Jennifer Janechek, a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa, is completing a dissertation that reveals how Victorian and modernist writers engaged with telephonic technologies.
If George Eliot were living today and her sense of determinism shifted from ethical to technological, she might modify her famous line in Adam Bede to read, “Our tweets determine us, as much as we determine our tweets.” Such a sentence captures my anxiety as a social media user who is currently on the academic job market: we make the initial decision to tweet, but then our tweets can get decontextualized, misappropriated, and plagiarized. Or they can encounter audiences we didn’t anticipate, and take on lives of their own.
In his conversation about Twitter communication with the UI Next Gen PhD community, Professor Ivan Kreilkamp addressed both the opportunities and the risks associated with social media. The session reframed the way I conceive of Twitter (and social media in general) as an academic, and gave me new impetus to integrate this platform into my daily writing practice. Below are three of Kreilkamp’s points that I found particularly generative:
- Twitter is highly effective at facilitating “soft” networking.
Kreilkamp pointed out that Twitter gives graduate students access to contexts we might not have imagined possible. If someone with a large Twitter following retweets us, our tweets can reach audiences otherwise unthinkable (hence the need to be mindful of our postings—see point three below). Also, we can “attend” conferences virtually if there are actively tweeting participants and a conference hashtag (I’m following #NAVSA2016 as we speak!). In addition, Twitter connects us with scholars we might not have had the opportunity to meet under other circumstances, and it enables us to continue conversations with people we meet at conferences or other events. Whereas I would never send a professor whom I’ve never met a friend request on Facebook, nor would I feel comfortable sending him or her an unsolicited email, I have unabashedly followed numerous scholars on Twitter. Because Twitter provides a less “personal” setting for the exchange of ideas, I am able to engage in conversations with academics to whom I might not otherwise have access—giving me greater visibility, sure, but also enabling me to participate in timely discussions with faculty and graduate students around the world. Indeed, Twitter has given me a better sense of the state of my discipline and its subfields, since I have been able to follow trending topics and watch major debates unfold.
- Create lists in Twitter to start conversations of which you want to be a part.
I identified with students in the audience who spoke of concerns about sounding smart enough or professional enough on Twitter, a particular challenge when one is constrained to a 140-character limit. But Kreilkamp encouraged graduate students to converse with other scholars, emphasizing that Twitter is a “social” medium rather than an archive of self-promotional tweets. Those tweets do have their place, to be sure—after all, Twitter is a great way to publicize one’s work—but they should not dominate one’s Twitter feed. I was particularly struck by Kreilkamp’s idea of using “lists” to tailor Twitter feeds to specific research and/or teaching interests, in this way taking an active role in creating and maintaining scholarly conversations. As Kreilkamp emphasized, Twitter discussions can fuel work aimed at both academic and broader audiences, triggering ideas for different kinds of writing.
- Be mindful that tweeting can carry very real implications.
Both Kreilkamp and the audience referenced Twitter scandals and instances of public shaming that have resulted from ill-advised or misconstrued tweets. We discussed the possibility of having two accounts—one personal (and potentially pseudonymous) and one professional. However, there is still a risk, if you choose the former option, that someone will discover your private account. I approach Twitter as a space for intellectual exchange and social activism, reserving my more personal stories or ideas for Facebook—all the more so now that I am on the job market and have to consider how each tweet contributes to my digital identity. But the question and answer session caused me to scrutinize my pedagogical use of Twitter. Although I have been cautious in having students use Twitter, making this use optional, recommending that students adopt pseudonyms for their Twitter handles, and reminding them of the various audiences (e.g., potential employers) who might read their tweet history, I left Kreilkamp’s talk with a renewed sense of the need to be mindful of how my students use social media. I think Twitter provides a great place for students to share reactions to readings in real time and to extend large-group discussions beyond the classroom, but because I teach courses that often address contentious topics, it’s especially important for me to emphasize to my classes the public (and permanent) nature of social media.
I have always had an on-again, off-again relationship with Twitter, never knowing quite how best to use it. The question and answer session with Dr. Kreilkamp gave me concrete ideas for how to make (careful) use of the unique writing and networking space it offers. See you in the #twitterverse—tweet to me @jjanechek!