Real Talk: Should Grad Students Have Websites?

Over on Twitter, my feed was discussing a question near and dear to my heart.

I started Sowing the Seed in 2006 during my work as an MDiv student. The site has changed a lot over the years, but the long and short of it is that it is my professional space. It’s where I can work out ideas without having to pitch or ask permission. And as someone who was/is just starting an academic career, I was desperate to for the freedom to grow into my vocation.

There was a lot of pretense when I started the site, and looking back that makes sense. Every post was a proof-of-concept for the next stage in my career. In my MDiv I wanted to show that I could do innovative doctoral-level work in biblical studies. I started writing more about pedagogy during my PhD program. I was desperate for teaching experience and had ideas about what that could look like. And as I became responsible for students’ learning, I really began to wrestle with questions about what (theory) and how (method) I study religion and culture (data). Lately I’ve been trying to facilitate scholarly exchange across disciplines and status designations. Maybe this is my speaking “tenure” into the universe phase.

SowingTheSeed.org circa 2010
This is what the site looked like in 2010. You might be able to dig around in the Internet Archive for other previous iterations. Do so at your own risk. 😉

Throughout these different seasons I have had a desire to communicate with peers and potential colleagues about what I’m doing.  My earliest posts are so drenched with the sweat of impostor syndrome that I can barely stand them (deleted many of them out of embarrassment).
I think the site really clicked with me when I realized that it was a reflection of me and not the people behind Academe’s gates. Nothing brings clarity like your family members saying, “I read your blog post but didn’t understand most of it.” This sent me into a tailspin about who and what this was all for. Consequently that’s the sort of headspace that freed me to embrace the process over the product, a tailor-made pursuit for blogging.

Sometime during my doctoral work, I started reading Dr. Chris Dowdy’s site, Common Objects, and he penned a statement that reshaped my blog philosophy.  He was using his site to get out ideas and “see what sticks.”

Creatives, including scholarly writers, need to get their ideas out. And like Ira Glass suggests, we only arrive at the good stuff by plowing through the process and arriving at volume of work from which we can separate the wheat and chaff.  To quote Dowdy’s metaphor, this is what sticks.

For me, that’s what having a website has been all about. Many of my class lessons, journal articles, book chapters, and presentations stem from something I did here. Backend design and coding have helped me meditate on the connections between the various element of my curriculum vitae. And yes, having a website has to professional opportunities, including jobs and publications.

What I hope to have communicated is that having a website can be a boon for grad students on the market, but only because it can demonstrate your presence in the professional spaces you aspire and already inhabit. Maybe you won’t need a website to do this.

I should also note that websites are much more common than when I went on the market just a few years ago. Social networking (e.g. Academic Twitter) may be the more worthwhile entry point. I also know of scholars who have had comparable success by working with legacy sites like Religion in American History, Sacred Matters, and Marginalia. My desire to host my own images, essays, flipped classroom videos, and podcasts lent itself to having a website.

Lastly, somewhere along the way I learned that Sowing the Seed has worked best when it complements my priorities. My family obligations and personal health needs simply won’t allow me to keep a regular publishing schedule. And the site is only good if it’s helping me produce elsewhere. If I’m getting diminishing returns, I leave the blog until it’s useful again.

The answer to your question, at least in my mind, comes down to this:

1. Will it inspire you to complete your education expediently and efficiently given your circumstances?

2.Will it help you do you (rather than you trying to be like someone/everyone else)?

The economics of the market will have you obsess over what you don’t have or didn’t do. That’s energy better spent in building on what you’ve already accomplished. If a website helps ground you in your work, then go for it! If not, find something else that does.

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

2 thoughts on “Real Talk: Should Grad Students Have Websites?

  1. Thanks for the reflection, Richard! I’ve been thinking recently about how much my own site has fallen by the wayside as I have gained opportunities to post/publish through established venues. I don’t think that those would have come had I not had one post go (somewhat) viral. I can see myself returning to it as I enter the next phase of my career, particularly as I’m switching disciplines and feel as though I’m entering somewhat uncharted territory… it may provide me a space to think about that, out loud. I enjoyed reading your take on grad sites!

    1. Thanks, Stacie! That makes a lot of sense and resonates with me experience as well. I used to beat myself up over letting my blog go dormant. That was actually part of the motivation for inviting my students and others to contribute. There are also two no-hassle tricks that I could probably make more use of. One is posting clips to my other pieces. Kelly Baker does this really well. http://Kellyjbaker.com The other is using the “Press This” plugin to post noteworthy quotes from what I’m reading. Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, does this quite nicely. http://Ma.tt Those might be of use to you as well.

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