Thank you to my Twitter interlocutors this morning for feedback on this post during my internal debate over it and for sharing your own experiences. Thanks also for conversations yesterday about social media and academic freedom.
In 2009, while still a graduate student, I was asked to speak at my department’s new student orientation and give the students advice on being successful in the program. The first idea that came to mind? Use Twitter. My DGS was horrified and followed up by saying graduate students shouldn’t “waste time” with that. Fortunately, my general disposition towards graduate school was to ignore all the advice I was being given because I knew then that Twitter would play a significant role in my academic career.
Twitter has opened up the contours of the academy, widening my communities within it and linking me to the world beyond it. By using Twitter as a professional tool, I have become a person committed to working in public. I have learned more about genre, rhetoric, and audience than I ever did in college or graduate school. Ideas for articles, projects, and books germinated on Twitter. Twitter is proto-scholarship; you won’t find it in my tenure file but it’s responsible for everything in it.
Dr. Steven Salaita’s rescinded job offer at UIUC, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, is the latest incident that has given me pause about the role of Twitter in my academic life. In brief, Salaita was allegedly #HireFired for hyperbolic tweets about Gaza. Salaita’s situation has elicited similar concern as a recent decision by the Kansas Board of Regents to implement a restrictive social media policy for faculty and staff. Simply put, how can academics who use Twitter navigate the tension between academic freedom and social media? I have written elsewhere about the role of digital scholarship in academic career development, but social media adds a new dimension of complexity to academic life by troubling the boundaries between personal and professional, public and private.
Nowhere are the dangers of social media more clear than in the remarks that Cary Nelson, an esteemed professor of English at UIUC, made to Inside Higher Ed about Salaita’s tweets. Nelson says:
I think the chancellor made the right decision…. I know of no other senior faculty member tweeting such venomous statements — and certainly not in such an obsessively driven way. There are scores of over-the-top Salaita tweets. I also do not know of another search committee that had to confront a case where the subject matter of academic publications overlaps with a loathsome and foul-mouthed presence in social media. I doubt if the search committee felt equipped to deal with the implications for the campus and its students. I’m glad the chancellor did what had to be done.
If Salaita had limited himself to expressing his hostility to Israel in academic publications subjected to peer review, I believe the appointment would have gone through without difficulty.
It’s chilling to see a former AAUP president and the author of No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (2010) speaking in support of a decision that contravenes the nature of academic freedom. For those of us who view Twitter as an extension of our professional identities, the implications are nothing short of horrifying: peer-reviewed scholarship is protected by academic freedom; your tweets are not.
As a junior faculty member, stories like Salaita’s or the news out of Kansas make me rethink the role of Twitter in my academic career. They raise the kinds of ethical dilemmas fostered by a system in which new hires are expected to mind their Ps and Qs until tenure, when they are permitted opinions. Moreover, as the adjunctification of the academy continues unabated, it’s not only untenured faculty who must fall into line but the increasing number of PhD holders who may never have the putative protection that tenure provides and remain silent in case they jeopardize their chances. Would I now, five years later, advise incoming graduate students to use Twitter? I’m not so sure. But what would they lose?
Twitter has, without a doubt, helped me develop an identity as an academic that I wouldn’t have had even a decade ago. I first learned about Twitter in 2007 as a graduate assistant at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown but couldn’t really figure out what to do with it. The answer became clear during the early years of my PhD program at Emory. In 2009, I spent much of the summer away from my home academic community because of a two-body problem. On Twitter, I found a small community of graduate students that provided an intellectual community that sustained me as I studied for comps. This group gradually widened and forked over time as I found new interlocutors within the academy and outside of it. I found asynchronous academic conversations on my research interests that I didn’t have in my local community. I met senior scholars willing to mentor graduate students, even ones whose “big” names made me starry-eyed. I gained friends, colleagues, and collaborators. I said things I’m proud of and things that I regret. The Twitter API seems to make these equally difficulty to find.
Most importantly, I found my voice as an academic through Twitter. After all, when you’re confined to 140 characters viewable to various and sundry, you learn to think carefully about how you represent yourself. I want my Twitter presence to reflect who I am as person – curious and funny (I hope!) – so I primarily tweet about academic issues and current events related to my fields but make sure to bemoan the Pumpkin Spice Latte each fall and live-snark the Olympics for gold.
The returns on my engagement with Twitter have ranged from thought-provoking conversations to speaking and writing invitations to a vast academic network. While I’m fortunate to have found a community of colleagues at Salem State who do exciting work, I’m grateful as well for the large, fittingly postmodern intellectual community on Twitter that regularly challenges me and shapes my work. I can see, all too easily, what my experience as an academic would have been like without Twitter in it: a lonely one. Couldn’t we all use a little less of that?
So this is my love letter to Twitter. The platform has given me what a cynic might call the illusion of community, bringing me, in equal measures, happiness, challenges, motivation, grief, excitement, and joy. This is my thank you note to my Twitter friends and colleagues. Their 140 character dispatches regularly inspire me, their traces evident in my work. This is my letter of intent to my academic communities. I will, to the best of my limited ability as an untenured professor, advocate for the place of Twitter within academic careers. And this is my memo to senior scholars. We need you to defend our freedom to pursue scholarly activity, whatever shape it takes.