Social Media and the Serious Academic

Should “serious academics” make time for social media? At least two recent commentators (I’m guessing there are more out there, but it may be hasty to speak of a silent majority) think not. Many — naturally including a slew of “twitterstorians” and academic bloggers — have responded, detailing the ways social media facilitates their work and lampooning their targets’ indisputably pompous and arguably retrograde appropriation of “seriousness“.

Obviously, I’m now in the social media camp — though I’m a newcomer, having been on Twitter for less than a year and blogging here for less than six months. Even in that brief time I have already presented at a conference I saw announced on Twitter, placed a short piece on academic advising with the Chronicle of Higher Education (a version of which appeared here), discovered people in other places and disciplines who share my research interests, modified my course syllabi in ways I would not otherwise have thought about, and found readers I would not otherwise have. The benefits seem obvious, and although managing my social media time is a challenge, it is not by some distance the most significant one I face daily. If one can “make time” to complain about social media in the Guardian, one can make time to write a blog post or tweet a comment on a paper.

Time is not really the issue in this debate, though. “Seriousness” here is not, or only incidentally, thrift with time; it is, essentially, scholarly virtue. I’ve been on both sides of this argument. Early in grad school — when social media was younger, but did exist, and when I had far more time at my disposal than now — I was suspicious of it, for reasons that resembled those of the “serious academics” today. I identified very much as a scholar-in-training, on a narrow, lonely track towards a sort of magical kingdom, the Realm of Scholarship, far removed from the real world and counterposed to its corruption and stupidity. The actual conditions of my existence as an unfunded PhD student at an Ivy League institution — particularly during the drive for grad student unionization, which I supported then and still do — wore some of the varnish off this vision, as did the realities of the job market and a year of adjunct teaching. On the other hand, the depth of my investment in the academic path, the weight of my prior intellectual, emotional as well as financial commitments (to say nothing of my parents’), only made the vision of scholarly life at the end of the tunnel more vital to sustain.

In this vision there was no room for “alt-academic” jobs; fine for those who’d given up on academia or their degrees, perhaps, but not for me. Entertaining alternatives might have seemed — and would have been — no more than minimally prudent. Each issue of the AHA’s Perspectives seemed to include the same monitory graph of declining jobs in history (what I came to think of as the Townsend Curve), and little by little acquaintances peeled away to take teaching jobs at private schools, return to careers in journalism or publishing, or join the mysterious world of Consulting. Not me. In retrospect I think a kind of Grad Student Calvinism governed my attitude, a double-predestinarian view of the academic job market in which premature tenderness about earnings or security were signs of damnation, conviction even in the face of facts the mark of the Elect. Seriousness was openness to grace and academic salvation. Nor, then, was there room for the kind of amateurish attention-seeking to which puritanical “serious academics” still reduce social media. Their Scholarly Kingdom is not of this world.

But of course it is. The only question is how it should or might be. If the dream of an Ivory Tower can survive grad school and adjuncting (inasmuch as one can at least imagine, for a while, that these are stages on a path towards something else), one thing it can’t survive is actual tenure-track employment. Universities, departments and disciplines are thick with politics, popularity contests, preening and self-promotion. Is a pat on the head from a dean or a provost really a nobler or more scholarly goal than 100 “likes” for a blog post? (Hint: only one of these implies that your work is being read.) Are the “terms of use” for Twitter really more insidious than the agreements by which academics sign away rights to research or teaching materials to publishers or universities? Is a Facebook algorithm any more “infantilizing” than any number of strategic plan slogans or the average faculty orientation? Consumerism and the corporatization of education are problems offline and on; so are smugness, pettiness and insecurity. Scholars can wallow in comfortable prejudices quite as well in print or in person as they can on Twitter. Some do all three.

I do take the point — excellently made in a comment on The Tattooed Professor — that social media gives universities one more set of unremunerated tasks to load onto their faculty, who may now be expected to fly the college flag in brave new ways. Much as with the self-absorption bewailed by The Serious Academic, though, here again social media is not the source of new problems but rather one more sluiceway for the protean viciousness endemic to contemporary academe, whatever the platform. (As I write this, a poster instructing me to “Double Your Research” has appeared on the wall outside my office. There’s some good old-fashioned, old-media bullshit for you.) Where was I? Yes: at worst, a new pipe in an old sewer. And at best, considerably more than that: an avenue for building research networks, pursuing pedagogical discussions, and locating, even creating, new audiences, academic and (at least potentially, if we learn how to behave) non-academic, for valuable and interesting work.

No-one should be forced to use social media. On the other hand, that’s eventually going to sound like saying that no-one should be forced to use the phone, or paperclips. (This realization was more or less what led me to Twitter and blogging.) True, maybe, but probably not the most helpful way to think about the technology in question. One thing that really super-serious people need to do is take account of the world around them. An increasingly salient feature of that world, as far as academics are concerned, is that fewer and fewer non-academics care about or respect what they do. Social media is here, and it already does perform valuable functions for academics. Unless there’s some reason to think that aspect of the world will change, it is pointless to insist that “we” stop using it — and comical to suggest that we “wean our students off” it. The more useful thing, for ourselves, for our students, and for our disciplines, would be to think how best we all might use it to preserve a space for serious scholarship in the world we actually inhabit.

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