Science & Technology

Brave New Blogs

John S. Dykes illustration

John S. Dykes illustration

Blogs aren’t just about trivial pursuits anymore. UW faculty are using these online diaries to share ideas and discoveries with colleagues around the world.

John Hawks was doing everything an assistant professor must do to get tenure — applying for grants, conducting research, writing articles, and teaching students. But in 2004, the UW–Madison anthropologist decided to try something rather unconventional in the academic world: write a blog.

Hawks, now an associate professor of anthropology who studies the bones and genes of ancient humans, wanted to organize his notes and tell his students about observations that were not being covered by mainstream science news media. He turned to a blog, a term shortened from “web log” that represents an online journal of sorts. Within a few months, he was attracting two hundred readers a day, including some in other areas of the world. “I thought, ‘This is more than I have in my classes,’ ” Hawks says.

Hawks’s readership continued to grow, but none of the colleagues in his department knew he was blogging. And Hawks wasn’t sure that he wanted them to find out, in case they didn’t view it as time well spent.

“From that standpoint, it’s insane to spend a lot of time working on an outreach project that isn’t directly affecting your research-grant output,” he says. But anxiety turned to relief four months later. Others in Hawks’s department began hearing about his blog from anthropology faculty at other universities, including one who said, “It must be exciting to have John Hawks in your department.”

Within a year of starting his blog, Nature magazine included Hawks on its list of top science bloggers, and the effort led to research collaborations with colleagues as far away as Denmark.

“I’m getting recognized for this in mainstream science, and so — even if it’s not academic research per se — it’s obviously valuable,” he says.

Hawks, along with high-profile constitutional law professor Ann Althouse, was at the forefront of a growing number of UW professors who use blogs to engage with the public and peers in a way their predecessors could never have imagined. For many, blogs help spread their expertise and ideas to a much wider audience than those who read academic journals, and they certainly ease collaboration and communication with colleagues, regardless of physical distance across the country or around the world.

Hawks’s blog garners seven to eight thousand daily readers — many of whom are not scientists, but are drawn in via links on news sites to posts such as “Neandertals live!” “Ozzy Osbourne, archaic human,” and “Good grief, the Neandertal test kits have been sent.

“It’s about getting people excited about what we know,” says Hawks, who studies the processes affecting human genetic evolution during the last 6 million years. “I’m in a field where there are people in the public who deny the fact that there’s evidence in my field.”

Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum MA’82, who began her journalism career on a typewriter at a small newspaper in Georgia, went on to become a Pulitzer Prize– winning science writer before joining the faculty at the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She started blogging a year ago in tandem with the release of her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, but she had another important aim: showing her students what it means to be a working writer in the digital age.

“I don’t think you can really be an effective journalist today if you don’t have an online presence,” she says.

Blum requires students in her magazine journalism course to maintain a blog and update it weekly during the course of the semester, based on their reporting within a specialty. It’s a way to start building a professional profile online.

“One of the fun things about it is that you do get this instant sense of effect,” she says. “You get the comments. You know who’s paying attention. You know how people are responding. So it allows you to gauge … what really draws an audience.”

Becoming a blogger introduced Blum to an entirely new group of journalists and allowed her to join an online community, which she views as one of the strong future directions of journalism. “Here I am at this stage of my career, and there are all these fascinating new frontiers and ways to tell stories. It makes me feel optimistic, not pessimistic [about journalism],” she says. “I don’t want to teach my past.”

She also sees her blog, Speakeasy Science, as a tool to reach those who typically don’t read about chemistry, since many of her postings are about mysteries that can be solved with science. She calls it “subversive education.” (See excerpt, this page.)

Science can gain more public understanding, Blum believes, if more scientists approach their work as Hawks does, engaging colleagues and the public alike through his blog posts.

“Science journalists like myself spend a lot of time in the culture of science,” she says. “[But] most scientists don’t spend any time in the culture of journalism.”

Jonathan Gray

Blogging doesn’t mean the end of writing articles for academic journals or presenting papers to colleagues at conferences. But it does give professors a way to respond much more quickly to events and developments in their fields.

“Medieval history — if it takes three years [to publish something] — it’s not going anywhere,” says Jonathan Gray, an associate professor of media and cultural studies in the UW’s Department of Communication Arts. “But for me, if it takes three years, it’s moot.”

Gray writes his own blog, The Extratextuals, and also contributes to Antenna, a collaborative blog operated and edited by graduate students and faculty that analyzes and responds to developments in television, film, music, gaming, digital video, the Internet, print, and the media. The venue gave Gray the chance to dissect the opening credits of The Simpsons in a post that appeared the morning after an episode of the show aired.

“That was a big motivator for us — we wanted to deal with these things as they come,” Gray says. “That’s why we get so many people reading and responding.”

On his own blog, Gray wrote about watching every network TV pilot that premiered during last fall’s new season. And, yes, he even watched the ones he knew would be really bad. The effort tied into his study of how viewers are influenced by the flood of information about movies and television shows from print media, trailers, Internet discussions, merchandising, and guerrilla marketing — often before watching them.

“As academics, we so often just write to ourselves, and we develop these specialized vocabularies, and it becomes really hard for us to make an impact,” Gray says. “One of the things I try to do with the blog is try to write in a way that non-academics can engage with, so the ideas aren’t just going to the same audience.”

The effort has led to media interviews on the topics he blogs about, and a law firm contacted him to serve as an expert witness on satire for a court case involving a newspaper column. Gray also did a series of posts for his personal blog on the ins and outs of searching for a faculty position, including a hilariously excruciating account of the worst campus job interview ever.

Jordan Ellenberg

Jordan Ellenberg, a UW mathematics associate professor, started his blog, Quomodocumque, in 2007. Topics sometimes include baseball statistics (and his beloved Baltimore Orioles), along with his take on how math is represented in the media. He knows firsthand about that topic, having once served as a script consultant for the CBS drama Numb3rs, which featured a mathematical genius who helped his FBI-agent brother solve crimes, and by writing occasional articles for the online magazine Slate about math in everyday life.

Ellenberg sees his blog as an “outboard brain,” where he can check back to remind himself of thoughts he has shared previously on questions in his field. “I keep everything in these quadrille notebooks,” he says, pulling one out of his backpack. “It’s my system that I’ve had since grad school, but the truth is, it’s kind of hard to find stuff in here.”

Blogging also led him to develop a theorem with two colleagues at UCLA, including Fields Medal-winning professor and fellow math blogger Terry Tao.

“We ended up writing a paper together, a paper that really wouldn’t have existed had we not started doing the work in the comment sections of each other’s blogs,” Ellenberg says. “Within mathematics, there’s not a huge number of people [blogging], but I think it’s been tremendously productive for disseminating ideas quickly.”

When Ellenberg posts an idea or theory that readers think is wrong, they are quick to tell him so. And that’s just fine, he says, because it sends the right message to younger mathematicians.

“If the process is made a little bit more open to the public … it’s a good thing for younger people to see … because maybe they wouldn’t be so discouraged when they work on something for a year and it doesn’t work,” he says. “If everything you try to do in mathematics works, it means you’re not trying to do hard enough things.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab

Blogging isn’t just a way to collaborate with colleagues. It’s also a way to generate real-time debates — something that can’t happen often in the pages of research journals, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a UW assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology.

“On the blog, we can get some discussions going, being very pointed with each other; these are really hard to get going in the academic world,” she says.

Goldrick-Rab launched The Education Optimists in 2008 with her husband, Liam Goldrick, who also works in the field of education policy. The Washington Post named it one of the best education blogs of 2010, and she was floored when she learned that some graduate students decided to apply and enroll at the UW after reading her blog.

“That’s now a big reason for doing it — to reach people who aren’t in my classes here, who aren’t the people sitting in the same department or in the same university with me,” she says.

Feedback from blog readers helped her revise a grant proposal after she shared the work in progress. She won the grant, which she is using to study how college students’ use of time, emotional experiences, and amounts of sleep interact with financial aid and affect the chances of earning a degree.

Goldrick-Rab has also blogged for the Chronicle of Higher Education, where she posted about her research and her experiences as a “mommy professor” seeking tenure while parenting two very young children.

“Women wrote — graduate students and assistant professors, in particular, wrote — and said how grateful they were that I laid that out there, that it was hard,” she says. “And not just that it was hard, but that [I included] details.”

Gray cautions about a danger that future faculty may devote significant time to blogging and using social media tools such as Twitter, and end up with regrets.

“In my field, I see some people who — it’s too much. I think they’re hurting their chances,” Gray says. “Your words can work against you, so you need to think about what you’re writing.”

Professors who blog say they get questions from graduate students who wonder if blogging will help their careers. But the answers aren’t obvious, even to those who are veteran bloggers. Goldrick-Rab has taken a break from her blog to devote her time to earning tenure, but plans to resume in the future.

“We don’t know how this will affect me. We don’t know,” she says. “There’s still all this uncertainty around it.”

Hawks considered the same questions when he began his blog: “Should I do this? Is this going to be perceived as a waste of time? How successful does it have to be before people think it’s worthwhile?” For him, blogging has generated more interest in his research and has enhanced his ability to tell people why it matters. When he published a study that found that humans are still evolving, and at a rapid rate, Hawks was poised to explain his results. “I knew how to talk about it. I knew how it fit in as a broader topic,” he says.

He’s clearly reaching an audience, judging from what arrives in the mail. He has received boxes of bones — usually from deer — that blog readers have found, as well as some e-mails he’ll never forget.

“I’ve had about five of these [messages] over the years that say, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I think my husband is a Neandertal,’ ” he says. “It’s great. They describe hairy backs.”

Jenny Price is senior writer for On Wisconsin.

Published in the Spring 2011 issue


  • Alex March 9, 2011

    Philosophy professor Lester H. Hunt has a fantastic blog (E Pur Si Muove). It’s also very popular. Check it out:

  • Shannon Lange March 10, 2011

    This is an incredible article. These bloggers are finding voices through internet writing, and I am delighted that you have started to bring attention to their efforts. The quotes from each blog were well-chosen, as well. Excellent, excellent work.

  • Yellowhammer March 10, 2011

    I would love to read more about student and faculty experiences with blogging. Keep it up.

  • Joseph March 11, 2011

    I am a graduate student and aspiring science blogger, looking for a topic and an audience. Ideas where to start?

  • Libby Dowdall March 11, 2011

    Patricia Flatley Brennan, R.N., Ph.D., Lillian Moehlman Bascom Professor, School of Nursing and College of Engineering, also blogs regularly. In her role as national program director of Project HealthDesign, an RWJF-funded initiative that examines the potential of personal health records (PHRs), she often blogs about observations of daily living (ODLs) and public policy related to health IT:

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