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As an assistant professor of psychology, Sam Sommers does a lot of dry, data-driven writing on very sensitive topics.
"A lot of my research focuses on race, and how people think and act differently in diverse or non-diverse settings, and that's a really touchy issue for your average person," he says. "We talk about these issues in our field and we recognize the importance of them to the real world, but we talk about them in terms of data and methodology and designing studies to look at these things."
So, when one of the editors of Psychology Today magazine approached him last year to write a blog for their Web site, he was intrigued.
"I enjoy the kind of writing that I do in my field, but it is scientific writing. The blog is too, but it's liberating to get to play the role of pundit once in awhile and just talk, whether it's about politics or more general societal issues, in a way that I don't always get to do in my own writing."
Whether positive or negative, comments posted to Sommers' blog have often helped bring him back to "the real world."
People's responses "help keep you grounded and help you remember that you're studying something that people care very passionately about and affects their lives intimately."
In the world of humanitarian relief, experiences often remain locked away in one person's head. For Peter Walker, Director of the Feinstein International Center and Irwin H. Rosenberg Professor of Nutrition and Human Security at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, his blog is a way of keeping what he has seen and learned over the past 25 years from disappearing.
"I was in Indonesia with a former colleague of mine discussing how difficult it is to pass on our experiences, and he told me he had started a blog to help record how he sees things," says Walker. "I thought, well that's a good idea—it's a way that allows you to record, not fixed to deadline. You can write anything in a blog—you can put it up as a piece of poetry or as an essay—but it's a way of capturing your thoughts so they stick."
Although it resides in cyberspace, for Walker, the process of writing in a blog is still very personal.
"I see it much more like the old fashioned Victorian diary," says Walker. "What I've found is that I can't write it sort of in between tasks—ten minutes, oh, I'll crank something off. I tend to do it early in the morning before everybody else gets up or at the end of the evening just as you would write a diary, so you know usually you've got that quieter sense."
Walker worked in development and disaster response for almost 25 years prior to coming to Tufts in 2002, including at a number of British-based NGOs and environmental organizations in several African countries and as director of disaster policy for several Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He says he realized that in addition to cataloguing his experiences, his blog also helped him to test his ideas while still in their raw form.
"It's sort of that halfway house between casual conversations and formal written papers," Walker says. "Now, there are upsides and downsides to it. Put an idea out too soon, it's silly. So you've got to use some judgment."
Though Walker is mostly involved in research, he thinks blogging could have a tremendous effect on the classroom.
"If you blog quite frequently during a course, it allows you relate what you're teaching to what's going on in the world," Walker says. "Say you're teaching a course on conflict resolution, you could then have a blog post in which you discuss what's going on in Gaza. It's a way of encouraging students to actually test the theory against the practice."
Parke Wilde, an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, has connected with a community of fellow bloggers who cover food policy issues from a public interest perspective. Wilde says he would like to see this community make a major public policy impact, similar to efforts he has seen from Porkbusters, a blog community that focuses on government waste. Important goals, though Wilde admits blogging has its drawbacks.
"It's not for everyone," says the former USDA economist. "You have to develop a pace you can sustain, and avoid the boom and bust cycle where you first commit too much time to it and then follow that by setting it aside for awhile."
For Wilde, one of the interesting aspects of maintaining his blog is tracking the number of views and the types of people who end up at his blog.
"What's interesting isn't so much the traffic numbers, but the searches that brings people to the blog," Wilde says. "I think that 20 percent of my traffic comes from people looking for nutrition information from fast food restaurants that don't disclose it. Even though it's not the thing I cover most, it's a mass market issue. Much of what I cover, I'm the main source for it."
Wilde adds, "A cautionary tale to companies is that it's better to share information than not to."
Wilde says his U.S. food policy blog has been motivating for his class on the same subject. It has also helped him connect with his students, some of whom contribute to the blog.
"Currently there are two students listed on the masthead, but there are also others that have sent in material from time to time," Wilde says. "I don't know why, but every time we get a new voice on the site, it often scores a big link from some other major Web site, leading to a spike in readership."
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Profile written by Kaitlin Melanson, Office of Web Communications
Homepage photo/illustration and Levine photo by Joanie Tobin, University Photography. Top photo by Alonso Nichols, University Photography. Sommers photo by Mark Morelli for University Photography. Walker and Wilde photos by Melody Ko, University Photography. Neal photo courtesy of Lisa Neal.
This story originally ran on Feb. 16, 2009.