March 2nd, 2012
A few months ago I was at a planning meeting for the upcoming conference of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools (NAGS). At some point I tossed out the idea of a session on social media, suggesting that we do a ‘live’ demo of the benefits and opportunities of Facebook, Twitter, blogging and so on, especially as they relate to building graduate communities and assisting with recruitment. With the exception of one colleague, everyone at the table reacted with full enthusiasm. Somebody even used the word ‘fun’ to characterize the proposed session. I got excited. I knew I was on to something here.
So who was the dissenter? Picture a New Yorker cartoon professor, hirsute and tweedy, sandals with socks, battered briefcase as fetish object in hand. Sometimes stereotypes persist for a reason. As I was extolling the possibilities of my session, Professor X put his head in his hands and did everything but groan outright in derision. Actually, he did give me a sideways glance of contempt. I snapped back with something saucy—can’t remember what now– and carried on.
The social media session is now part of the program for the April meetings and I have harnessed the expertise of a young(er) communications and media specialist working at another Canadian university to share the presentation with me. Everyone is being encouraged to bring along their mobile devices, iPads, whatever they use to communicate electronically. Leave your old paradigms at home. I’m pumped for this. Imagine a large hall full of deans, all signing up to fresh Twitter accounts. Okay—maybe not all. Professor X will probably stay away or attend without a device in hand. His loss.
One message I’ll be sending is heavily inspired by London School of Economics academics Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson. These guys are well ahead of the curve, taking on the skeptics like Professor X who just don’t get the value of social media and think it’s all about youth wasting their lives in trivial pursuits. These guys wisely emphasize how social media serves our loftiest research purposes, extending our findings out in the world, reaching way beyond the small spheres of our scholarly journals. For them, a “new paradigm of research communications” is both complementing and even supplanting the old paradigm. The new one moves way beyond the slow pace of traditional journal dissemination. It works in real-time, linking researchers to fresh publications, articles and ideas that pop up in Twitter and Facebook, or Google+ streams.
I love this line: “So in research terms blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now.” High five to that, boys. Real-time linkages avoid what they call the “dead-on-arrival” findings of the old sluggish ways. Surely, we all have an obligation not only to get the word out quickly but to get it out into the much wider world, jargon-free and accessible. Indeed, the implication is that social media networks are compelling more lucid academic writing. No point in distributing your arcane techno-speak to the wider world if that world can’t understand you. Honestly, I swear the quality of tweeting has gone up since I was first hooked into that universe. There’s an implicit challenge out there to make those 140 characters really sing. No one likes a tired tweet.
Truth is, I discovered the LSE professors through a graduate student’s retweet. How else would I have ever had time or inclination to track them down or even know who they were in the first place? They started their blog—unique in being multi-voiced—in 2008. Their realization of their enormous readership encouraged them to transform that platform into what is now known as British Politics and Policy, “a perfect example of knowledge exchange.” Today they have over 7,000 readers and 9,000 Twitter followers.
Forget talking heads or radio academics. These guys are deep into a world of high-level debate in an enormously public way. Now the media go directly to their blog for fresh ideas and responses to public affairs, not the other way around.
I am so looking forward to my NAGS session. With all due respect, Professor X, what you don’t know just might undo you.