I will admit upfront that my perspective on so-called “Academic Twitter” is shaped by the fact that without Twitter – in conjunction with this blog – I would not have a “career” (if that’s what this is) that has any relationship to academia (whatever that is).
We have been talking about academics and Twitter and Academic Twitter because of a recent opinion article at the Chroniclein which a trio of scholars (Katherine C. Epstein, Irina Dumitrescu, and Rafael Walker) weighed in on the question, “Is Twitter making academe stupid and mean?”
Of the three short pieces, Professor Epstein’s has gotten the most play on Twitter likely because it is the most critical of Twitter and academics who tweet.
Let me start with a general agreement that Twitter, as structured around “engagement” does indeed reward the kind of behavior and discourse that is counterproductive in academic spaces. It can and does bring out the worst in people, and the examples of people (very much including academics) behaving badly are manifest and numerous.
But there are a number of other claims that are not so much wrong in the objective sense, but are so shaped by a world view steeped in a narrow and perhaps over-rosy vew of academia, that they very much fail to capture the dynamics of Academic Twitter.
Prof. Epstein’s broad argument is admirably stated clearly, “Twitter represents the denial of the values that academe is supposed to represent.”
Those values are:
- Critical thinking
- The importance of expertise
- Scholarly rigor and discipline
I am fan of those values, so it looks like Prof. Epstein and I can find some common ground, but I think she stumbles out of the gate with her criticism of Twitter as a poor vehicle for critical thinking.
She argues that Twitter’s “grammar” (the 280 word tweet) is “designed to shortcut the critical thinking we in academe claim to be teaching.” It is not a place for “sustained, complex argument, the minimum unit for which is a paragraph.”
Even “tweetstorms” don’t count because they don’t “demand the structural rigor” of longer forms.
For Epstein, academic study is designed to “strengthen the muscle” of “complex argumentation.” Twitter “causes this muscle to atrophy and even tear.”
While no one should mistake a tweetstorm for an essay in terms of the end product, Epstein is conflating an end product with something (critical thinking) that is properly viewed as a process.
Capturing an idea in a tweet that will garner attention and advance understanding is actually quite a difficult feat, one that requires lots of attendance to message and audience, hallmarks of critical thinking. For sure, tweets don’t require critical thinking, but for Epstein’s claim to hold, it would have to be true that the format makes it impossible. This is transparently untrue.
My most recent book (sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education) was conceived on Twitter, gestated at this blog, and now is “born” as the book.
It’s also not lost on me that the tweets and blog posts garner significantly more attention than the book, and have had considerably more influence on the thinking of others. To the extent I have sold any books is almost 100% due to the profile I’ve established online and via Twitter.
If I was an academic, I understand that only the book would count as productive scholarship, but lucky for me, I don’t have a job!
Prof. Epstein’s next complaint is that “the intermixing of credentials and personal identities in Twitter bios assaults the concept of expertise.” Epstein believes that knowing someone is both a professor and “lover of cats” confuses readers as to which person is offering a particular opinion at a particular time. She says “Professional credentials are a shared resource. When individuals devalue the credential by abusing it, they devalue it for everyone.”
I don’t know what to say to this other than if I were on Twitter, I would respond to this tweet-length claim with a meme from The Big Lebowski Jeff Bridges as the titular character with the quote, “That’s just like your opinion, man.” Knowing that a professor is a human being with passions outside of their discipline has never diminished my opinion of their scholarship or teaching.
The bigger problem with this claim is that professional credentials are conflated with the existence of expertise. I would like to believe some folks consider me an expert in things like writing pedagogy, but I do not strictly have the credentials to signal this. I have never been a professor. I do not have a PhD.
In other words, to alter one of the very earliest internet memes, “On Twitter, no one knows you’re an adjunct.”
On Twitter I follow dozens, if not hundreds of smart, critically thinking, engaged academics who are in contingent positions or have left traditional academia behind, people who do not possess the credentials that Epstein values but who have valuable contributions to the academic discourse nonetheless.
I would argue that academe’s use of credentials (and rankings built in elite structures) as a gatekeeping mechanism for who is qualified to speak does more harm to academic discourse than professors who confess football team they follow in their Twitter bio.
While there are obvious downsides to the open nature of the platform, it is definitely possible to utilize in such a way as to draw attention to your ideas and increase your profile among those inside and outside academia.
Here I think of one of my public scholar role models, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, who we now know as an opinion columnist for the New York Timesauthor of a National Book Award finalist book, and MacArthur Foundation fellow (among lots of other accomplishments), but I remember first reading her on Twitter and her blog (tressiemc.com).
While Dr. Cottom was building a robust scholarly profile of refereed publications, she was also writing widely and penetratingly for a wider audience, writing that included tweets.
Now, I would not argue that Twitter was necessary for Prof. Cottom to achieve what she has achieved – I tend to believe talent of that magnitude wins out – but I would argue that her ability to increase her profile outside of the gatekeeping mechanisms of higher education played a role in her being able to bring her full self to her work and achieving the recognition she deserves.
I am certain that she was told not to blog or tweet by well-meaning senior tenured academics, but thankfully for all of us, she did not listen, and in turn has become a vital voice widely read across American culture.
Lastly, Prof. Epstein calls Twitter a “fundamentally unscholarly place, with no responsible editors, and not even the pretense of peer review. It’s where one goes to self-publish, or less generously to mouth off about scholarly matters without any of those irritating checks and balances that scholarship mandates. Academy consists of scholarly disciplines, not scholarly do-whatever-you-wants.”
All true, but so what? No one would say that it is the equivalent of or substitute for academic, peer-reviewed scholarship.
And while there is no peer review, there is certainly the opportunity for peer feedback. I often use my network of Twitter academics to float an idea and receive comment and criticism back. I don’t have to wait months for a response either.
I also note that the credentialing and hierarchy structure of the academy seems to make way for “scholarly do-whatever-you-wants” for select elite faculty. For example, Steven Pinker is not only allowed to, but rewarded for straying from his core discipline of linguistics and into a book on the Enlightenment, a book which actual scholars of the Enlightenment don’t think passes muster.
In fact, it is Twitter where Pinker’s Enlightenment Now has been subject to some small portion of peer review, as evidenced by Ted McCormick’s checking of some of Pinker’s footnotes and finding them wanting (to say the least).
In this case we see an academic on Twitter acting as a necessary corrective to a high-profile academic who has ascended to heights where the potential corrective of peer review has no salience.
If someone in (or out) of academia asks me if they should be on Twitter, I tell them the truth, I have no idea. It can be a terrible place, but it is also a place that – at least for me – has been far more welcoming and supportive of my academic pursuits than academia itself ever managed.