Emily VanBuren is a PhD student in history at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.
I’m wrapping up the second year of my PhD in history, and it’s been a big one. This year, I figured out what I'm writing my dissertation about. I finally identified how all of my research interests fit together and pinpointed the specific question I'm trying to answer. I persuaded my advisor that this project matters and makes sense. I assembled a committee. I tackled a mountain of reading in order to situate my project in the existing literature. I pored over dozens of archival databases and library finding aids and bibliographies to identify the relevant primary sources. I came up with a catchy working title. I developed a detailed chapter outline. I wrote a grant proposal. I drafted the prospectus. I drank a lot of coffee. I felt like I had accomplished something.
And then I realized I forgot to tackle one important question:
Am I going to blog about this thing?
I’d always anticipated that once I made it through the vicissitudes of coursework and qualifying exams, I would decide whether or not to commit myself to documenting my dissertation project online. I’d assumed that because my schedule would be a bit less structured, I might finally have the energy to transition from the sleepy Tumblr blog I don’t use much right now to a more substantial hub for my ideas and questions. But the final weeks of this academic year are drawing near, and I still haven’t figured out the answer.
I’ve been making a mental list of pros and cons. To be honest, on the one hand, sharing my research with the internet feels a bit daunting. Not because I’m afraid of getting scooped (though of course that would be awful, I’m crossing my fingers that it’s more an urban legend than an actual hazard), but rather because I’m apprehensive about drawing conclusions and making arguments in public, before I’m absolutely certain about what I want to say. More than anything, I’m worried about making a claim that I might regret and want to retract. What if I send it out into the ether and then find out that I’m wrong? Would that be embarrassing or not? There’s also the issue of whether or not making too much of the first research project available online jeopardizes one’s chances at peer-reviewed publication, though I won’t pretend to know enough about that to offer an assessment (but here are a few links offering various perspectives on completed dissertations and public access: 1 2 3 4 5). I also worry about the scheduling commitment necessary for this sort of online project. Now that I’m confronting it up-close, I can see how time-intensive the dissertation process really is. Adding in the task of maintaining a research blog seems like it could be a bit exhausting. And how do bloggers navigate property restrictions when sharing archival photographs, scans, and data? These questions have all been whirring around in my head as I try to figure out whether I should blog about my dissertation research.
But on the other hand, while my project is not a “digital dissertation, ” I can think of a handful of potential benefits of maintaining a research blog. First of all, thinking about how to communicate my research findings from the very beginning of the process would help me to articulate my questions and arguments more cogently (see this excellent piece by Maria Konnikova). And knowing that I’m sharing my research with a public audience (what fellow GradHacker Justin Dunnavant has called “thinking out loud”) might help me to remain motivated and productive. Writing on a regular basis might help me to just plain keep writing (see this piece by Maxime Larivé, for example). Additionally, writing and thinking in public might help me to overcome the nervousness that accompanies sharing one’s research. It might help me to discover and network with people who are working on related topics, and to better connect my project to current scholarship. I like historian George Campbell Gosling’s idea that blogs are like “the research seminars and conferences that we can all make it to.” And finally, it might be nice to have a sort of archive that allows me to chart how my project evolves over time.
So, to no one’s surprise, it seems that there are potential risks and benefits here. I’ve been combing the internet in search of an answer, reading every blog entry and advice column I can find about why you may choose to blog or not to blog about your dissertation research. But I thought it might be helpful for those other graduate students out there wrestling with this decision to just ask the readers here.