From Blog Post to Book: An Interview with Kenneth Finkel

 

Kenneth Finkel is a Professor of History at Temple. His new book, Insight Philadelphia: Historical Essays Illustrated will be published this month by Rutgers University Press. The book is based on a series of blog posts he first wrote for PhillyHistory.org. He recently spoke with Scholarly Communications Specialist Annie Johnson about how he turned his blog posts into a scholarly book.

How did you get started writing for PhillyHistory.org? Did you know when you started blogging that you wanted to eventually write a book?

As I say in the acknowledgements: “In 2011, Deb Boyer, Azavea’s…project manager, asked if I’d write a letter to support PhillyHistory.org’s nomination for an award by the American Association of State and Local History. The blog won kudos, and a few months later, I wondered if I might join the team as a guest contributor. (No stranger to blogging about Philadelphia, I had published at two previous venues: WHYY’s first foray into the medium, The Sixth Square [2006–2008], and Brownstoner Philadelphia [2010].) My first entry at PhillyHistory was on August 11, 2011.” I always figured that if this worked out, I’d try and see if it would or could become a book. I remembered that [writer] Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and other books, once had a blog with a subtitle declaring that intention. It seemed like a good idea – to parse out the task of book writing over hundreds of weeks…

What do you like about blogging?

There’s a rawness and an independence in the approach to blog writing, especially as it’s not peer reviewed. (Still, I try and hold myself to higher standards.) I could have chosen to rework ground already covered, things I knew from past research. But what I like most is the challenge of doing research for each and every post and revealing and presenting previously unknown or previously unconnected facts. I’m not sure many others see blogging this way, or use it this way, but for me it has been an ongoing challenge with built-in rewards of discovery. I’d be bored otherwise and would have stopped posting a long time ago.

Another essential thing that has kept my interest alive is the choice of images from PhillyHistory.org. Hunting down compelling, viable images with stories to tell–images that in most cases have not been previously researched or published, has made this 7-year project a constant treasure hunt.

Has blogging made your academic writing better?

Hard for me to say. My writing has usually been aimed more for the public. I think blogging has had an impact on my writing, forcing me to choose and develop ideas and commit to conclusions sooner than later.

The amount of preparation and planning involved in developing and writing any post has always struck me as something shaped by academic-level commitment. To my mind, this is academic writing, not because of the format but because of the approach. I literally have lists with hundreds of ideas. (I always like working from a deep well.)

The question is: Have I said anything new about Philadelphia in this work? I like to think I have. As I say in the preface: “Philadelphia’s unique and persistent sense of past and place is captured and refreshed.” In this book, those sensibilities are newly informed and newly reshaped, providing grittier, more bottom up intersections with the past. That level of openness and honesty may be more appealing than some past histories. I like to believe we need meta narratives as much as we need narratives. Together, they make for a broader approach to understanding the past.

How did you find a publisher?

After one false start (see below), Micah Kleit of Rutgers came to me with the idea, which I was very pleased about. It started with email, then coffee with Kleit (formerly of Temple University Press, now director at Rutgers University Press). There’s nothing better than being wanted.

Were you concerned that publishers wouldn’t want to publish a collection of writings that was already available for free online?

My false start (mentioned above) with another publisher came after about 75 posts. I approached a publisher I had previously worked with and sent them links to what I thought were outstanding pieces. The response was something like: “Good posts, they read like a blog. It’s not a book.”

How did you choose which posts to put in the book?

Maybe the toughest aspect in the transition from blog to book was finding and then building narratives. I wanted the essays to flow and build to something greater than the sum of the parts. Some posts, often written years apart, fell in line with one another, providing a stronger basis for each other’s point. Other posts stood along the way didn’t make as much sense. It was painful to leave some treasures behind.

Did you revise any/all of them?

Every one was revised for one reason or another. I and others found more mistakes and inconsistencies than I am happy to admit. A few posts needed more work than others.

Was the book peer reviewed?

Yes, the university press held this to their usual high standards, and for that I am grateful.

Do you think blogging is becoming an important way for scholars to communicate?

Of course it is–and has been for some years. Blogging is the most conservative of the social media platforms.

What advice do you have for other scholars who are interested in starting a blog or writing for an existing blog?

Work with images, if at all possible. The blog medium is incredibly image friendly and can broaden your appeal. Expect to work harder than you imagine. Don’t worry about readership, but extend yours and build your own following by using other social media. I post links and images to my new work on Facebook and Twitter. And find your voice as you keep posting, month after month, year after year.

Thank you Professor Finkel!

Can Podcasts Save the Academy?

Photo by Alphacolor 13 on Unsplash.
 

The following is a guest post by English and Communication Librarian Kristina De Voe.

Amid the amid the volume of news and information in today’s 24-hour news cycle, how can scholars, researchers, and academic leaders share their knowledge and expertise outside the classroom, laboratory, or institution? More importantly, how can they make that message relevant for a wider public audience?

On Tuesday, February 27, the Libraries hosted a panel of local experts who discussed podcasting as a viable way for scholars, researchers, and academic leaders to amplify and share their work with a wider audience.

The panel included Tom McAllister and Mike Ingram, both Associate Professors of Instruction in the English Department at Temple University and Hosts of Book Fight! podcast; Matt Wray, Associate Professor of Sociology at Temple University; and, Thea Chaloner, Associate Producer, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Each panelist brought unique perspectives regarding starting, producing, promoting, and participating in podcasts.

With extensive experience in public radio, Thea Chaloner initiated the conversation by highlighting the popularity of podcasts: over 66 million people are listening to podcasts monthly. With over 250,000 podcasts out there, how does one start a (good) podcast, rising above the noise? Chaloner discussed two kinds of podcasts: the two-way (e.g. a relaxed interview or conversation between hosts and guests) and storytelling (e.g. RadioLab, This American Life), pointing out that the two-way is often logistically easier to create as the storytelling podcast usually incorporates background music, sound effects, and additional editing which can be time consuming.

Chaloner indicated that regardless of type, a good podcast needs thematic and narrative structure. Clear connections between episodes help as well as engaging questions that permit guests to paint a picture with words, inviting listeners to lean in to the story as they are washing dishes, commuting to work, or doing something else. The podcast can be niche in scope, too — this can, in fact, help to determine a loyal audience. Chaloner mentioned three free tools to help podcast creators: GarageBand and/or audacity for editing as well as Freesound for accompanying sound effects.

Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister then discussed their motives and considerations for starting their own podcast, Book Fight!. As both are creative writers, they desired to create the kind of program that they would want to listen to — something relaxed with writers bantering about books. While there was a learning curve for them early on, and a need to upgrade their equipment for better sound quality, Mike and Tom eventually found their groove, incorporating various themes (e.g. “Winter of Wayback”) and segments into each 50-70 minute episode.

Both Mike and Tom recognized the value of audience feedback along with building and interacting with their audience via outside channels like Twitter. They have also experimented with different funding models, including small crowdfunding campaigns and, more recently, using Patreon which lets listeners become members and give regular monthly contributions. Contributors then receive a bonus episode each month.

The final panelist, Matt Wray, offered strategies for academics who are podcast guests. Likening the experience to giving interviews to journalists and radio show hosts, Wray noted, however, that the best feature of podcasts is the conversational back and forth between host and guest, highlighting the seeming intimacy with listeners as they’re literally in their audience’s heads.

Wray stressed the importance of doing homework prior to being a guest on a podcast. He noted that, when contacted, potential guests should ask the producer and/or host what role they’re looking for in a guest (e.g. someone to explain, to persuade, to observe, etc.). Based on this information, the guest can let the producer and/or host know what they are comfortable sharing. Further, the guest should also ask for a list of topics and/or questions ahead of time to prepare, in addition to listening to earlier episodes of the podcast so as to get a feel for the program. Prior to the recording of the podcast, the guest should review relevant research — including their own — to avoid embarrassment and ensure that they can summarize key findings succinctly. Wray emphasized the importance of explaining concepts and ideas as if chatting with a neighbor or the dentist. He recommended that academics stick to 1-3 talking points, avoid jargon, and keep all responses short and to the point.

Thanks to everyone who came out to this informative program!