Yet again, following f(t)’s lead

[UPDATE: Posts on starting blogs… Kate’sMiss Cal.Q.L8′sRiley Lark’s (scroll down)… all definitely better than my two cents…]

I can’t help it. I really dig Kate Nowak. (In the platonic way, obvi.) And everything she wants to do, I want to do too.

(On that note, I have a competition idea that I’m contemplating rolling out for the summer…)

(Kate, don’t say you want to eat a vat of fresh tomatoes, please. I HATE tomatoes.)

She gave her few cents about starting a math teacher blog — and things to do and things not to do. I thought I’d piggy back on that and give some totally unsolicited advice of my own.

Actually, I think it would be good if all of us who blog do this. [1]

1. Don’t worry about your blog name. I know a few people who want to start blogs but agonize over getting “the best, most punny, insightful name that captures the essence of what you want to do.” That’s cool. I think I spent an eternity trying to find the best Google Voice phone number, so I get it. I remember I spent at least 2 hours trying to come up with a killer name. But I’ve known people who’ve agonized over it to the point where they never got started. So agonize, but give yourself a short deadline. “By the end of today, I will have started my blog. No. Matter. What.” A rose by any other name…

My story: I gave up on my search for ‘the best name’ and just went with a cool fact I learned (that you can have a function which is continuous everywhere but differentiable nowhere). Totally makes no connection to what I write. So what.

2. Choose WordPress. I know everyone says it doesn’t matter whether to choose wordpress.com or blogger.com. I’ve used both and I have a strong preference for WordPress.com. The themes are sleeker (in my opinion), there are more control options, and most importantly, you can easily type equations (y=ax^2+bx+c). I am a huge, huge fan.

My story: I’ve written in livejournal in college, started two blogs (one of them a group blog) using Blogger in grad school, and now I’m a committed devotee of WordPress. However, maybe Blogger has more options since I abandoned it? I won’t knock it, but I know WordPress is awesome.

3. Write like nobody’s watching. Okay, this piece of advice might either sound obvious or counter-intuitive. But it’s the one I most believe in. And I assume you want to blog because you want to engage with others, right? You’ve been out there reading stuff, and you’re like, “ME WANT TOO!” At least that’s what happened to me. But guess what? If you blog for yourself, you’re going to want to write stuff — and it won’t be a chore.

And write about anything and everything related to teaching that you want. Don’t feel restricted to post only about this or that. Make your blog less about being your blog and more about whatever you want to say, and let it grow organically into whatever it turns into. Try not to make it into something — let it grow into being something.

In other words: blog for yourself.

My story: I kept my blog private for four (or more?) months. I was writing for me. I eventually got fed up with just leaving comments responding to others, and never really getting to say anything of my own. So I made it public. But I just kept on keeping on. Writing about whatever I felt like. If I cared about getting a readership, I wouldn’t have posted about multivariable calculus. (Something I post about a lot, actually.) My blog was and always will be (until I grow tired of it) an archive of my teaching.

4. Corollary: Keep at it. Guess what? Don’t be concerned about blog stats and visitors. Remember, you’re writing for you. People will see it. I promise. Okay, yes, you’re going to start looking at the stats. You won’t be able to help it. And you’ll feel good when the numbers are up and the numbers are down. That’s cool. I mean, who doesn’t want to be popular? But I guess the message is: be popular on your own terms. Or another way to put it: be yourself.

My story:  My first post was in August 2007. I’ve written 422 posts since then — not including this one. The average number of visits for my first couple months was 15 and 14 visits/day respectively. It took me until July 2008 (11 months) before I broke the 1,500 visits in a month. It took Kate Nowak 10 months. What you’ll notice is that if you keep chugging away at it, your numbers will go up. Just by the sheer fact that you have been writing more. So more people will stumble upon it. And more google searches will end up on it.

5. Watch what you write. Okay, so I said write for yourself, and I went on and on about it. But you are making this public. So the best rule of thumb: don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your kids, your administration, or a potential employer to see.

My story: I stick to this. I don’t write when I’m angry. I sometimes write when I’m disappointed – but mainly with myself.

6. Perfection isn’t attainable. I know some bloggers talk about having a ton of posts in draft form. Writing and revising. And revising. Heck, if you have an idea, just take the 30 minutes to pound it out and press PUBLISH. Agonizing sucks, and isn’t worth it for something you do for fun. As a lark.

My story: I write, I publish. Sometimes two or three things in a day! Sometimes only once in two weeks. I don’t let a schedule dictate anything. But sometimes, when it’s been a week or two, and I haven’t written anything and I have some spare time, I try something. I sit down in front of my laptop and for 10 minutes, I think if I have anything to write about. Usually I come up with something. The only time I let time linger between when I write something and when I post it is if I hesitate pushing that publish button — which is a sign to me that there is something in it that I’m not comfortable with. Usually something that relates to #5.

Obviously this is what works for me, and it may not be your style. I just really want to say: DON’T STRESS ABOUT IT. Just have fun with it, and don’t worry about it too much, and have fun with it. Oh wait, I said that twice. Well, I meant it.

[1] I sometimes think that some ed grad student should stumble upon our little community and write about its evolution from 2006-present. I got this thought probably because I was trained as a historian for a few years, before I became a teacher, and this is exactly the type of grad student seminar research paper that a sociologist or information scientist who joined our seminars talked about writing. Then we’d talk about Foucault and I’d want to bash my head against the heavy wooden seminar table while I attempted to figure out what “the form making a sign and the form being signalized are resemblances, but they do not overlap” meant. I digress. These posts would be good research fodder for the grad student. [Update: this post and comments at dy/dan would also be good fodder.]

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21 thoughts on “Yet again, following f(t)’s lead

  1. 1. I think I disagree with you both on the name. Kate said don’t use the word math; I did. (Math Mama Writes) You said don’t try to find the perfect name. I used to spend a lot of time on okcupid. I had picked a stupid screen name (mom12). Every time I posted a comment on someone’s journal (think mini-blog), I noticed my screen name, and was bummed. I finally set up a new account, just so I could change it. I had to start a bunch of things all over. It was a B I G hassle. My new screen name, mirthmama, made me very happy. (mirth = math+earth.) I also like being Math Mama.

    It is a very good idea to think of this as being like the sign you put on your coffee shop. You’ll be living with it, so choose something you really like.

    2. I’m on blogger (or blogspot). I’m fine with it. But it does not do equations easily. Maybe someday I’ll care enough to switch. You do make me envious, knowing you have that…

    Visits is one way to measure readership. Number of people following you is another.

    I link to things way more often than either of you do, partly because I get so excited by all the coolness, partly because I used to think that would help me find things again. (Now I use google bookmarks for that.)

    My number of visitors went way up when I was linked to by a writer on Psychology Today. One post that intrigues a paid columnist will do that. I don’t know if you can make that happen on purpose. I wasn’t trying to…

  2. I think I fall closer to you than to Kate(t)… wordpress, watch what you write…

    I obviously went a different route with the name, closer to f(t) really. But most different of all, I wrote about what I cared about, which creates my specific strange mix.

    In the end, the blog is a weblog, a publicly-shared, personal journal. Focus it as you please, it is both your expression and what your readers come to expect.

    Jonathan

  3. Sam, thanks for this. You were most helpful to me over the past few weeks as I wrestled with starting my own blog. Now when people inundate you with emails about starting a blog, you just have to direct them here.

    You and Kate have provided resources that will help people like me get started. The biggest thing is the confidence to try it (especially for old guys like me). I really worried that people wouldn’t care what I had to say, but like you say, it’s really for me anyhow.

    I love that good young teachers are blogging. When I started in a small school 19 years ago, at least 5 years before the internet became accessible to schools, I was totally on my own. There were no other math teachers in town, and there was no such thing as Google or even email to help find support. I had a text book, a curriculum guide, and an un-networked IBM PS2 Model 25 to work with. The community that you guys have created is a great support to all teachers. Hopefully and reflective old guy like me can contribute as well.

    I am learning some lessons. I already broke your rule #5 with my (since deleted) post that was critical of my IT department and their stance on supporting Apple products. It was probably not a good career move to post that.

    I am obsessing over my stats. I can’t help it. I don’t know why I don’t show up in Google searches yet, and I think I set it up right to have them catalog my site. I have no idea why I got two referrals yesterday from some weird student loans website that I’m sure is not legitimate and probably up to bad things. These are all things I am learning, and I’m having fun doing it. I have drafts of 20 posts I’m excited about fleshing out. Blogging is the journaling and reflecting that my University professors tried to convince me to do, only way, way cooler.

    Thanks for your support and for this post.

    • >I don’t know why I don’t show up in Google searches yet

      My more personal and more political blog, And All the Rest, never shows up on Google searches. I thought it was that the words in my name were so common. But that’s probably not exactly why. It looks like there are just so many hits on the common meaning of ‘zero knowledge proofs’. Maybe it hurts to have your url different from your blogname? (Nope. Sam’s comes up nicely.) Maybe you’ve just got to wait until more people are reading you.

      I posted one angry post about a year ago, and deleted it within hours. I am trying to reach people across the political spectrum, which is why I started a second blog where I could feel more free to talk about anything.

    • @John I don’t know that much about manipulating search results. But, supposedly Google ranks a page by how many quality pages (not link farms or the like) link to it. Since your site is new, not that many pages are linking to it yet, so it’s not going to show up in the search results. I’m sure this conclusion is overly simplistic, but that’s my understanding.

      If you search for my name, the first result is a woowoo new age lady in Texas who will talk to angels or something on your behalf. Maybe for a fee. I don’t know. Anyway, I kind of doubt I’ll ever turn up above her. High school math teaching is a smaller niche audience than people who want paranormal intervention.

  4. Good posts from you and from Kate. Couple of things to add:

    Corollary to #4: Don’t obsess over analytics. I remember a breakthrough in my blogging experiences took place when I stopped listening to all the voices out there in the blogosphere on what to do to maximize your traffic. (Have a consistent brand! Promote yourself! Use Feedburner! etc.) I finally realized that I mainly blog for my own amusement and so those analytics — while interesting for their own sake, since I’m a geek — really mean nothing to me as a blogger. I got a shock to the system in this vein as well when I took Fall 2009 off from blogging and experienced basically no change in the page views on my blog during my hiatus. I was getting about the same amount of traffic not only whether or not I was doing all the “right” things in my blogging, but even whether or not I was writing stuff at all.

    Corollary to the corollary: Bloggers who engage in excessive self-promotion are irritating. People can only take so much of that before it just becomes obvious that you’re not in this thing for the exchange of ideas and for community but rather to push your own “brand”, and then your blogging is merely noise.

    Also, back to the “for my own amusement” thing — this is really the key. You blog because you enjoy it. If you end up not enjoying it for a while, don’t do it. I liken my blog to one of those old-time barber shops where the proprietor would just open the shop when he felt like it and closed shop when he was done. None of this business of “store hours”. I sometimes put up 5-6 posts a week at my place. Lately it’s been more like 5-6 posts every 6 weeks. And I am totally OK with that.

  5. I thought your blog name meant the job continues with no breaks but it is impossible ever to determine the sign or magnitude of the rate of change of how well you’re doing. Maybe I’m projecting – that’s how the job feels to me! Moral: if one’s blog name doesn’t actually mean anything, readers may supply their own meaning.

  6. Hey–thanks for this post. I discovered your blog yesterday and started a blog. Now today I switched it to WordPress, since the ability to write equations seems like an obvious balance-tipper. (I’ve been personal blogging for years on Blogger, but maths needs to be written well. So WordPress it is.)

    Maybe summer is a downtime for teacher bloggers? I hope I convince myself this year to get on with the reading and learning and creating and have a profitable summer.

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