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.