It’s a Sunday morning, and I’m sipping a fresh cup of coffee while engaging in a conversation about higher education and institutional change (which also happens to be the central concern of my dissertation). On this particular morning I’m chatting with professor Adeline Koh of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and Rosemary G. Feal of the University of Buffalo, who currently serves as the executive director of the Modern Language Association in the U.S.
We’re not having a weekend breakfast meeting, and none of us had to travel to get together — that’s the fun of social media. Drs. Feal and Koh are in the U.S. (in two different states) while I’m sitting at my desk in Canada, watching my cats rolling around in a sunbeam. We’re not even using video or real-time text chat — in fact we’re exchanging semi-synchronous messages on Twitter. At the same time, another conversational thread has begun as academics react to a Washington Post column about professors’ productivity.
I’m not trying to make a utopian point about the joy of technology; we’ve all heard that story by now, as well as (hopefully) the many important critiques of it. What I want to emphasize is that for academics, writers, researchers and teachers, ongoing dialogue is an important part of “working” that often isn’t recognized as such, and this kind of dialogue is facilitated rather well by Twitter — which is one of the reasons I use it so much. There’s often a fine line between “work life” and “social life” in academe, and Twitter’s become both the virtual water-cooler and the town square, an intense hub of activity and commentary that’s buzzing merrily all the time. And there are ways in which participating in this can help with academic work in the “real” world.
For example, take your standard academic conference. It’s a fairly alienating event if you don’t know anyone else going at the same time as you, and it’s especially difficult if (like me) you’re an introvert, and interacting with strangers can be exhausting. Many academic conferences are vaguely alienating or even overwhelming; when there are several thousand attendees, people often huddle and socialize with colleagues they already know, and it can feel invasive to try to enter the “bubble.”
Over time I’ve realized that Twitter has provided me a way to do some groundwork before going to a conference, so that by the time I get there I already know a few people, which in turn makes me feel more confident about talking to total strangers. Using hashtags for particular subject areas, institutions, issues, or events, as well as starting online “conversations” with other academics about common areas of interest, has led to new in-person connections that form a part of my “real” social and support network.
As a PhD candidate I’m not yet really a part of the academic — or any other — profession. But what’s clear to me is that “social capital” still matters (perhaps now more than ever), and social media is a way of creating it. Often “networking” is presented as an activity separate from other things, for example, as something that only happens when you’re at “networking events” and/or when you’re searching for a job. Not only does this make it less appealing to people like me, who would rather stay home and read a book (job searches make me extremely anxious). It also makes it a chore, something you have to do, not something that “just happens” and can be enjoyable. Professional networking is also compartmentalized as a form of distasteful “self-promotion”, another (ironic) taboo in academic circles.
What I’ve learned about “networking” from mentors and from experience with social media, is that it’s something you’re engaging in constantly, every time you have an interaction with someone else; it begins before an event and continues after. On Twitter this becomes even more interesting, because you can end up communicating with people to whom you never would have had “access” otherwise — faculty at other universities and in other disciplines; grad students all over the world; members of government and non-governmental agencies and organizations; politicians; teachers; journalists; and all others who happen to be circling around the same issues of concern. I’ve seen definite “networks” emerging through interactions with all these people (with some fantastic unplanned results).
One irony here in that the more instrumental your approach, the less effective it will be. And the intangible results are just as important as the tangible ones. I’ve found myself feeling more confident over time, and more likely to approach “new” people. Sharing and debating ideas helps me think differently about what I’m researching. I also get to look forward to meeting “Twitter friends” — like Drs. Koh and Feal — in person at events, instead of dreading the awkwardness of being the Academic Wallflower.