop this into something coherent. At times, we automatically revert to the process of academic writing and structures. David McGuinness’ advice was to think of blog posts as ‘recapitulation’, as a way of focussing thoughts and ideas, but we’ve found that we first need a way of getting past the first hurdle.

What should I put online?

Perhaps behind this is the fear of the content itself – what we should and shouldn’t be putting online, how it reflects on us as academics and whether anything we publish now might interfere with our PhD thesis and future publications. We’ve had some contrasting advice about these issues from various speakers: some have suggested a very neutral tone, being careful to consider how a future employer might react to reading this material; others have advocated showing a bit more personality, using the blog to refine ideas, and not being afraid to be critical and air strong opinions.

Blogs can be used to show a thought process or work in progress, but putting out something ‘unfinished’ can leave us feeling vulnerable and open to criticism. In academia we wait until we know what we want to say before sharing, so spending time writing about the entire process might seem like a waste of time.  On the other hand, this could help us see how we arrive at something more finished, and receive feedback to help shape our ideas.

Creating content

A good idea is to avoid writing directly about your research, but focus on tangential issues: interesting stuff that you’ve come across during your work, but won’t be part of your thesis. Sometimes this can help lead in unexpected directions in your future research, particularly post-PhD. This can also be a great way of building a wider audience for your blog. Emily Bowles has blogged about humurous asides that she has come across during her research, such as nicknames that she’s found for Dickens, or dodgy, hand-written poetry in the margins of old editions. Ryan McNutt recommends using current events and popular culture as a spring-board, not only keeping your material relevant, but helping to grow an audience.

Share your experiences and build a network

The Research Blogging workshop has really shown us that we’re not alone in the fears we’ve had in blogging our research for the first time, and the peer network that we’ve already built in the past two days will be invaluable. Sharing these concerns with other bloggers helps you find ways around your initial anxiety and offers insight into creating content and keeping your blog relevant. Also, try to remember that if you find something fascinating, someone else will be probably share your interest.

Authors: Aaron McGregor, Diljeet Bhachu, Kirsty Boardman & Cia Jackson

“Don’t stop believing”: the impossible blog post.

Five PhD students, thoughts, and a couple of questions.

How have you found the writing journey?

“Ahead of the curve! Three minutes before schedule and the group has already started the writing process. Much faster than my own journey, with many stalls and restarts with the backspace key. Writing is sometimes a strange mix of being imaginative and following a structure that falls flat on its face before it even begins. Luckily for PhD students, there are enough distractions from writing itself, such as reading and fair-trade conference wine. When writing develops its own flow, it becomes more enjoyable, with the backspace becoming a minor player in the process.”

copyright Thomas Brauer, 2014

copyright Thomas Brauer, 2014

“Writing is hard.  Like so many paths, there are steep inclines and precipitous drops.  Figurative ones, to be certain, but present nonetheless.  The steepest incline I have experienced came in the process of challenging my own
assumptions.  Not only my unresearched assumptions about my topic, but also my assumptions about my own capacities.  Two years on, none of those assumptions still stand.  This process led directly to the most precipitous drop.  When these assumptions were challenged, I found that all of the several thousand words I had written needed to be tossed.  Now, the path is less extreme, but the process of challenging assumptions and cutting work continues.”

How do you test your assumptions within your own research?

copyright Thomas Brauer, 2014

copyright Thomas Brauer, 2014

“The past is generally a fuzzy product of various sources, each with their own biases and assumptions. Questioning the source can be a dangerous assumption in itself. As the historian can never relive the past, to question the account and its creator can be self-defeating. Within the context of a thesis, testing your assumptions among other historians and the public can have varying levels of value. Asking a scholar about their methodology can allow them to broaden or narrow their focus into a specific area. Conversely, the public can digest your assumptions about the past and think of a significant event in a new light. Overall, the assumptions of history can form a fabric that has a different feel to the reality perceived at the time. Weaving these narratives could result in a dangerous new fashion.”

“The skeptic’s dream – that we are able somehow to interrogate data cleanly and scientifically, free of the baggage of our own assumptions, upbringing, social and cultural perspectives is, I believe, wrong. The very act of asking a question creates a set of assumptions that constrain the ways in which the question itself can be understood, discussed, and answered. Also, by posing the question we engage in a process of silencing the many other questions which could have been asked – we even say we are ‘framing’ the question; putting it in a box, focusing. To focus is to exclude.”

“Picking up any of the ‘how to be a PhD’ student guides will likely offer the advice of ‘think about how you will defend this argument in your viva’ or a similar projected future attack that you will have to defend your ideas against. This is no doubt useful, but an external body won’t (or shouldn’t) be the only measure of how valid your work is. I have found that the most powerful driving factor for validating my work is feeling like I have truly found/discovered/or created something. If this was the product of an assumption I made at the start of my research, and if I ignored any evidence that pointed to an alternative, I couldn’t be satisfied with the end result.”

“In the humanities, we don’t really have a trial-and-error approach, but we do have some assumptions that need to be demonstrated with arguments. My PhD was at the beginning based on a naïve and comfortable assumption: that historical sources always tell the truth. Based on that, the rest of the data has to simply follow a well-established script. It was like reading a fairy tale, knowing already that the villain will be defeated. It was reassuring. The more I looked at the evidence, though, the more I realized that that pattern could not be justified. My world fell apart. How I test my assumptions, it does not really matter. Read, think, discuss, keep an open mind. But always question every assumption.”