As my last academic event of the season, I attended Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education in Toronto on June 20th and 21st. I’m not going to write about the panel in which I participated (“Who are the MOOC users?”, with Joe Wilson, Aron Solomon, and Andrew Ng), since I’ve already spent enough time thinking and writing about that issue of late. But there was another very interesting theme that I noticed coming up throughout the conference. In a number of the sessions I attended, I heard emphasis being placed on the need for researchers and academics to communicate more with publics beyond the specialist audiences that have, until recently, been the norm.
This language of “engagement” has been taken up ever more enthusiastically by funding agencies and universities, often alongside the concept of “impact”, the latter term having already become influential (and embedded in the logic of research governance) in the UK. However, in all this talk about “engagement” and public communication it seems that less attention is being given to the question of which academics participate in this process – who can make use of the opportunity to “engage”, and why.
For a start, it’s somewhat disingenuous to discuss the “responsibility” for academic public engagement without considering the risks that this involves, and for whom that risk is most significant - i.e. most likely those already in marginalized positions in the institution and in society. The point about risk was not addressed explicitly in discussions I heard at the conference. In spite of the rhetoric about “impact”, the fear that many graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) feel – and the anecdotal evidence of folks being told not to get involved in certain kinds of activities – suggests that “engagement” must happen on terms explicitly approved by the institution, if those involved are seeking academic careers. Grad students are not generally encouraged to become “public intellectuals”, a concept that regularly provokes critiques from those both within and outside the academy.
Not only was risk left out of the picture, but the discussion wasn’t adequately placed in the context of increasing amount of non-TT labour in academe. Those not fortunate enough to be on the tenure track still want to be (and are) scholars and researchers too; but it’s harder for them to contribute to public debates in the same way because they don’t tend to have a salary to fund their work, or a university “home base” to provide them with the stamp of academic credibility. I noticed at one panel there was also a discussion about tenure and academic freedom, and the argument was made that profs with tenure don’t speak up enough, given the protections they enjoy. Again, I think the more interesting question is about who gets to speak freely, with or without tenure, and why. Do all tenured faculty get to assume the same kind of “freedom” that someone like Geoffrey Miller does (or did)? What will happen to such freedom when the work of academics is further “unbundled”, as with the growing proportion of low-status contract faculty?
Blogging of course falls into the category of “risky practice” as well. Writing a good blog post actually takes time, effort, practice, and a lot of thought. But what’s interesting, and perhaps predictable, is that blogs were dismissed as not credible by at least one participant during a Worldviews panel that was about the future of the relationship between higher education and the media. In fact a specific comment referred to ECRs “trying to make a name for themselves” through social media, as if this is merely a form of shallow egotism as opposed to a legitimate means of building much-needed academic networks.
This seems particularly short-sighted in light of the intense competition faced by graduate students and other ECRs who want to develop an academic career. To suggest that ECRs are simply using tweets and blogs as vacuous promotional activities is an insidious argument in two ways: firstly because it implies that such tools have no value as a form of dissemination of research (and development of dialogue), and secondly it invokes the idea that “real” academics do not have to descend to such crass forms of self-aggrandizement. Both of these points are, in my opinion, simply untrue – but then again I’m just “a blogger”!
If universities are going to help educate a generation of researchers who will cross the traditional boundaries of academe, they will need to support these people in a much more public way – and in a way that will be reflected by the priorities of departments and in the process of tenure and promotion. Yes, we have the “3-Minute Thesis“ and “Dance Your PhD“, but not everyone enjoys participating in this competitive way – and myriad other forms of public, critical engagement may be less well-accepted. Universities may make the claim that they value such forms, but who other than well-established researchers would be willing to speak up (especially about the academic system itself) without the fear of making a “career-limiting move”?
Those starting out in academic life need to receive the message, loud and clear, that this kind of “public” work is valued. They need to know that what they’re doing is a part of a larger project or movement, a more significant shift in the culture of academic institutions, and that it will be recognized as such. This will encourage them to do the work of engagement alongside other forms of work that currently take precedence in the prestige economy of academe. Tenured faculty are not the only ones with a stake in participating in the creation and sharing of knowledge. If we’re looking for “new ideas”, then we need to welcome newcomers into the conversation that is developing and show that their contributions are valued, rather than discouraging them from – or chastising them for – trying to participate.
A note from the web editor: A related story that you might also find interesting is the recent University Affairs article Nothing about us, without us, which looks at community-engaged scholarship in Canada.
There’s a lot of discussion among academics these days about how to use new media in ways that are productive and engaging, in ways that help us build networks and share resources. But last weekend, we got a taste of what happens when social media work to reveal and amplify the biases that are operating in academe (and elsewhere) on a regular basis. Dr. Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, decided to tweet about how he believes fat students should not consider doing a PhD because they don’t have the “willpower” for it. After all (according to his logic), if they don’t have the self-discipline to go on a diet, how could they complete an advanced degree?
The online reaction was immediate and intensely critical. Syracuse University professor Collin Gifford Brooke observed that Miller “progressed quickly through the life cycle of denial: he initially defended his statement, then deleted it, then apologized for it, then disavowed it, and finally, when pressed by his university, claimed that it was part of a “research project.” He then made all his tweets private. Since so many people had already captured images of the tweet, deleting it was pointless and only served to highlight that its author wasn’t willing to leave his opinion in plain view. I saw it myself when Ed Yong, a science writer and journalist with over 35,000 followers on twitter, posted a screen capture.
Soon the post had ricocheted around the Internet and since academics tweet more on the weekend, the news travelled fast; many people sent emails to the chair of Miller’s department at the UNM, Jane Ellen Smith. By Monday, there was an article in Jezebel and Miller’s post had generated attention from other news sources, as well as a new tumblr blog inviting fat PhDs to submit photos of themselves as a refutation of Miller’s “#truth”. Smith, recognizing a public relations crisis, created a press release that also included a video. This departmental response contained the information that Miller had described his tweet as part of a “research” project, a claim that was greeted with skepticism by online observers.
Certainly if one insists on using Twitter in this way, one needs to accept the consequences. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen commented that “we need professors who understand why you cannot be a jerk on social media.” But does the visibility make the attitude worse, or does it merely bring attention to the fact that academe is not exempt from those attitudes that exist everywhere else?
This highlights the conflict between our assumptions about the “life of the mind” and the realities of prejudicial assumptions based on physical characteristics. Colin Gifford Brooke writes of his experience that “as a fat academic, I was thrilled to be in a field where (ostensibly) I would be judged for the quality of my mind rather than the “failures” of my body.” But of course, there is no guarantee of moral superiority in academic life. That a professor like Geoffrey Miller – one who has been rewarded and validated by the increasingly competitive institution of academe – feels free to demonstrate his prejudice in such an overt fashion, shows that it is still acceptable to hold such biases. When the attitude was expressed publicly and pointedly, many people were shocked; and yet no-one who has experienced fat phobia would have been surprised.
The real issue here is of course not (just) that one person demonstrated an opinion that reveals a deeply problematic attitude on his part. It’s that he seems to have felt confident enough to believe the majority of readers (and colleagues?) would either agree with what he said or let it pass without a significant reaction. In other words it’s systemically acceptable not only to hold such opinions but also to state them and act on them; this professor is only alone in his visibility.
Social media, as usual, have served to amplify a micro-aggression that occurs regularly in everyday life. After all, we live in a world where female athletes are publicly criticized for their “heaviness”. Where girls as young as 5 years old are planning their first diets, are still learning this from their mothers, who learned from their mothers in turn, seeing the same messages reinforced daily in the media and in casual conversation; and where fat folks are causing serious damage to their bodies not by being fat, but in the name of being “thin” (please – do read those linked articles).
And academe is a part of this world. I have dear friends who face the job application process with even more trepidation than the average, knowing the discrimination that women in particular face when they do not conform to acceptable norms of body size. Would they like to assume they will be judged for their minds alone? Of course they would, but that assumption would not reflect their knowledge of the (social) world and their past experiences in it. So let’s stop talking about how we can avoid being jerks online, and start asking how we can change the attitudes behind that jerkdom, which exist everywhere and which are the roots of the behaviour we claim to deplore.
Though it isn’t the topic of my current research, I’ve been interested in the Internet (as an object of study) for some time, in particular its possibilities for connecting people and helping them generate new relationships and forms of social support that might not otherwise have been available. I think this is because I’ve been engaging in forms of distance-networking for over ten years now, starting with snail mail and leading all the way to Twitter. I’m not particularly sociable by nature, because unfamiliar social situations tend to tire me out; all social interaction is a form of performance, but some people find it more taxing than others. Over time I’ve discovered that for me personally, it’s easier to cultivate an initial level of familiarity through mediated interactions, rather than through increased in-person socializing, because the latter tires me out too quickly.
While I was working on my undergraduate degree in Communication Studies, I did a project about how people conceptualise the Internet, as signified by the way they talked about it. I became interested in this because I noticed that people talked about “online” experience precisely as if it happened in a “world”, or a place, where they could “go” – even though clearly it wasn’t the same as the space they inhabited physically. Why was the sense of place so strong that it dominated our conceptual framing of the Internet? How have we come to experience a communication tool itself as being (or providing) a “space”, and what is that space like, compared to others?
The reason I started thinking about this again recently is that the debate about online education has become more intense, and along with it comes what is usually a subtext about physical vs. virtual. This division is emphasised, either positively or negatively (depending on the argument), when we see references to the Internet as set apart from “real life”. On the utopian side, some argue that you can “be whoever you want to be” online, or less dramatically, that the Internet provides flexibility and accessibility to education (for example) – that it is a “better” place. From the more dystopian perspective, technology cuts us off from “real” connections/relationships and experiences with other people, causing us to become too focussed on our tools and oblivious to their effects on our cognitive, emotional and psychological well-being; and it can exacerbate the “divides” we seek to bridge.
Like most binaries, this one is overly simplistic. Real/unreal, physical/virtual, utopian/dystopian, all these illustrate extremes when in reality much of the discussion is about grey areas. The critique of (and ongoing debate about) “digital dualism” is a good reminder of this.
I think online/offline is a useful distinction, but that relationships we develop online are not segregated from or less significant than others that start with in-person contact, nor are they part of a different “reality”. More and more, we see there are gradations, and newer technologies and tools further blur these lines. The friendship I have with someone because we saw each other every day during undergrad might not continue after the degree ends, whereas I might stay in touch for longer with people I’ve “met” only through Twitter interactions that have morphed into coffee dates. The practice of developing academic networks through Twitter is an example of how this fluidity works; for those without established contacts, chatting with strangers online makes it a lot easier to meet them in-person later at a conference.
All that being said, the emphasis on online education as an industry (or set of marketable services) has grown in the context of higher education’s increased stratification, loss of funding, and massification, so we have plenty of reason to ask critical questions about the nature of various spaces of learning and what can and does happen in them. What is the difference between sitting in a room with others, vs. being with peers or colleagues who are “there” in some other way? What about affect/emotion, how is this expressed and experienced by students working and communicating through the Internet, as opposed to in a traditional classroom (and how might they work together)? Shouldn’t we consider elements of privacy, when everything is being “shared” and/or documented online in one form or another? Who will feel free to talk? Will everyone be able to gain access?
We also need to consider how some of the assumed properties of the online environment are extrapolated and projected to form a new image of the student, the self-motivated and autonomous learner (autodidact) who is so frequently championed in techno-futurist rhetoric (in spite of the collaborative nature of so much of what happens on the Internet). But this type of person is still also a relatively rare learner, an ideal type to be plugged into the process of creating future policy. The “structures” created for Internet spaces may also be designed with such assumptions in mind. If we are going to acknowledge and accept the reality of online experience (and that education happens there), we need to think about how that reflects our other experiences in the world. As with all places, the Internet is more hospitable to some people than to others.
Recently I wrote a piece for The Globe and Mail in which I argued that we should be encouraging Ph.D. students to learn how to communicate with broader audiences. One of the questions I couldn’t really address in that short article was: what’s it actually like to engage on those practices of communication, particularly as early-career scholars who might be working on PhDs and/or seeking academic employment? Yes, I discussed the positive aspects of public exposure, but what about the “flip side”?
There is one issue in particular that has been on my radar more than usual over the past few months. Public communication of almost any kind involves risk. When you stand up and say something “out loud”, you don’t necessarily (just) start a dialogue or deepen an existing debate. You’re also presenting yourself as a target. There is a certain loss of control involved: while you may well have taken the time to carefully articulate something in writing, it only takes a few moments for someone to make a snarky comment and post it, or to dismiss your views quickly on Twitter.
Thus in a number of ways, having a larger audience is a double-edged sword. It can bring more of everything; even though you’re likely to receive supportive feedback and open the door to nuanced discussion by widening the circle of readers, you also open yourself up to misinterpretations, criticisms, and sometimes insults, from a larger number of people. Yet while some may fear these negative outcomes as a result of speaking out to non-academic audiences, it is not only non-academics who are engaging in harshly judgemental commentary, garden-variety Internet snark, and even slander. Plenty of those “on the inside” are also willing to take aim at peers and colleagues, in ways that exacerbate conflict or show disrespect.
I can think of at least two examples of friends who have been dealing with public “responses” in this way. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Ph.D. candidate at Emory, has dealt with ongoing attacks on her credibility and academic status that have been launched through Twitter, by email, and in online articles and comments. My impression is that most of these have been launched by other academics, including two graduate students who openly accused Tressie of plagiarism, unethical research conduct, and “lying” about the university she attends.
That incident in particular highlights the apparent irrationality of some of what one deals with when becoming a “public figure” as an academic. Tressie’s work on U.S. for-profit colleges and issues of race, gender and class is well-known and respected; hers is a strong voice on controversial and important issues in higher education, and she has already earned professional recognition for her contributions on this topic. The accusations made could be easily refuted with a quick Google search, and were (as usual) openly addressed by Tressie in her blog. So what was the point?
I think the actual logic comes through if we examine in more detail the comments being made about Tressie’s intelligence and, of course, her merit. For example, calling someone an “affirmative action admit” (in the context of U.S. universities) is a means of invoking someone’s race and/or gender as the primary reason for their presence in the university; this well-worn logic positions equity against “excellence”, and it is built on the belief that academics should, and usually do, succeed according to how much merit they have, rather than additionally through various forms of privilege, bias, and other circumstantial/systemic factors (a recession, for example). This assumed meritocracy is one of the deepest-rooted aspects of academic culture. It influences our understanding of the distribution of benefits and rewards in professional life, and it affects academics’ assessments of each other and of themselves–crucial to the process of peer review. It’s why, even though the discussion of privilege has entered academic research, we have mostly failed to turn the analytical gaze on academe itself.
Merit comes through again in a second example, that of Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette, who has openly discussed her efforts to find a tenure-track position in an ongoing series of blog posts for Inside Higher Ed. It’s refreshing to see anyone willing to talk about this process, particularly in light of the critical problems faced by the growing proportion of “adjunct” professors in the United States and elsewhere. But it’s also somewhat depressing to see some of the responses she has received, such as these (anonymous) comments on a recent post about job market struggles:
“These issues are the result of personal decisions that you made; it may be time to take responsibility for those decisions.”
“As tempting as it might be to castigate the author for elitism and a monstrously inflated sense of self-worth, I won’t do that.”
“The world doesn’t owe us our dream job.”
These comments, besides showing a lack of empathy for another person’s situation, also reflect the sense of self-righteousness that results from a firm belief in meritocratic justice. Surely if she doesn’t have what she wants, it must be her own fault. Surely, if she had only worked hard enough and made “smart” choices, she’d be on the tenure track by now. How many others are thinking the same thing, without posting it? How many others are in Lee’s position, but are afraid that if they speak up, they’ll be told “you just aren’t good enough–move on”? Never mind that these commenters appear to be completely tuned out from the reality of U.S. higher education; they are familiar with the core values of academe, one of which is that merit leads to success.
Examples like these point to the reasons why there is ongoing discussion about “civility” that has unfolded on Twitter and in the academic blogosphere. In my opinion the underlying issue is not about Twitter, blogs, or social media. What should concern us is the way these media reflect and even exacerbate elements of academic culture that were already there to begin with, such as the emphasis on merit, and also a kind of performative proof of one’s own excellence at the expense of others. This latter issue is what Dr. Inger Mewburn, also known as “Thesis Whisperer”, discussed in her recent blog post on “academic assholes”. The post–which had 170 comments when I checked–describes the use of cleverness to disparage others while showing one’s superiority and gaining credibility among peers, something that many of us have witnessed in academic settings. As Inger states, “cleverness is a form of currency in academia” and one does not have to be nice to be clever.
What Inger highlights in her post also seems to be confirmed by the research I have been reading lately, which is about workplace harassment in academic settings, how it happens, and who is involved. I see plenty of connections between the tone, content, and apparent purpose of some people’s online behaviour, and the way that researchers discuss multiple systemic factors in academe that influence the amount of “bullying” that goes on, as well as how it plays out.
As Lee has pointed out, we shouldn’t be surprised if academics–particularly those who are members of marginalised groups–don’t want to stand up in public and criticise the academic system. And who would want to talk about personal challenges in their career, when that might betray a “weakness”? Many people experience doubt, anxiety, stress and loneliness in academe, and this aspect of the culture works as a form of silencing that reinforces the existing lack of critique, even as it denies the political issues faced by many young or early-career academics. For both Lee and Tressie, and for many others, the vulnerability of having a “public face” is compounded by gender, race, and institutional status.
Even while they bring risks, blogging and using Twitter–and other forms of “public communication”–provide ways of building not only an audience but also a support network. Those who’ve been attacked, harassed, and chided now also have legions of defenders ready with thoughtful comments, critiques, shared experiences, and resources for dealing with problems and resisting demeaning criticisms. Many of us have gained friends, colleagues, and new perspectives through these exchanges. But can we “speak up” in our own immediate environments? If and when colleagues and peers are judgemental and nasty “offline” and invisibly, who’s there to defend us in the much smaller (and more isolating) context of a program, department, or faculty?
Through the use of arguments and critiques invoking meritocracy–often implied more than stated–we are being taught an ongoing lesson about how to stay silent, and some people are being “reminded” more regularly than others. We need to pay attention to exactly how that lesson is being taught–online and in the “public sphere”, and in the physical and social spaces of departments and universities; both publicly and privately; both by known and by anonymous participants; and we must consider how the existing tropes of academe come to inform people’s actions in those spaces.
A few weeks ago on October 22nd, I participated in an Open Access Week event held by York University’s libraries. A deliberate attempt to generate a lively discussion, this event was titled “The Great Debate: Should the blog replace the book?”, and I was recruited to argue on the “blog side”. The other participants were Ian Milligan (University of Waterloo), John Fink (McMaster University), and Scott McLaren (York University).
This was an interesting debate, though I must say I wish I hadn’t spoken first–I’ve never been in a debate before, and in academic presentations (in my experience) we’re encouraged to focus on content over rhetorical style. So I had too many points and lacked a convincing style of conveying them, partly because public speaking makes me nervous. Needless to say, we were beaten out by the book, but of course now I can turn to my blog and add a lengthy post-script!
I should mention that at least a couple of the participants weren’t particularly committed to the positions we were asked to take. I had difficulty arguing against the book, even as someone who blogs, since I’m quite attached to the (hundreds of) books I have sitting on shelves around my apartment. My co-debaters were similarly positioned: Ian is actually writing a book right now, and on the book side, John Fink is Digital Technologies Development Librarian at McMaster, and he discusses in his blog how he, too, had problems coming up with an argument.
I’m also not very good at responding quickly to questions from an audience. I always feel as if my responses are going to sound uninformed, because I haven’t had time to think them through. There was one question in particular that stood out during the debate, probably because I simply didn’t believe anyone could hold to the opinion expressed. This question was about whether we viewed blogs as “entertainment” (and books as…not?). To me it seemed clear that “entertainment” was being positioned against something else with more inherent value–information, or knowledge, perhaps? I felt like reminding the audience that “Twilight”, too, is a book (with sequels–and I don’t think it started as a blog, either).
In any case, since I never think about academic blogs in this way, I had trouble coming up with a good response to the question. I explained that while I’m happy for people to find my blog “entertaining”–why not?–the actual goal here is to provide some critical analysis of issues relating to the academic research I’m doing. I believe the content of my blog differentiates it from, say, blogs about celebrity gossip or cooking (and the latter are still at least as informative as they are entertaining). And although I loathe the concept of “Edutainment”, I would also question the idea that the difference between entertainment and information is something simple and straightforward.
The problem with much of the critique of blogs is that there are too many generalizations. Categorizing blogs as “entertainment” means generalizing and extrapolating based on aspects of the nature of the medium, rather than on the content of particular blogs. In this debate, our primary focus was on academic publishing. For example, in using the term “accessibility” I was comparing blogs with the most predominant forms of academic publishing, the journal article and the monograph–not with cheaper forms of publishing that don’t require as much digital technology. So when the issue of “entertainment” was raised, it seemed inappropriate to the context in which we were framing our arguments.
A similar problem is illustrated in a recent blog post from Maclean’s, in which the author discusses how she was advised to stop blogging because it could negatively affect her career as a teacher. There is much focus on the form of blogging, but not on whether it was more the author’s writing and subject matter that was deemed problematic or potentially damaging to her professional prospects (as opposed to simply having a blog at all).
In academe, the negative assessment of blogs is widespread. Quite recently I saw one academic on Twitter refer to blogging as “easy” and I winced. I’d argue that like many things, blogging is “easy” if you don’t care about quality–if you don’t want to consider content or audience or style, for example. But anyone who does care about such things is going to argue that blogging well takes as much skill as writing in any other medium. I wouldn’t want a shoddy blog post published any more than I’d want a sub-par academic paper published in a journal, because it’s something I wrote, and it’s in public where people can read it.
Is blogging easy compared to “real” academic writing and its publishing process, perhaps? In academe we have the assumption that the peer review process guarantees quality–and thus blogs, which are not reviewed (in most cases), must be of lower quality than academic journal articles and books. This is tied up with the relative value of different kinds of writing (and indeed, knowledge) in the academic economy, and of course, to the current process of academic publishing.
But does the absence of gatekeeping necessarily mean that the ultimate “product” is of lesser worth? This is not just a philosophical question–how we answer it will play a part in the future of the academic profession, since faculty hiring and promotion depends so heavily on publishing. This is the context in which the question of blogs as “entertainment” was put to us as scholars hoping to participate in knowledge dissemination. This is a political context, a context of institutional change; even if such issues are entertaining, they are certainly not neutral.
Many of those of us kicking around the academic Twitterverse over the past few days have been witnessing (and participating in) an intense discussion that’s raised issues at the core of academic values and assumptions about knowledge and research. This discussion has been focused on the “ethics of live tweeting” as a practice at academic conferences, and the ways in which presenters and academics either support this practice or reject it. We can see that this topic has touched a sore spot from the extreme reactions it’s generated in some Twitter circles. A number of people have also written thoughtful blog posts addressing the issues in more detail, and I’ve linked to those throughout my own contribution here.
To begin, I have to say I agree with those who’ve argued that we need to respect other people’s boundaries and try to understand where strong reactions come from; there are reasons why people react the way they do. But those reasons aren’t necessarily personal (even when the reaction makes it sound like they are). So I want to take a look specifically at the accusation that academics “use” other people’s work in social media venues like blogs and Twitter to build their own reputation and academic “brand”, and ultimately to benefit their own academic careers (ostensibly at the expense of others). Tressie McMillan Cottom brought my attention to this critique in her post from September 30, and it’s more fully articulated here.
One of the key problems brought up in the online debate has been that of determining what knowledge is public and what’s private, and who gets to decide how dissemination of that knowledge happens (where, and when, and who the audience will be), who has the “right” to share ideas.
In my opinion, control is one of the fundamental elements of this discussion; this is something discussed critically by Roopika Risam, who points out the connection between access and control. Control is also exercised through authority, which is closely tied to expertise and peer recognition. So we see some scholars re-asserting a form of academic credibility by putting down other scholars as mere opportunists, not “real” academics. In this way the boundary between “academic” and “anything else” is re-drawn by those who are already inside it–or those who hope to be allowed in.
Why would academics, even those using Twitter themselves, cast such unpleasant aspersions upon their colleagues? To understand this, we need to consider that regular forms of academic promotionalism, such as book launches, listserv announcements, and of course conference presentations and guest lectures, simply aren’t seen as such; they’re perceived as ways of “sharing ideas” with colleagues; mentoring; and building professional networks.
However, academics using social media make similar claims; many argue that “opening up” scholarship to commentary, through public tweeting, brings attention both to the scholar doing the presenting and to the person sharing (tweeting) what is being said. Many of us also view Twitter as a tool, for note-taking or simply for the dissemination of scholarly insights to a broader audience, given that many people simply can’t attend academic conferences. We strive to properly “cite” our sources because we’re still academics and researchers, even online; because we respect our peers and colleagues; and also because it’s part of an ethic of sharing as something that actually increases the value of the research.
Some academics have also argued that they fear their ideas will be “scooped” or stolen by others. This is of course a reasonable point since real plagiarism happens online–as do myriad versions of misattribution, as in this article where a tweet from Roopika Risan was re-quoted, as an incorrect attribution, from a different Tweeter (it’s now been corrected).
But plagiarism happens in more traditional forms of academic writing, too. Anyone in the room at an academic conference could be “stealing” your ideas. Whether that person uses a notebook and pen or a notebook computer, theft happens and it hurts people, and that’s a risk we take when we present work at an academic event or elsewhere. I think this is a problem that’s been around for much longer than the short period in which we’ve had access to mobile devices and social media platforms (though of course, these technologies dramatically increase the possibilities). The problem is the motivation for the practice of theft, not the technologies that enable it.
The argument that those who tweet posts about others’ work are “selfish” and concerned only with academic branding is a rebuke in the harsh terms of promotionalism, which is highly disdained in academic culture (partly for reasons I’ve discussed in the past). But let’s not forget the flip side of this extreme argument, which is that true meritocracy should be free from crass self-promotion. Not only is the argument an inflammatory one, it also plays into a false binary. Making such an argument through social media channels merely adds the element of irony to that mix.
There’s another ironic point here, too. Accusing others of selfishness in this way reinforces an objectifying and proprietary concept of knowledge in which ownership trumps the added value of openness. And this is a neo-liberal concept of knowledge, one in which knowledge is constrained by its use-value within an (academic) economy, and bounded by the assumption that we can exchange it for various forms of capital. The increased competition and professionalization in higher education has only exacerbated this conflict between the need and desire to share ideas, and the imperative to claim them as protected “territory”.
The accusations of self-interested careerism also signal a shift in academic practice and culture, including the possibility of changing how we develop authority and prestige–vital currency in the academic economy. How is “academic capital” created? Will this change with the use of relatively open new media to disseminate knowledge? That’s a “disruption” similar to what has been predicted in the debate about online education, for example. It could be another facet of the effects of new communication technologies on the ways in which academic culture and work are changing. At the moment, social media activity from academics does not generate nearly as much academic credibility as publishing and presenting at conferences. This could change.
How can we deal with these issues in the academic context? Clearly, we can’t assume that everyone agrees on (social media) etiquette. The general level of awareness needs to be raised if problems are to be avoided. Conference organizers could include social media guidelines; presenters could ask politely that people refrain from Tweeting; attendees could check to make sure it’s OK before they share online. I don’t think there’s one practical answer that’s going to make everyone happy (other than this one), because context is crucial and also because of the very contentious underlying issues involved (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Ernesto Priego, and Bethany Nowviskie have good suggestions). But as E. E. Templeton commented, we can at least make sure everyone’s “on the same page”–and that this discussion is happening at all.
In time for the start of the new semester, I have a bit of a tech update, in which I’ll be discussing two online tools that might be of interest to researchers and students.
The first site I want to mention is Buzzdata, a data-sharing site that first came to my attention when Dr. James Colliander (@colliand) invited me to view NSERC data that he and others had already been posting at their “hive”, nserc.buzzdata.com. Each “hive” is like a separate space that can be shared by multiple users, and the hives contains various themed “datarooms”. For example, one of the datarooms in the NSERC hive is dedicated to NSERC postdoctoral fellowship application rates and outcomes; another focuses on NSERC’s Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) program consultation.
When I saw how the site was being used to highlight the trends in NSERC research funding, I suggested we start adding SSHRC data as well. I asked Dr. Ian Milligan (@ianmilligan1) if he could take a look at the numbers, since my facility with statistics and graphs is very limited. He kindly did so, and blogged about some early results here.
From my point of view, the site’s only significant problem right now is that you have to make a different profile to view each hive, rather than being able to create one profile and view different hives from it. However, the site developers have assured us they’re working on this, so I expect it will be resolved in good time. While Buzzdata is still very much in development, it was great to learn that the site developers are taking suggestions directly and providing help in realtime through the site (which has a chat feature for this purpose), and through emails and Twitter. The data that have already been uploaded show how much promise there is in a kind of crowd-sourced compilation of statistics about education and research funding. This is also a great way to organise for political effect; among the participants in the group is Kennedy Stewart, Official Opposition Critic for Science and Technology.
The other site that’s been drawing my attention lately is Academia.edu. I saw a blog post about the new analytics they’ve made available, and because I’ve gradually been using the site more over the past 12 to 18 months, I decided to check out the changes. When I looked at the blog post and then the site, I realised they were starting to make significant changes that could be quite useful to academic users. So I shared the link through my Twitter account, recommending that others take a look.
Academia.edu, a social networking site specifically for academics, researchers, and students, has already been providing some interesting and unique statistics to its users. These include a kind of tracking system in which the site shows you a list of recent profile views including Google searches in which your profile has come up as a result, and also shows where the views came from (geographic location). Each view shows up with an ID number so that you can tell whether pageviews are “unique” or not; this is a small but important detail. The site can also send an email notification each time your profile comes up in a Google search.
Like LinkedIn, Academia.edu has a spot where you can upload your CV. It also has a section where you can list academic talks and presentations and add slides or a link to Prezi, and a similar section for sharing academic papers (which can be tagged with keywords). While I’d been thinking about posting some older papers online, what convinced me to put them up on Academia.edu was a new feature that tracks “views” of one’s papers, including which other site users have viewed them.
After my tweet, I was surprised to receive an email from the site’s community manager, Helen Sparrow, who asked if I’d be interested in providing feedback on how I used Academia.edu. We had a phone conversation in which we discussed various aspects of site use including whose research I “follow” and why, and what features might be useful for users. One of the things I recommended was to increase available Twitter link-ups to Academia.edu, including the capacity to search users by Twitter handle (there’s already a “share on Twitter” button added to the analytics pages).
They’re working towards adding a commenting feature for the academic articles, which is intended to facilitate discussion and feedback in a way that the current peer review (for publication) process doesn’t tend to allow. Of course, there are risks with that, too–one can only begin to imagine the grief that could be cause by academic trolls!–but it’s interesting to see a potential tool for constructing a kind of networked online academic profile, where you could re-work and re-post papers after feedback, then track the number and location of views. At a time when many scholars are becoming frustrated with the restrictions of traditional academic publishing, and while universities are demanding “evidence” of academic performance, this could be an experiment worth trying out.
In fact both Academia.edu and Buzzdata are providing means of connection that could facilitate academic collaboration in research and in other aspects of professional life. While much of the debate about “disruption” is focused on technologies that fragment the university, we’re also seeing tools that reflect the potential for coming together (again) in new ways.
This week, I’ll be attending Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences, one of the biggest annual conferences in Canada, held this year at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. I try to attend Congress whenever I can, though of course conferences are pricey (as I’ve discussed in the past) and must be juggled with other work. Since this year’s conference is so close to where I live, it’s relatively easy for me to “drop in” just for a few days. I’ll be presenting twice at the Canadian Communication Association conference, and taking a third extra day to meet up with people who are coming in from around (and outside of) Canada.
At academic conferences, usually if you’re attending in person then you’re there not just for the presentations but also for the social contact (which often leads to new academic connections). Yet there’s also a bit of a paradox at work at large conferences. On the one hand, it’s true that conferences can be a great place to meet new people if you don’t have an existing academic network. But if you don’t organise beforehand it can be hard to find anyone who hasn’t already booked up their conference time “catching up” with friends and colleagues from other universities, provinces, and countries. That’s partly why the “networking” that we expect to engage in at conferences can be difficult to achieve, even though there are so many people packed into the same space over a short period.
My answer to this problem of “getting a foot in the door” has been to use Twitter to meet academic friends and organise in advance. Congress was much better last year in Fredericton (New Brunswick) than the previous time I attended, because I knew more people and used social media to contact and meet up with them. This year, I created an open Google Doc and invited people to add their names and availability for a get-together. Based on that information I’ve been able to organise a “tweet-up” (on Thursday May 31st, 7 p.m., at the Huether Hotel — Lion Brewery) and also a breakfast with Twitter friends earlier in the week.
As for the more academic content at Congress, my first presentation will be with Maija Saari (@ffi_maija) who’s working on a PhD at OISE and is Academic Chair of the School of Communication Media & Design at Centennial College (she is busy!). Our panel is “Journalism Ethics” (Session 6A, AL 105, 10:15am, Thursday May 31), and the paper we’re writing is the outcome of a conversation we had about egregious news interviews and what makes them so interesting (and offensive!). We decided to do an analysis of three controversial interviews: George Galloway and Anna Botting (Sky News), Margie Gillis and Krista Erickson (Sun News), and Chris Hedges and Kevin O‘Leary (CBC). The goal of our piece is to show, using theories of communication, linguistics and ethnography as well as the interview examples, how and why journalism training should incorporate critical analytic approaches.
My second talk is on Friday June 1st at 1:15 p.m., on the panel “Issues of Training and Practice” (Session 11A, Room 105). This paper relates closely to a number of blog posts I’ve written over the past year or so, which addressed various issues with media coverage of universities and postsecondary education. In my talk I’ll be giving some detailed examples from news articles, exploring as a case study the ways in which tuition is discussed in the news — as an accessibility issue (or not), as a means of highlighting generational divides, and as a touchstone topic in the debate about the “value” of university education for individuals and for society.
During the three days I’m attending Congress I’ll be posting updates on Twitter (as will various colleagues including @UA_Magazine and @PublicIntellec; the hashtag is #Congress2012), and the conference’s “Big Thinking” talks are being webcast. Hopefully you’ll get the chance to follow along or, if you’re lucky, to attend the conference yourself!
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.
Unless you’ve been offline and away from your computer for the past week, you have probably seen or read something about the many Internet site “blackouts” in protest of the U.S. bills SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), with high profile demonstrations and shutdowns from Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, BoingBoing and others.
Watch a video explaining the implications of SOPA and PIPA.
In the course of my various degrees I’ve never had a class on intellectual property (IP) issues, and though I find it difficult at times to keep up with the details of the policies, I think it’s important that we all learn something about these issues given their increasing relevance to education.
As academic librarians stepped up via Twitter to help out those panicked undergrads who couldn’t function without a Wikipedia page to steer them in the right direction, I wondered in what ways my own research process is (or is not) entangled with the political, legal and technical issues raised by SOPA/PIPA. Revising, adding to, and sharing research materials is an ongoing process, one that I couldn’t have developed even 10 years ago because the tools — many of them online — simply weren’t available. At the same time, the information “field” is now so huge that it’s hard to know where and how to begin our searches, and the search is in no way restricted to library databases or to academically sanctioned channels of information seeking (Google Scholar is generally my first stop these days). What exactly is “content” now and how do we find it?
For example one problem is that SOPA/PIPA could affect content on social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, as discussed in this TED talk by Clay Shirky. Shirky discusses how we not only discover, but also share and create content using the Internet. This is an important point — as students, teachers and researchers, we’re now using the Internet for much more than just straightforward searches for academic content. As well as the more popular sites, specialty tools such as Mendeley, Diigo, Academia.edu and more are examples of how social networking and online information sharing have started to change what educators do and how we connect with others.
Though the example isn’t a parallel, Canada’s PSE institutions have already had copyright problems related to the increasing digitization of research and teaching materials. Many of us experienced first-hand the effects of changes to Access Copyright when a number of universities decided not to use the service anymore, after the tariff per student was to be more than doubled. This past September was, as I recall, more hectic than usual as we waited for course readings to be approved, assembled and copied so students could purchase and read them for class.
As others have pointed out, it was also during the past week that Apple unveiled its new online textbook project. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it sounds like Apple wants to link the use of its textbook apps directly to expansion of the market for iPads by creating a new technological territory and governing it solo. At worst, this buys in to the notion of technology as academic panacea while also cynically making the play to generate the technology on which education will come to rely. In other words, it’s a tidy business move; but will it work — and what will be the implications for knowledge and for already-stratified education systems, if it does? It may be nice to see education “front and centre” but not, in my opinion, when the goal is to create a closed economy.
While SOPA/PIPA has been postponed indefinitely, the issues it raises will not disappear. Even as we find ourselves with a new freedom to find research materials and share these with others, our new relationships and sources of information are dependent on systems that are beyond many people’s reach and understanding. Even if we learn how to code, to make our own apps, are we not still using infrastructure that is controlled elsewhere and could be policed or shut down without our consent? We need to pay attention to the changing information infrastructure (its physical, legal, and political economic aspects), since the changes made today can and will affect our capacities as researchers and teachers in the future.