Friday, August 5, 2016

#SeriousAcademic Uses for Twitter - Me and BABEL

First, disclaimers: No academic who doesn't study social media should have to spend one second of time on social media. No academic using social media for fun and personal contacts should have to promote their work in any way on social media. Institutions that push academics to go public, moreover, as Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote last year, want "everything but the burden." They want the PR, but when things go badly, they will not support you. 

No one should have to go be an academic on social media.

That said, there's an annoying essay on Academics Anonymous at The Guardian proposing that social media has little value for academics. It's got the headline "I'm a serious academic," and while the author didn't write the hed, #seriousacademic has taken off on Twitter as a response. There's definitely an implied suggestion that "serious" academics write grants and do work, whereas the unserious tweet. Some quotes:
We are in the midst of a selfie epidemic. We document every moment of our lives – the places we visit, the people we meet, the things we achieve. And now this culture has infiltrated the world of academia.
Hooray, right? I mean that's fantastic. Documentation is what academics do, followed by dissemination. Alas, not what the author means.
Using social media to impress people that you know – as well as those that you have never met – has now become a professional concern for many academics. I see more and more of them live tweeting and hashtagging their way through events.
Aha, here's the problem. This author, in the full flush of snobbery, thinks that social media is fundamentally about ego, rather than about networking.
Then there are the staff who go further than just tweeting about lectures and conferences. In the wake of the EU referendum, I have seen many using social media to voice very strong opinions, often criticising the general public en masse. Given that taxpayer money forms a substantial portion of our research funding, this kind of outburst risks alienating the very people we are trying to engage with.
Expressing political views in public! How dare an academic offer their viewpoints where someone might hear them, rather than sipping sherry in the tranquility of the faculty lounge. Also, we don't have a faculty lounge, and if we did no one would use it, as we're all too busy grading.
But surely the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?
A witty close, perhaps, but the opening of this paragraph shows the flaw. For the author, social media is nothing but a space to show off.

Social media has changed my life, not the least because I became a journalist after I received tenure for quite traditionally "serious" work in 13th century Mediterranean culture.  I could write many pages on social media as an accessible location for disability activism, observations on the ways that marginalized professors (whether because they belong to a marginalized group or otherwise feel isolated in their institution due to location or field) use social media to feel less alone, and many other topics.

I thought instead, I would share one traditional medieval story on how the use of social media shapes my serious academic career.

Four or so years ago, I was in a hotel bar at a conference and I met Eileen Joy, a well-known medievalist, founder of Punctum Press, and one of the founders of BABEL - a group of mostly literary critics doing cutting edge work. She invited me up to a party that BABEL was hosting in a suite in the hotel. I went, I unseriously brought my guitar, played music with others and sang, and had a lovely night.

In a pre-social-media age, that would be that. Perhaps I'd see them again next year. They weren't in my slice of the sub-field, they didn't give papers on topics I chose to attend, and we weren't geographically close. Instead, though, I friended the people I met on Facebook and began participating in conversations on Twitter. I'm interested in medieval material culture. Some of the literary theorists are interested in objects. I read their work. I read the work they cited. I began to go to their conference papers. I presented my one theoretical idea - using vectors as a controlling metaphor to discuss narratives about the movements of objects - at a BABEL panel. As I became a disability rights journalist, they also served as my pathway to formal disability studies within academia. Some of their work infiltrated my footnotes in a recent article. I was invited to speak at a panel at one of their universities last spring.

These developments: Footnotes, talks, conference papers, new reading topics - these are highly traditional "serious" features of academic life. I have social media to thank for them.