What makes for a serious academic?
That question suddenly grabbed hold of the Twitterverse last week when an Academics Anonymous piece in The Guardian criticized the prevalence of social media in contemporary academics. Bemoaning what they called the “infiltrat[ion]” of the “selfie epidemic” into the “world of academia,” the anonymous writer criticized scholars’ increasing reliance on social media platforms to promote their professional identities. To the author, this tendency subordinates the serious pursuit of scholarly inquiry to a self-promotional “ritual” that serves as “proof of their dedication to the profession.” The reaction to this post was swift and relentless, ranging from satirical responses in The Guardian to defenses of academic social media in Forbes. The Twitter reaction to the piece was particularly comprehensive and compelling, as a perusal of the #seriousacademic hashtag or a glance at this storify will indicate.
My response to the Guardian piece is a bit mixed. On the one hand, I can sympathize with the writer’s sentiment in this concluding paragraph:
But surely the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?
While the writing here is definitely pointed and polemical, I can empathize with this plea to an extent. The thread that most resonated with me throughout this article was not so much the criticisms of academic social media itself, but the frustration over feeling that academics are now obligated to use such platforms to promote their work. If that’s true, and a scholar or researcher feels pressured to “parade [themselves] online” (for lack of a better phrase) to achieve professional success, then that is indeed unfair. There are clearly a lot of advantages to engaging in academic social media communities (as I’ll discuss below), but if a person wishes to research outside of social media, they should be able to do so without fearing that their work’s reception will suffer as a result. As the writer notes above, that dedication and data ideally “should speak for itself.”
Where I part company with the article is in its pointed attacks on the use of academic social media as a whole. If the anonymous academic would have conceded benefits to using social media, but criticized the implicit pressure they felt in having to pursue these networks, I doubt much of an uproar would have been stirred. However, in defending their desire to research away from Twitter, the article goes too far in the other direction, dismissing any scholarly benefit to engaging in social media and writing off those who wish to do so as grandstanders rather than “serious academics.” Not only does this move risk alienating the author’s audience (as the backlash to the piece demonstrates), but it perpetuates the same belittling pressure towards academics on social media that it accuses academic social media of perpetuating on the writer. Shruti Mathur Desai puts it best in this persuasive tweet:
As a Joycean, this move particularly resonates with me because it’s so similar to the dismissive reaction towards lovers of James Joyce’s writings. I see the instinct to defend the right to not do something by criticizing those who do it, and I hear echoes of the instinct to ridicule Joyce’s readers who profess to understand and enjoy the works others don’t. As I wrote in a previous post, nobody’s obligated to like Joyce’s works or view Ulysses as the greatest novel ever written; they may top “greatest novels” lists, but if Joyce’s writings are not what you enjoy, that’s absolutely fine. But there’s the tendency of some readers and authors alike to assert that because they got nothing out of Joyce’s novels, that means there’s nothing to get, and anyone who says they “get” Joyce is lying to make themselves look intelligent. That reverse elitism, the badge of honor for not succumbing to the cult of Joyce, finds its complement here in the creation of a “serious academic” that asserts its right to conduct social-media-free research by dismissing research disseminated through social media as illegitimate. Just because someone doesn’t like a thing doesn’t mean that those who do like it are fools.
And as I consider this article from the perspective of a Joycean with an admittedly unhealthy Twitter obsession, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on the intersection of James Joyce and social media. Because one of the most unexpected pleasures I’ve discovered from my experiences with Twitter is that the Joyce community is not limited to academic conferences or contributors lists to scholarly journals. Indeed, if the volume of Joycean tweets that dominate my timeline on a daily basis is any indication, James Joyce has taken over Twitter. And my life as both an academic and a fan of his writings has been greatly nourished because of it.
This realization came as a great shock to me when I initially joined Twitter, partly because I had no academic pursuits in mind at all when I decided to take the plunge. For the longest time, I avoided any social media platform, largely because I was a very introverted person who didn’t really feel I had anything to share. I was essentially Henry Higgs on the ill-fated ABC sitcom Selfie, who, when called an out-of-touch stiff because he didn’t know a thing about social media, protested that this wasn’t true because he was on LinkedIn. And when I finally decided to get a Twitter account, it wasn’t because I had turned the corner in wanting to connect on social media. It was because I was already following the individual Twitter threads of various sports reporters, and I wanted to compile those threads into one place rather than keeping four or five Twitter windows open on my web browser. So I joined Twitter never intending to actually talk to anyone, and I lasted a good two months as a voiceless egg until I finally got bored with just watching people connect with each other and decided to engage myself.
To be honest, my first few months of tweeting were not successful. Echoing the reasons why I joined Twitter, my initial tweets were all sports related and were largely met with silence. I began to get frustrated with what felt like endless tweeting into the void until a chance search finally yielded a receptive audience:
Yes, the first group on Twitter to reach out to me were the Joyceans. And in retrospect, this should not have been a surprise. I was always told in graduate school that the Joyce community was one of the friendliest, most welcoming group of scholars you could find. But for whatever reason, I never expected there to be such a large following of Joyce fans on Twitter. Perhaps I had also fallen prey to the “selfie epidemic” stereotype at the heart of the criticisms in that Guardian article, thinking that Twitter was only for live-tweeting the minutiae of one’s day. (Imagine what Leopold Bloom would have done with Twitter.) Perhaps I had implicitly assumed that the barrier between “serious academics” and social media existed, and that Joyce devotees stayed far away from Twitter. Whatever my assumptions were, they were quickly proven to be unfounded. And it became apparent that, whereas my attempts to tweet on other topics largely garnered no reaction, there was always someone eager to reply when I tweeted something about James Joyce.
So my perspective on social media quickly changed, and the identity I sought to project through it changed with it. Whereas I initially branded myself a sports fanatic who happened to be an academic, I now saw myself as an unabashed Joycean Twitterholic. And that change has paid enormous dividends in both the professional and social value I’ve gained from social media.
For one thing, engaging the Joycean Twitter community put me in a better position to connect to the leading scholars in my field. Like I said above, I never expected to encounter Joyce fans when I joined Twitter, and I definitely didn’t expect to find the people whose work I researched and admired. But there they were! So I quickly followed the people on Twitter whose studies I had researched in libraries and was thus able to follow their preparation for and participation in conference presentations and summer school seminars that I’d likely never be able to attend. I was given access to scholarship uploaded onto academia.edu and other sources of open access and public scholarship that would otherwise be outside the scope of my library holdings. And as the push towards open access gains further momentum, it becomes practically impossible to remain current in your field without keeping a consistent eye on the research publicly disseminated through social media channels. In the humanities, at least,”serious academics” who limit themselves to published scholarship in refereed journals may be only getting part of the story.
Along those lines, I was able to use social media to access a variety of Joyce-related materials that were not published in research venues. While the Twitter exposure to journal articles and book chapters has been enormously beneficial to my writing, I’ve gotten just as much value out of the insights offered on Joyce blogs that I would not have been able to receive if I had limited my focus to published scholarship. Sites like Peter Chrisp’s From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay and Adam Harvey’s JoyceGeek have been consistent sources of excellent essays that have frequently expanded my knowledge of Joyce’s writings. And through other social media channels like YouTube, I became a virtual audience member to Joyce lectures I otherwise could never hear. With one simple YouTube search, I was able to attend this lecture on Ulysses by the great Joyce scholar Cóilín Owens:
With another search, I could follow along as Terence McKenna lectured on Finnegans Wake:
And how else could an American Joyce devotee lacking the finances to frequently travel abroad get to see John Banville and Will Self discuss Dubliners at the James Joyce Centre:
I may be a relative newcomer to Joycean social media, but as I reflect on how much of my development as a Joyce scholar has been enriched by my experiences in such channels, I’m amazed at the depth and breadth of knowledge I’d be denying myself if I disqualified social media from my professional life.
And what’s more, engaging in the Joycean Twitter community has actually expanded my access to those traditional sources of academic scholarship. The anonymous author of the Guardian piece criticized the increasing tendency to live-tweet academic conference panels, but I’ve found this process to be invaluable in keeping up with the latest research in my field. As I said above, my financial means are not extravagant; my institution offers generous assistance in being able to travel to academic conferences, but even so, I’m usually only able to attend one conference a year. And as I start to dip my toe into other scholarly fields like Irish Studies and Modernism, that conference squeeze becomes even tighter.
For this reason, I owe a debt of gratitude to the conference attendees who live-tweet the panels they attend and allow me to follow the papers I would otherwise never get to hear. For example, I was devastated that I wasn’t able to afford to attend this summer’s Joyce conference in London, but I was able to virtually participate thanks to the multiple dedicated attendees tweeting the panels and plenary talks. In some cases, I’ve not only been able to follow tweets about the papers at conferences, but I’ve also gotten access to the materials used in the actual presentation that were afterwards shared through Twitter.
And live-tweeting conference panels doesn’t just benefit the audience at home; it also pays enormous dividends for the presenters. The Guardian essay has a point that conference panelists might feel discouraged seeing audience members on their phones during their presentations, but I’m guessing that disappointment would diminish if they knew those attendees were sharing (and often praising) their work on Twitter. While it’s true that the research should speak for itself, it also needs an audience to speak to, and as a presenter on multiple unattended conference panels, I know the frustration of writing papers that have spoken for themselves, only to fall on deaf ears. The publication and presentation credit is great, but academic research can only be more successful when it accesses a larger audience, and social media has become enormously helpful in enabling that research to be considered by colleagues who may not subscribe to that journal or attend that conference.
That may be the biggest professional benefit I’ve gained from Twitter: Joycean social media has better enabled my voice to be heard by my scholarly community. I’ve never had a conference presentation live-tweeted, but I’ve become a more active Joycean since engaging others on social media. I mentioned above my excitement over being able to follow the leading scholars in my field through Twitter, but I was equally excited once those scholars started following me back and responding to my Joycean tweets. I couldn’t really confirm if Joyce scholars ever read my published work, but with every favorite, retweet, or reply, I could at least tell that some were listening to what I thought about Joyce. Twitter thus provided me with a necessary professional asset: visibility. It’s shocking to consider the degree to which you can be invisible when you stick to traditional scholarly channels. Even if you have a prolific publication record, when you consider the amount of time a given research project takes from conception to publication, it could be years before your work sees the light of day. And conference panels do help keep your professional identity visible in the interim, but they’re only as successful as the size of the audience who attends them. Supplementing my publication work with a consistent Twitter presence has enabled me to feel like I was an active, visible part of the Joyce community, even if the project I was working on wouldn’t be available to that community for some time.
And that social media visibility becomes even more encouraging for academics who may struggle to make their voices heard at conferences. Academic conferences can be an important site of professional networking, but for people who are extremely introverted, such opportunities to connect with colleagues in your field are very challenging. Even in a community as friendly and welcoming as the Joyceans, I’ve always found it immensely difficult to find a place in that community at conferences because my shyness consistently hamstrings my ability to initiate conversations and connect with people during conference downtime. One of the main reasons I was so grateful to discover Joycean Twitter was that it gave me a visibility among my peers that I had struggled to create for myself at conferences. I might not be able to walk up to Joyce scholars at a conference, but I could begin to form a connection with them through social media. And who knows, maybe that could lay the groundwork for engaging colleagues at future conferences because they’re now more likely to know who I am. But even if it doesn’t, I’m still grateful to have a space within my community where I can comfortably express my thoughts on Joyce and find a receptive audience. Thus, while the Guardian piece may see the desire for visibility as professionally mandated “showing off,” I see it as something else: belonging. I may struggle to be more than a name on a program at conferences, but Twitter has provided me with another path towards creating a place for myself in the Joyce community.
So my reliance on social media may disqualify me as a “serious academic,” but is that my desired endgame? Do I want to limit my work on Joyce to conference papers and book manuscripts composed in seclusion? Do I want to deny myself even the simple #amwriting tweet as I struggle through their composition, which could perhaps gain an empathetic favorite or reply from someone in a similar situation? Is that really scholarly self-promotion, or is it an attempt to draw support or encouragement from a larger community at all stages of the process? It’s so easy for research to become an isolated activity (especially when your work comprises only yourself, the library stacks, and a computer screen), and social media allows us to remember that we’re not alone and to get through these situations together. And even if that article or conference paper draws a small audience, chances are someone on social media may be interested in what you had to say, so you’re less likely to feel like your work was done in vain. It’s the best part of the Joycean Twitter community: someone is always listening.
But the benefits I’ve gained from academic social media are not limited to my research. While the split will vary depending on the specific college or university people work at, as a professor at a small liberal arts university, I consider my responsibilities as a teacher to be just as important as my ambitions as a scholar in gauging my success as an academic. And I have found social media to be extremely useful in serving my students. Not only has it increased my access to materials that help my students engage the literature we’re studying (my non-majors were better able to connect to William Carlos Williams poetry when supplemented with snarky Instagram parodies), but it’s increased my students’ access to other professors whose tweets, blog posts, and open access scholarship I can easily insert into my classes.
This tendency is magnified in my English majors courses, which now feature a Twitter discussion to supplement our in-class work. Starting last year, I created class Twitter feeds for my upper-level English electives and invited my students to engage each other (and anyone else who wanted to follow along) in discussing the literature our class was covering. This experience was greatly enhanced not just by my ability to retweet my colleagues’ posts onto our class Twitter feed, but by my students’ direct access to those scholars. I frequently felt a tinge of pride whenever I saw my students’ tweets favorited or retweeted by major Joyce or modernist Twitter accounts, and I was pleasantly shocked one morning to discover a leading Twitter Joycean tweeting a YouTube video onto our class Twitter feed because she felt it would help my students. This was not only a testament to just how welcoming the Joyce community really is, but it demonstrated a further benefit to academic social media visibility. The boundaries of my classroom essentially dissolved, and my students were able to gain instruction from a broader scope of teachers while having their great literary insights praised by a larger audience.
I’ve also found that introducing social media into my classes has helped my students gain important experience honing skills that will benefit them in their professional lives. Few of my English majors decide to go on to graduate school, so the majority of my students find themselves navigating the job market immediately upon graduation. Because so much writing work now is being conducted online and social media has become an invaluable component of marketing and public relations, I’ve started incorporating social media assignments like Twitter and blogging to help my students gain exposure to online writing platforms. That not only gives them tangible experience with this kind of writing, but it also puts them in a better position to see how the critical thinking and communication skills they develop in the English classroom and the writing skills they hone on traditional literature papers can translate into other venues. Especially for professors at teaching-focused institutions, I would consider developing activities that help students to succeed in both the classroom and their future careers to be a central requirement of a “serious academic,” and I’ve increasingly found my engagement with social media to be invaluable towards fulfilling that duty.
But the main benefit I’ve gained from the Joycean Twitter community cannot be measured through the lens of a “serious academic.” It’s that sense of community itself that comes from sharing your love of something with people who also share that passion. I don’t teach Joyce’s works all that often in my classes (maybe a Dubliners story or two a year, or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man if it’s my turn to teach British Modernism), and not many people in my everyday life share my love of Joyce. So if I were to focus solely on those avenues of conversation, I’d be essentially holding discussions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with myself. That incidental search of the #JamesJoyce hashtag gave me access to a wide community of readers who I could talk to about the books that have had the biggest impacts on my life. Not only could I connect to the James Joyce Centre or the Joyce museum at the Sandycove Martello tower, but I could also talk about Ulysses with students who were studying the novel at other colleges, and I could follow along with Joycean activities and celebrations at other universities. Last year, for example, students and professors at the University of Virginia staged an all-night reading of Ulysses, which they broadcast via live-tweets and YouTube videos, and I was able to follow along with a good portion of that event because they made it available via social media.
Given the looks on my students’ faces whenever the idea of a Ulysses reading group is broached, I’m guessing that something like this is not happening here anytime soon. So I was grateful for the opportunity to be a virtual audience member of this great event.
And it’s not just students or professors that make up the Joycean Twitter community. In fact, as many people noted in responding to the Guardian piece, one of the drawbacks to adhering to a rigorous “serious academic” label is that it imposes a border between such academics and the rest of the world. It limits the scope of information sharing and engagement to the scholars in your field, while in reality, the potential audience could be much larger. This is particularly true with respect to Joyce’s writings. While the stereotypical equation of Joyce with elitism may imply that his novels only gain attention in the ivory tower, a quick perusal of the #JamesJoyce hashtag will show a wide number of people from diverse walks of life chiming in with their thoughts about the author. I’ve not only connected with university professors and students, but with writers, primary/secondary school teachers, photographers, journalists, actors, and many others whose careers are far removed from academia. The thing that unites them is their interest in James Joyce and their desire to talk about him with other people.
What’s more, the Joycean Twitter community doesn’t just talk about the author, but they frequently help each other work their way through his novels. I mentioned in a previous post that novels like Finnegans Wake and Ulysses become easier to absorb when read with other people, and there are no shortage of opportunities available through social media to read Joyce’s novels along with others. There are the Finnegans Wake blogs and podcasts I mentioned in that earlier post and the Ulysses reading groups that emerge on Twitter from time to time, such as the aforementioned #UVAreadsUlysses event or the recent #Ulytweets group. And most people who tweet their thoughts or frustrations as they work their way through Joyce’s works will likely be quickly met by responses of encouragement and assistance from fellow Joyce fans. This is further evidence that the Joyce community may be more widespread and diverse than initially thought, but the tie that bonds the author’s devotees is a friendly desire to welcome others into the group and to provide whatever help they can along the way.
Even for people who aren’t reading Ulysses for the first time, the possibilities for engagement are numerous. I can’t begin to count the number of times that a discussion of Ulysses has spontaneously emerged from a random Joyce tweet, and my day inevitably improves because of it. It’s why I sat in on as many Joyce seminars as my graduate professors would let me, even after I had completed my coursework. I love the Dublin Joyce created and the characters he peopled it with, and I jump at any chance I can get to talk about it. And the breadth and vibrancy of the Joycean Twitter community shows that I’m not alone. While professing that I loved Joyce has frequently elicited gasps or sighs in my everyday life, it’s almost always gained reciprocation through social media, and I’m thrilled to have that space to chat about Joyce’s Dublin that I thought I had left behind when I graduated. In that sense, it’s not my desire to broadcast my passion for Joyce that leads me to tweet about him, as the Guardian article intimates; it’s my passion for Joyce that naturally compels me to tweet about him because I just want to talk about his writing, and its that similar Joycean passion that drives the people on Twitter who respond.
And it may seem strange that a supposedly elitist author wanting to keep the professors guessing for centuries has inspired such a welcoming, broad social media community. However, this Twitter exchange I had with Sylvie Hill in one of those spontaneous Ulysses discussions demonstrates why Joyce would obviously be the inspiration for this:
In writing Ulysses, Joyce may have written a confusing novel for professors to study, but he also wrote a book for everybody, a celebration of ordinary life complete with an everyday hero whose defining quality is his desire to understand and engage everyone. And that celebration of humanity and parallax finds its corollary in a Joycean community defined by its inclusiveness, with independent scholars and Joyce aficionados from all walks of life ranking among the most revered and admired authorities on the author’s work. It’s no surprise that James Joyce would then conquer social media and that the academic community devoted to him would be better off because of it.
But does this mean that the anonymous author of that Guardian piece is wrong in choosing not to engage in academic social media? Of course not. A person should be allowed to choose how they want to forge their professional path, and if someone does not wish to bring Twitter or Instagram into their research, they should not have to. And maybe some academic fields integrate scholarship and social media more easily than others. I can really only speak for my individual experience. All I know is that in reflecting on how social media has impacted my identity as a Joycean, I would not wish to put that genie back in the bottle. Becoming a Joycean Twitterholic has made me, if not a “serious academic,” then a better academic in countless ways. It has more effectively enabled me to serve my students and deepen my knowledge of my field, while giving me an opportunity to share my passion for Joyce’s writings with a massive Joycean community whose membership list greatly transcends those academic borders. And, in the process, I have gained a sense of belonging that I had previously struggled to attain that makes me glad I finally caved on my social media holdout.
Besides, I chose to study one of literature’s greatest jokesters. How serious can I be?