This Week In My Classes: Social Media

SlideTechnically, actually, it was in someone else’s class: I was invited to come and talk about social media to our Honours Capstone Seminar, which (among other things) features a range of guest speakers talking about everything from digital humanities to graduate school to (non-academic) career paths.

Like many academics who blog and/or are keen Twitter users, I have found that these activities have become a sort of secondary expertise, one that felt exciting and envelope-pushing when I still had the feisty sense that through them we might be changing the academy for the better but which I have a much more equivocal relationship to now that it’s clear that by and large, my colleagues remain mostly either uninterested or openly skeptical about their value. There are exceptions, of course, including the colleague who not only invited me to the seminar but bravely left it up to me what to say, even knowing, as I am sure she does, that there was a chance my remarks might go somewhat against the grain.

twitterlogoAs I told the class, I really struggled with what to say. I have given quite a few talks on the subject by now, especially on blogging: these include relatively informal sessions at faculty “research retreats” and two conference papers, one of which I expanded into a more detailed and formal publication. I have also addressed it more than once in a similar seminar we run for our graduate students, with a narrower focus on the pleasures, perils, and possible profit of blogging as a graduate student. In all of these settings, my focus has been on the relationship between blogging and academic publishing, asking questions about the purpose of scholarly publishing and then how well our typical practices meet our goals–how successfully we are able to navigate between the need for professional validation and the desire to communicate widely, for instance, and the possibility that  “vigorously rubbing” scholarship with “intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars” (as John Holbo once memorably put it) might “get the blood of ideas moving.”

Owordpressnce upon a time I might have considered these topics equally relevant for our Honours students, many of whom (in those days) were likely heading on to graduate school. A lot has changed, though, and I no longer feel comfortable actively grooming students for an academic path that (as I said to them) now seems strewn with broken glass. (There’s more about how the dismal academic job market has affected academic blogging in these posts.) I couldn’t see the relevance, for this audience, of debating whether blogging is or is not a legitimate form of scholarly publishing or any of the “usual” professionally-inclined topics. What, then, should I talk to them about?

Well, I don’t know what I should have talked about. I think perhaps it would have been more in keeping with the general purpose of the seminar for me to talk about the value of a well-curated online presence for networking, perhaps with some comments about what I think of as best practices. Instead, though, I decided to speak (as I warned my colleague) from the heart about what, on reflection, I think social media has to offer them, which is, in brief, a way (multiple ways, really) to continue the kinds of conversations they have enjoyed as part of their English degrees. The university, I said, is not (despite what its denizens too often seem to believe) the only place you can have an intellectually stimulating life. In fact, it is not at all clear that “the life of the mind” is a reasonable way to describe the academic life anymore–even if you are lucky enough to join the vanishingly rare number of tenure-track faculty, which (and it is so hard to say this in a way that students can or will actually hear it) it is extremely unlikely you will be.

Grad-School-SlideIn my short talk, I did not go into more detail about the arguments pro and con about graduate school in the humanities (and I know there reasons, some of them pretty good ones, or at least not terrible ones, that other people still insist that encouraging students to head into Ph.D. programs is perfectly rational and ethical). I just highlighted some of the many articles they could read about it if they wanted, and urged them to talk to their professors if they were thinking about it. What I decided to use most of my own time for was making sure that they knew graduate school was not the only (and might be far from the best) way to keep talking about the literature they love in ways they find exhilarating. There are, I said, other places, other people, other opportunities, for people who love books, and I know that because of the time I spend on social media.

cassatI don’t know if they were very interested in what I had to say. If they were, they didn’t express it through a torrent of follow-up questions, that’s for sure, and I’m also pretty sure that I didn’t make a dent in anyone’s plans regarding graduate school applications. I said things I really believe in, though, which is consistent with what I would have said if I had talked about “best practices” instead, namely, be authentic. Further, and more important, as I worked up these remarks I realized that my own case for twitter and blogging is not really about their academic value anymore either. Whether the students needed or wanted to hear it or not, for me it was useful discovering that I still feel quite passionately about the positive value of reading, writing, and commenting on blog posts, and sharing ideas, tips, enthusiasms, and disagreements about reading via Twitter. Why should they care how much my life changed for the better because one day, without really knowing what I was doing or why, I pressed ‘publish’ on my first Novel Readings post? But I care, and really it has, in ways I could not possibly have predicted. So to the doubters and skeptics (if for some reason you happen to stop by), well, you do you, but I think you’re missing out. And to those of you who, like me, are out here living your best bookish life online and discovering friends and comrades along the way, cheers!

9 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Social Media

  1. Irene October 20, 2019 / 6:16 pm

    I’m so interested in the opposition to blogging and tweeting in academia. Compare this to medical education, where “real” textbooks have all but disappeared, and where organizations like the New England Journal of Medicine support blogs in different specialties. A lot of doctors keep up with current discoveries in their fields via Twitter. What do you think is the difference?

    • Rohan Maitzen October 20, 2019 / 8:49 pm

      I honestly could only speculate. It isn’t complete, of course: I know plenty of academics who do blog or tweet, or if they don’t, who are open to what these forms can do — but I know them through blogs and twitter, mostly, so it’s a self-selecting group. I wonder if it has something to do, at least for people in English, with having a bias towards the textual.

  2. Aven McMaster October 20, 2019 / 6:24 pm

    You’ve put your finger on something I haven’t really articulated to myself about my own feelings about social media and describing it to colleagues / students — that I really want to focus on what it does FOR ME, and what it could do FOR THEM — not in terms of networking or career (though there are benefits there, I really do think there are) but in terms of personal satisfaction and growth. Thanks for helping me grope towards that understanding of my own views. Something I heard at the podcasting conference I was at last week also helped me with this; Mike Duncan (of “The History of Rome” and “Revolutions”) talked about what the point of podcasting is, and he focussed first on the benefits to the podcaster: it gives you a sense of accomplishment; it gives you a creative outlet and way to express yourself; it gives you a reason and way to learn new things; and it makes you part of a community. He then went on to the benefits to the audience and to the world — but that first list, it seems to me, is reason enough, really, to podcast. And the same could very much be said for blogging or tweeting, really.

    • Rohan Maitzen October 20, 2019 / 8:47 pm

      Yes, that’s exactly it: everything doesn’t have to be instrumentalized, and there can be so much satisfaction (to use your word) in just doing something that matters to you for its own sake.

  3. banff1972 October 20, 2019 / 6:34 pm

    I love this piece, and heartily agree that academia is hardly the only place for “the life of the mind.” (Personally, I have found it a fairly unintellectual place.) Even more resonant is the idea that the online literary world is an end in itself not just a means to recognition, accomplishment, etc. The amateurism of it (in the full sense of the word) is what’s valuable about it.

    PS I was fascinated by the comment about medicine. I wonder if the difference is that doctors, NPs, etc don’t feel as embattled as academics. Their world isn’t ending the way ours is. So that might make them more open and generous. Just a thought.

  4. jovanevery1 October 21, 2019 / 5:43 am

    I remember years ago hearing a former student of mine talking about books on CBC Radio. I had lost touch with her and wasn’t even aware she had emigrated to Canada. She had a first class degree and my one regret was not working with her to publish her undergraduate dissertation (on representations of family in food advertising). When she graduated she told me she was going on to see if her band could make it. After hearing her on the radio I found her on LinkedIn or Twitter or somewhere and we chatted. She is earning a living reading and reviewing books. She had a fun term for it that is escaping me now. I’m sure she’s freelancing and that it is precarious but she is loving her work and it does involve reading, writing, and engaging with others about books. She didn’t do a post-graduate degree. She did work in publishing for a while. I have to say that it never occurred to me to suggest it to her as a final year undergraduate even though she was very bright and had interesting ideas. And it wasn’t out of some sense of “sensible” career paths either, since I was very excited about her musical plans.

    I think your approach to this class was spot on. What do honours students in English have in common with you? They enjoy books, literature, and talking about them. You should absolutely be helping them see some of the ways that that can stay in their lives even if they are no longer directly involved in an academic program (as student or faculty). Not least because it helps them see that even if they took a job that doesn’t directly involve those things, they are not giving up their love of books and discussing them.

  5. Tredynas Days October 21, 2019 / 9:38 am

    Interesting discussion. I think that any medium that encourages formulation of views on reading and putting them into reasoned arguments/debate is a good thing. It can still be rigorous and thoughtful; not all social media posts are frivolous or superficial.

  6. Jeanne October 21, 2019 / 10:18 am

    I’ve been having one of those periodic struggles with where, why, and how I talk about books on the internet, so this was interesting and heartening.

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