When I was pursuing my Ph.D back in grad school, starting in 2000 when I completed my master's degree, I had a hell of a time researching and writing my dissertation.
Basically I got writers block because I felt lonely.
As an academic I was more or less alone in Cairo, Egypt, doing my research in the slums and shantytowns, and far from the intellectual ferment of my cohort at the University of California. Where other grad students would keep the flames of inquiry kindled and growing by hanging out in the library and commons and coffee shops, rubbing ideas off of each other and sharing pages of their writings and getting feedback, I was merely confronted with the blank screen and a mass and mess of information I had to organize and present coherently.
And then, thanks to my thesis advisor, Professor Randle Crane, I discovered Blogs.
Dr. Crane was a pioneer at our university using the popular platform of blogspot to discuss serious academic issues, and do so with a sense of humor, amped up colored fonts to make clearer, with hyperlinks to go deeper, with great photos to see richer and poignant videos to expand horizons.
Randy, as he permitted us to call him, came out to Cairo with our cohort, and encouraged me to blog as well, as a way of keeping in touch with him and a way to share my inchoate and growing ideas with an inchoate and growing base of readers and even subscribers. So, following his lead, I began to blog my thesis into being.
My first blog: A way of organizing my thesis
I called the blog "Some Convenient Truths: Tilting at Windmills" and started by taking my notebooks and journal entries from my forays into the poor communities of Darb Al Ahmar and Manshiyet Nasser (where old Islamic craftspeople and newly immigrated garbage pickers live, respectively), and typing them into the computer, peppered with occasional photographs or graphs, keeping it as a digital diary and a cloud based backup in case my computer or hard drive crashed or were seized or stolen. It gave me great comfort to know that I could access my notes and musings from anywhere in the world with an internet connection (which were beginning to appear everywhere by 2006 when Randy and the UCLA grad students joined me on a tour of my research sites; there were even internet cafes in the shantytown where kids played online FIFA).
Also, when I left the US to do my research in Egypt in 2003 JSTOR and other digital libraries were making it possible to access all the collections I needed for my academic research without having to return to the US or visit any brick and mortar library or institution. So I technically could ... and did... for the first time in history, do all of my thesis work from in the field.
The only problem was that it was lonely.
But blogs helped lessen that loneliness -- I could publish half baked thoughts and find that complete strangers out there in cyberspace were actually stumbling upon my work through google searches of keywords and tags that I put in to make it easier for ME to find what I had been writing about when writing from a slumdog internet cafe, and some were responding. Many offered incredibly valuable ideas, advice and insight.
So blogging became something of an addiction.
It made me new friends, helped me sharpen my arguments, and made me feel, each time I sat down to write, that I was part of a rich intellectual community.
I didn't know at the time that it also enabled me to be watched by institutions who were later able to evaluate my work and award me grants and accolades, as I unwittingly built, in effect, a digital portfolio.
One thing I began to intuit in the blogosphere is that a new standard was emerging -- one in which you didn't have to "let the perfect be the enemy of the good" and one where you were accepted as a "work in progress", warts and all. Blogs, unlike finished academic papers or popular professional publications, are sort of like public sketchpads. People like to see artists at work, and to know the humanity of the effort, the trial and error, the awkward attempts to improve things. It makes the human spirit rise knowing that we all fall and we can all help lift each other up. So I never worried about making my blogs works of art. That kind of perfectionism would and I think should be saved for another kind of publishing.
Blogs as a virtual jam session for writers
So I write blogs now as a kind of live jam session, recorded during the journey, open to public participation, a kind of street theater that prepares one for going to the symphony hall later.
In that spirit I will be blogging here my ideas for academic papers devoted to our small biogas case studies. I will put up paragraphs, ideas for abstracts, results of literature searches, pictures and illustrations that might fit and musings on how to tie it all together. Just like I did when I was writing my Ph.D.
Hopefully what will emerge will be community strengthened publications that can be useful both to the intended audience of the journal or publisher who accepts it, but during the actual process, to the entire world community.