Dynamic Ecology live at Virginia Tech on April 7–help me write my talk!

The Virginia Tech Fish and Wildlife Conservation Graduate Student Association (FWCGSA) has kindly invited me to give a talk on April 7 (time and location TBD; I’ll update the post when I know more). They want me to talk about blogging as a way of communicating ecology, and how it relates to more traditional forms of communication like peer-reviewed papers.

This will be the first time I’ve ever given a talk on blogging. On the one hand, I’m quite keen to do it, I think it’ll be a fun change of pace from the usual sort of research seminar. On the other hand, I’m very unsure how to do it. Like pretty much every academic, I know how to give a research seminar. How to structure it like a story, what level of detail to include, the appropriate pace, etc. And I also know how to adjust the content and presentation for different audiences (e.g., ecologists vs. a broader group of biologists vs. mathematicians). But while I’ve written a lot about blogging and its relationship to other ways of communicating science (see here, here, and here), I’m not sure how to give a good talk on it.

And I do want the talk to be good! As a speaker, you always want the audience to feel that the time they spent listening to you was time well spent. Plus, apparently the FWCGSA got together as a group and picked me as their top speaker nominee. Which in all honesty is both tremendously flattering and a little intimidating.* Out of all the people they could’ve chosen, they picked me–I feel like I’d better live up to the vote of confidence! 🙂

Here are my initial thoughts on what to say and how to say it. Even if you’re not interested in this topic, hopefully my thoughts are still of interest as a case study in how to plan a talk.

  • The audience is likely to be broad, ranging from avid readers of Dynamic Ecology to people who don’t read blogs at all and maybe even have some misconceptions about them. I’m not too worried about this, since blogs aren’t too difficult to explain. I should be able to just lay out a bit of very basic background and then quickly ramp up from there.
  • The talk is going to need some sort of narrative flow or other structure. But what structure? “Science blogs: myths and reality?” While I do want to address some common misperceptions, structuring the whole talk around that seems kind of limiting.
  • They asked me to talk about blogging as opposed to social media more broadly, plus blogging’s all I really know about, so that’s what I’ll focus on. I’m not going to mention Twitter or social networks or etc. except maybe in passing.
  • One big thing I’m unsure about is how much it should be about me and/or Dynamic Ecology specifically. Obviously I’m going to want to talk at least a bit about myself and DE. But how much, and for what purpose? I definitely wouldn’t want every illustrative example to be from DE, for instance. And I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’m the only ecology blogger in the world. Nor do I see much reason why most people would care about the experience of blogging from my perspective–it’s too “inside baseball”. I don’t want the talk to be like a bad wedding toast, where the best man goes on and on about his experiences with the groom, which no one else cares about.
  • Ecology blogs differ from one another a lot. Not sure how much I should talk about the broad range of purposes for which people blog, vs. focusing more narrowly on blogs that aim to communicate science to other scientists.
  • It would be good to show some data, I think–and not just Dynamic Ecology’s own traffic stats (though I do plan to show those a bit). That’s one of the strengths of DE, I think–drawing on evidence to back up our opinions. But what sort of data? Does data on, say, the total number or readership of science blogs even exist?
  • I’ll definitely want to talk about the blogospheres in other fields, as “alternative futures” for blogging in ecology.
  • One thing I thought it might be fun to do is point out “bloggy” peer reviewed articles from the past. The suggestion being that, in some ways, blogs are just a new way of doing an old thing. John Lawton’s old “View from the Park” column in Oikos. Bob Holt’s recent invited series of pieces. Spandrels of San Marco. Ellstrand 1983.
  • One thing that I’d like to try to avoid is relying too much on exceptional examples to make whatever case I want to make. For instance, the arsenic life incident was really exceptional in various ways, I don’t think that incident really makes a good case for post-publication peer review (either via blogs or other means). And as one of our own guest posters noted, me getting a peer-reviewed paper in a leading journal out of some blog posts was pretty unusual. Ok, maybe those exceptions will someday become the rule–or maybe they won’t. But on the other hand, the evidence from other fields strongly suggests that only a minority of ecologists are ever going to blog, and only a minority of those blogs are ever going to be widely read. So maybe what I should be talking about is why blogs are exceptional but nonetheless valuable? In this context, it might be worth noting that widely-read and widely-cited authors and papers also are exceptional.
  • What about visuals? Not that my talks ever have lots of pretty pictures. But they do have graphs. Slide after slide of bullet points gets old really fast. Maybe I just shouldn’t have many visuals? Just have people listen to what I have to say?
  • Much of what I’ll say I’ve probably said in old posts. So the talk may not sound very fresh to longtime avid readers. But I don’t think there’s much I can do about that.
  • Yeah, I’m gonna have to work “zombie ideas” in somehow. 🙂
  • Here’s my one creative idea: just as blog posts are (or can be) like shorter, punchier versions of research papers, maybe a talk about blogs should be a shorter, punchier version of a regular talk. So maybe what I should do is only aim to talk for 20-25 minutes rather than 45-50, with the goal of saying enough provocative stuff to kick off a lengthy discussion? Obviously, I tell the audience at the beginning if I was going to do this. There’s a part of me that thinks this is a great idea, and another part that’s afraid of it totally falling flat.
  • Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m going to have time or a forum to do a dry run first, though I will try to do one for a few Calgary students and faculty.
  • I’ve thought of what I think is a good joke for starting off the talk. Would that that were the hardest part. 🙂

So, some ideas–but lots of uncertainty and no plan. Which is where you come in! What would you want a talk on blogging as a means of scientific communication to cover? Or not cover? What do you think would be a good way to structure it? If I were coming to your university to talk about blogs and their place in the scientific communication ecosystem, what would you want to hear me talk about? And what do you think your non-blog-reading colleagues would want to hear me talk about? I could really use some suggestions here, so please help me out!

p.s. Apparently the talk is open to anyone, so if you’re at Virginia Tech or in the area you’re welcome to attend.

*Note to students: I am not being charmingly self-effacing here. I really am a bit nervous about every talk I give, and I really am a bit more nervous than usual about this one. I’m not alone in this. Probably most professional ecologists get at least a touch anxious about their talks. Like most people I know, I use this to my advantage–it motivates me to be well-prepared. Which is why I’m also confident about every talk I give. In my experience, confidence and nervousness aren’t mutually exclusive. Confidence doesn’t come from not feeling nervous, it comes from what you do to overcome your nervousness, and from having successfully overcome nervousness in the past.

18 thoughts on “Dynamic Ecology live at Virginia Tech on April 7–help me write my talk!

  1. I would like to learn, beyond everything you’ve mentioned, HOW I can become a sci blogger, or contribute to existing blog. Not so much technical details, but ways to start and give it a try…

    And, why not suggesting to collectively write a blog entry on your talk / the conference?

  2. Title/narrative suggestion: “How do blogs fit into scientific communication? ”
    Similar to your idea, but formulated in a less negative way. This is also not very restrictive and allows for covering misconceptions, popularization of science and within-field discussions.

    I really like your third to last bullet (talk as blog, incl discussion), but have no idea if it would work. Really depends on the audience, and I understand that you are hesitant. You probably need some really well defined topics, and material to fill with/get discussion going if it fails.

    • “This is also not very restrictive”

      Yes, I definitely need a non-committal title. (Students, that’s a protip! Not sure exactly what you’re going to talk about? Say, for ESA? Provide a broad title that gives you the flexibility to talk about whatever you might end up talking about.)

      “You probably need some really well defined topics, and material to fill with/get discussion going if it fails”

      Yeah, that’s what I was thinking too–be prepared with lots of fill in material if the short-talk-long-discussion gambit falls flat.

      The talk as blog gambit really does depend on the audience, I think–including the size of the audience. The conventional wisdom is that it’s harder to run a discussion with a big audience, and there’s a lot to that. But I’m not so sure in this case, because the more people are in the audience, the more people there are to ask questions. Somewhat like how only a very small percentage of blog readers ever comment, so you need a lot of readers if you want a good comment thread. So I think the optimum audience size for my talk-as-blog gambit would be either small, or very big. Which is worrisome, as most audiences are intermediate in size…

  3. Hey Jeremy. Looking forward to having you here at VT. I’m actually in Biological Sciences rather than Fish and Wildlife, but hopefully you’ll be spending a little time here and have a chance to visit widely. At the least, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what you come up with for a talk. It’s an interesting challenge. I know several faculty and many grad students in BioSci read DE to some degree, so I suspect that there will be considerable cross-departmental interest.

    • Thanks Bryan. I’ll actually be around most of the day Tues. as well as Mon. So I should have lots of time to meet with anyone who’s interested, including folks from BioSci. I actually just asked my host if he could look into whether BioSci would be interested in having me give a research seminar on Tues. It’s no extra work for me (the research seminar is already written), so I’d be happy to do it.

  4. Why not run a live blog during the talk? Given the number of smart devices available, as long as the theatre has a good signal, you could run one.

    Another aspect I would touch on would be “why blog?”, rather than “how to blog”. Why do it? Who are you trying to reach and what message are you trying to get across or receive?

    • Well, folks certainly are welcome to live-tweet or live-blog the talk. I confess I’m unsure how I as the speaker would lead or run this, though. Can you elaborate on what you have in mind?

      I probably will talk about “why blog”, probably even more than “how to blog” (I probably won’t talk about how-to much at all). I find the why question much more interesting than the how question, and I suspect most folks in the audience will too. But I’m not sure that I’ll restrict it to “why I *personally* blog”, since different people blog for different, perfectly good reasons.

      • If you set up a discussion page just for the talk and attendees could blog during the talk, ask questions etc. Keep it short or you won’t have time to talk. A different form of feedback to the normal verbal one. Could also be used as a forum to keep the discussion going after the talk is over. There’s never enough time to get through all the questions after an interesting talk.

      • Hmm, interesting idea, even more radical than my “give a short, punchy talk and then open the floor for an extended question period” idea. I’ll mull it over. My first reaction is that it sounds different enough from both a conventional talk and the sort of blogging I usually do that I’m not sure I could pull it off. Especially never having done anything like it before. But I will give it a think.

  5. We study ecology from individuals to populations to communities to ecosystems. You might structure your “why blog” talk in a similar way. Why should individuals blog – what’s in it for them? – and why are individual bloggers important? Groups blogs? Why should there be an ecology blogosphere?

  6. I like the idea of the twitter feed during the talk. “Blog” the talk then open up discussion by addressing anything interesting that came out of the twitter feed. The move on to questions from the “live” members from there. I don’t guess the talk will be streaming live? I also agree that the why questions are more interesting but I think some discussion of why you, in particular, decided to do this. It takes time and you get no “credit” for it (my guess is your university’s promotion and tenure committee could care less about it).

    • As far as I know the talk won’t be streaming live.

      I do plan to talk a bit about why I blog. The short answer is that I enjoy it, I have the skills and circumstances to do it well (in no particular order: I write fast, I’m self-confident, I’m tenured, I’m in Canada so don’t have to chase grants all the time), and there’s a “market” for it (meaning that it’s an effective way to get people talking and thinking about things I think they ought to be talking and thinking about).

  7. I think a bigger picture needs to be included, for example where you said that you are not the only ecology blogger. For students or newcomers it is difficult finding these,and negotiating the millions of websites on conservation and ecology and science in general. I think that scientific and ecology blogs are only going to grow. I did a Twitter search once and found some really interesting science pages, but only one decent one on forest conservation/ecology. So where are all these blogs? They are not immediately obvious to many, which is probably why at this stage they have not grown,so you could provide some guidance on how to search for, or where to go to find these, competitors even so. You are trailblazing, therefore a slide which lists links either to websites or twitter pages but especially to blogs would be good, as well as a general discussion around how science blogging and ecology blogging has evolved, even the advance of websites like Science Daily etc providing news. The progress of discussion in ecology in my opinion has not extended much beyond the journals, associations and unis, but it will eventually as discussion is what accelerates knowledge. Trouble is the incredible amount of knowledge out there in the different fields these days. You could talk about the gap between the physical and the biological sciences and how blogs might improve that e.g. soil carbon discussions that fail to include microbial and fungal communities and only talk about physical aspects. This problem arises because biologists do not seem to be getting through the huge amount of information they hold to anyone besides themselves. This even applies at the IPCC level, where there really has not been a lot of investigation about the contribution of terrestrial processes such as evapotranspiration by forests or even phytoplankton cycling to climate models for many years as far as I know. We are not getting the message across that this is a biological planet and has not been a purely physical planet since the Archaea. Blogs can change this if people from other fields read them, as clearly they don’t read the papers and books! Mind you the physicists are an exception as they are doing some great stuff on biology (e.g. see Royal Society UK), but otherwise science is polarised. So firstly how the student can find these blogs, and secondly how they can be marketed to the wider scientific community, which in my opinion is absolutely vital. Thus content comes in, for example a broader topic such as evapotransp in forests might appeal to a climatologist, whereas predator/prey modelling may not. So what topics should you cover in such a blog? That would be worth at least one if not two slides, the marketing thing worth one slide, and how students can find these blogs plus links be another.
    I agree the live Twitter thing is what is used today, but it will interrupt in this case and not be as productive as dealing with the live audience in person, so leave more time for questions and less for Twitter feed is my view, if giving a live talk such as this. Create a discussion around the usefulness of such blogs in reaching the wider scientific community, even the wider community in general, which clearly we are also failing to reach.

  8. Pingback: Here’s the poster for Jeremy’s upcoming talk on blogging | Dynamic Ecology

  9. Pingback: Self-referential blogpost (conditionally accepted*) | Error Statistics Philosophy

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