Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On Editing a History Blog

John Fea

I am glad that Randall Stephens asked me to write something about my short blogging career. With the exception of a presentation I gave recently to a few faculty and staff at Messiah College, I have never thought systematically about what I do at
The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I am grateful for the opportunity to post some of the ideas about blogging that have been swishing around in my head during the last couple of years.

I wrote my first comment on a blog in July 2007. It was posted at Paul Harvey's brand new
Religion in American History. Within a week or so I was his first "Contributing Editor." I owe much of my blogging career to Paul. His vision for a blog that would combine opinion, news from the profession, historical reflection on current events, and new research seemed to be a wonderful outlet for my rather eclectic interests in American history, religious history, and academic life. I wrote a lot of posts for Religion in American History during that year when RiAH picked up a Best New Blog award from HNN. I found that blogging satisfied my itch for engaging new ideas in the context of religion and American history.

In June of 2008 I decided to start my own blog. My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, appeared a few months earlier and a publicity editor at Penn Press suggested that a blog might be a useful way to promote it. After having blogged with Paul for a year, I was now feeling pretty comfortable with the genre and format and thought that a blog, named after the title of my book, might help me branch out a bit beyond American religious history.

If you go back and look at some of the early posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home you will notice that I tended to focus almost exclusively on the book and the life of its subject, the virtually unknown eighteenth-century diarist Philip Vickers Fithian. Eventually I began adding posts on other dimensions of early American history, Christianity and religious history, academic life, politics, and the occasional post about Springsteen, writing sheds, and speaking engagements.

I guess you could say that the turning point of my experience was a post I wrote about two hours after Sarah Palin was chosen as John McCain's running mate in the summer of 2008. “Does Sarah Palin Speak in Tongues" drew over 1000 hits in a six or seven hour period. I think I may have been the first person in the blogosphere to write something—anything—about Palin's Pentecostal background. I cross-posted the entry over at Religion in American History and I think it still may be the most visited post on that blog.

After the Palin incident, my readership stabilized a bit, but from that point forward it has remained pretty steady. On a good day I get several hundred visits. While this is a far cry from the Daily Dish or the Huffington Post or Religion in American History, I think it is still pretty good for a blog that engages the kinds of things that interest me as a historian and a Christian. At the end of 2009 I began blogging daily—a task that requires me to take about an hour a day to read (or in some cases skim) a host of different Internet sites. I usually write my blog posts early in the morning and post them on the site throughout the day.

I am often asked about my target audience at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. To be honest, I am not sure that I have one. Some posts I write for my family and friends just to let them know what I am doing with my life. Others I write with fellow professors or academics in mind. Others I write with my students in mind. We recently celebrated our second anniversary at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and over those two years I have developed a very loyal readership that includes college students, graduate students, professors, clergy, and all kinds of everyday folk. Hard-core academics will probably find the blog a bit light, but I am not writing for hard-core academics. I target most of my posts with an average history teacher or college-educated reader in mind.

I seldom discuss my personal life on the blog, although I have no hard and fast rule about NOT discussing my personal life. (When I have discussed my personal life I get lots of encouraging e-mails and Facebook notes). I do, of course, occasionally offer my opinion on things, but I think that most of the time the topics and articles that I post and engage with say more about me than any random opinion I might offer. I guess you might call The Way of improvement Leads Home a blog that sits somewhere between the personal and the professional.

I think it is also worth mentioning that I started the blog after I got tenure. I just felt more comfortable doing it that way. I also benefit from the fact that I teach at a liberal-arts college that encourages me in my work as a blogger. I have added my blog to my c.v. and might even be willing to make an argument for having it count for tenure and promotion as a form of public scholarship or professional service.

I am always looking for good ideas for the blog, especially stuff for my "So What CAN You Do With a History Major" and my "Places" feature. If you are attending a conference related to some of the themes of the blog and want to serve as a correspondent, please let me know. I would love to have you contribute something. Guest posts are always welcome. I also hope that some of you might connect with the blog through Facebook or via Google.

I am not sure how long I will be blogging, but I don't see myself stopping anytime in the immediate future. It does take time and occasionally takes me away from other projects, but one of the things I like about blogging is that it provides a nice little break from my other work. Sometimes it only takes just 15 minutes or so to get a quick post "up" at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This makes it easier to keep the blog active and keep my readers coming back.

If you are interested in blogging I would be more than happy to share whatever I have learned. Feel free to drop me a note.


Randall said...

John: Thanks for the post. Your blog has been a great service to the profession. I point my students to your series on the major in history! Wonderful material.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

As someone who is asked from time to time to blog, I appreciate this clear discussion. I am especially intrigued by the daily discipline you've cultivated. I still find it really hard to write something that is suitably thoughtful yet not overly academic--and to do it quickly. It will be interesting to see where blogs fit into academic culture in the future--especially as you mentioned, when we're tallying our accomplishments for things like tenures, etc.

And I'll be trolling your blog for ideas for my students regarding "things to do with a history major."


Monica said...

Thanks for the Post..........
I like your post from your heart, very interesting and Informative
Monica Sharma

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