Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Twitter & The Academy

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Twitter & The Academy

Is this the little bird we're supposed to follow into the future of academia?

A distraction.
Compulsive over-sharing.
The death of the printed word.

A revolution.
A return to written expressions of emotion.
Social media.
Poetry in 140 characters or less.

Say “Twitter” and you’ll elicit a number of different responses, depending on your audience. Some praise Twitter for the way it transforms social relationships, community organizing, and the circulation of news. Others condemn it at yet another technological advancement that encourages our cultural obsession with TMI, our unwillingness to communicate face-to-face, and our grammatical deficiencies.

Irrespective of what you think about Twitter, its force globally is undeniable. The role of Twitter in election coverage and political revolution has been hotly debated over the past year, as well as its less incendiary power in terms of chronicling conflict and romance between popular celebrities.

But what is the role of Twitter to academia? Prominent intellectuals, such as Cornel West, and major literary organizations like AWP, tweet regularly. There is even advice online about how academics can best use Twitter.

As grad students, is Twitter a tool related to our career and our work in our field? Do we tweet links to articles we’ve published and retweet the postings of academics we admire? Or is Twitter’s function to us still purely social? Do we follow Britney and tweet about the newest episodes of Glee? 

I, for one, am interested in the power of Twitter to connect grad students and professors across academia. In our fields, connection and relationships are crucial for continued learning and professional growth; these relationships are also vita to our continued wellbeing as we work in a field defined, at times, by independent (read: solitary) work.

Chad Taylor, a writer for Kirkus Reviews, praises Twitter for its ability to change the world of publishing and to create intimate contact between author and reader. In his piece, “Embrace the Digital Age: A Contrarian Opinion,” he celebrates the imaginative technology of Twitter, the cutting out of the middle man between authors and readers, and new possibilities for writing to be shared directly between author and reader through platforms like Twitter. To those who would take Twitter’s modernness as proof that old modes of communication are in jeopardy, Taylor says:

Three thousand years ago Plato told everyone who would listen that this newfangled thing called an "alphabet" was going to be the death of storytelling. Why would anyone remember stories, he asked, when you could just "write them down"?

Taylor’s perspective is a refreshing one; he reminds us that changes in technology and media can seem frightening and unorthodox (thus impermissible), the human practice of storytelling endures. The exchange of information, the pursuit of knowledge, and the human need to create and communicate is not at risk because of Twitter… or the alphabet.

In addition to the new ways of communicating and creating that Twitter and other forms of social media introduce to us, there is the good company of Twitter. As I wrote a few weeks ago, graduate study can often be a lonely pursuit. Being social and remaining connected to others requires intentionality and effort because it is easy to sink into books and learning and isolation when you have so much work to do.

Colson Whitehead, award-winning novelist and Twitter personality, wrote a fantastic article for Publisher’s Weekly about Twitter and the gift of connection that it provides to homebound writers who create largely in isolation. In “Better Than Renting Out A Windowless Room: The Blessed Distraction of Technology,” he confesses:

I used to think that I was the only one hunched over a keyboard in soiled pajamas, rummaging through the catalogue of my failures and intermittently weeping. Now, I open Twitter and see that I am not alone. I am part of a vast and wretched assembly of freaks who are not fit for decent work and thus must write, or wither. I am fortified by their failures, and I hope they take succor from mine.

As a grad student (and writer), I relate to Whitehead. I take succor from the knowledge that I am not alone in my daily struggle at my desk to learn something and to produce something meaningful. Twitter, for me, is a way to feel that I am part of a creative and intellectual community that stretches beyond just my apartment, university, city, and nation.

The range of opinions on Twitter still holds, and tweeting might not be as powerful a tool for sharing information and connecting with peers for everyone as it is for Whitehead and Kirkus. 

You might choose to professionalize your Twitter handle (I recommend some reference to Derrida, Foucault, or Said) and use social media only as a part of your work in your field. Or, you might use the platform for your personal life, locking your Tweets so that prospective employers and other conference attendees can’t read about how much you loved the latest Jersey Shore

Whatever our choices may be, Twitter is a part of the way we network and share information. As grad students, we'll be interacting with the social media platform for years to come, whether it proves as radical a change to our culture as the alphabet... or not.

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