Do what you do well already, but in public


Thoughts on academic communication and knowledge exchange. Not the public engagement that you SHOULD do, rather what you CAN do without much added effort.

Confession: I have five active twitter accounts. I am, for better or worse @DrDonnaYates, @StolenGods, @CultureTraffic, @LegoAcademics and, as of this morning, @AcademicCFPs. [UPDATE: this twitter account was too much work so it is defunct! No shame!] This sounds crazy, but they all serve different purposes and are all a minor part of my normal work flow. They are easy-peasy bits of public engagement: I not only enjoy them, but they very clearly enrich my research.

In November I spoke about being an ‘engaged’ academic to Early Career Researchers at an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded workshop in Edinburgh. My first goal: to not be boring. My second goal: to start a discussion about how academics can (and maybe must) be public without it ruining all of the other academic things that we need to do. My third goal: not miss a flight to Paris. Number 3 was no trouble at all (trams!). Number 1 was achieved through snazzy images and an informal tone (I shall write about my conference presentation methods another time). Number 2, well, I hope that the attendees got something out of my general silliness and that I didn’t terrify them too much. I wanted everyone to realise that there is a lot they CAN do but nothing specific that they SHOULD do. That they needed to develop their own form of public engagement around their own skills and needs.

When I was preparing that presentation I spent some time reflecting on my own work: the traditional academic side and the social, public side. I was trying to pin down exactly why I don’t get burnt out from knowledge exchange stuff (when I very much do for other things). When I distilled it all down two clear criteria emerged for worthwhile projects: 1. Everything I do publicly brings me something tangible for my career and 2. Everything I do I was kinda doing anyway, I just added a public side to it. I think that this is the key, the sweet spot, the balance that all academics need to strike. This isn’t what you SHOULD be doing, this is what you CAN do without much added effort.

A few examples to explain what I mean.

Culture Crime News

Every morning, while I am drinking coffee and trying to wake up, I sift through archaeology, heritage, and art crime news. It gets my head in the right place for work and it makes me feel on top of things. I not only slowly move towards consciousness, but I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what is going on in my research area. It occurred to me one morning that, as I was reading all this stuff anyway, I could collect the articles for others to read. That I could transmit them throughout the day via Twitter (thus providing high quality topical content for my account) AND that I could set up a dedicated weekly list both on my cultural property crime blog and an email newsletter. A few thousand people look at the blog entry every week. About 200 people receive the news letter. That number seems low, however half of those people are reporters and most of the rest are very interested academics.

To recap, by adding one step to my morning routine, by simply entering article details into a spreadsheet as I read them and by sending that to an email list on Monday mornings, I become a standard source of topical art crime news for reporters and other academics. People visit my blog (and see my other writing), and interested parties get a weekly email from me. I look active and on the ball. I network without having to network. As an unexpected bonus, my own Culture Crime News posts have become a reference for me…to find links to old articles.

Perfect. The action benefits me and it only required a small addition to something I was doing anyway.

My Blogs

I write. A lot. All the time. Most of it is rubbish. Much of it is crazy. A good portion has some seed of interest in there which will never be expanded upon beyond 700 or so words. To put it mildly, I have a lot of obsessions and I research them thoroughly and if I don’t expel them via writing it becomes hard for me to concentrate on what I should be working on. For example, I should be writing an European Research Council grant proposal right now, yet I am typing this blog entry. But not without purpose: I am ‘warming up’ for ‘real’ writing.

In several cases, the process of writing these blog entries has allowed my thoughts on a topic to mature and take solid form. Some blog entries that I conceived of as one-offs have become full academic papers (published!). If I didn’t have this low key forum to try the words out at, those papers would never have happened. Furthermore, I have received interesting research leads from academics and others who have chanced upon my blog entries. Often these are people with stories to tell about the looting and trafficking of antiquities: invaluable to my real work. I would never have had contact with these people without the random blog entries.

Perfect again. Writing blog entries facilitates more formal academic writing. I’d be writing silliness anyway, the only addition is that I put my silly online.

Stolen Gods

I am starting to focus in on the theft, trafficking, sale, and preservation of sacred art. I think there are important research and policy questions in this area that need investigation. I am very likely to be the one to do that investigating. As I geared up for that (and started thinking about writing grants), I wanted to create a media and journal paper archive of articles that relate to this topic for my own use. I wanted it to be searchable and tagged in a certain way. Basically, I wanted to lay the groundwork for data collection that I know I will do anyway, to spread it out rather than have it be one awesome impossible task.

At first this database I was creating was private. However, I realised that the only thing that was keeping me from turning it into a public knowledge exchange project was a website to host it. Thus, with spectacular help, the Stolen Gods Website came into being. You want news on threats to sacred art? Go there.

Once again, perfect. I honestly was collecting this data anyway. Posting it to the website is the same as putting it in my private database, and this way I am publicly declaring my interest in the topic, attracting the attention of potential collaborators, and hopefully sparking other research into Sacred Art trafficking by maintaining a useful public repository of resources.

@AcademicCFPs [Now defunct]

So that brings me to this morning. As previously stated, I write a lot, and I am interested in publication opportunities because I want to be able to put food on my (academic) table. I found that the few twitter accounts dedicated to Calls for Papers were either uber Sci-Techy or were way too disciplinary focused. I’m multidisciplinary…not so multidisciplinary as to look at Comp Sci calls but multidisciplinary enough to feel that archaeology CFP accounts won’t show me the full range of what is on offer.

In my twitter application I started following the terms “Call for Papers” and “#CfP” with the intention of scrolling through those a few times every day. And then, like before, it occurred to me that as I scrolled through I could retweet the promising ones that fall on the Arts/Humanities/Soc Sci side of things. If I wanted this dedicated CfP twitter account to exist, others would as well.

Word of advice, academics: if you want something to exist you have to make it.

Suffice to say, @AcademicCFPs is now a thing. It has 59 followers and has only existed for 12 hours. I’ll keep it up provided it doesn’t take up much time. As it stands, I get academia kudos and I stay on top of publishing opportunities. I’ve already found a volume that I am going to submit an abstract to tomorrow.

You can totally do this

So, dear reader, I challenge you to evaluate your normal routine. Think about the information you collect on a daily basis, think about the stuff you aggregate for yourself, and think about the data artefacts that you generate. Is there something that you do already that could go public with very little effort? I think probably so. Is that thing useful or interesting to other people? Very likely if it is interesting and useful to you. Will sharing it help your career/research/life? In my experience, yes, but you’ll have to consider that for yourself.

And be bold! Absolutely no one notices when a digital knowledge sharing project fails. I’ve tried so many projects that I have later abandoned because they were unpopular, they were too much work, or they didn’t have the expected benefits for me. One example was a Spanish language twitter account focused on archaeology and art crime news translated from English. The market for that was already saturated, it was quite time consuming for me, and the contacts in South American heritage management that I had hoped for never materialised. I scrapped the thing after a month.

Don’t start a blog if blogging isn’t your thing. You are just going to burn yourself out. Same goes for twitter or, really, anything else that you are told that you should do. Don’t force it. Rather, enhance what you are good at, what you are up to already. Always ask ‘can this have a public face’ and don’t be afraid to give it a try and abandon it if it doesn’t work for you.