Social media and the “public” academic: room for improvement?

I want to say that my relationship with social media exists at arm’s length, but in reality it probably doesn’t. It’s been just under five years ago since a colleague got me to reluctantly join Twitter, ostensibly to promote the British Society of Sports History’s 2012 conference at Glasgow University, where I worked at the time.  I find myself now on the verge of joining Facebook – just about ten years (if not more) after most of you have joined it – also as a means of enlarging my network for research contacts. After many years of being on Academia.edu, I finally migrated my research content and commentary over to WordPress earlier this year. So, it seems as good a time as any to take stock of what social media has provided me, what it hasn’t, and why a low social-media period at the beginning of this year felt like a good thing.

In the early stages of my being on it, Twitter was very important to me in terms of finding like-minded academics in a similar career and employment situation. It also allowed me to speak to colleagues about sharing my research via various blog platforms. Increasingly, it also allowed me to interact with journalists. It provided a neat counterpoint to the snail’s pace of academic publishing, which (as I’ve maintained before in my published work) is based on outmoded means of production, distribution, ownership, and esteem.

But even here there were compromises. It was rare that I fully publically expressed the angst that I went through during what I refer “the wilderness period”: 2010-13, the time between when I received my PhD at Glasgow and when I was employed as a full-time, maternity-cover lecturer at Edinburgh. This was a period when my employment situation in hospitality came to an ignominious end: finally getting on the wrong end of a zero-hours contract at the outset of 2012, just after my thirtieth birthday. During this period, I applied for well over two hundred jobs in academia: in history areas, sports areas, even English language areas abroad. A lot of my writing talents were spent applying for these jobs, all the while trying to maintain a full research programme – on no money, and (after leaving my job at the pub) with my partner’s support. I was also fighting fires on two other fronts: my father’s death from MND in 2010, and the continuing struggle of saving up money and spending it on two Tier 1 (General) residence applications (with my visa rules dating from just months before Gordon Brown and Labour got voted out of office).

But chances are my followers didn’t want to hear about any of this: my grief wasn’t unique, the lecturers who did give me work (thank you!) probably didn’t want me badmouthing my employers, and many other nationalities have it far worse than mine within the UK’s complicated visa hierarchy. And, if I’m being honest, most friends of mine who have worked in hospitality over the years have contended with a level of bullying and job insecurity which, even at its worst, was far greater than what I have personally experienced in academia. So, even at the beginning, I tended to speak about my experiences very generically, rather than the nitty-gritty of what it actually entailed. That, and avoiding trying to snap at folk who looked like they had an easier go of it than I did getting a full-time or permanent job in academia. Who was I to judge? Those who know me personally, rather than my online self, know that I’m far more outspoken in person than I am on Twitter. I’ve left out a ton of details above.

Once I got employed at Edinburgh, I tweeted altogether less. I was never going to tweet details of my interactions with students, many who had me as a personal tutor. Altogether, though, I began to notice something very different once in a full-time job: that the University of Twitter bore little resemblance to where I worked. It’s probably not betraying any confidences, or even meant as a criticism of my employers, that just like academic publishing, university workload models don’t appropriately factor in any sort of public engagement over social media. (This blog post certainly won’t count towards mine.) We do this in addition to the work that we are expected to do, and universities tend to acknowledge that it works only when our names and research appear in newspapers and television – i.e., the “old media”. When universities say that social media is a priority, there is a great deal of misunderstanding as to what this actually constitutes: not just from management, but also from some colleagues (well-meaning and otherwise). If social media – and indeed information literacy more generally – is a part of universities’ strategies for teaching, research, and communication, then they need to show it in how they train staff, and how they take into account the labour involved.

What constitutes “public academia”, for those in my career bracket/age group, necessitates a great deal of groundwork and emotional labour. We are, after all, presenting a version of ourselves to the world. I’ve always been unsure of how to do this online: I want to “be real”, but a lot of stuff that happens in my career and in my life really isn’t the public’s business. I think it’s best to say on Twitter that I’m doing “admin” during some days, as realistically we cannot seriously be “learning more” on social media all of the time. As a whole, full-time employed academics in the neoliberal university spend way too much time answering email and filling in forms, but we do very little to publically perform those aspects of our job on social media. However, that doesn’t keep some folk from trying to look like they’re busy doing important stuff all of the time. Others on Twitter have mentioned the jealously they feel when they see another academic “accomplishing” something; and, whilst I certainly don’t feel that (and we should feel good when we’ve accomplished something), I typically view someone who brags way too much with suspicion. Thus, I think it’s crucial to emphasise that I’m far more boring than my university profile would have you believe that I am (maybe even you think it’s boring, and that’s okay too…). And even then, unless you’ve met me, you’ll probably never know the real me.

Twitter academics (historians especially) are excellent at talking about the great work they’re doing, both in the classroom and in the archives. (I do this when I can as well!) But the interdisciplinary fault lines here are very clear (at least for me) to see. I received my BA and PhD in history, and the research that I continue to do has an historical base to it. But for four years I have worked on a BSc and (to a lesser extent) and MSc in Sport Management, with the history and sociology of sport part of a mix which includes and tends to emphasise management and policy. Usually, when lecturers in history programmes write blog posts and have big philosophical debates on Twitter about how they use history in the classroom, these are debates which are practically non-existent in the social media accounts of sports studies lecturers. This is not necessarily a slight on lecturers like myself who work within sport-themed degrees; if anything, it is the sign of a discipline still trying to figure out what kind of discipline it is. In fact, I often wonder whether this is necessarily a good thing for historians. The use of historical research and theory towards an instrumental aim such as sport management, for instance, is not really a good thing – I would hate for bosses to think that history is something they can “use” – but it does allow me an opportunity to teach elements of history to groups of students who would otherwise not be exposed to it in a university education (and, in some cases, not even in a secondary educational context – beyond the Nazis, of course). It might even allow my students the opportunity at critiquing and subverting the hierarchies of the workplaces in which they will be entering. If that’s the case, there is potentially a lot more possibilities re interdisciplinarity that Twitter academics might be missing out on. Why do we do our research? Why is it necessary for people beyond our classrooms to know what we are teaching? I’m not convinced that we have found definitive answers here yet, and there is still more that individual disciplines could be doing to speak to a broader audience, beyond obtaining the satisfaction of members of one’s own peer group (always, for better or worse, important in our careers).

In the past year or so, I’m beginning to question what kind of effectiveness universities are having at all for making this world a better place, and that includes our place on social media. Many of the strictures of REF (at least in education and sport) demand that “impact” be quantified as our work having an effect on changing policy and best practice: in the former case, essentially serving the ends of power. We can’t have expected the architects of the impact agenda to have been naïve about why they created it; and, given the election of Donald Trump in the US, and the current election campaign here (and the likelihood of Theresa May and the Tories governing on “evidence-based policy”), we now have a situation that arguably highlights the futility of the exercise in the first instance. (Unlike many other Twitter commentators, I’ve got no room for nostalgia here re technocratic government.) There is also little point in criticising academics on Twitter for living inside of their bubbles: everybody on earth should freely associate with the people they want to, and have a right not to be bullied – or even just the right to hang out with people who provide good chat and stimulating discussion. (I also don’t hear Daily Mail or Breitbart readers being accused of living in a fact-free bubble.)

But if we think, for instance, that Twitter can be used as a tool for good – rather than as Trump’s personal platform, to which we all make knee-jerk responses – what exactly is our strategy? Beyond the need to call out what we understand as wrong, it’s arguably far more important to change the contours of discussion. I don’t think any of us have an answer here, inasmuch as we need to do this while at the same time managing our own mental health. The periods surrounding Brexit and Trump’s election were, frankly, hellish on Twitter – even in my own bubble. It was probably around the 2014 Scottish independence referendum – which, as ever, I couldn’t vote in (not being an EU citizen) – where I began to think that a constant presence on Twitter wasn’t a good thing. Despite what some in Scotland might think, indyref on Twitter was nothing compared to the absolute nightmare of the 2015 Labour leadership election. My abiding memory of 2016 on Twitter was of academics on both sides of the pond (sometimes through their retweets) shouting very loudly at their followers who either agreed with them, or agreed with most of what they said but supported other candidates in the same party/other left-to-liberal parties. I don’t really want to play the “respectability politics” game here (and, in many respects, 2016’s innovation was the removal of the dog whistles, rather than the actual racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic intent behind them, which was always there), but it’s questionable whether or not such shouting is really an effective strategy for educating anyone. It certainly turned me off – and I probably even engaged in a bit of it myself, not really mindful of how my tweets/retweets might affect the mental health of people reading them. 140 characters leave no room to impart nuanced messages of anything. The aim of our work shouldn’t be to get our students to do exactly as we say; it should be to free our students to make their own conclusions in life, once they can liberate themselves from what I would refer to as “the drone” of dominant language and discourses. (Ironically, my perception is that my first- and second-years, who have grown up knowing nothing but the world of social media, might have far better coping skills re managing their public selves than those of us who learned on the fly.)

After I spent the holidays in 2016 in New Jersey with my mother, I returned to Scotland somewhat despondent about the state of Twitter, which resembled the sound of (in my case) around 2,000 followers screaming in agony in the run-up to Trump’s inauguration. I wasn’t the only one: journalists, bloggers, and (obviously) academics on my feed felt that they needed a break too. It wasn’t good preparation for the work ahead. So, like them, I decided to turn it off for a bit, checking into my account once a few days. I did this for about two weeks or so, and it was certainly less stressful in terms of my time away from work. It also coincided with our second-year pre-placement research methods module on the BSc, so I had better things to be doing. Eventually, though, I ended up back on it, but not necessarily with any more or less of a plan than before 2016. Academics can’t cut themselves off to information being circulated within their peer groups – which Twitter does certainly provide – but I’m also no less sure about what kind of “plan” or “strategy” it is we should have. Do we try to reach beyond our bubbles and comfort zones? (There is certainly no guarantee that would work.) Do we stop tweeting pictures of our beloved family pets, and focus solely on business? (I don’t really have any intent to do that, as I am not a machine.) Why are we on social media: for work, or for play (or both)? Or are we just doing it because we feel we have to? I wonder if I’m the only person asking these questions.

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