Maintaining a Blogging Presence, Catalysts, and Inspiration

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

As much as I love being online, blogging, Tweeting, and the like, I don’t like how demanding it feels sometimes.  How, if I don’t write a captivating post or send out X number of Tweets, then I’m somehow falling behind.  How, if I don’t read and respond to some loyal Stew’ reader’s posts, then I’m giving them the short end of the stick.  How you might feel like you’re missing something if you’re not checking your Twitter feed.  Sometimes, I’m excited to publish a post–I just know it will resonate with readers–and then there is marginal response.

Blessed to have the opportunity to study in Europe this summer, I had plenty of time to observe, reflect, and gather "sparks" for new writing.

Blessed to have the opportunity to study in Europe this summer, I had plenty of time to observe, reflect, and gather “sparks” for new writing.

Maintaining a blog is a challenging endeavor, and I don’t recommend it if you’re not passionate about the writing process and discovery of new ideas.  The process of finding, refining, and revising my place in the real and digital world is what keeps me blogging.  If readers comment, great.  If readers don’t comment but I’ve enjoyed the process of composing a post, I’m cool with that.

For new bloggers out there, take heed: Melissa over at Freeing Imperfections blog has some solid realizations for new bloggers.  Here’s what she wishes she’d known when she began blogging.  Highlights include:

1. Blogging is not easy and it’s incredibly time-consuming – at first.

10. Not everyone will care that you have a blog. But if you care, the people who want to read your blog will follow.

14. Social media is good for blog growth. Before I started my blog, I thought being on it more would be a bad thing. Without social media, my blog would still be in the dark with no readers, reaching no one.

I’m conflicted, at times, over how much time I spend in front of a screen; this concern has appeared here and here and here in Mindful Stew.  Regarding Melissa’s point about social media, I don’t like to feel obligated to promote blog posts on Twitter or Facebook, but I do enjoy ensuing dialogue when folks leave comments.  It’s exciting to know that something you put out there strikes a chord with readers.  And now that I’ve dropped my number of posts to three or four a month, I try to be deliberate about publishing.

I want to write about what matters to me with a connection to more universal ideas and experience.  I want to write on Saturday mornings over several cups of coffee, and I want to write after experiencing an idea itch when I witness something out there in the world or online, whether it be a quote, a visit to the Farmer’s Market, or a news blurb.   I’m always fascinated by what great bloggers and writers out there like Caitlin KellyAnnie Murphy Paul, and Terry Heick encounter as catalysts for their own posts.

Soon, the school year will begin and I’ll have a deluge of new experiences and faces to provide sparks for reflection and analysis, and my own desire to balance digital and “analog” life will be put to the test.

I know I’ll have students who are constantly connected–many seemingly addicted–with their iPhones and Androids.  Part of me wants to tell them to disconnect, to observe the world around them and slow down their thinking, without mediating life through a screen. Another part of me knows it’s my job to help students navigate and use the digital world more productively.  

Although it’s not a new calendar year, the start of the school year marks a major shift for writing/blogging educators out there–we might have a ton to say, but finding time is tricky.  I look forward to continuing blogging on the ‘Stew, in addition to a blogging gig over at the Center for Teaching Quality.   Happy blogging, everyone.

What shifts have you experienced in maintaining your digital presence?  What tips would you give to beginning bloggers?  What are your “go-to” sites, experiences, or observations that often spark your own blog posts?

Europe, 10 Years Later: In the Moment

No Stone Unturned

I strolled through the Vrijdagmarkt in Ghent, Belgium, last Sunday morning, still slightly hungover from a sprawling bike scavenger hunt through the city the previous day.  A veteran farmer with white hair and red, calloused hands hawked different breeds of laying hens to the city folks.  Sidewalk cafes slowly became magnets for those looking for caffeine, and the sun emerged from behind the great towers and cathedrals of Central Ghent–it’d be another warm day.

Like the last time I was in Europe, in 2003, I’ve traveled and studied this summer without a phone.  My mind feels much more at ease without the expectation of constant communication and instant response.  And as my sister noted to me in a written note, isn’t is somehow easier to be “in the now” when everything is new?

Yes, it is.

And whether we’re in a new country–I’d never been to Belgium–or within ten miles of our hometown, I’m reminded that one of the best ways to create mindfulness, to relax, and to be present is to observe.  To let, seek, or give a chance for the endless, amazing diversity of sensory experience to captivate you in different ways.

I’ve attempted to allow myself to be in the moment this summer: to hear the Wood Pigeons cooing in the 14th century courtyards of Lincoln College; to see the egalitarian cyclists of all shapes, colors, and sizes jockey for position on narrow Oxford streets busy with double decker busses; to taste braised pork cheeks cooked in brown beer sauce in a local restaurant in Ghent; to feel the vibrations of the oncoming trains at Paddington Station in London; to read and reread 16th century English Literature without the rhythms and demands of multitasking that can become commonplace during the teaching year.

Unlike when traveling alone in 2003, I felt like I had my voice this time around–10 years of life will give you that confidence.  I attempted to strike up conversation with anybody, anywhere, despite my utter lack of Flemish/Dutch language skill, the main reason how I ended up having such a glorious day in Ghent, interacting with bartenders, baristas, chefs and patrons, each taking a chance to scrawl on my tattered map pictured above.

Ghent residents are justifiably proud of their city; some say it’s the most underrated destination in Europe.  If you’re interested in history, food, and drink, as I am, put it on your list.  It’s not too expensive…yet.  

Here are some of my recommendations:  Cafe Labath and Simon Says are great cafes with welcoming staffs, head to De Lieve for great beer and authentic Belgian food, and check out The STAM Museum for fascinating civic history.  There is a huge pedestrianized area on the central part of the city, where I experienced a new take on a somewhat-familiar sight.

It nearly took my breath away walking into the Cathedral in Ghent.  10 years ago, as a 21-year old undergraduate “studying” abroad, I strolled into many of the great churches and cathedrals of Europe: La Sagrada Familia, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica, etc.   They were impressive buildings to me at the time, but I felt less awe.

My coursework this summer on literature during the English Reformation has refreshed my knowledge of the great Catholic and Protestant schism–all over Europe, the various churches and cathedrals tell the history through stained glass, altars, and other iconography (or lack of).  Catholicism won out in Ghent, but religious strife, among other factors, prevented the city from continued ascension towards status as one of Europe’s Great Cities (it was Europe’s second largest city behind Paris for several hundred years).

I’m completing this blog post after hearing a graduate school colleague, 40 years removed from literature study, discuss the experience of rereading classic texts after accumulating so many joys, sorrows, worries, and wonders over his adult life.  He’s been blown away by the power of the same words given his new perspective.  Based on just a few days away from studying in Oxford, I can relate.

Like revisiting art, travel at different points of our lives can spark different passions, interests, and memories, creating experiences rich in new ways. 

Can you be alone and content, in a new place, where cultural or language barriers might be an issue?  Are you willing to let your five senses take in as much as you can–without digital distraction–and not worry about what time or day it is?   Have you returned to a place/book and had a completely “new” experience?

Fake Followers and Follows: Scram!

Techculture

Congratulations!

If you have recently subscribed to Mindful Stew, you might be the site’s 1,500th follower!

Except that you’re probably not, as I know a large percentage of this blog’s followers aren’t real–I’m not sure how many flesh-and-blood folks follow the ‘Stew.  Freakin’ spambots.  fagner1222ds, dhexd, aeryn65, catalinatutu, and eugeniotony: I’d love to hear from you.

According to this official WordPress forum, there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to prevent fake users and bizarre international business blogs from subscribing to our public sites.  Do any of y’all have the same issue?

What concerns me is the industry of online “influence” based on number of hits, subscribers, page views, and other measures, much of it driven by spambots.  And people are profitting from it.   This image below is from tweetangels.com, clearly advertising to a certain demographic.  It’s pretty creep stuff.

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 5.00.55 PM

The greater issue at play here is how perceived online popularity and activity may influence our decisions and behaviors.  I’ll admit I’ve been more likely to click on YouTube videos or check out certain Twitter feeds because of a number.  How many of you are likely to check out a link that doesn’t have any views or followers?  

Luckily, having a huge number of Twitter followers often has nothing to do with influence (although that big number might be feeding a big ego).  After all, it’s all about retweets and clicks if you’re trying to spread an idea or product–I don’t think the fake accounts will be rushing to help disseminate information or engage in dialogue.

The presence of SPAM, false influence and popularity, and the veil of the screen should remind us–I hope–to continue having a robust presence in the real-world, in balancing out our online lives and identities with what we do face-to-face and in the flesh.

I’m afraid it will become trickier and trickier to discern what digital material is authentically created by people and what is produced by computers or robots.  In 1950, British computing pioneer Alan Turing was already pondering whether or not machines can think.  The eponymous test, the Turing Test, has essentially been an Artificial Intelligence measuring stick for years now.

A human must figure out if a a computer program or another person is chatting with them on a screen.  Computers are getting mighty close to “thinking,” much closer than your sidekick Siri on your iPhone.

On a parting note, I appreciate all of you real readers and commenters–without you, I wouldn’t blog.  

The Challenge of Blog Promotion

Techculture

Have you ever finished writing a blog post, then anticipated a deluge of page hits and comments?  After all, you’ve just finished writing what you believe is a truly insightful post, a fresh take on a common theme or daily occurence, so obviously people out in the blogosphere will stop by.   I sure have.  I remember eagerly penning this post about the role of personal expression in writing instruction for struggling students.  So far, it has only generated one response.

 

While I don’t work tirelessly to increase readership of the ‘Stew, one of the many reasons I enjoy blogging is creating dialogue.  It’s simply more enjoyable to put ideas and musings out there, exchanging questions and comments with readers, rather than the blog simply be a refined diary of sorts.  I also consider digitally interacting with you “strangers” out there more satisfying than posting to facebook walls of long-ago neighborhood friends.

But I am coming to understand that promoting a blog and gaining a consistent readership and dialogue is no simple task.  It’s like a part time job.  Simply producing great content won’t produce readership; it takes active marketing.

Have you considered the complex, multifaceted ways bloggers attempt to promote their posts and drive page views?  This enlightening infographic from edudemic.com provides a road map for those of us who are at least somewhat interested in understanding the multitude of strategies bloggers and other web writers employ to create traffic.  The graphic made me pause, challenging me to run down the list of what I do–and don’t do–to promote this blog according to five categories:  Social Media, Bookmarking Sites, Personal Contacts, Other Blogs, and Syndication.

Social Media–I link my posts to Facebook and Twitter, but I do not use Pinterest, Linkedin, or Google+.

Bookmarking Sites–I don’t currently utilize sites like Reddit, Digg, or Delicious.

Personal Contacts–I do share blog posts with professional groups and message boards, but I do not add a link on e-mail signatures or send out links in mass e-mails.

Other Blogs–This is the category in which I interact the most–I do try to carve out time to comment on other blogs, submit as a guest blogger, and respond to the vast majority of comments left at the ‘Stew.

Syndication–Apparently, you can submit your blog to a number of sites, including DemandStudios, to help spread your content to larger, more established news sites like USA Today and Salon.

What are my takeaway?  As much as enjoy writing and blogging, I have no desire to elevate the hobby to a part-time job–it takes too much effort to fully engage in all of the above promotion categories.  And I do not envy those who attempt to make a living out of online writing and blogging.  There’s so much great content out there, so many distractions, and so much time needed to drive readers to a given site.  I’m curious to know about your approach to blogging and promotion:

What do you do to promote your blog?  Do you care about increasing your readership?  What other tips or insights do you have to offer about promoting your blog, or blogging in general?

Dusting Off Some Early Musings

No Stone Unturned

Welcome new readers!

One of my favorite aspects of blogging is generating thoughtful discussion, and I earnestly attempt to respond to most comments.  Thanks to my recent post being Freshly Pressed, I haven’t been able to respond to the flood of comments about exploring busyness.  Ironic, no?:)  I’ll start chipping away soon.  

Discussion1

Now that the ‘Stew readership has increased, I’m hoping to revive some posts from months ago.  Please comment and share! 

1.  In this post about digital communication, I wonder about teenagers’ interpersonal skill, gadgets, and whether or not what it means to be human–within the realm of communication–is changing for better or worse.  

2.  Our relationships with pets and other animals, coupled with increased meat consumption, is problematic.  Since I published this post, I’ve had to kill one of my hens due to an infection.  It wasn’t enjoyable, but it had to be done.

3.  Mindful technology use is a big theme on the Stew’, and this post encapsulates some of the challenges we face in the digital age:  5 Tips for Mindful Technology Use.

4.  What is meaningful work?  Is there value in working with our hands?  What is the problem with so much of our lives being filled by passive consumption?

5.  There are many overlooked places between the East and West Coasts of the United States.   Do you live in a “flyover state?”  Would you?  Why or why not?  For many well-educated Americans, places like Kentucky are more foreign than China.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all you bloggers!

Thoughts On Writing Well

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

“All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.  It may be a problem of where to obtain facts or how to organize the material.  It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style.  Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved.  Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution–or any solution.”

On Writing Well, p. 49

It should be pointed out that I’m sitting comfortably, reclining in a cushioned chair, thoughtfully ruminating on what it means to write rather well and, on the whole, I’m somewhat convinced that this outstanding blog post will pretty much be an undeniable success in exerting massive, world-shattering influence on the blogging world, but I’m really not sure about that.

The previous sentence is purposefully convoluted.  I wrote it because I care about writing, I teach writing, and I need to step back and remind myself about what good writers do.  How they solve the problems and challenges inherent in certain writing forms and styles.  How certain sentences are crafted.  How, according to some writers, adverbs and adjectives often muddle sentences:

I’m still sitting in a cushioned armchair, considering what it means to write well.  I have no pretense that this post will be particularly influential.

That’s better.  But I’m still thinking about the above quote, and how its ideas play out every time I write a blog post.  Should I link to other sources?  Should I shift my tone?  Should I choose a different quote as an epigraph?  Framing writing as problem solving is something I’m going to emphasize with my students in room 137.  

I will tell my students that that is OK to start a sentence with but.  After all, who really believes that however or yet are more effective word choices if you want to make a clear, precise contradictory statement?   I will show them this post, and tell them just how many hundreds of little decisions I’ve made in writing this entry.  I will encourage them to read and imitate writers they admire.

I’ll tell them that since I care about writing, I’ve decided to reread books on writing.  Thanks to Annie Murphy Paul’s praise of William Zinsser’s classic nonfiction writing guide On Writing Well, I’ve begun to reread the book.  I’m playing with the ideas as I continue to sit in the armchair, reminding myself that writing one blog post a week may make me feel like I’m honing my skills, but that clockwork does little to keep me more aware of how I’m writing and blogging. 

I know I’ve got a lot to learn when it comes to the written word, and many bloggers aren’t as concerned as I am with the craft–that’s fine by me.   But isn’t blogging a wonderful way to deliberately write, gather feedback, and share ideas with others interested in Writing Well?

What are some of your favorite texts on writing?  What do you think are the best lessons to teach young writers about blogging and writing? What’s your writing process for your blog posts?   

Student Guest Blogger: Career and Future Uncertainty

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I’ve shared this blog with some of my students, an attempt to showcase how writing is “real” for me.  As far as blogging goes, many students use Tumblr.  I’ll admit I’ve never explored Tumblr, but they describe it as a platform to share images and thoughts.  Sounds like a blog to me.  How sustained those thoughts are…I’m not sure.  Unfortunately, it’s fairly rare to find kids who use technology to compose what I consider to be more meaningful writing such as essays, commentary, and reviews.

So, here goes.  I collaborated with one of my digital storytelling students, a junior, via Google Docs, and this is what she had to say about dealing with her own and others’ expectations for her future and career prospects.  She’ll be the first one to check the comments section, so please give her some feedback!

“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

– George Harrison.

Can you ever be certain of the road ahead?

Young people shouldn’t be so dead set on long term goals, as your decisions aren’t carved in a stone tablet.  You’re not able to be certain of anything in your future.  Certain questions just loom over you like a storm cloud.  What will you be when you grow up?  Where do you see yourself after high school?

When you’re young you think, what do I enjoy? What do I like to do?

These questions still bounce around my mind like I’m dead center in a dodgeball game.  I now find myself introduced to a feeling of ambition, a feeling I have yet to fully understand.  I’ve dreamt about being an astronaut, a doctor, maybe even a lawyer.  I have dreamt for the stars, developed a certain level of hope that things might work out if I believed they would, but is it realistic?

I’ve had everyone from my first grade English teacher to my middle school Math teacher press me to answer the question about what I’d do as an adult, but the only thing I could do was fabricate a response.  All I kept thinking when they would settle those straining eyes on me was that I couldn’t possibly give them a completely honest answer.  I’ve never settled on one thing and stuck with it for such a long time.  I’d never put all my eggs in one basket because life can’t really be so black and white, so cut and dry.

The question about my future continued to follow me into my prepubescent stages of my teenage years as well, as my once ambitious hopeful dreams became “within reach.” I wanted to be a doctor as a child but decided that being a nurse would be good enough. Being a nurse does mean less time studying in college, but it means settling for a career path that wouldn’t give me the same satisfaction or happiness.

The hopeful dream of becoming a doctor still lingers in the shadows of reality but it seems like too big of a challenge, too overwhelming.   I don’t think anyone truly has an idea what they’ll be doing with their career path at five, twelve or even seventeen.

What do we do about college?  How can we make this dream a reality?  Can I trust that I know what my passion really is?

Granted, some of my classmates will fulfill their own childhood dreams. Some will actually go on to be doctors and lawyers. The lucky few find what they enjoy as a child, learn the basics and stay with it until they become the best. It’s odd how that works but sometimes people just know what they love to do. It’s almost like destiny picks and chooses who gets lucky opposed to who gets the short end of the stick.

Personally, I can’t answer these questions at this point in my life. I could try to think these through and make all the right, logical moves, but regardless of my attempts, life will lead me down a certain path.

Expect the unexpected. Personally, this means life will bring you surprises and throw you curve balls. You as an individual learn to adapt–things in life will teach you to be resilient because time is a very misleading thing.  There’s no past and there’s no future.  We can learn from the past but we cannot relive it; we can plan for the future but we can never be sure that there is one.

As readers, what advice can you give me?  How has your career path unfolded?  Did you experience the same hounding that I have, regarding what I should do down the road?  Thanks for reading!

Striving for Balance–Enforcing Work Boundaries

No Stone Unturned

I’m sitting on my front porch in a refinished Adirondack chair, enjoying a warm afternoon breeze and a glass of ice water.  I’d rather post to Mindful Stew than grade papers or check my work e-mail.  Or call parents.  Or attempt to get ahead on my lesson plans.  Or log on to Edmodo to respond to some student posts.

Grading these essays will have to wait.
Image from http://www.philnel.com

Teaching never ends during the school year, but I’ve found that I’m most effective and energized during the school day by limiting the time I work, despite the fact that the “To-Do” list will never end.  I want to and have to turn off my job.

I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but not so much that it will drastically interfere with other endeavors that keep me sane, fulfilled, and content.  During the fall, I bow-hunt.  This is a demanding hobby, requiring hours practicing shooting the bow, scouting deer in fields and forests, and spending hours sitting idly but alert in a tree.  Combine hunting with spending quality time with my fiance, cooking, blogging, brewing beer, and watching football, and there’s not many hours left in the day.  But I’m fortunate to have enough time to do all of these things, only because I choose to stop working.

In this Ted Talk, Nigel Mark provides a pointed take on work/life balance. 

He states, “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet screaming desperation where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate, to enable them to buy things that they need to impress people they don’t like.”  A bleak assessment, and I feel fortunate that I don’t fall into that boat.  Unlike many people, I’m able to make decisions about how much I work outside of school hours without worrying about providing food, shelter, and care for any dependents.  That said, I wonder how much our society’s expectations relating to work, child rearing, and lifestyle affect how much time we feel we need to work, in addition to how much money we must accumulate to pursue satisfying lives.

Marks also contends that “we have to be responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries we want in our lives.”  Last year, a coworker had the audacity to tell me that I needed to have less work/life balance in order to do more curriculum work.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was teaching my ass off.  At that moment I realized I needed to set more boundaries, not be afraid to say no to coaching or other committees, and to guard my own time in an attempt to create my own vision of work/life balance.

Mark continues, “…commercial companies are inherently designed to get as much out of you as they can get away with.”  I think about–and feel sorry for–those who are attached to their cell phones due to the need to compose and respond to work e-mail.  I will never sign up for a job with this requirement.  How can one reasonably expect a work/life balance in that situation?

The problem for many people seem to believe that career success must solely be measured monetarily.  And in an economic recession, the topic of this post may be irrelevant and even off-putting to some.  Nonetheless, it’s worth discussing.

Do you have a job that’s tough to turn off?   How do you accomplish, or struggle with, a work/life balance?  What’s your idea of a perfect day in the context of work/life balance?  Did you watch Nigel’s Ted Talk?  What do you think?

How much detail is simply too much?

No Stone Unturned

Great commentary on one writer’s take on weaving personal details into your digital footprint.  What information should we share?  What should we withhold?  Why do so many people publish what seem to be personal journals?

Broadside

Everyone who writes a blog, unless it’s focused on a specific subject, shares details of their life, past and present: their kids, their partner, their dating life, their work, their school experiences…

How much is too much?

Readers here have learned that:

— I need to lose a pile of weight and how tedious this is

— I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a hip replacement in February 2012

— My (second) husband is Hispanic, and a fellow journalist

— My relationship with my mother is toxic-non-existent

— My mother has issues of mental illness and substance abuse

There’s much more I could share. But every word, every sentence and every blog post we write contains the seeds of potential disaster if we carelessly hand out our deepest and most private thoughts, fears and feelings to…people we don’t know.

i.e. you.

How much attention/validation is (ever) enough?

Our…

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