During my time working for a social media/digital marketing agency, I contributed to a wide variety of blogs and websites for companies ranging from hospitality services to business technology providers. What I found surprising when starting out was that although the actual content was very different, the format was largely the same – this is basically why social media agencies exist.
The same kinds of rules can be applied to almost any blog, and can help make them more appealing to readers – and, specifically, more appealing to search engine algorithms. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is about making sure your website or blog turns up on the first page of results when someone searches for connected keywords in a site like Google. Google updates and changes its algorithm in order to prevent people from manipulating the system, so marketers have to keep on top of the changes. There’s a lot of trial and error, and there’s a whole industry built around SEO.
Although academic blogging feels like something different – and I’m not suggesting that an academic or teaching blog should be run like a business – there’s a lot that can be learned from applying some basic SEO techniques to academic or educational blogs, and using them can help you reach a wider audience and become a better blogger. Here are ten tips to help your blog posts rank higher (these tips aren’t based on any specific algorithm, but have been shown to work):
Ideally for about every one hundred words of blog post, you should have a link. This might sound high, but in an 800-word post that would be eight links; visually it’s not obtrusive at all, and it provides your reader with further reading. Link to reviews of books you’re discussing, or other blog posts that comment on your topic – what this does is connect you to reputable sites. Ideally, you would share their content and in turn they would promote you; obviously, linking to a review in the Times Higher Education probably won’t lead to them promoting your blog, but other blogs in your field might reciprocate. You can look up the page rank of different websites for free here.
Extra tip: Set new links to open in a new window, so that you’re not sending people away from your own site and giving yourself a high bounce rate (more on this in point 5).
Comments are the holy grail of blogging. They prove to Google that your site is valuable to the people who go on it and that it deserves a high page rank. In order to encourage comments, try to include discussion points in your posts – open-ended questions, calls for responses, etc. In business, posts often end in a Call To Action (CTA) that encourages readers to buy their product or sign up to their service. You might want to instead point readers to other relevant blog posts you’ve written, or ask them to subscribe to your blog. When you do get comments, respond to them! Thank people for taking the time to comment, and keep the conversation going.
Extra tip: Social media is another great way to get the conversation going (see point 7). Without it, I wouldn’t have this fantastically ridiculous picture of Charles Dickens boxing George Henry Lewes to accompany my blog post on (more metaphorical) ‘Dickens bashing’.
Google likes multimedia content, it’s as simple as that. Not only does a post with well-selected images look better, it ranks better. Ideally, each post should have an image and a video. This isn’t always possible and can be a bit contrived, but think of interesting ways of including extra content.
Extra tip: Don’t forget to check that you are legally allowed to use the images you find – you don’t want to be slapped with a £1000 copyright fee. Wikimedia Commons has a whole host of images you can use for free, although you should still attribute the images you use.
This applies to blog posts themselves, but also images and media within posts. Keywords are the way that Google and other search engines direct people to your content. WordPress and other pre-built blog sites include easy tagging – make sure you use this function and think about the words you use. It is important that you include around eight to ten keywords per post, and that these are specific and not misleading. Make sure when you use a keyword in several posts that it’s spelt the same, so that your site is becoming an authority on that topic. Tagging images with the correct metadata enables them to show up in image search engines, adding another way for people to find your site. Image tags should be a literal description of what the image is – think about the words you use to find images yourself.
‘Bounce rate’ refers to the length of time people spend going through your pages before clicking away. A high bounce rate (someone coming to your site and clicking away quickly) suggests to Google that you’ve misled them and that your site isn’t giving readers what you say you will (think of spam pages that literally copy and paste rows of keywords). It’s difficult to ensure a low bounce rate, but there are a few things you can do. Firstly, make sure your keywords are accurate (as above). Secondly, think about who your audience is. If you’re blogging about Victorian life, tagging ‘Taylor Swift’ because you make one jokey pop culture reference is misleading: any Swifties coming to your page are going to leave pretty quickly.
This is tied in with the importance of tagging: keywords should appear regularly in your posts and the focal keyword(s) should definitely be in your title. This might sound very boring – especially for arts and humanities bloggers who have been trained to use the ‘ambiguous quote: vague explanation’ style of title – but it needs to be spelled out if you want people to find it. You should also ensure the main keyword pops up regularly in your content, just to prove to Google that you’re actually writing about what you say you are.
A blog on its own is a gramophone playing to an empty room. It’s almost impossible to get an audience for a blog without promoting it, and the easiest way of doing that is via social media. Share your content with Twitter followers, Facebook friends, maybe even on academia.edu or LinkedIn’s new posting function. Consider adding your blog to your email signature.
A blog post is not a journal article or an essay. One of the most likely causes of a high bounce rate is that you’ve simply written too much and the reader loses interest. The average person spends around three minutes on a blog page, and can read around 200 words per minute. If your post is several thousand words long, it probably isn’t going to get read. Academic audiences might stick it out longer than the average, but this comes down to who you want your audience to be. Are you using your blog as a kind of public engagement, which means you’re trying to appeal to everyday readers? Or do you want it to be read only by experts in your field? Blogging is a skill, and it’s not the same skill as other kinds of writing. Learn how to engage your audience more quickly. This isn’t to say that every post should be short and snappy, but try to make longer posts the exception rather than the rule.
The media has been lighting up with new historical finds recently – perfect for historians who blog. One of my favourite online articles asks whether or not Charles Dickens would have voted for Tony Blair – actually, it’s a review of a book, but this is a nice way into the topic. Find ways to tie your work in with current affairs, TV programmes, and other topics of public interest. It’s good practice for public engagement and impact, too.
The cardinal sin of blogging is to set up a blog, write voraciously for a couple of weeks, and then let it die. This doesn’t do the blogger any credit; anyone who looks at it a year from now will see that you were very committed for two weeks in August 2015, and then never returned to it. Ideally, for SEO purposes, you should be blogging just about every day. That’s certainly never been feasible for me, so I try to post something about once a month (which is very low, and which I don’t always meet). If you have a spurt of enthusiasm, that’s great! Schedule the posts to go out over a period of time so that your content is regular – this is very easy to do with any WordPress site. You can also backdate posts if you’re starting a new blog and want it to look ‘lived in’.
Websites like Google Analytics, or WordPress plug-ins like Yoast, make it very easy to keep on top of basic SEO. Do you find it useful to implement ‘business’ blog tips on your academic or teaching blog? Do you use analytics with your students? For me, bringing social media tips that I’ve gained from working for businesses to academia is a delicate balance, and it’s important not to lose the individuality and personality of your own blog. Should social media skills have a more formal role in HE teaching?
Emily is a PhD candidate at the University of York, working on changing representations of Charles Dickens 1857-1939. You can find her on academia.edu and on Twitter @EmilyBowles_. She also blogs as the Nineteenth Centuryist.
I’ve got a book to write on the Beefeaters at the Tower of London since 1826. I never seem to find time, because like most academics I’ve got too much going on. When History at the University of Huddersfield reviewed its whole curriculum I decided it was time to give up my module on Britain in the 1970s (called Punks, Pigs and Prawn Cocktails), an indulgence based on my liking of The Clash, and thought about a module related to this new book that refused to write itself. I also wanted the chance to develop my own digital skills beyond Twitter and searching nineteenth-century newspapers online (and googling myself). Buoyed up by the support of my colleague Martin Hewitt, we developed a new module called Digital Victorians, for second year History students, which would make use of our department’s brand new collaborative learning suite. This had four tables with their own screens, PCs and cables to link tablets, smart phones and laptops.
We split the students into learning groups of six – one group to each table and divided at random to give them the opportunity to work with new people. We suspected that groups of friends might duplicate skills and so we wanted to try to give them the opportunity to discover what their peers did and didn’t know.
But this wasn’t intended as a module solely to develop digital skills. We wanted the students to think like historians. We wanted them to undertake research and make historical interpretations. At the same time, we wanted the students to move beyond texts, using the digital technologies as tools for learning and dissemination of their interpretations.
To achieve this, they had to connect the digital techniques with primary sources from the start. We wanted them to link the real world and the digital world, as many of them do in their lives outside university. This was, therefore, a module with three field trips. The first was a walk around Victorian Huddersfield. The students went in their groups and had to go in search of prominent Victorian buildings, including the eighteenth-century Cloth Hall that would have dominated the town until it was demolished in 1930. I wanted them all to look at the Byram Arcade, a very small shopping arcade housing independent shops, and I wanted them to navigate the Victorian streets –using the familiarity of Google Maps underlaying the less familiar Victorian Ordnance Survey maps available digitally via the National Library of Scotland. We also visited Leeds Art Gallery and then used its online shop to analyse the Victorian paintings once we were back in the seminar room (we also had a flash visit to the Victorian army barracks next door to the University to see the plaque unveiled by Lord Roberts of Kandahar in 1899 – an example of the imperial connections of Victorian Huddersfield).
We benefitted enormously from being a team of teachers – as well as Martin and me, Allegra Hartley, an English Literature PhD student taught on the module, using Pinterest to explore Victorian gender in some of her seminars.
The module assessment was designed to combine academic and digital skills. The students were asked to write a ‘biography’ of a person, place, object –anything at all Victorian. They had a free choice and were encouraged to think personally about their reasons for their choice, to enable them to ‘reflect’ on their own relationship with the past in a private blog called ‘Victorian Fieldnotes’. They had to think about this ‘biography’ as a piece of writing suitable for a website but based on their historical academic skills.
Students were also allowed free choice of digital element that would accompany their ‘biography’. Across the module, they were introduced to a range of digital tools, from the very simple such as Google Books Ngram Viewer and Wordle to the more complex such as Google Maps and WordPress. We used social media such as Twitter and Pinterest. At the same time, they used existing digital historical resources, such as 19th Century Newspapers (I made them seek out Beefeaters for me) and Dickens Journals Online.
Two students used Vine, which allows users to create six-second long looping video clips. One performed a Robert Louis Stevenson quotation and the other used it to show three buildings in Victorian Bournemouth. Another student combined digital photography with walking a disused railway line near her home, using Pinterest to provide broader context. Another student used Slidely to display her digital photographs of Saltaire. Another interviewed her mother about the importance of Victorian primary sources for family historians. Another constructed a Dipity timeline of when Millais’s Ophelia was exhibited from 1852 to 2013. There were twenty-two students on the module and their creativity shone through. We are going public with their work – we featured some on Twitter, with a Pathé newsreel of the fire that destroyed Crystal Palace in 1936 being retweeted nearly fifty-times – and the rest will go on to a dedicated website.
There were problems. Our collaborative learning suite played up all the way through the module. We were short of time for content. We taught in three-hour blocks, which were too long. Our module evaluation is conducted online. It is digital but only one-third of the students filled it in. This is an example of what happens when digital methods are disconnected from the students’ real lives. But one student evaluated the module as follows:
This module was great – when the technology in the room worked! I have learnt a lot about how to use various internet resources such as Pinterest and have enjoyed learning about the Victorian period though different methods other than just reading books. The field trips made the module interesting and Unilearn [Blackboard VLE] was set out really well, in weekly blocks which made it really easy to follow the seminar work for each week. The support received was great, particularly in regards to the final essay…. I liked being put into groups at the start as it meant I have got to know other students on the course better rather than sitting with those I already knew well. Overall this module has been really fun and I have learnt a lot not only about the Victorian period but other useful resources which I can use in the future. Thanks!
Now, back to that book about the Beefeaters.
Blogging and using digitised archival resources for the first time can seem daunting to students, and also involve the communication of a vast amount of information by a tutor early-on in the course. The peer mentorship scheme was consequently established to offer in-class additional support to students, with mentors providing technical advice on how to set up blogsites and work with online research materials. Each mentor studied on the module last year, and has therefore been able to draw from their previous year’s experiences and understanding of the course to provide informed assistance. Three months on, the ‘Prison Voices’ students reflect on their experiences of blogging and working with their peer mentors.
• All students agree that the mentors provided invaluable help and support with the immediate technical aspects of setting-up their blogs at the beginning of the semester. Without their additional guidance, establishing the blog was seen as a potentially intimidating task. Indeed, one student didn’t like blogging at first, instead finding it “overwhelming and daunting”.
• But having now set-up their blogs and become more confident in their blogging, the ‘Prison Voices’ students (and mentors, both) notice that they do not turn to the mentors for assistance in class, as they did at the beginning of the module. The mentors likewise feel that their initial role ‒ helping students overcome obvious technical or practical queries in class ‒ is shifting.
• Instead, an alternative mentoring role emerged out of the focus group discussion. Each mentor is now assigned to a small group of students who have formed a research team and created their own Facebook group. The closed Facebook group will facilitate peer collaboration, in which mentors will encourage discussion about students’ blog posts, answer any queries, and will assist with peer editing and offer guidance with larger research blogs.
• This Facebook group will also operate as a point of contact between the mentors and their assigned student team. It will enable students to share information about their research and feedback thoughts to the mentor within their peer community.
• It is hoped that this may also promote further communication about their work online amongst their peers when students may otherwise be reluctant to share in classroom discussions with larger groups in the IT suite.
Prison Voices Handbook:
Establishing a ‘Prison Voices’ a Blogging Handbook as part of their mentoring role, the mentors produced guides they thought students would value:
• How to use Twitter
• Writing tips
• Tips on finding a Voice
• Mechanics of structuring an argument
• How to identify sources – primary and secondary
• How to reference properly
Download here: Handbook for Prison Voices FINAL for Blogging Beyond the Classroom
With the mentors having now completed the Handbook, Lucy Murray, second-year ‘Prison Voices’ student, says:
‘The Prison Voices Handbook is a really helpful guide for 2nd year Prison Voices students, it explains clearly how to go about research blogging and using social media effectively. The handbook includes everything from setting up your blog site to helpful reading lists and resources. I found it particularly useful when I came to prepare for my research blog for the Prison Voices website. The handbook includes a research blog plan template which made the process of planning and writing my blog much simpler.’
The Benefits of Blogging and Researching in Class:
Discussing the nature of writing and research, students acknowledge that one of the unique benefits of working on their blog posts in class is that they know what projects their peers are working on. One student reflected: ‘It is valuable to research on your own but in the context of a supportive research community’. Developing an individual blog, however, gives valuable space to students who enjoy working independently, as one member of the focus group explained. While self-discipline is also needed to use the class time effectively, blogging in class helps to develop good writing habits ‒ writing a little but often. Learning to write for a new audience has increased the students’ confidence in their own writing and enhanced their important transferable skills as English undergraduates:
‘Blogging has become a new writing skill which I was able to take into my work experience placement at Influential PR.’
– Laura Shillcock (Prison Voices Student)
Students have also acquired a new sense of pride and ownership about their work:
‘Blogging is a more personal style of writing which has allowed me to put my own stance on my chosen topic; writing this way has made the process more enjoyable.’
– Eleanor Webb (Prison Voices Student)
‘I cannot stress how excited I am to begin this blog site and I hope my genuine enthusiasm reflects in my posts.’
– Ryan Collins (Prison Voices Student)
By Prof. David Turner (Swansea University)
Researching and Re-telling the Past is a second year undergraduate History module at Swansea University. Students taking the module undertake primary research with two aims: to produce an academic essay and to create a public output which conveys the findings of the research to a wider audience. The module is set up so that it can be taught by different members of staff and linked to their research interests. In the past, students have worked in collaboration with a Heritage Lottery Funded project marking the centenary of Swansea City Football Club, researched the archives of Swansea University Student Union, produced educational resources for primary school children visiting a Roman archaeological site, and contributed to the regeneration of the Hafod Copperworks by producing visitor materials.
As lecturer on the module this year, I based the module on disability in nineteenth-century industrial Britain, linking to my Wellcome funded Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948 project. The 8 students taking the class used local archives to research aspects of the hidden history of disabled people and blogged about their findings, with the aim of raising awareness of disability history during UK Disability History Month (22 November to 22 December).
The module was taught using a variety of lectures and seminars. As none of the students had studied disability history before, I used the lecture sessions to provide them with an introduction to the topic, examining key themes such as welfare, education and the perception of disabled children. We also looked at the present political struggles of the disability movement in historical perspective. I introduced the research element to the module straight away, scheduling field trips to the University’s Richard Burton Archives and the West Glamorgan Archive service in the first two weeks of term. Seminars also honed critical analysis of sources, using documents uncovered by my own research and ones found by the students themselves.
In addition to research techniques, I also used the seminars to examine critically different ways of engaging the public, with a focus on blogging and social media. The students used classroom time to find other blogs in disability history to examine their strengths and weaknesses. I encouraged students to evaluate blogs not just in terms of content, but also by their style of presentation and the ways in which they tried to engage readers. We looked at how writing for the public differed from writing a standard university history essay, and discussed examples of other student blog projects using the links on Blogging Beyond the Classroom. This was a valuable experience as students were able to look at what others were doing at different universities and gain tips and inspiration from their work.
Students then formed two groups to create and contribute to blogs on disability history. Initially, the two groups thought of aiming their outputs at their own peer groups. In discussions about what platform to use, students felt that Tumblr would engage a younger audience better than other blogs, and thought that Facebook was more effective than Twitter in creating an audience. However, as the projects evolved, the students’ outlook changed. As they thought about the nature of their outputs, both groups decided that WordPress would provide a more ‘serious’ platform for their work that would enable them to reach a more varied audience. Although both established Facebook groups, they set up Twitter feeds as well (@swandishist, @19DisabilityHis), which attracted followers that included academics and disability organisations on both sides of the Atlantic.
I took the decision to allow each group to set up its own blog, rather than set up a blog for the module as a whole and have students contribute to it. Not seeing material before it appeared online carried risks, but my trust in the students was rewarded. We established from the outset protocols and ground rules for presenting material online and discussed the sensitive issues of language and representation that applied to disability in particular. Allowing the students to manage their own blogs and social media encouraged them to take responsibility for their group projects, gave their work a more distinctive personal ‘identity’, and allowed them full creativity to present their research as they saw fit. Once the blogs had been set up, I asked students to report back regularly in seminars about their blog and social media activity and reflect critically on what was working and what wasn’t. I used my own Twitter feed to promote the blogs which further increased the audience. At the end of the module, the students gave presentations on their work.
You can see the results of the students’ work at http://dhrmonth.wordpress.com and at http://swandishist.wordpress.com. I was impressed by the creativity of both groups and their commitment to keeping their blogs updated. For their assessment, students were told that they had to produce an 800 word end of project article, but both groups went beyond this by writing regular updates about their research, sharing the duties of writing between group members. They fully embraced the principle that the key to successful blogging is to publish ‘little and often’. At a time when we often hear the complaint that students take an instrumental, assessment-focussed approach to their studies, it was great to see how giving students the opportunity to maintain their own blogs encouraged them to write more, take risks by writing about new topics, and think about the value of historical research beyond the university.
Researching and Re-telling the Past is a module that encourages fresh and innovative approaches to teaching and learning on the part of staff and students alike. Many of the students said in their presentations that they would like to continue blogging outside this module, and in particular keep a blog to support their dissertation work in their third year. As a teacher, it has convinced me that blogging is an important pedagogical tool that I want to extend to my other teaching and assessment in the future.
Professor David Turner
Department of History and Classics, Swansea University
By Emma Fleming
When I sat in my first undergraduate seminar at university, the class was told that a learning diary was compulsory. I couldn’t have been more uninspired, unenthusiastic or determined not to produce a notebook filled with forced wishy-washy scribbles… Needless to say, after four busy years, I didn’t leave with a diary.
When I started my postgraduate public history course at a new university and we were told that it might be a good idea, if we would like, to show our opinions along the way in an online blog, I had a ‘here we go again’ feeling. I genuinely didn’t want to waste my time doing something that wasn’t going to earn me any marks, being a bit of an under-confident worrier. HOWEVER, a year later I am a self-confessed blogging convert. It wasn’t forced, and it did appear appealing; publishing creatively online seemed a much more worthwhile and modern idea to me. I was worried that no one would read it and it would leave me feeling exposed. What I soon found out, however, was that a blog gives a unique chance to share, listen, observe and digest absolutely anything by just sitting down and growing your thoughts. Be it a place, a programme, a person or even an emotion, blogs can be a powerful tool to unpick anything. By the end of my degree, without a doubt making the decision to blog had made the year more enjoyable and my learning a more rounded experience. It gave me a space where I could reflect at my own pace and get feedback in a completely open and honest forum. More than anything, it consistently encouraged me to keep going when both historians and friends who were previously indifferent to history said they had enjoyed reading it. This is my blog:
It’s called YoreHistory (wordpress), named because history isn’t mine, it belongs to the public. History doesn’t belong to historians fond of soft gloves, hiding in dimly lit archives, it belongs to us all. During my degree it was perfect because I was able to go about my usual routines yet at the same time click to thinking, ‘I could blog about this’. My blogs have ranged from emotional reactions to a military cemetery visit, thoughts on remembering, thinking or reflecting on period drama and historical traditions to a simple overview of helping writing a Magna Carta trail for kids. The great thing about blogging is its flexibility, it can be as big as you want it to be and filled with whatever you want. What is even more rewarding is nowadays people seem to love to digest information in personal or informal ways, making it win-win when deciding to blog.
Whilst blogging, I was doing my MA at Royal Holloway on the practical Public History course. They let us carve out our own path into public history, and blogs were the tip of the practical projects we were thankfully encouraged to do. My final, larger project was to create a public history resource: an unrestricted, yet complex idea. I decided to research and design a website, Yore Shoes (can you see a pattern emerging here?!). This is my homepage:
While researching and writing, I was really keen for a shift in the way historians talk about history. It should be with the public instead of at them. I also wanted to create something which encouraged people to consider experiences, emotions and imaginations from the past, as well as facts. Giving a twist on fashion history by focusing just on shoes, my intention was to make both well known and unknown historical stories accessible by looking at them in new ways, as blogging should do too. Both high society and ordinary histories were put side by side, educating but also inviting people to achieve one of the simplest yet most complex features of history; standing in someone else’s shoes. Blogging has helped me develop these ideas.
Blogging is dragging weary education practices kicking and screaming into the future. Students shouldn’t be forced into anything, but encouraging them to at least give it a go and offering light feedback seems a phenomenal advantage to me. Coming from a sceptic before giving it a go, the extra effort is beyond worth it in terms of what it develops professionally and personally. Speaking as a quiet personality too, blogs give a really important space and opportunity (away from the pressures of the classroom) to think more, start dialogues, gain authenticity, and above all, gain a voice.
“If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility, scepticism and awareness of ourselves, then it has done something useful”. Margaret MacMillan
The concept is quite simple: different individuals take over a social media account at different times, tweeting their take on a common cause. You’re probably familiar with different people blogging under the same name or for the same account, but you may not have seen it for social media accounts. It allows tweeters to reach a new audience, creates varied content for the followers and shows off the diverse ways of approaching a subject.
The idea originated with @Sweden in 2011, and one look at their account will show you that it’s catching. With 77,500 followers, the account is still going three years later – fulfilling its aim of showing what Sweden has to offer through the eyes of its people. Since it began, the idea has spread to accounts like @RealScientists, celebrating the work done by those working on any aspects of the sciences, and @WetheHumanities which will be celebrating its one-year anniversary in February but has already done great work in demonstrating what the humanities can achieve and the resonances of the work that’s being done. There’s even an account for educators, although sadly it’s only Australia-based.
Projects like Prison Voices, a blog whose content is created by second-year undergraduates in English at Liverpool John Moores University, help students to find a voice through blogging, giving them a platform to begin to express their research ideas without the need for each student to set their own blog up individually. The site itself is filled with diverse content, but the pressure on each individual student is lessened by them working together. Rotation curation accounts can function in a similar way, introducing students to social media in an academic context but meaning it is not just one individual trying to keep the content going. Allowing a team of students to contribute to one account gives them a new way to engage with the digital world – and the tutor is still able to oversee the process. Tying this to blogging is also an excellent way of bringing different kinds of social media and public engagement together.
Obviously there are a few administrative things that need to be sorted to make this concept work: passwords, who will tweet, what kind of content your students should be looking for, and what role you will play as the tutor. Often tutors use hashtags for modules in order to engage students online without prescribing their involvement, but with a little preparation a rotation curation account can be a great way of bringing the work of a module together – and stimulating discussion among your students based on what they find.
This could be a different student every week, or something that students can do as and when they like with a shared password. The latter could mean the account gets neglected, so it might be worth asking students to tweet for a week each (having two or three students per week, if the class is on the bigger side), and then providing an overview of what they’ve been doing in the next week’s seminar. Make sure the students are clear on when they should be tweeting, and what kinds of things they should be saying. One of the great things about a rotation curation account is that you can go in and pick accounts to follow, finding sources for your students to look at, before letting them loose to find their own material. Rotation curation accounts like this provide a safe space for students to try out their own ideas, and the account can be used with future modules, or future classes on the same module, allowing you to build up your (and their) audience. It’s an excellent way of encouraging students to find digital materials to incorporate into their work, think about their academic voice, and get used to engaging with social media.
Let us know if you’ve tried a class rotation curation account, we’d be very interested to hear how it went and any tips you have! There are also suggestions for curating content here, and a post on dos and don’ts for using Twitter.]]>
Cleo has started a fully-funded PhD on contemporary dystopian fiction at Lancaster University and John is studying for an MA in Renaissance Literature at Liverpool University. Both continue to use social media to develop their research, academic networks and to communicate their work. Follow them on twitter @WhimsicalCleo and @John_England92.
You can read Cleo’s author blog on Harry West (born 1880) here and John’s author blog on Lottie Martin (1899-1976) here. Both contributed research to this joint blog on working-class friendship and this Radio 4 programme on 500 Years of Friendship.
On Sunday 23rd November, Kim Edwards Keates and I were invited to give a presentation at Gladstone’s Library Victorian Studies Colloquium. Our discussion shared Helen Rogers’ ‘Blogging Beyond the Classroom’ project, which is an online forum for students and tutors to exchange ideas about the use of blogging as a teaching and learning platform for academic studies. I briefly explained my experiences at University while part of a newly established third-year undergraduate module, ‘Writing Lives’, a collaborative research project that enables students to transcribe, research and publish online blogs about nineteenth and twentieth-century working-class life writing.
‘Writing Lives’ was different as a module because it did not seem to be just about producing an essay every semester, but rather, a new research project that developed student skills in researching, writing, editing, proofreading for the web, and enabling students to gain experience of using print and electronic information sources. ‘Writing Lives’ is a project that aims to make information accessible to all, creating online access to archival materials for people who may not have the necessities to travel to museums or libraries, and to encourage people to be active in their local community, giving a voice to everyday people and promoting an interest in culture and heritage. On the other hand, we also provide information for people who may go to museums and libraries for work, study or pleasure and choose to conduct their own research in the comfort of their own home. Starting to self-educate, they become autodidactic, realising their own potential.
I wanted to work on the ‘Writing Lives’ project because I want to become an archivist or librarian, and this project came across as a perfect opportunity. I personally have always found social history fascinating, but also, ‘Writing Lives’ provided a chance to demonstrate a high level of commitment to continuous personal and professional development within Humanities. For me, the skills I wanted to gain as a result of the project such as data, information management, preservation of digital resources, using social media, and sharing heritage in the modern world, was certainly realised. The project involved a hands-on approach to research. This developed a sense of freedom, taking ownership of our work, becoming detectives of the social history world.
The module was designed to enable students to develop advanced literary historical research. We ‘adopted’ an author from The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies housed at Brunel University Library, and worked on transcribing their memoir (some were handwritten, others typed) and conducted research on their life and writing, hence becoming literary detectives. The purpose was to examine what their writing tells us about working-class lives and culture, including childhood, education, politics, religion and their working lives. The memoir I chose to work on was that of a man named James McKenzie. Because this handwritten memoir was 50,000 words long, and we only had technically a few weeks to produce the blogs and an annotated introduction, I shared the work and study of McKenzie’s memoir with a colleague; we thought on this occasion teamwork was wise. The title of his memoir is ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man.’
While transcribing his memoir, we learnt about the writer and we followed his narrative and expression; we preserved what he had to say and how he said it. WE DID NOT CORRECT any spelling mistakes throughout the memoir as that told us about his identity and development – learning to read and write – his handwriting, and even the history of spelling and grammar. But what does this say about his autobiography? Why did he want to write an autobiography?
Back when we first started his memoir, what interested us the most was the fact that he called himself a circus showman. Circuses are not often seen anymore and travelling fairs are seen less by the year because of the rise in technology and the other ways we entertain ourselves. It was interesting to research the popularity of the circus in the late nineteenth century and the many forms of the travelling fair, which were significantly for the masses. McKenzie was orphaned at a very young age and raised by his fortune-telling Grandmother; did his wanderlust come from family influences? He lived with various other relatives throughout his childhood, suggesting his thoughts on family life and why he wanted to live life on the road, dedicating his life to travelling. Despite having no formal education, his writing was articulate and formative, which raised questions about his education: was he home-schooled or did he eventually go to school, for instance?
Day’s Menagerie. Oxford St Giles Fair. 1895.
There was a lot of research conducted by all the ‘Writing Lives’ students; the majority consisted of online research from sources such as Ancestry.co.uk, for example. We referred to previous web-based research from other blogs and archives from Universities, too. Michelle Whittle and I travelled to Sheffield to visit Dr Vanessa Toulmin and the National Fairground Archive which was a major help for us in conducting our research.
Since graduating, I took the liberty of managing the ‘Writing Lives’ Facebook page. Going back to my thoughts about making information accessible, I think social media is a fantastic way to encourage people to participate in the cultural world, and it was only a matter of time before we turned to Facebook or Twitter to help make that influence. For me, as someone who used Facebook socially in the past, managing this page has certainly helped educate me in how to use social media as a marketing tool and as a scholarly source. As a result of working on the project, it has made me realise that I would like to continue with my research on this project, and my next step is to work with the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. I have volunteered to go to the library to work through the volumes of the Burnett Bibliography to compile a list of the memoirs that they hold, and also those not in the Bibliography. Hopefully, the purpose of the outcome is to see if we can identify the WCML holdings and cross-reference it to the autobiographies that we already hold, so then Helen and the team can budget for digitisation, to enable the ‘Writing Lives’ project to expand. I will investigate if any of the libraries holdings are already available online to ensure we don’t digitise works that are already publicly available. This will also help as part of my own personal development, in eventually becoming a librarian and an archivist. All of this will enable me to gain experience before starting my MRes next year in working-class reading and autobiography by focusing my research on one topic – reading and writing and looking at authors from the archive, interpreting their experiences, and discussing how reading is shaped by class experiences, education, even gender.]]>
On this module students set up and write weekly posts on their own individual blogsite and work on two longer research blogs for the class website Prison Voices. The Handbook includes our guidelines for setting up a wordpress blog, marking criteria for the individual blogsites and the two research blogs, advice on doing online research and using social media to promote our individual and collective work.
Please feel free to use and adapt material from this Handbook. We ask only that you acknowledge our work and that you tell us what you have found helpful.
We are keen to share and swap ideas and resources with other students and teachers. Please let us know in the comments if you have alternative ideas for running, resourcing and assessing this kind of online learning. If you would like to write about your own course for Blogging Beyond the Classroom, please email email@example.com
The paper also features an account of the LJMU ‘Change Liverpool’ Blogging Beyond the Classroom student mentorship scheme, as well as the experiences of using digitised archival resources in undergraduate research projects and beyond.]]>