Saturday, March 14, 2015

Twitter and Tenure

I write about public engagement and the academy for the Chronicle and here on the blog. Mostly, I have talked about the ways that formal non-academic writing (opinion essays, popular books, other media outreach) and community engagement (undocumented students) function within the core mission of an academic institution and career.

There are, though, more radical views.

Recently, my friend and fellow medievalist Jonathan Hsy asked about how we might formally credit the work of building scholarly networks via social media, especially via Twitter. How might the live-tweeting of conferences function as a formal part of one's scholarly portfolio? Should it?

I think it should, or could anyway, but that we have work to do defining how to make that happen. I'm concerned that the effort to bring Twitter into the "put in your CV/tenure-file" fold might, in fact, not be enough.

When I talk about public engagement, I run into many different kinds of opposition, but two in particular. One is that when saying public writing or tweeting or whatever should count, some people hear that I mean EVERYONE should have to tweet for tenure. That is nonsense.  My goal is not to force anyone to eschew traditional scholarship or to degrade its value (far to the contrary), but rather to expand the frame of possible valorized forms of scholarly activity.

I likewise get the response that I am suggesting an opinion essay should count the same as a peer-reviewed scholarly essay - they do, after all, both have the word "essay" in their form. That is also nonsense, but I do believe that it ought to be possible for sustained forms of public engagement to form significant parts of a professional academic portfolio.

The key word here is sustained. Sustained public engagement speaks a level of activity that goes beyond single tweets or single groups of tweets, or single public essays.  If you make some non-traditional form of activity a sustained and intentional part of your scholarly life, then it should be able to count to some extent.

But as I wrote for the Chronicle in my manifesto on this topic, it turns out that many universities already have explicit pro-engagement language in their tenure and promotion documents. We do, because adopt the Boyer model of scholarship, which includes Scholarship of Engagement as a type of recognized activity. People promoting public engagement as something that should count don't have to go far.

But we do have to radically change the "real" systems of value that lie behind the formal tenure and promotion documents.

Part of the problem is that in our traditional metrics we claim to value all kinds of things - teaching, service, engagement, and traditional research. But at most universities, especially the elite ones that drive the prestige economy and create standards for the rest of us, tenure and promotion emerge from a very limited numbers of forms of productivity. Traditional, prestige-laded, scholarship.

So as much as I am committed to counting new forms of public engagement, including social media, I think there needs to be considerable work done from the side of just adding more forms of productivity the list of things that we really value. It can't be all about the peer-reviewed monograph. It can't be all about the journal article in the high-status journal. And while our documents say such things are possible, just try getting tenured, hired, promoted, or a grant without the traditional stuff as the core of a file.

Which is to say that my essays add to my file and make it better, but that the book is the reason it's a good file, and without the book ...

So what I worry about, is that we will add a whole lot of things, including social media activity, to the list of things that count but that in fact no one really cares about. I don't just want to add at the bottom of the prestige hierarchy, I want to be involved in unmaking the prestige hierarchy.

Hence my recent essay: Let Books be Books.