This week I was stalking people. Professionally of course. As a Trustee of the Science Museum a group of us were invited to do some ‘Gallery Observations’ of visitors to get a sense of how they interact with the exhibits. Of course stalking is too strong a word, but observing we most certainly were.
I saw a group of three teenage girls, one of whom wanted to stop and stare, perhaps even think, but she was being constantly dragged off by her companions. I saw a pair who were obviously more interested in each other than what was on show, but nevertheless they occasionally perused a label or pointed and giggled at some old-fashioned artefact (I had never thought of the Museum as a dating venue but – why not?). There were many families, it being the height of the school holidays, with their own internal group dynamics: pushy parents, those being dragged around by enthusiastic (or whiney) children and grandparents desperately trying to keep control of exuberant toddlers.
Who is the Museum for? How should they cater for the different population segments? What can be done better? This was the point of the exercise and very informative it was for me too, if only to make me appreciate the challenge lurking behind those questions. It made me think how those questions equally apply to my blog. My blog that is, astonishingly enough, now a healthy child of 5. Its 5th birthday passed without me noticing just a week or so ago. A good moment for reflection.
So, the key question must be: whom am I writing for? Leaving aside the obvious answer of I’m doing it for myself – because it’s fun and it gives me a chance to be creative – my answer is, I think, similar to the question around the Science Museum visitors: I want it to cater for diverse audiences. My initial intention was to write mainly about interdisciplinary science and the challenges it faces (funding, for starters). I guess I thought I was going to be writing about science. As regular readers will know, that is not what I do. I am not writing for the keen 6th former who wants ready access to easily digestible cutting-edge science, nor for the grandmother trying to catch up on the science she wasn’t exposed to as a child. I am often referred to as a science communicator but my blog has in fact evolved mainly along the other lines I set out in that first post of August 22nd 2010
‘to post thoughts on work at the outer reaches of physics where it meets biology, and the challenges of working at that interface; some of my ideas and experiences as a senior woman physicist plus my reactions to discussions around this topic, and general initiatives in this area; and reactions to science policy, funding etc’.
These latter topics, much more than about interdisciplinary challenges and the detailed science itself, are what form the heart of my writing.
I choose to write about such a mixture of stuff deliberately to try to interest different sections of the potential readership. If I only wrote about women in science issues I believe my male readership might be relatively small. Since I want both men and women to read about these issues I try to space out those posts which are specifically about issues directly affecting women. And anyhow, I want to write about a range of topics which strike me as important and interesting at a particular point. I once saw blogging described as online mentoring (perhaps by one of my earliest role models Female Science Professor whose writing is now sadly mainly in abeyance; however, it may have been by someone else). I love that idea, although inevitably you cannot know if the mentee has actually been able to utilise any pearls of wisdom you try to throw their way, since you do not know who they are. They may be on the other side of the world or in the lab next door.
But other topics have regularly featured here. One type I used to enjoy writing was characterisation of people you might well meet in academic circles (as in the Committee Chair) – basically character assassination of certain types. Unfortunately, as Master of a Cambridge college I do not feel able to continue that line in case my fellowship nervously start trying to identify the culprits I appear to be dissecting. Indeed, I was rather apprehensive the College might be uncomfortable with me continuing to write at all. That has not been my experience for which I am grateful. For a period I sat on far too many committees and I wrote a lot about committee paperwork and coping strategies, but more recently I have had to endure fewer of such mind-numbing, paper-intensive meetings and that line of writing has also dried up, at least for now.
I have an occasional line in what I mentally think of as ‘lyrical’ posts, in so far as they are less embedded in the academic world. Ones based on places I’ve been or books I’ve read, for instance – or even on the importance of the bicycle to me. My life does not contain sufficient poetry that these could ever turn up often. Mainly my posts are simply triggered by something that has happened, to me or in the world in which I move. From time to time I wonder what would happen if I wrote something totally different: how would readers react if I decided to discuss rock music or football? Straying far from what is expected might lose me regular readers (although possibly gain me others). I don’t intend to do anything quite like that, but it is not clear to me whether one has to or should stick with the particular niche that one has fallen into.
One thing that is undeniable is that my writing is personal and in the first person. The whole joy I get from blog writing is that it is an escape from the passive voice beloved of scientific papers (although that style is beginning to fade a little). If my personal experience, my ‘authentic voice’ as I suspect life-coaches might have it, can encourage others that is a bonus that means a lot to me. Not all bloggers feel comfortable with such a personal voice, but one thing I have learned (it took me a while) is that I have control. I do not have to tell you my more humiliating anecdotes, share the details of my wider family or spill any other beans that I don’t want to. It is my choice. Everything I write may be honest, but I don’t honestly have to tell you everything. I believe that that personal voice has been appreciated, but I realise I never actually consciously decided to use it. It just turned out that way. If on day one I had chosen to write in more guarded tones I wonder what would have happened. I suspect I would have given up.
Although I may not know who my online mentees may be in many instances, I do know how many people have approached me (virtually or in person) and said how much they enjoy what I write. I will never have a regular and huge readership because the academic blog-reading scientific community is not massive. But the words of encouragement I receive from friends and strangers alike are hugely encouraging and mean a lot to me. It encourages me to keep writing, albeit at a slightly slower rate now I am out so many evenings through College and other activities (I used to find that time of day ideal for writing, when too tired to deal with more weighty matters but with enough energy to do something a little bit creative). Whether I will still be here in another five years who knows? But for now I hope the energy and ideas do not dry up and that I will still have the diverse audience I strive for coming back for more.
*With apologies to AA Milne