A week ago I was in a warm and well-appointed hotel room, embarking on a second day of conference interviews for a position in my department. I'm aware, as I write this, that already I'm describing an anomaly. Everywhere I turn I see articles about the shrinking job market for humanities PhDs, the dearth of job interviews at this year's MLA convention — the same bad news we've been hearing for many years, but worse. Still, my department is hiring. Our one position is arguably replacing one and a half former positions (one retirement, one departure for administration) but still, we're hiring. And we saw fabulous candidates this year — again, not surprisingly, given the market. It was a rare pleasure, then, to be in a hotel room last week with my colleagues meeting and talking with a series of bright, committed, interesting people, and I'm glad I did it.
But now it's time to get back to the real world, whatever that is. My middle-schooler packed a lunch last night and got on the bus this morning for the first time in two weeks — complaining, but resigned. My college-age daughter still has two weeks at home; she's bingeing on reality TV and checking the internet to see if her grades have been posted yet. And I'm trying to finish up last semester's projects (mostly reading for an award committee) before embarking on this semester, but the planning is already starting, no question.
I'm noticing that social media are playing an increasing part in my academic planning this year. While I somehow forgot to follow MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal on Twitter (thereby missing a shot at a late-night party that was probably past my bedtime anyway), Twitter and Facebook are forming an increasing part of my professional life. I'm hardly a model Twitterer — I don't have a smartphone or use Twitter on my phone, and I often forget to update my status for days on end. Nonetheless I find that every now and then I see "tweets" from friends who are doing the same thing I am (two or three weeks ago, we were all grading, for example) and get a little boost. And when I really remember to check in, I find little nuggets of information that I can use in my teaching or research — as, for example, when someone I follow linked to an online "update" of Cinderella that may make it into my fairy tale course next fall.
Even more than Twitter, though, Facebook may be transforming my professional life. Just today a colleague at another school posted a status update about using blogs or wikis in her course — twenty-seven comments later, I have a good idea of what she's doing in her course, and have some ideas for things I might use as well. But it's not just about the technology. More important, really, are the opportunities to keep up with professional colleagues when they post about their reading and their research, the updates that remind me that others are also working on syllabi and planning their semesters along with me. I am the only children's literature scholar in my department; Facebook extends the conversations that begin at conferences and allows me to be a part of a professional community in ways that were impossible a year or two ago. (I should say, though, that children's literature has been extremely welcoming in a variety of formats, with a wonderful listserv — child_lit — which has been a significant part of my professional development over the last 15 years.)
My laptop sits on my dining room table during breaks; I find I work better in the midst of things than isolated in an office (that, and my daughter has suddenly taken over the office, finding it warmer than her attic room right now). Here in the midst of things, then, I find myself — again — in the midst of things, connected to colleagues all over the world while I sit at home. Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the things that live on my computer are not a substitute for the face to face — the interviews we held last week reminded me of how important those real-time, real-life contacts are. But they're expanding my world in a time where much of what we hear and see suggests contraction, and I'm grateful for that.