By Drew Thomas |

 

Can you imagine completing your PhD before the Internet? No online catalogues, no academic journal databases, no full-text search, no online language dictionaries — you had to read journal articles on printed paper! Yikes. But while the Internet revolutionized researching, it also created other expectations for PhD students, such as pressure in keeping up an appropriate online presence. Should you have an academic blog? How do you engage without giving away your research?

In November I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Erik Kwakkel at the Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Kwakkel is an accomplished book historian and holds the Scaliger Chair at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He has also mastered the art of engaging academics and the wider public online. His Twitter boasts over 18,000 followers and he has a successful blog that has been featured on CNN, The Daily Mail, Huffington Post, Engadget, and various other media outlets. He agreed to sit down with me and discuss his practices and how they can benefit PhD students.

Should you have an academic blog? How do you engage without giving away your research?

His first tip is to make sure your blog has a theme. Ideally, this could be something related to your research. Kwakkel focuses on drawing relationships between the medieval past and the present. He explains medieval manuscript practices with modern terms, such as “Medieval Speech Bubbles.”  He usually keeps his posts at no more than 1,200 words, which allows him to critically engage without losing his audience. He originally wrote a new post twice a month. After half a year, he felt it was unsustainable and altered it to once a month.

Kwakkel primarily engages via two media: his blog and his Twitter account. He first started blogging on MedievalFragments, a research group he was a part of. He said he found blogging “very effective at reaching people with a more extensive narrative.” However, that project ended in 2014. He also had a very successful Tumblr page with over 23,000 followers but decided to give it up after a year. Instead, he now blogs at medievalbooks.nl.

Kwakkel's blog, medievalbooks.nl.

Kwakkel’s blog, medievalbooks.nl.

He spends about two hours writing a post, including having the English checked by a native speaker. As for the research behind each post, he devotes from two hours to half a day, depending on the material and its availability. But as PhD students, how should we share our research without giving too much away? He agrees with not giving away big finds but suggests that smaller finds are more appropriate for online consumption.

In addition to his Twitter account, he publicizes via his mailing list subscription, which currently has a little over 10,000 followers. He definitely recommends blogging and thinks that “even without the popularity, it makes me a better writer.” The more writing practice, the better.

As for Twitter advice, Kwakkel tries to tweet at least four times a day, not including re-tweets. Three of these will be scheduled in advance using Buffer, the same social media management tool used by Pubs and Publications (don’t worry, we’re not affiliated). He posts an image and a text tweet at noon, tweets again at 4:00 pm, and then schedules a tweet at midnight to reach his North American audience, which comprises about 70% of his followers. He never re-tweets for commercial purposes and always provides the shelfmark and credits the library when he shares images of manuscripts.

Kwakkel schedules a tweet at midnight to reach his North American audience, which comprises about 70% of his followers

He does not live tweet conferences, as he finds it hard to devote to both the conference and to Twitter equally. However, he does like it when others do it, but finds it’s not always necessary, as his own experience shows he rarely looks at such events on Twitter.

His favorite benefit from blogging and tweeting is that his popularity allows him to have lots of conversations with people that he otherwise wouldn’t have. He also gets asked for interviews and invited to conferences to speak on online engagement! He greatly encourages students to get involved and start their own blogs. His best advice is to try something for at least a year. If after a year, you find it’s no longer in your interest, then quit. He quit Tumblr after a year even though he had over 23,000 followers because it was too picture based, which is difficult to upkeep, and he felt he wasn’t able to engage as much as he wished. He also does not have an Academia.edu account, as it would just be another profile to maintain.

So how do you start blogging? Just start writing! He says a lot of people think about it too long. Find your online persona and get writing. If you’re unsure that you could keep up an entire blog, start by writing for us here at Pubs and Publications!

 

Drew Thomas is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Philosophy from Saint Louis University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. His PhD is a study of the rise of the Wittenberg print industry during Martin Luther’s Reformation. He is currently the Communications Manager for the Universal Short Title Catalogue and the Digital Developer for the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrewBThomas or on Academia.edu.

 

Image CC0 from Pexels.