On Academic Blogging – a Conversation with Matt Burton

Papyrus, Wikimedia Commons, http://bit.ly/1DkaNWG

Matt Burton, who is working on new web genres and informal scholarly communication, asked me some questions recently as part of his research. We thought it would be interesting to share our conversation.

MB: When did you start your blog (career wise: as a grad student,  undergrad, etc)?

I recently pulled my entire blog archive into github, as part of my open-notebook workflow. (http://shawngraham.github.io/open-notebook/ll_CC/#!pages/uploads/blogarchive/posts/contents.md)

 I see there that I posted my first post on Dec 18, 2006. I was, at the time, working in what would now be recognized as alt-ac, doing contract research for Kevin Kee at Brock U, as well as freelance heritage consulting work, some online teaching, and substitute teaching at the local high school. This was after my post-doc, nearly four years to the day that I won my PhD.

MB: Why did you decide to start blogging?

Earlier in the year I had won a spot at the first digital humanities workshop at Lincoln Nebraska. John Bonnett of Brock, whom I’d met at CAA 2006 in Fargo, saw the advertisement and forwarded it to me. (John was an early champion of my work in Canada, and I’m eternally grateful for that!) I met there folks like Alan Liu, Katharine Walter, William Thomas, Stephen Ramsay. I didn’t appreciate it then, but that was the seminal moment for me. At the workshop where I presented my work on agent based modelling of Roman social structures, I distinctly remember Alan saying, ‘you’ve got a nice static website; have you thought about blogging?’  Thereupon the room began discussing how a blog for my work might, well, work.  My postdoc terminated that September, and when I was out of the warm embrace of academia, I decided ‘what the hell; what am I afraid of?’ and I started blogging. I posted three times that day, along with a statement of why I’m blogging. I framed it as a record of my explorations in virtual worlds.

Even then, it was a kind of open notebook. Kevin, the other major supporter of my work in those early days, let me count the writing of blog posts towards the more general research goals of the projects he was employing me on. We expect projects these days to blog, but in those days, I think it was still fairly novel. I wasn’t even blogging about the main project, just the side roads and blind alleys I was stumbling around.

MB How do you host your blog, i.e. Do you use a generic web-host like Dreamhost with WordPress, do you use a blogging service like Blogger.com

I’m using plain old wordpress.com, though I did invest in buying a domain name. Initially, I’d called it ‘electric archaeology’ but in the wordpress.com domain I’d called it electricarchaeologist.wordpress which was, well, confusing and annoying. I host my course blogs with Dreamhost, which over the years has gotten more clunky it seems. That’s just an impression.

MB How did you learn to set up your blog? 

I spent an inordinate amount of time farting around with the settings, themes, etc. At one point I was the tech support for an online liberal arts college start up; because I’d pressed the button on a one-click dream host install of Moodle, that made me the most technically proficient person there.

Scary thought.

Anyway, they had a wordpress merged with moodle arrangement, and one day I utterly bolloxed up the moodle upgrade, which broke everything. I printed out every php file I could find, and with the help of a friend, laid them out on the floor, drawing arrows to connect files by dependencies, shared tables, etc, to sort out the mess.

I learned a lot that day. Primarily, that I didn’t like web development. I’ve stuck more or less with whatever the free theme gods throw my way, since then. My online tenure & promotion portfolio is built on wordpress (graeworks.net) and involved a bit of hacking around to get the right plugins I wanted.

MB What are the challenges with maintaining your blog (i.e. spam, approving comments, dealing with trolls, etc)?

Spam. Spam spam spam spam!

I don’t get many comments. I know people read the thing, but since I don’t often write long discursive pieces, I guess I just don’t attract that much in the way of comments. Although I do get emails directly in response to things I’m doing on the blog, so I suppose that counts.

The biggest issue is maintaining drive. It helps to keep in my mind that this is a research blog, an open notebook, the narrative bits that help me make sense of all the digital ephemera littering my computers. I often have to consult the blog to remind myself just what the hang I’ve been working on. Initially I was posting quite regularly, but over the years it goes in fits and starts.

MB What topics do you normally write about? Do you try and keep it strictly academic, or do you mix in other topics?

I like to futz about with new (digital) toys, to make them do unexpected things, to think through how they might be of use to others, to figure out how to tell others how they might want to use them. I do bits of analyses, munge data together to share with others. I do mix in other non academic stuff from time to time. For a while, the National Geographic channel used to send me dvds to review prior to one of their big ratings weeks. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but after I wrote, of one episode, ‘bollocks’, the dvds stopped coming.

Probably a coincidence.

MB If you allow comments on your blog, do you often get comments? What has been your experience managing comments/commenters on your blog?

Again, not so much. Probably a function of the content, I suppose. Dealing with spam that gets by akismet is tiring though.

MB What kinds of interactions (scholarly or otherwise) emerge out of your blogging practice?

I like to say that my transformation from a ho-hum bog standard Roman brick guy (and there’s more of us than that sentence would lead you to think) into this thing ‘digital humanities’ was a direct consequence of the blogging. The blogging gained my simulation work (not many DH’ers do agent modelling) a larger audience, which led to many of my how-tos, to email exchanges with grad students (for the most part) who are now getting established in various places; invitations to contribute to edited volumes, conferences, and journals, speaking engagements – all this while I was formally outside of academia. Before twitter, the blogging helped me maintain a sense of community, a sense of purpose for my intellectual curiosity that I didn’t get in my day-to-day scramble to pay the bills. I think I might be the first person in Canada to be hired to a post formally with ‘digital humanities’ in the title (though of course I’m not saying I was the first DH person!!) and it was the blogging, the exposure to and engagement with wider trends going on in computational humanities beyond archaeology, that allowed me to say with confidence, ‘yes, I’m the DH person you’re looking for’.

The blogging made me.

MB Do you find these interactions informative, useful, enlightening, tedious, frustrating, obligatory, etc? How do they feel?

I still get excited when there’s a comment on the blog. The Louis Vitton bag people, they complete me.

Real comments send me over the moon. They’ve led to many productive relationships and partnerships.

MB How do you think digital humanities blogging is different from more traditional forms of academic writing and reading?

I think it’s a return, in some ways, to academic discourses of earlier, not-second-half-of-the-20th-century ways. But that’s mostly an impression; I’m pretty foggy on most things after AD 300. But I like the reflexivity of digital humanities blogging, the exploration of not just what the tool can do, or what computation has perhaps thrown into new light, but the consideration of what that does to us as researchers, as a public.

MB How would you characterize the relationship between blogging and the digital humanities (however broadly conceived)?

Not everybody has to blog. Nor should they. It’s perfectly possible to be a productive dh person and not blog. But speaking for myself, I think blogging keeps things fresh. We’re working on a book; the blogged draft has already had a bit of an impact. I’m worried the paper version will already be dated by the time it comes out (though this is one of the fastest book projects I’ve ever been involved with), precisely because the most interesting conversations are happening across the blogs, faster than the formal apparatus can keep up. But that’s ok.

MB What DH blogs/bloggers do you read and why do you read them? What do you like about them?

A partial list: I read Scott and Ian, obviously; Ted Underwood; Elijah Meeks, Alan Liu, Bethany, Ben Schmidt, Mills Kelley, Tom Brughmans, Caleb Daniels, Profhacker, Donna Yates, Colleen Morgan, Lorna Richardson, playthepast.org… it rather depends on what project I’m working on. I followed Stu Eve religiously for a while as he puzzled out the problems of an embodied GIS. Now that that project is done – and I’m not teaching locative computing for historians at the moment – I’ve moved away a bit. So has Stu, for that matter. It all really depends on what’s going on, and what’s caught my attention. I’m a bit of a magpie. dhnow is essential though for its global view.

I read these folks for the way they dissect ideas as much as for any how-tos or code they share. They help me see bigger picture. Some of them are historians, some are english-flavoured dh, others are archaeologists.

MB What was your most popular blog post? Why do you think it was so popular?

The all-time most popular post on my blog, according to wordpress stats, are:

Civilization IV World Builder Manual & other needful things


Getting Started with MALLET and Topic Modeling


Moodle + WordPress = Online University


So, two how-tos, and one that seems to have hit some kind of SEO sweetspot, since it’s fairly anodyne. A follow up to that last one hasn’t been as popular:

WordPress + Moodle (not equal to) Online University


But if you asked for my favourites, I’d say:

Signal Versus Noise: Why Academic Blogging Matters: A Structural Argument. SAA 2011


How I Lost the Crowd: A Tale of Sorrow and Hope


What is the half-life of blog posts, I wonder? The blogging represents quite a sustained effort. I did the math; I’ve written enough tweets to fill two typical academic books; I have no idea how many words these 700 (or so) blog posts I’ve got add up to. But I do think the sustained effort of writing regularly has made me a better writer. (Reader, you may wish to disagree!)

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