I was recently having dinner with my dissertation adviser, Scott @shershow, catching up after many years, and at one point during the meal our conversation predictably drifted to something someone said on Twitter. Scott paused and said, “I must admit I don’t really get Twitter.”
He had joined Twitter maybe a year ago, had a couple dozen followers and was trying to become more familiar with it. But his admission suggested a murkiness and mysteriousness around the medium -- qualities we tend to forget after several years of obsessive tweeting and accumulating thousands of followers, retweets and likes.
My mentor may be near a tipping point: either ready to abandon Twitter, or just on the verge of getting it, to use his word. Without wanting to sound like a hyped-up social media evangelist, let me see if I can help. What can Twitter be for academics?
A way to write! Twitter can help make your prose stronger, clearer and, most important, shorter. We often get into bad habits when we write for narrow disciplinary audiences, and Twitter can help jostle you out of wordy discursive patterns that have become unconscious.
An archive. Twitter is a place to keep research findings: insights, startling juxtapositions and oddities are all at home on your Twitter feed. Use Twitter as a living archive, one that you can quite easily download to your hard drive every once in a while and comprehensively search. If you search for keywords or proper names, you may find threads and thoughts that can be expanded into larger investigations or arguments.
A venue in which to be cited. When you tweet your scholarship, you shouldn’t worry about someone scooping you. Realize instead that people can now reference you on Twitter and you can later integrate such points and rapid dialogues into papers, articles or books. Likewise, keep track of poignant remarks that you spot on Twitter so you can recall them later and weave them into something you are working on.
A great teaching tool. Create a Twitter assignment, like the one my colleague @twel in the English Department at Loyola University at New Orleans taught me, where students keep reading notes on Twitter, using a hashtag to create a live, interactive dialogue about your weekly reading. It’s also a way for you to interact with students. That can be risky, of course -- there are some things you’d rather not know about students’ late-night habits or existential crises. But the benefits outweigh such risks. Basically, it is a way to model to students not only how academic interests intersect with everyday life but also good interactive etiquette. Again, that can get dicey on Twitter, but even the worst-case examples of Twitter spats lend themselves to object lessons concerning written communication, the viral potential of the digital, the need to take time for reflection and how to be respectful within the strange realm of social media (and beyond).
A mode of communication. This may sound all too obvious, but once you fully embrace the wide reach of Twitter, it becomes a way to get the attention of all sorts of people and entities, including popular stars, politicians and airline officials during a flight cancellation. They may not always seem to hear or reply, but when they do, it can be quite satisfying. Look at how essayist and novelist @rgay engages readers, celebrities, critics and ordinary people of all stripes on Twitter -- talk about writing for an audience.
A way to promote your work. This isn’t just about becoming a shill or rampant capitalist. This is about using the tools at hand to help get your work out there to a real, reading audience. When your book is published, tweet about it. Look what philosopher @michael_marder did when his @objectsobjects book Dust came out this past January: he tweeted “dust specks” or little insights that came from and piled up around the book. You too can tweet little snippets from or aphorisms about your book when it is published, and even just one each day will help your book actually sell. And more important, this can help your book find readers. When I talk to editors about this issue (for instance, @mxmcadam at Johns Hopkins University Press and I have discussed this many times), they invariably tell me they prefer it if their authors are active on Twitter -- and for good reason. It is not only aiding the struggling and overwhelmed marketing efforts of publishers but it is also a way to do your work justice, to dare to be public about your intellectual work.
A critical platform. There is nothing like seeing the sharp television criticism of New Yorker journalist @emilynussbaum, the everyday analysis of sociologist @tressiemcphd or the home appliance criticism of media theorist @ibogost unfold in real time on Twitter. Twitter is a way to engage in lively critique: it is a vibrant medium for pithy reviews, trenchant commentary and subtle demystification. Of course you always set yourself up to be lampooned by a withering GIF or deflated by an ironic reply, but isn’t this a healthy thing for critics to keep in mind?
A community. The environmental policy scholar @raulpacheco started his #scholarsunday hashtag as a way to bring scholars together on Twitter, and it has been so successful that now it seems like every day of the week is Sunday. I’ve gone on to meet in person so many of the people I originally connected with on Twitter (including Raul himself), and that experience then reflexively rejuvenates the Twitter community. So if you feel like posing a question to a scholar you admire -- or just placing a question out in the seeming void -- there is a good chance that you will get a response, and usually it will be smart and useful. And then you may end up having a drink with your virtual respondent at a conference in the future, and possibly forming an ongoing friendship, professional collaboration or both
It is worth repeating No. 1: it is a way to write. You can actually draft entire essays, book chapters and conference papers on Twitter and then get live feedback as you go. It is scary sometimes, of course, to write in public -- to reveal your research before a legitimate outlet like a university press or a well-regarded journal has vetted or published it. But, in the end, this is a leap of faith that will almost always make the work better -- the end being publication elsewhere, like here. This piece started as a handful of tweets about how I use Twitter as an academic.
Christopher Schaberg (@airplanereading) is an associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans.
The Republican presidential candidate spoke Friday at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs -- leaving many faculty members concerned.
In a letter responding to the event, nearly 120 faculty members told Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalaback that they recognize Donald Trump’s right to speak on campus but condemn the content and tone of the rhetoric he has used throughout his campaign.
“As faculty of a university that prides itself on the encouragement of free speech and the productive discourse that can follow, we reject the reckless use of language that supports silencing anyone on our campus -- even as we respect the right to speak such words,” the letter said.
Shockley-Zalaback released her own letter attempting to respond to concerns raised about the event. She said the university cannot legally deny access to the Trump campaign that it has granted other political candidates in the past. She also noted that political speech, even if offensive, is protected by the First Amendment. But Shockley-Zalaback said the event “underscores more than ever the need for inclusion and respect” as a core value of the university.
Lincoln University -- a historically black university located in Jefferson City, Mo. -- suspended its major in history on its 150th anniversary. Explaining why that step was necessary, the president of the university emphasized, “We must make decisions like these as we look toward the future and the needs of the changing workforce.” Embedded within that statement is a declaration about higher education and its purpose: higher education should make good, high-paid workers. We should step back and ask whether this is really what we want from higher education.
Since I took my first academic position in 2010, I have continually heard in the news media, from visiting speakers and many other people that transforming students into employees is the purpose of higher education. Whenever I hear this, I cannot help but recall one particular graduate seminar when we discussed the writings of Marxist Louis Althusser. The discussion turned to higher education, and some people in the class claimed higher education was little more than part of a plot to provide good and obedient workers to the bourgeoisie. At the time, I thought that was overly reductive. I mean, we were talking about the supposed conspiracy of the bourgeoisie in class at an institution of higher education; surely this was not part of the plan.
Once I got my first academic job, however, I learned that this really was the perennial question in higher education. What should our general education curriculum look like? On which majors should we focus our resources? The answer was always put in the form of another question -- what do employers want from our graduates?
Perhaps because of the rising costs of higher education, politicians have increasingly said that the point of higher education is for students to make lots of money in their chosen careers. Is that what we want from higher education? Maybe a better question would be is that the only thing we want from higher education?
In her recent article in The American Historian, Nancy F. Cott indicates it is hard for humanities degrees -- like history -- to compete with degrees related to engineering if the only significant variable is potential earnings. One study found that throughout their careers, engineers consistently earned more than graduates in the humanities. But then, not everyone wants to be an engineer. As Cott phrased it, neither would we really want “to see an educated world populated by engineers only.” The fact is people educated in the humanities go on to important, although often not quite as lucrative, careers in education, government, law and a host of other interesting and relevant occupations.
Since students enter into significant debt to earn their diplomas, it seems reasonable for students to expect some return on their often significant investments. I hope as we review what we value in education, however, we do not simply ask which majors lead to the most lucrative careers.
Du Bois and Shaping Lives in the Present
What is higher education for? Should it exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing workers who make the greatest amount of money? It’s not a new question. It’s one that the renowned African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with in his speech commemorating Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary in 1941. He worried that the temptation would “come and recur to make an institution like this, a means of earning a living or of adding to income rather than an institution of learning.” Du Bois believed the kind of students Lincoln produced would end up changing the world for the better -- that it would be Lincoln students who would “show the majority the way of life.” Not from privileged and “powerful groups which from time to time rule the world have come salvation and culture,” he said, “but from the still small voice of the oppressed and the determined who knew more than to die and plan more than mere survival.” In short, Du Bois hoped that Lincoln would become “a center where the cultural outlook of this country is to be changed and uplifted and helped in the reconstruction of the world.”
Why did Du Bois believe that students at a university like Lincoln would be so influential? Du Bois recognized the power of history to shape lives in the present, and he rightly believed that this nation needed more diverse students if the status quo was ever going to change. In Du Bois’s day, history was being used to justify violence against African-Americans. In 1915, the original version of The Birth of a Nation premiered in the United States. In that movie, President Woodrow Wilson’s book History of the American People was regularly quoted. Audiences around the country saw Wilson declare through this movie that Reconstruction had been a misguided failure during which “the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.”
Wilson and many other people in the academy were part of what eventually became known as the Dunning School of Reconstruction History. For William Dunning, the historian for whom the broader school was named, Reconstruction was a failure because great numbers of the recently emancipated slaves “gave themselves up to testing their freedom. They wandered aimless but happy through the country.”
According to Dunning, it was Southern whites who “devoted themselves with desperate energy to the procurement of what must sustain the life of both themselves and their former slaves.” Lesson learned: black political participation meant misery for all, but exclusive white control meant the best for both black and white Southerners. The Dunning School of Reconstruction History justified the exclusion of black people from politics, and it implicitly justified the violence used to maintain that exclusion.
W. E. B. Du Bois labored to contradict those impressions. In his now widely read TheSouls of Black Folks, Du Bois argued that it was not the irresponsible silliness of black people that doomed Reconstruction but rather the impossible problems facing the recently freed slaves. Reflecting upon the failure of efforts to make Southern African-Americans truly free, Du Bois noted that the Freedmen’s Bureau could not even “begin the establishment of goodwill between ex-masters and freedmen,” and perhaps most important, it could not “carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land.”
Adding to the impossible challenge was the fact that much of the legislation created during Reconstruction was intended to punish the white South rather than empower the recently emancipated. As viewed by Du Bois, black equality was a cudgel used to punish the rebellious South rather than a goal in and of itself. Without any real support for black equality in either the North or the South, how could we expect anything but failure from Reconstruction? Because of those failures, black people suffered under the weight of white supremacy.
White historians largely ignored Du Bois’s conclusions for years; it was not until higher education expanded to include a wide swath of the American population -- due in large part to the GI Bill -- that more historians came to accept what he had long argued. Today, the vast majority of historians of Reconstruction accept his premise that many capable black politicians participated in the Reconstruction. Many worked to expand roads and education to include a plurality of the Southern population. At the time, their opponents saw this as waste and corruption, but the vision of those black politicians more closely aligned with our own expectations. We -- like they -- expect our governments to maintain public roads and public education. History looks different from the bottom up.
Reversing Dominant Narratives
Du Bois did not mention the degree in history specifically in his speech in 1941, but his life’s work demonstrated the importance he placed upon the historical imagination. He correctly predicted that making the academy more diverse would change the world for the better. History has been used to justify white supremacy, and it has been used to undermine it as well. As the population of historians changed, so too has the accepted narrative of the academy. That’s why Du Bois did not ask what majors earned the most money upon graduation but had a loftier vision for Lincoln’s future. America needed impassioned graduates from schools like Lincoln. Someone had to help reverse the dominant narratives prevalent in 1941 about black inferiority.
On Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary, Du Bois provided a powerful argument in favor of empowering Lincoln’s students to go and change the world. I fear that the end of history at Lincoln University means students will have less ability to do so in the future. That saddens me, because our national history is particularly relevant today. In 2016, a reinterpretation of The Birth of a Nation is set to debut and likely make radically different claims than its 1915 namesake. Why did the creators of this new movie -- which will document the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner -- give it that name? In 2016, some people have suggested that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was relatively short and its goals were largely accomplished. How then do we explain the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement? Do these protesters fail to understand just how racially progressive our country has become? In 2016, some politicians have suggested that the United States is a nation founded by white ideas -- or “Western civilization” -- and people of color are guests. Are they right?
Our history as a nation has been used to answer those kinds of questions, and someone is going to be answering these questions in the future. In addition to asking what employers want our graduates to do, we should also ask whom we want to answer such important questions.
Graduates -- whether in the humanities, sciences or engineering -- will continue to get relevant and interesting jobs. Some will get paid more than others. In finding the right major, students will have to make strategic choices about what they want for their lives. Having spoken with many students, I know many are not so single-mindedly focused upon profit. Many have more philanthropic purposes in mind for their education. By so circumscribing the range of possibilities, however, we are creating a future in which Lincoln’s graduates will be able to get jobs but maybe not make history.
J. Mark Leslie is an associate professor of history at Lincoln University.