Posts Tagged mla

Minor Differences and Diverging Paths

What follows is my talk for a session at the 2013 MLA on “How Did I Get Here? Our ‘Altac’ Jobs.” As always, I’m super excited to be at the MLA and to be speaking about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: new models of employment for PhDs and the training of graduate students. I’m thrilled to be speaking on the panel with a group of alt-ackers whose range of employment far exceeds the usual suspects of digital humanities fields: Donna M. Bickford, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Kathryn Linder, Suffolk Univ.; Liana Silva, Univ. of Kansas; and Sarah Werner, Folger Shakespeare Library. Brenda Bethman and Shaun Longstreet are organizing and providing the scaffolding.

As you’ll see, part of my slides are comics; if it’s not apparent, they are drawn in the style of Randall Munroe’s XKCD. I looked at a lot of his different panels to figure out how to create better stick figures. The idea of the “minor differences” of alt-ac and tenure tracks was inspired by Matthew Inman’s line of Minor Differences comics, which he draws at The Oatmeal. Finally, I got the idea of using hand-drawn pictures for slides from Eric Rochester‘s talk at Digital Humanities 2011 on the panel “The ‘#alt-ac’ Track: Digital Humanists off the Straight and Narrow Path to Tenure.”

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Hi everyone. First off, if you want to tweet what I say, please go ahead. (In fact, I consider it a breach of decorum and hazardous to my SEO if you DON’T tweet what I say.) My Twitter handle is simply my name. And if you want to read along with what I’m saying, this talk just went live on my website at

Cartoon of career advice

One of the difficulties of the alt-ac track is that there generally isn’t a lot of good advice about how to get there. This situation arises because the people traditionally providing career advice are those who on the tenure track. (And let’s face it: sometimes that advice is out of date.) This Catch-22 of career advice is part of what motivates this panel, the #alt-academy project, and a growing pool of other resources.

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So in this spirit, I’ll talk briefly about how I got started in my alt-ac job. But first a caveat: I’ve found that when we talk about alt-ac we tell stories about how we got here. But in many ways these narratives are useless as they inevitably describe an idiosyncratic path that cannot be duplicated.

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What becomes useful in such accounts, however (and hopefully), is the transmission of possibility: this story is about pointing out that there are different pathways. If you’re interested in an alt-ac career, you’ll have to figure out your own way, but you should know that there are lots of options that diverge from the tenure track.

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I suppose I started the path to my alt-ac job in the spring of 2009, when the term “alt-ac” did not yet exist. After being unsuccessful on the MLA job market for the second year in a row (one interview, woot!), I applied to two Associate Director jobs—at a large university initiative and at a Digital Scholarship Lab. And what do you know, I got interviews!

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In the end, I didn’t get either of these jobs, but it helped me recognize that I had marketable skills that exceeded the boundaries of the discipline that I had trained in. While applying for tenure-track jobs in the Fall of 2009, I also applied to alt-ac positions including the CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) post-doc, which places recent PhDs in academic libraries for one or two years.

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From 2010 until this past summer, I was a CLIR post-doc at Emory. In that role, I worked to establish DiSC—our Digital Scholarship Commons—which was funded by the Mellon Foundation to explore the intersection of digital humanities and libraries. I also worked with the Library’s Outreach team in connection with emerging technologies, social media, and more.

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What’s tremendously useful about the CLIR post-doc is that it provides a pivot point. A PhD program tends to prepare you to do one thing. After my post-doc, I was prepared to do a few more. I could have easily gone back to tenure-track positions but now I also had the experience to apply for jobs in libraries, DH centers, and more.

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And I’ve been lucky enough that Emory decided they wanted to keep me around. I had developed a skill set that included project management, event planning, and knowing how the university worked. The result was a permanent, alt-ac job that was new to me and a new (and innovative) position at the university. I work primarily in DiSC, but I’m also lecture-track faculty in the English department.

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So, that’s a boiled down version of the path I took to get here today. You can read more in detail in my contribution to the #alt-academy collection. But since my path’s idiosyncracies make talking about it only potentially useful, for the remainder of this presentation I’d like to cover something else about alt-ac. In particular, the minor differences between the tenure and alt-ac tracks. Let’s start with how each side begins life.

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Of course, this is reductive. Just like there’s more to do in grad school than simply reading, there is more to do to explore an #altac path than simply blogging (or even tweeting). You prepare for an alt-ac career by trying lots of different things while in grad school. Take a part-time job somewhere in the university that is not related to your field. Do what you can to explore grant writing or project management. Talk to a librarian or development person.

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Eventually you finish grad school. (Right?) And then you find a job. When it comes to finding jobs on the tenure track, we have the JIL. When it comes to the alt-ac track, there isn’t anything as centralized. You’ll want to check the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. You’ll want to look at HASTAC, H-Net, and PODnetwork. Cast a wide net. And my experience suggests your friends will find jobs for you once they know you’re looking. Most of what I’ve applied to falls into this category.

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Friends are useful because it turns out that there are LOTS of alt-ac positions. In fact, one of the best places to look is on your very own campus. You DON’T have to move to Northwest South Dakota State to get a job! Again, start when you’re in grad school. You can work in Admin part-time as a grad student and that will give you the experience that you really will need to get that same job once you need something full-time.

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Once you have the job, it’s important to realize there are some differences in how you’ll be perceived. People generally know what an “assistant professor” does (even if they radically misunderstand their salary). People really have no idea what a “DH Strategist” is, even other people on campus. (Really, I shouldn’t have drawn the alt-ac side looking so cool; it’s very difficult to explain what I do to people. But when else am I going to get to draw a light cycle?)

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One of the immediate benefits of the alt-ac track that I discovered is what feels like a more manageable work-life balance. On the tenure-track, I knew I could always be writing or reading another article. My evenings now feel like they belong to me, and I do what I want without feeling guilty. Granted, sometimes I choose to work on my own projects and writing that are no longer part of my day-to-day job.

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Of course, the freedom of those evenings does come with a price. I might work a 9-5 job, but it’s a 9-5 every day of the year. Granted, summers on the tenure track aren’t anything like the well-paid vacation that Joe Biden thinks we get.

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We all know that those summers “off” (and unpaid) are really there for the tenure-track people to get their research done. And it never feels like enough time. It’s important to realize, however, that except in very rare cases, research is not the priority of alt-ac jobs. It literally won’t be in the job description. In other words, you can’t go into this category of employment and expect to have all the perks of the tenure-track.

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One of these tenure-track perks is that by and large, you are the God of your own work environment. If you don’t like how an assignment is going, just change it! You don’t need approval. But if you work on the alt-ac track, you’ll find yourself working by committee frequently. And you’ll have to get used to having a boss.

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You’ll also have to get used to slightly different patterns of promotion within the alt-ac track. Some portions of the university world have clear promotion pathways; others don’t have anything like it, since these are totally new jobs. But you’ve got to remember that you deserve a career path in alt-ac as well as the tenure track.

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To conclude: in pointing out some of the minor divergences between the tenure- and alt-ac tracks, I am not trying to say that one career path is inherently better than another. But there are differences—Robert Frost to the contrary—and choosing your path wisely will, in fact, make all the difference.

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A Digital Pedagogy Unconference at MLA13: Join Us!

[This has been cross-posted at Adeline Koh’s website,]

Adeline and I are thrilled to announce that we’ll be holding an “unconference” on digital pedagogy as a preconference workshop for the Modern Language Association Annual Meeting in 2013.

What are “Unconferences”?

The ten-year old unconference format emerged as a response to weaknesses of the traditional conference presentation. Unconferences are participant-driven gatherings where attendees spontaneously generate the itinerary. Perhaps the best example of the unconference format in the humanities thus far has been the THATCamps which originated at the Center of History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. The growth of interest in the unconference format within the humanities can be seen by the exponential growth of THATCamps, from one event in 2008, to three in 2009, to twenty-six in 2011.

Why an “Unconference”?

For the last several years, the MLA conference has increasingly welcomed new styles of presentation such as lightning talks and electronic roundtables, all aimed at increasing interactive discussion among the attendees. The organization continues to call for more change. In the Spring 2012 MLA Newsletter (PDF), both the MLA’s Program Committee and its Executive Director encouraged MLA members to consider new forms of presentations for the upcoming convention in Boston.

Our three-hour “unconference” on the subject of digital pedagogy is an attempt to answer this call to re-envision the conference format and introduce yet one more form of presentation at the annual Convention.

Hold an unconference

Unconference Theme: Digital Pedagogy

Attendees of our Digital Pedagogy Unconference will consider: what would you like to learn and instruct others about teaching with technology?

While interest in digital pedagogy has grown along with the rise of the digital humanities, these two fields are not identical. Although all instructors are being increasingly encouraged to incorporate technology into their pedagogy, not all of these instructors may want to become digital humanists. As such, digital pedagogy has a broad application for scholars of language and literature.

More Soon!

  • We expect to offer 50 seats for the unconference workshop and to charge a small fee to sign up.
  • Expect a website for the unconference to be forthcoming in the summer/fall of 2012, with more details and instructions about how to sign up.

We’re both incredibly excited, and hope you’ll join us there!

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Teaching with Games: A CFP for MLA 2013

Building on several panels at the 2012 MLA Convention that separately considered digital pedagogy (“Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom,” “Digital Pedagogy,” and “New Media, New Pedagogies”) and games (“Digital Narratives and Gaming for Teaching Language and Literature” and “Close Playing: Literary Methods and Video Game Studies“), this electronic roundtable will generate discussions about the use of games in the teaching of literature, languages, and/or writing.

More than simple discussion, however, we will highlight concrete implementations of games in the classroom. Presenters will engage in informal discussion or offer interactive electronic demonstrations, lasting no more than 4 minutes. These presentations will take place at stations with appropriate audiovisual equipment around the meeting room. The remainder of the session’s time will allow the audience to circulate among stations, asking questions of the presenters. Those attending the session will leave with discrete assignments, activities, or ideas that they could build on in designing their own courses.

We welcome abstracts for presentations on any topic linking games and pedagogy, including the following practices:

  • Games for language acquisition
  • Interpretive games (e.g., the Ivanhoe game)
  • Games as platforms for discussions or activities
  • Gamification (as subject, as method); critiques of gamification (as subject, as method)
  • Student- or group-designed games
  • Games played inside/outside the classroom
  • Game modification
  • Social games in the context of a social/classroom space

Types of games may include but are not limited to the following:

  • Video games
  • Board / card games
  • Virtual Worlds / MMORPGs
  • Alternate Reality Games (ARGs)
  • Social games (e.g., Cow Clicker, Farmville, The Nethernet)
  • Spatial Games (e.g., foursquare, Shadow Cities, geocaching)

This roundtable session will feature up to eight presenters. Presenters are welcome from a broad range of institutions with a range of contexts and budget demands. Selection of participants will be based on a cross-spectrum of styles, classrooms, student experience, successes, and failures.

Send 300-word abstracts and bio to brian [dot] croxall [at] emory [dot] edu by 15 March 2012. N.B. All panelists will need to be MLA members (or have their membership waived) by April 7th.

I am organizing this session on behalf of the MLA’s Committee on Information Technology.

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Five Questions and Three Answers about Alt-Ac

What follows is my talk for a session at the 2012 MLA on “#alt-ac: Alternative Paths, Pitfalls, and Jobs in the Digital Humanities.” I’m thrilled to be speaking on the panel with a fantastic collection of alt-ackers that I admire: Julia Flanders, Matt Jockers, Shana Kimball, Bethany Nowviskie, and Lisa Spiro.

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  • Good afternoon, all. My comments today are titled, “Five Questions and Three Answers about Alt-Ac.”
  • I’m tremendously pleased to see this panel and the one that directly follows it happening at this year’s MLA.
  • The need for ongoing conversation about alternative academic careers was brought home to me again recently when I received a rejection notice—a very kind one, I might add—for a tenure-track job that I applied to this fall.
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  • Nine hundred applicants. You don’t need statistical analysis or to be a digital humanist to figure out those odds.
  • As Amanda Watson put it on Twitter, these sorts of odds make it clear that we must rethink graduate education and not ignore different paths for employment after the PhD. And that’s exactly what alt-ac can be.
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My Job

  • In my current position as a CLIR post-doctoral fellow at Emory University’s Woodruff Library, I’m lucky to be exploring the alt-ac track.
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  • My principal responsibility is to develop and manage digital humanities projects in DiSC, Emory’s Digital Scholarship Commons. I also taught an Intro to Digital Humanities this semester.
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  • In the past year, I worked to get DiSC off the ground, along with three colleagues. All of us are on the alt-ac track together.
  • And this situation brings me to the first of my promised questions:
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    What’s the relationship between DH and alt-ac jobs?

Relationship Between Alt-Ac and DH (Question 1)

  • As many of you may have seen, Stanley Fish recently had a piece in The New York Times, where he talks about the rise of the digital humanities at the MLA. His observation is a bit behind those (Howard 2009; Pannapacker 2009; Howard 2011; Pannapacker 2011) who made similar statements about the 2009 and 2011 MLA…but we’ll give him a break. He is Stanley Fish, after all.
  • What you might not have seen was the very smart response to Fish from Ted Underwood, who teaches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature in the English department of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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  • Underwood suggests that one of the reasons why DH is not the future of literary studies is because it “is not a movement within literary studies.” It’s equally at home in history departments (the slate of DH activities happening at the AHA right now certainly bear witness to this fact), in art history, in linguistics, in libraries, and many more corners of the campus.
  • Underwood calls digital humanities “extra disciplinary.” We might say the same thing about alt-academics.
  • One of the obvious connections between DH and alt-ac, then, is how extra-disciplinary they both are.

The Future (Questions 2 & 3)

  • Question #2: Is alt-ac the future of DH?
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  • Well…not entirely. We have the creation of tenure track positions—and occasionally cluster hires—at places such as Maryland, Nebraska, Iowa, Clemson, Northeastern, and more. These positions are clearly not alt-ac.
  • But insofar as scholarship in the Digital Humanities tends to require collaboration on multiple scales, those in these positions will in fact be “alt”—marked by difference. The pursuit of tenure for these scholars won’t be the same as those who have previously been promoted.
  • What’s more, I think alt-ac is the likely track for most positions in the digital humanities—and probably for the university as a whole.
  • In fact, let’s face it: the university is already primarily populated by people who are non-fac. And many of the non-fac are the alt-ac.
  • That being said, alt-ac cannot mean short, terminal contracts; alt-ac cannot be a continued casualization of labor in the university. Instead, we should look to models elsewhere in the university—libraries, administration, research only positions—for helping us structure these career paths, both within and without DH.
  • What’s more, these must be career paths. We need to think about how to create opportunities for advancement.
  • Now let’s turn it around (question #3, by the way): Is DH the future of alt-ac?
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  • No.
  • There many different ways to get your “alt on” that don’t involve building things (as Stephen Ramsay would have it). You can find alt-ac careers in a library, in a museum, in an archive, in a federal agency, in a think tank, or even—dare I say it—in administration.
  • So it’s not necessarily helpful for us to frame alt-ac as only being a thing that happens in digital humanities.
  • Again, one of the lessons of “alt-ac” as a concept is that there is intellectual labor in getting things done, in accomplishing the very impressive and real work of the university, throughout the whole university.

Bonus Questions

  • And finally, a question (#4) that I’ve heard no one ask aloud: how should the MLA deal with the rise of alt-ac?
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    After all, sessions like this have little to do (on the surface at least) with the study of the modern languages.
  • #5, and the kicker:
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    Can the MLA shift its purpose from representing those who teach and research modern languages to those who study or studied the modern languages?
  • This simple shift would be enough to make the whole of what we’re discussing—to say nothing of the panelists—belong unequivocally at this annual Convention. I’m not sure that it’s something that alt-ac needs so much as a way to keep the MLA relevant with what the transformations we’re facing.


  • More than either an object or method of study, the digital is something that is happening to the humanities in the 21st century.
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  • And alt-ac is something that is happening to universities.
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    It is not the only thing nor is it necessarily the most important. But it’s happening and in some cases it’s a very good thing.
  • Perhaps in 2017 (or ’18 or ’19) we’ll be reading a piece from Stanley Fish talking about the rise of reconfigured, hybrid professionals at the MLA. And if in 2018 he’s a few years late in noticing the rise of alt-ac, well, so much the luckier for the rest of us who will have been the beneficiaries of the future’s accelerated arrival.
  • Thanks.
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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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