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.