Earlier today, a robust debate emerged around an article in the “Academics Anonymous” section of The Guardian‘s “Higher Education Network” and its sweeping denunciation of social media in academe. With the charming title “I’m a Serious Academic, Not a Professional Instagrammer,” the author takes pains to tell us they are a PhD student and not “some cranky old professor harking back to the Good Old Days” before deploying every trope in the cranky old professor playbook. Lament the current “selfie culture?” Check. Decry people “too busy checking their phones to look up and appreciate their surroundings?” Check. Complain about people tweeting at conferences rather than honoring the speaker with their full attention? Check. Repeated earnest declarations of “seriousness?” Oh, boy, you got it. I AM A SERIOUS PERSON DOING SERIOUS THINGS. SMART THINGS. TOO SMART FOR YOUR INSTAGRAM FRIVOLITIES.
As you’d expect, the reaction has been swift on social media. The #SeriousAcademic hashtag is, as I write, the scene of a lively (to say the least) conversation about the intersection of “real academics” and social media. And there have already been some great responses, in particular Dean Burnett’s “I’m a Non-Serious Academic. I Make No Apologies for This,” also in The Guardian. My intent here is not to duplicate the work of excellent critiques like Burnett’s (seriously; read it), but rather to point out how fraught the idea of a “serious academic” really is.
Who gets to be a “serious academic?” What, exactly, does a “serious academic” look like? How does a “serious academic” behave? For much of the Academy’s history, and all too often in its present incarnation, the answers to these questions are framed in ways that exclude rather than welcome. Serious Academics™ are white, male, upper-middle or upper-class, full-time faculty members at elite-or at least research-oriented-institutions. Look at the demographics of our profession, especially the upper ranks of the “prestige” departments and institutions. Hell, just do a Google image search for “Professor”:
Claims of academic seriousness tend to involve implicit norms about who gets to be an academic in the first place, and that’s a problem. The #ILookLikeaProfessor campaign this past spring saw a wide range of academics critique these assumptions in powerful and eloquent ways, and the ongoing pushback against the biases so prevalent in numerous sectors of academia testifies to the continuing resonance of that critique.
In many ways, the question of “serious academics” is a debate over the spaces in which academics move, converse, and engage in the scholarly work that’s at the heart of our calling. Thus, the Guardian piece dwells on conference behaviors:
When did it become acceptable to use your phone throughout a lecture, let alone an entire conference? No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, you will not be truly focusing your attention on the speaker, who has no doubt spent hours preparing for this moment.
and interactions with the larger public:
I have seen many using social media to voice very strong opinions, often criticising the general public en masse. Given that taxpayer money forms a substantial portion of our research funding, this kind of outburst risks alienating the very people we are trying to engage with.
and the spaces where our scholarly work occurs:
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.
These assertions are predicated on a highly contingent and particular set of assumptions, though. To decry conference session live-tweeting, for example, one has to believe that conferences are the very model of Serious Academic™ behavior rather than, say, sites of sexual harassment, copious amounts of alcohol, or misanthropic tendencies disguised as “rigorous discussion.” One also has to believe that scholarly conversations only occur in closely-curated spaces where the boundaries are clearly drawn between legitimate residents and trespassers. To dismiss social media activity as merely posturing for the job market, or some sort of illegitimate shortcut to promote one’s scholarly brand, ignores the fact that posturing and self-promotion have always been the principal hallmarks of self-proclaimed Serious Academics™.
Let’s call it what it is: the argument of Serious Academics™ against social media is not a critique of shoddy scholarship or the lightening of professional standards. It’s a rear-guard action against the increasing diversification and democratization of scholarly space.
I would jump on the #seriousacademic hashtag but I'm too busy writing full-length anonymous blogs about other academics being on Twitter so
— Nathan C. Hall (@prof_nch) August 5, 2016
If you think social media isn’t a space for Serious Academic™ stuff, your imagination has very narrow limits. Social media, like conferences, symposia, articles, lectures, and pedagogy, is a scholarly tool. And just like all these other things, it has other uses besides its scholarly toolness: some good, some not. But to single out social media for particular derision is to miss the point of how we as academics can-and should-engage others in our work. Yes, there are well-documented problems with harassment and other bad behaviors on social media, but stopping there ignores the fact that these are problems inherent in academia itself: the structures of privilege and choices made by bad actors in any medium. I’d argue that social media, particularly Twitter, has been quite effective in organizing resistance to these ills, and publicly repudiating bad behaviors in an effort to create a better climate in academe (see the #femfog controversy on medieval twitter, for example).
Moreover, social media has created opportunities for public engagement by scholars who don’t fit the stereotype our Guardian essayist privileges. Speaking as an academic at a non-elite institution who doesn’t look or act like a Serious Academic (as I’ve been repeatedly told), I can say that me and others like me have found social media to be a democratizing and invigorating scholarly space. This blog, and my activity on Twitter, has opened my scholarly world to places and people I would have never interacted with otherwise. None of my journal articles reached 500,000 readers; my blogging on the Confederate flag and the racism inherent in southern secessionism did, though. And if you believe, as I do, that scholarship must engage in wider conversations, this is a win. My Twitter “essays” pushing back against efforts to sanitize parts of the American past weren’t in a refereed journal or part of a carefully-selected conference panel, but they opened the door for my upcoming appearance in a documentary about race and the American carceral state, which will reach more than the small handful of attendees at a Sunday morning conference session. And that’s the point of serious scholarly work. It should not, indeed cannot, exist in a vacuum. It must intersect with, engage in, and inform our larger discourse. This is true whether that scholarly work is on the mating habits of red pandas, the place of slavery in the US Constitution, water rights and management, or nanotechnology. What we do matters, we tell the numerous critics of the liberal arts, university research, and higher ed in general. If we narrowly circumscribe “serious academic” activity to venues detached from the world, and condemn those who seek to breach that divide, we undermine every claim we’ve ever made about the inherent value of higher education and scholarly work.
If what we do matters, who’s doing it matters even more. I listed the ways in which social media has given me opportunities above as just one example of how the boundaries to the scholarly community need to be broadly-conceived. I’m half-professor, half-faculty developer. I’m at a small, non-elite school in flyover country. I’m the product of state universities, not the Ivy League. I wouldn’t be in the scholarly conversations I’m in without using social media as a lever. My work, my teaching, my publishing-none of these would look like they do without the communities and relationships I’ve been able to develop on Twitter. And I’m just one example among thousands. Adjunct faculty, alt-ac and post-ac scholars, faculty developers, instructional designers, K-12 educators, independent scholars-these are the people doing exciting and innovative scholarly work. These are the people engaging with the larger public discourse in creative, important, and effective ways. These are the people who represent what academe should be: a democratic space where ideas and conversations intermingle and rise or fall based upon their substance-not from what their participants look or act like, or the formality of the venue in which they occur. That’s the space to which we, as scholars of all stripes, should aspire. To cast aside some of the most effective tools for doing so because they are sometimes used maladroitly is a stunning refusal to embrace what we say are the fundamental aims of scholarship and the life of the mind. Attempting to prescribe what behaviors Serious Academics™ should display is a fool’s errand that does nothing but confirm the worst features of privilege and exclusionary mindsets in the academy. It means ignoring many of the most important voices we have. It means an academy whose isolation makes it useless. It means turning the clock back to a time in which many of us academicians wouldn’t have been allowed inside the door. And that’s some Serious Bullshit.™
The convo around #seriousacademic reminds me that when I take myself too seriously, others won't take me seriously at all.
— Kevin Gannon, now with 6 feet of social distancing (@TheTattooedProf) August 5, 2016