Should Young Academics Be On Twitter?

f91dc-twitterOliver Bateman, a historian and journalist, explores this question over at The Atlantic.

Here is a taste:

Scholarly research has lent credence to anecdotal claims about social media’s growing importance as a networking tool for academics at all stages of their careers. In a 2012 paper that represented one of the first systematic studies of social media’s impact on academia, George Veletsianos, a professor at Royal Roads University in British Columbia, analyzed the usage patterns of academics. He concluded that “the participation observed on Twitter presents opportunities for … scholarly growth and reflection,” though it was still too early to make a definitive statement about what that might entail. (He also noted, rather tellingly, that “online practices may not be valued or understood by peers and academic institutions even though scholars themselves may have found scholarly value in participating in online spaces.”)

Four years later, the researchers Charles Knight and Linda Kaye evaluated the social-media practices of academics at a large university, determining that these academics’ “use of the [Twitter] platform for enhancing reputation is an implied acknowledgement of the importance of research within higher education and the increasingly public engagement agenda.” Professors on the campus they studied were far more likely to use Twitter for this purpose than they were for pedagogical reasons: “Academics want to use Twitter to inform the wider community of their activities rather than engage their students.” Networking, it seems, is one of social media’s principal purposes for those in academia.  

“Twitter is great for academic networking, because it can be an awesome way for introverts and people who aren’t already in close proximity with the people they want to talk with to start building genuine relationships,” said Jennifer Polk, a friend and academic and career coach who runs the From PhD to Life website. “Of course, it’s all public [unless you adjust your security settings], so you should be professional—whatever that means in your field. And I recognize that in this context, ‘professional’ is a loaded term.”

Read the rest here.

I think Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other social media sites are great resources for networking, sharing ideas, and raising questions.  (Perhaps this is simply stating the obvious at this point in my career). Graduate students and young academics should be using them for these purposes.

But I also think graduate students and young academics should always remember that while social media is a very democratic space, academia is not.  Academic life, in order to function properly, must have some degree of hierarchy based on expertise and experience.  In other words, a young scholar who submits a journal article or book for review will inevitably have a senior scholar evaluate the manuscript and make a decision on it.  Senior scholars at colleges universities will often have a lot to say about who gets hired in their departments.  In the course of searches for academic appointments and fellowships that have residency requirements, the search committee will often contact outside scholars who might be familiar with the candidate’s work and sense of collegiality.  And yes, I have been asked about a job or fellowship candidate’s sense of collegiality based on their social media presence.  It has actually happened more than once.

I entertain several of these requests a month.  I have even been in a position where a person argued with me on Twitter in a very unprofessional way and then applied for a job in my history department.  When I saw the application I went back to review the series of tweets this person had written, but they were deleted.  This person did not get the job.  There were stronger applicants in the pool that better served the needs of our department.  But I would be lying if I said that this Twitter exchange did not influence the way I thought about this person’s application. And I can tell a host of other stories like this from other committees on which I have served.

In the best of all possible worlds, decisions about publishing and teaching jobs should be made entirely on the merits of a candidate’s scholarship or teaching, but we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.  Young academics should have this in mind whenever they tweet or post.  I am often amazed when I see graduate students picking fights on Twitter or Facebook with senior people who one day might have to make a decision about the course of their future career.  Hopefully, for the sake of the candidate, that senior scholar will lay aside their memory of these social media exchanges and judge the candidate on the merits of their work.  But to do so requires a superior degree of discipline and professionalism.