4 June 2010

Why I Blog: Callan Bentley (Mountain Beltway)

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This guest post by Callan Bentley, an assistant professor of geology at Northern Virginia Community College, is the first of a series that will explore why Earth and space scientists blog.

Callan Bentley

Here’s a blogging success story: In April, a student in my structural geology course asked me by email how bedding/cleavage relationships can help discriminate whether beds are overturned. Like many structural questions, it was best answered with a diagram, and I dutifully sketched one out and scanned it so I could reply to him via e-mail. It then occurred to me that I might as well post the explanation on my blog, and then I could share it with the entire class: more learning return on my instructional investment! I wrote up the post, put it online, and e-mailed the link to my whole class. Done!

A month later, the blog post got a comment: “I’m an Auburn student currently studying for a Structural final and you have no idea how much this helped! Great explanation and pictures! Saved me a huge headache, thanks!” This pleased me very much – I mean, it’s always nice to help someone, but this struck me as a whole new species of help. This is help that doesn’t go bad: I generated it for one student, shared it directly with another thirteen students, and now that same explanation is sitting online, the #1 Google hit for “bedding cleavage overturned.” Now and for years to come, it will continue to teach, long after I’ve forgotten about it.

For me, blogging began as a convenient way to share information. Every day I was reading news items or articles that were interesting or relevant to the introductory geology courses that I teach at Northern Virginia Community College. In December of 2007, I began writing at NOVA Geoblog: My initial intended audience was my own students, but eventually, I found that other people beyond NOVA were reading what I was writing. They left comments, and we conversed; I got to know them, and I started to tailor some of my writing to that larger audience. Blogging isn’t local; once you start it, you will soon have connections to other people across the globe. Sometime after the two year anniversary of the blog, I posted my 1000th missive to the blog, and used it as an opportunity to re-imagine my geoblogging. I was now writing primarily for a non-NOVA audience, and the blog should reflect that. I created Mountain Beltway in February 2010, and have been blogging there ever since.

Blogging is creative writing, not technical: it can be playful, impassioned, and fun.  I’m mainly interested in stories of rocks: pairing field observations with historical interpretations. Most of my posts focus on rocks and landforms that I have encountered: I use the blog to share their stories.

I get a lot from blogging. Some of the benefits would exist even if no one ever read a word I wrote: practicing my writing skills, organizing my own thinking on a particular topic, and creating diagrams which can then be used in teaching or other forms of outreach. Writing these stories has developed into a semi-daily activity for me; it’s a way of processing my thoughts about geology, outcrops, and current events. While I might not manage to write every day, I come pretty close.

Some of the greatest benefits of blogging are the interpersonal ones. Blogging has brought me connections with a network of similarly-minded people around the planet: geoscientists who care about the public perception of science, who are motivated by sharing, who are felicitous explainers and gifted photographers. It’s quite pleasing to be wandering about at a big meeting like GSA or AGU and have random strangers come up to me and tell me how much they enjoy reading my blog. The network I’ve developed with other geobloggers has led to joint field trips and free lodging, technical advice and conceptual brainstorming, as well as convivial evenings at the pub.

But that’s not all geoblogging has brought me. It, perhaps in combination with other outreach activities, has led to freelance gigs writing for EARTH magazine, and a series of geology tours I’ve led in Washington, DC, for the Smithsonian Institution’s Resident Associates program. Earlier this summer, it led to a research collaboration.

Perhaps the biggest deal that blogging has brought me so far has been a fellowship from the Fine Outreach for Science, an organization that will be furnishing me with a Gigapan camera robot, accompanying software, and a weeklong conference to be trained in how to use it. Other Fine Fellows in this year’s cadre include photographer James Balog, conservationist Mike Fay, and professor of conservation ecology Stuart Pimm. I’m honored to be included on the same list as such luminaries! When I asked why they selected me, they told me “because of your blog.”

While my supervisors might not follow my blog on a daily basis, I have been told that they look favorably upon it as a “flagship” enterprise which brings prestige to the institution. It is also popular with some of my students – and I noticed at the conclusion of the spring semester that three of my students (in a class of fourteen) had started fledgling geoblogs of their own. Hopefully some of their professors will be willing to follow their lead!

Compared to traditional outreach (giving a talk at your local library, leading a field trip for your local science teachers’ group), geoblogging has two key advantages (1) it is done on your own schedule; and hence can be coordinated to match your peak creativity (for me, that’s in the morning, over coffee), and (2) it is eternal: Once you write a substantive blog post, it can be available online for interested people to access and learn from (on their own schedule).

To my peers throughout the geosciences: Consider sharing your expertise and perspective through the online forum. By committing your thoughts to the digital realm, you enhance the public understanding of science in a way that will earn dividends into the foreseeable future.

Callan Bentley, assistant professor of geology, Northern Virginia Community College