By Holly Tucker
My family and I spent last weekend at the Decatur Book Festival, just outside of Atlanta. On Saturday, I had the chance to talk about Blood Work, to a crowd of just under 200 people. And the following day, I joined the wonderful Maryn McKenna and Tony Martin on a panel about communicating science online.
Tony opened the panel with a brief overview of his paleontology blog and talked about how online science writing can provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the work of researchers. He also stressed that this type of outreach can be an important way to demonstrate to the larger public the relevance of science in our lives.
A former newspaper reporter, Maryn spoke of the way that online writing allowed her to keep her work, and her name, visible to a broad readership while she went underground to write her book, Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. Her work has paid off. Last year, WIRED magazine offered Maryn a much-coveted gig as one of their premier science bloggers.
I have to admit that when I was listening to Tony and Maryn, I felt like an imposter. I’m not a scientist, like Tony. I’m not an award-winning journalist, like Maryn.
So battling my own insecurities, I truly didn’t know what I was going to say when I stepped up to microphone. My first sentence came tumbling out something like this:
“When I first started my blog, I was afraid. As an academic, I was deathly afraid that someone would ‘find me out.’ That by the very virtue of having a blog, I would be seen as somehow less than serious. So I did everything to remain personally invisible–while crafting posts for a blog, the most visible medium around.”
I wonder now, some three years later, why I was so afraid of being “caught.” And I wonder now just how well-grounded that fear was in reality for academics like me. Still, I plowed forward.
I wanted to write to a larger readership, rather than the 10 or 12 people in a narrow academic field–which has, regrettably, been too long the case for many Ph.D.s I just had too many good stories about the past to keep them all to myself.
As I was talking about the origins of the blog, I looked over at Maryn. Let’s be clear: the only reason why I was in Decatur talking at this panel in the first place was because of her and because of our shared online work.
Maryn and I first “met” a few years ago via Twitter and her own blog. She had recommended me to Marc Merlin, the founder of the Atlanta Science Tavern. The Science Tavern had sponsored a special author track at the Festival, which included my book talk and the blogger panel among others.
When I sat down after my brief presentation, I realized that the last time I had seen Maryn was in Doha, Qatar this past summer. And there again is another wonderful story of online connection.
As editor of Wonders & Marvels, I get a chance to reach out to just about any writer I want who shares a similar interest in history or the history of science. Pulitzer-prize winning Deborah Blum (The Poisoner’s Handbook) was one of them.
I have long adored Deborah’s work–but was too nervous to make contact with her. But thanks to Wonders & Marvels, I suddenly had an excuse. I asked her to contribute a post related to her new book. Deborah did a fantastic post about the 1920s starlet Olive Thomas’s death by poison.
Thanks to this interaction, Deborah and I stayed in touch. She gave incredibly generous feedback on my forthcoming book. We met in real-life in Madison for the first time about a year later. We saw each other again in Florida for a panel at the UCF Book Festival. We continued to correspond. And then Deborah, who was program chair for the World Conference of Science Journalists invited me to present at the WSCJ conference this summer.
From Wonders & Marvels to the Middle East. Oh, the magic of a modest little blog.
Just has this blog has seen so many different iterations over the past years, so have I as a writer and a scholar. I did everything I could at first to make sure that my “secret” would be safe. Now, I am so proud of the community that we have all built here that I have no problem acknowledging to my academic colleagues.
As we speak, I’m up for promotion to Full Professor. I included this website as part of the copious documentation (books, articles, teaching evaluations, statements of endeavors) required for faculty reviews.
Does online engagement help a tenure or promotion case? My guess is no, especially if the core materials aren’t there (excellent teaching, fantastic scholarship and publications, plus university service). But can it hurt?
You decide. On Wednesday, my department voted to promote me.
What stories about your own thoughts/interactions/successes do you have about online interactions? And any academics out there? What do you have to day about all of this?