15 Feb Anthropology professor's blog raises public interest
Madison, Wis. — John Hawks has a cardinal rule with his graduate students: “If you want to retain it, write it down.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist practices what he preaches, deciding in 2005 not just to write it down, but share it with the world via academic weblog.
The result is John Hawks.net (http://johnhawks.net/weblog/), a project that solved Hawks’ practical academic needs and also happened to evolve a life – and audience – well beyond his expectations. The site started with a few hundred readers and now commands more than 1,500 readers a day – about four times the audience of his introductory course on anthropology.
Hawks covers a remarkably rich range of topics about anthropology and evolution. He writes roughly three posts a week on issues either in the scientific journals or in the popular press, and it’s not just academic insider baseball: Many controversial topics, such as intelligent design and the discovery of a “hobbit-like” human ancestor in Asia, are written with a lay public audience in mind.
A quick survey of recent posts will find commentary on a finding of new cave art in France; the correct age of the Sahara desert; photo manipulation in science; earwax genetics; and a tale about the early Soviets trying the create a human-chimpanzee hybrid (or “Humanzee”). Hawks says he feels like a “ringmaster” of his field, referencing and amplifying on an amazing range of topics, from the mainstream to the arcane, in a virtual lecture hall.
“My audience was mostly anthropologists when I first started, but it’s gone far beyond that,” he says. “It is a form of outreach. My blog is the one place on the Web where you can find current information about anthropology from an anthropologist. That’s pretty important – it’s the Wisconsin Idea in practice.”
The one topic that vastly eclipsed all others on his site was a series of posts about the discovery of skeletal remains in Flores, a tiny island in Indonesia, purported to be a species of tiny humans that roamed the island 18,000 years ago. Hawks was one of many anthropologists skeptical of the finding, and his posts prompted a torrent of responses from colleagues.
“It was such a weird thing to find, so that raises my guard,” Hawks says. “In my field, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, this one maybe more than most.”
The majority of feedback Hawks receives comes from students and colleagues. If he writes things critical of others’ work, he usually gets it back in spades. But he does get general public feedback as well, from enthusiasts of the field or people who have hatched quirky theories.
Once, Hawks received a comment on his post about new evidence that the Neanderthals were not an evolutionary dead-end, that some genes from the species contributed to human evolution. The reader couldn’t have agreed more, and went on to describe evidence of Neanderthal links. “Let me describe myself to you,” the commenter wrote. “I have a protruding brow ridge and most of my friends describe me as unusually hairy.”
“I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not,” says Hawks.
Hawks knew the site was taking off when he attended a summer 2005 conference where a number of colleagues recognized him from his blog picture. One of them was Donald Johanson, an anthropology “celebrity” who discovered the world’s largest T-Rex, named Lucy, in Ethiopia. He’s someone who Hawks has met many times before, and each time Johansen doesn’t recognize him. “He came up to me and said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met you
but I read all that stuff you put up online.'”
Back to Hawks’ cardinal rule about retaining through writing: It’s really the core purpose behind the blog. Much of what Hawks has posted will eventually make its way into an anthropology textbook in progress. The existence of a blog that requires regular care and feeding has made him more prolific, he says.
That practical value is important in academia, where blogs have not found universal acceptance as a form of scholarly productivity.
“I was really apprehensive about doing this at first,” Hawks says. “I’m an assistant professor. I don’t have tenure. Would people perceive this as worthwhile?”
An article on that same topic in Slate magazine referenced Hawks’ blog, and noted that Hawks “writes about science with the breadth of the late Stephen Jay Gould and doesn’t see a big difference between most of his online and offline output.”
For Hawks, the blog serves as a vibrant example of how relevant anthropology remains to the world outside academia. “It’s nice to be able to step back and see how all of these small, narrow specialties within anthropology relate to each other,” he says.