Three Reasons to Use Social Media in Hard Times (MLA 2011 Version)


It’s been so long since this year’s MLA ended that you might wonder why I’m going to the trouble of posting my second talk. Hasn’t the moment passed? Does anyone care about what I said two months ago, even if you weren’t there? And considering the arguments that I make in this talk about social media being faster than regular scholarly communication, isn’t there some irony in my taking so long to get this up? So it goes.

I have a ream of excuses (from snow to THATCamp Southeast) for why I’m a bit behind the curve on posting this talk. But the reason I’m finally getting to it today is the Day of Digital Humanities (AKA #dayofDH). As I wrote in my first post this morning on my Day of DH blog, the digital humanities is not only about Digging into Data and distant reading but is also about the digital distribution of humanities scholarship. Hence, a long delayed blog post.

As I mentioned when summarizing my MLA, this talk was part of the “New Tools, Hard Times” panel, where I spoke alongside Marc Bousquet, Rosemary FealMarilee Lindemann, and Chris NewfieldMeredith L. McGill moderated the session. Marilee organized the panel and was generous enough to invite me to play along. Marilee blogged her talk and Chris posted his reflections on the panel. And if you want to read the VERY lively tweetstream for the session, look at the hashtag archive for #newtools.

The one thing that I wish I had done differently with my talk is change the title. Writing for ProfHacker has taught me the value of a title that promises discrete numbers. Your audience knows as they’re going in exactly how many data points you’ll be giving them. What’s more, there’s a suggestion that these data points will be something discrete, something that they can apply and use in the future. Those are some of the reasons why I chose the title I did. But personally, I found the title too similar to the talk I gave in Trinidad last October. It’s more than a little, however, likely that no one else pays enough attention to what I’m doing to notice the parallels. I attribute the lack of creativity in titles to how late I was up re-working on the talk the night before I gave it. If I had it to do over again, I think I’d call it “The Glass Tower: Social Media in the Academy in Hard Times.” But then I’ve gone ahead and committed the terrible sin of the colon-ized academic title. Perhaps it’s well enough as it is.

What follows is the text that I used when presenting. In a few places I ad-libbed, but you’re getting the gist here. And I’ve included the images that accompanied the text (images precede the text). In rare cases, you’re missing part of the dynamism of the transitions, and you’ll just have to consider that a good reason to see me give my next talk in person.

Three Reasons to Use Social Media in Hard Times

Good afternoon. I’m glad to be present today. You may have heard that I was unaccountably absent from last year’s MLA. Of course, if you’ve heard that—or have even heard of me—it’s largely due to the confluence of two trends: hard times in the academy and social media.

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The hard times that the academy has been facing recently have been well documented, and unfortunately SUNY Albany is not so much a watershed as a disappointing continuation of a trend. While the number of positions advertised in the MLA’s Job Information List during the last academic year ended up being higher than Fall 2009 led us to believe [PDF], it remains true that most college classes are taught by people who are not on the tenure track. As Marc Bousquet has written about today’s job “market,” finishing one’s PhD is often the best way to make sure that one will never teach college again. My own difficulties with finding even an interview for a “proper” job is my dubious claim to fame and the reason I’m sharing a seat at this table with these more distinguished panelists.

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At the same time that the academy has been going through furloughs, hiring and pay freezes, and the erosion of public and private funding, we have been discovering social media. We, like everyone else, use social media for managing networks of friendships. But academics increasingly use social media, both in their research and teaching: for example, a recent Chronicle article cited a survey that suggests more than 30% of faculty are using Twitter.

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While this rise in social media is merely correlated with hard times in the academy, it’s still a relationship worth noting. My own, academic use of social media coincides neatly with my own hard times in the academy. I began blogging at the same time I began applying for jobs, in the fall of 2007; I started using Twitter shortly after returning from the 2007 MLA in Chicago; I built my own website in Spring 2008 and radically overhauled it as I was going on the job market for a third time in 2009.

As a whole, I believe many academics view social networking in the way the philologists probably viewed the new criticism: it’s new, it’s what younger scholars are doing, and, perhaps most damningly, it’s “not how things have been done.”

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All of this is true, to an extent, and the university is an institution that prides itself on continuity and tradition. But given the hard times in the academy, I’m skeptical that we can hope for continuity. For good or ill, the university is a-changin’. So with that, I’d like to quickly touch on three reasons why hard times call for us to use social media:

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It’s cheaper; it’s faster; and it’s more open.

It’s Cheaper

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Although we don’t have money to meet with each other as often as we may have had in the past, we can use social media to help us communicate with one another even if we can’t attend. My own experience shows that this can still be effective. Not only did my own paper for last year’s MLA go viral on a small scale, but I was able to participate in other sessions remotely as people tweeted about what they were hearing or blogged their conference talks. I could ask questions in real time and have them relayed to the speaker in the conference rooms.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have support to attend conferences or to be engaged in professional development. Indeed, we must assert that participation in these venues is necessary to being scholars. But even when money is not such a pressing issue, there are always more events than time. Social media helps us be in multiple places at once.

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This is not to say that we shouldn’t have support to attend conferences or to be engaged in professional development. Indeed, we must assert that participation in these venues is necessary to being scholars. But even when money is not such a pressing issue, there are always more events than time. In the interest of time, however, I’ll just point you to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence.

It’s Faster

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Speaking of journals, social networks are much more efficient at disseminating information and scholarly work. This is something you intuitively know if you’ve ever had a journal fall behind on their publication schedule once they’ve accepted one of our articles.

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I had a great opportunity to observe a case study of the speed of social media this week in connection with the “Because” manifesto, which was written by a friend.

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On the morning of Tuesday, January 4th, the first tweet about the manifesto went out. (It happened to be from me.)

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Shortly after my first tweet is sent, people begin retweeting it. And some of them work for The Chronicle.

In retweeting, some people pull out excerpts that resonate with them.

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Others comment on what the message says.

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Some people offer suggestions for how the MLA could respond.

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Another response on Twitter is that people start talking about how the post is “making the rounds.” This naturally gets more people reading it and spreading the post further.

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Even AdjunctHulk weighs in.

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Not everyone is going to give Paraphernalian a free pass.

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And others don’t find that Paraphernalian speaks for his or her experience in the Academy.

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Eventually I realize that I have to include this brief history in my talk, which I had already written.

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And finally the post gets picked up by Inside Higher Ed. All of this in less than 24 hours.

Social media is fast enough to provide us and our work with a large audience—one that outstrips what we can normally expect from our publications. As Paraphernalian wrote to me privately, it’s “Weird that more ppl will read this than anything I wrote as an academic.”

It’s More Open

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Too often the justifications made by state legislatures to cut funding is that no one is really sure what academics do with their time and money. Social media, then, can help those outside the academy understand what we do in higher education.

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Suddenly the academy isn’t as shielded from the outside world. It’s no longer an ivory tower.

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We’ve become much more like a glass tower. Or as Dan Cohen puts it in his forthcoming book, we move from an ivory tower to an open web. Helping people see how hard professors work is part of helping the academy when we’re in hard times.

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Academics are not always especially good at sharing their work with other people. But I think that social media helps us get over that mistrust as we get to know each other better, through what Clive Thompson has called a “social sixth sense.” Social networks, in other words, help those of us inside the academy share our work and ideas, as well as our lives with one another.

Perhaps those who feel most disconnected from an academic community are the contingent labor among us. Even if you’re at a school that invests in you and cares about you, you might not have time to participate in your 9-to-5 academic community because you’re teaching too much or you’re on your way to the next school. The openness of social networks can allow the most disenfranchised among us to find community, then.

Perhaps my attitude about the importance of openness for the academy in hard times is cavalier, a function of my (relative) youth, inexperience, and lack of a tenure-track position. After all, it’s always important to be circumspect when communicating online. That being said, I have to admit that I’ve opted to be fairly open in my online interactions and that it’s had a salutary effect on my career. I’m speaking here now in large part because of it.

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As such, if I may propose some questions for discussion, I’d ask how us to consider how we can advise graduate students in effectively using social networks in an academy which appears to be permanently facing hard times. And secondly, to return to the subject of publishing, to what degree should academic freedom be extended not only to the area of one’s research but also the mode/method in which that research is conducted and presented?

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  1. #1 by Gwen on April 25, 2011 - 11:59 pm

    I couldn’t agree more about the need to adapt for hard times. Granted I am not in academia, but rather business, and I feel that the “Tough Times are the New Normal” as I tried to demonstrate in a recent article and video that I prepared for small business owners that need to start using the new tools that technology is affording us – in fact it is the first time in history, that technology has leveled the playing field so much in our favour. Humble plug if you are interested: http://m4group.org/local-fusion-marketing-levelling-the-playing-ground/

    It also occurred to me that Politics is another area that is way behind the curve regarding the use of technology and social media. When I found out that we were going be having 8 different elections this year alone from the various levels of government in BC Canada, I rose to the occasion and developed a solution for them. Now I need to use my own advise and social programs to put fuel on the fires to get their attention.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, I for one was listening!

    Gwen – Fusion Marketing Specialist Victoria BC Canada

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