Graduate Students and the Potential of Twitter

Stephanie Blalock

Stephanie M. Blalock is Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Iowa and Associate Editor of the Walt Whitman Archive.   She artfully uses Twitter to spread the word of new Whitman discoveries. Her twitter handle is @StephMBlalock.

Dr. Ivan Kreilkamp’s “flipped lecture” on the use of Twitter in academia rightfully depicted the social media platform as a very public medium that at once has the potential to connect graduate students to scholars in their respective fields and–for better or for worse–to stand as a perpetual archive of the personal opinions they choose to share at any given moment. On the one hand, as Krielkamp and audience members pointed out, Twitter facilitates networking and community formation, allowing scholars and students to participate in social activism, publicize their own work, amplify the efforts of others, and benefit from having their efforts amplified in return. In an academic climate in which graduate students are increasingly and astutely advised to be entrepreneurial, to create professional online profiles in numerous online venues, and to make connections in and beyond their chosen fields long before tackling the academic job market, Twitter and the act of “tweeting” can play a key role.

On the other hand, Kreilkamp and attendees were also right to advise graduate students and, for that matter, anyone in academia, to exercise caution and to think carefully about the implications of rapidly firing off tweets in the heat of the moment. None of us wants to become famous (and jobless) in the way of Justine Sacco after what the New York Times called “one stupid tweet.” But listening to Kreilkamp and his audience pushed me to think about how graduate students and faculty have used or garnered publicity on Twitter, and, in this post, I want to briefly offer current graduate students a few examples.

In 2010, Dr. Jessica Lawson, then a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa, created the Twitter persona “Feminist Hulk”; the account’s profile picture features Hulk holding a copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Feminist Hulk’s tweets are commentaries on gender and feminism and have captured the attention of the Ms. Blog, Salon, and NPR, among other media outlets. During the government shutdown in 2013 when WIC (Women, Infants, and Children food and nutrition service) faced uncertain funding and reduced services, Lawson created an online resource to help families find formula and baby food, and turned to the 74,000+ followers of her Feminist Hulk account to help.

In February 2017 and April 2016, Zachary Turpin, a University of Houston graduate student, saw his research go viral, both in print and on online news sites, with his work shared widely on both Twitter and Facebook. Turpin’s most recent discovery is a lost novel by Walt Whitman entitled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. Turpin had already uncovered “Manly Health and Training,” a previously unknown journalistic series by Whitman. The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (WWQR, @WaltWhitmanQR), an open access online journal, published both the novel and the series in full, as well as introductions to each work by Turpin. The discovery of Jack Engle was covered by The New York Times, as was that of “Manly Health and Training.” Articles on these discoveries were published on online news sites in Germany, Estonia, Slovenia, Romania, Finland, and Israel, among other countries, and the news was tweeted and shared repeatedly in the days following the publication of the works in WWQR. As of March 2017, “Manly Health and Training,” has been downloaded more than 28,000 times from the University of Iowa’s digital repository, while Jack Engle has more than 29,000 downloads. Turpin’s introduction to the health series has more than 6,500 downloads, while his introduction to Jack Engle has been downloaded more than 4,000 times. In each of these cases, Turpin’s research appealed both to academics and to Whitman’s large popular following, and the publicity generated by Twitter and Facebook posts helped to increase the number of people who encountered his scholarly work and Whitman’s lost publications.

In October 2016, the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed William J. Richardson (@HoodAcademic), a PhD candidate in Sociology at Northwestern, who started the #TheseAcademicHands hashtag, which called for Twitter users to tweet out examples of racism and microagressions in academia. The numerous responses are now collected in a “Twitter Moment” that documents instances of “Racism and White Supremacy in the Classroom.” Among the articles and experiences tweeted with this hashtag was the recent story of Suffolk University sociology major Tiffany Martinez, a Latina student, who reported that her professor had returned an essay, circled the word “hence,” and told her “This is not your language,” in addition to writing, “‘Please go back & indicate where you cut & paste,’” implying that Martinez had plagiarized the paper. Martinez’s blog post about the incident went viral in its own right.

Again, the aforementioned examples are not meant to be comprehensive, and they are not the only ways graduate students can use Twitter. But, taken together, they do show how Twitter can help graduate students to build communities of shared experience in and beyond academia; to participate in social activism; to increase the visibility of their experiences and worldviews; to bring their academic interests to bear on larger social, political, cultural, and economic issues; and to demonstrate the relevance and the public engagement aspects of their work. These examples also raise important questions that are worthy of further consideration and discussion. I would like to end with a series of such questions:

  1. What does a replicable model of the successful use of Twitter by graduate students look like?
  2. Can or should graduate students draw search committees’ attention to their use of Twitter for engaging in academic conversation, for making connections to scholars within and beyond their fields, and for demonstrating the public appeal of their academic research? And how much weight, if any, should such use of social media be given in hiring decisions for academic or even alt-ac jobs?
  3. How can graduate students and faculty be given credit for public engagement via Twitter or other forms of social media? Should this be part of a graduate student’s portfolio? A faculty member’s tenure portfolio? Or does such an effort to draw attention to social media use risk becoming a conversation solely about the numbers; will we be measuring success on Twitter by giving credit for number of tweets, number of followers, and number of retweets, or for less quantifiable types of impact?
  4. Is the small chance of going viral, of being visible and recognizable on Twitter, worth the risk of being publicly shamed or losing a job opportunity as the result of one all-too-hastily-typed tweet?