Tweets from the Ivory Tower

Jack Schneider didn't think Twitter could possibly improve his scholarly work. But a challenge from a colleague led him to experiment, and he explains why it's now part of his public engagement.

June 7, 2013

Earlier this semester I received an e-mail from a colleague. Enclosed was a Twitter login, a brief set of instructions for using it, and a simple message: “Welcome to the Twitterverse.”  The "Mission: Impossible"-style coaxing worked.  An hour later I composed my first Tweet.

I was reluctant to join Twitter, despite years of admonishment from colleagues active on social media, because I didn’t see what value it could possibly add to my work. The platform, and its 140-character space limit, felt silly -- better-suited for one-liners than for the dissemination of scholarship. 

And, more importantly, I felt like I was already doing enough to reach beyond the walls of my institution. I wrote op-eds. I adapted my research for practitioner-oriented magazines. Even in scholarly books and journal articles, I targeted a smart lay audience rather than a narrow band of experts.

I could, in brief, marshal evidence to suspend my own disbelief about my relevance. Yet over the past few months, I’ve come to think that my previous model of engaged scholarship is not so different from stuffing messages into bottles and flinging them into the ocean. Those messages often take a long time to craft -- an op-ed, for instance, can take me up to eight hours to write, edit, and place. And what if no one is waiting on a distant shore?

Most academics are even worse than me.  As a group, we generally make no effort to reach beyond the ivory tower.  And that’s mostly understandable. The work is time-consuming. And worse, it often feels unrewarding -- both in terms of public influence and the construction of tenure files.  If they’re going to write without impact, peers have told me, they may as well stick to journals.

Social media, however, offer a remedy for that problem -- making it easier to send, and to track, the trans-oceanic messages we launch from our desert island posts.  Of course, as I learned during my first lonely week on Twitter, such platforms don’t do all of the work for you.  And each comes with its own set of limitations; Twitter’s, famously, is its space limit. But insofar as these tools allow us to connect with the world outside the academy, they are worth learning to use, and to use well.

So what does such use look like?  Frankly, I may be the wrong person to ask. My following on Twitter can still be tallied in dozens. By contrast, my savvier peers have built massive networks of a thousand followers or more -- all of whom have the power to relay messages to their own followers. Yet my small following makes even more powerful the fact that an idle Tweet of mine, sent between grading student papers, led fairly swiftly to a meeting with The Boston Globe about overhauling the way it ranks Massachusetts schools.

I didn’t start by trying to engage the Globe. I merely Tweeted out my criticisms of the newspaper’s “Dreamtown Finder” -- a web tool designed to help people determine where in the Bay State they should live. The Dreamtown Finder asks users to rank values in six domains, and I rated the categories of schools, fun, and location as “very important.” 

I said that I wanted to live among people different from me, so toggled the “people like me” bar down.  I said housing costs were important.  And I gave the “hipster” quotient a mid-level ranking (I’m no hipster, but I am a sucker for elaborately prepared coffee).  The site told me to move a half mile south, into Cambridge.  I clicked the “back” button, determined to stay in Somerville -- where I currently reside and am quite happy.  I bumped the “hipster” bar up.  No dice.  I adjusted the housing cost bar.  Still nothing.

Dedicated to finding a workaround that would get me a Boston Globe endorsement on my choice of towns, I toggled the bars up and down until I managed to produce a Somerville recommendation. That required a few odd moves.  But most troublingly, it meant dropping my concern with school quality down to zero.  The Somerville schools have their flaws, certainly.  But I’ve visited a number of them and have worked closely with the school across the street from our house — an elementary school that we plan on sending our daughter to.  Its state standardized test scores aren’t through the roof, but it also serves a very diverse range of students who come from a wide range of economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.  Many integrate special education students with their traditionally developing peers and, in my opinion, serve both groups of kids better.  The schools here are safe.  And at least in the ones I’ve visited, the kids are cared for by thoughtful adults.

So I dug into the methodology.  And, as it turned out, schools were being ranked by SAT scores and teacher/student ratios. The former, as research has borne out, is more strongly correlated with socioeconomic status than it is with college performance. And the latter is not only misleading (calculated on the number of adults in the building rather than the average class size), but also remains a lingering question mark among educational researchers with regard to its impact.

“Tools like this,” I tweeted, “could be powerful if the methodology wasn’t so simplistic.”  I included the link to the Globe website. I followed that up with: “This is how the Boston Globe rates schools and tells people where to buy homes: 1. SAT scores; 2. Student-teacher ratios. Hmmm...” 

I will concede that it wasn’t the most artful paragraph I’ve ever composed. In fact, it wasn’t even a very well-crafted Twitter message, since I failed to direct it “@BostonGlobe” or include the topic hashtag “#DreamtownFinder,” as more expert users would.  Still, the tweet led to several interesting conversations, and eventually produced a response from the designer of the tool, who contacted me directly. You could almost hear my gulp as I tweeted back to him: “You made … the Globe tool?”

Flash forward two weeks and we were sitting in my office, along with a colleague of mine from the education department and an economist who works on the floor above me.  I suggested a few less-crude measures for measuring school quality, as well as some ways of adjusting for the different kinds of populations various schools work with.  The economist talked about how to build a model based on those factors. 

Collectively, we pored through the data made available by the Massachusetts Department of Education.  And after putting together a plan, my colleagues and I headed off to a faculty meeting while the two Globe employees headed back to the paper.

The Dreamtown Finder won’t be perfect.  And certainly there will be people in the town of Lexington, which came in first in the initial round school rankings thanks to its 1866 average SAT score, who won’t be happy.  But the tool will more accurately reflect reality.  And the people who use it might think in more nuanced ways about where they live — at least with regard to school quality.  Knowing that has produced in me a strange feeling for an academic to have: one of relevance.

This is not a paean to Twitter, or to social media more broadly.  Such platforms are hardly the revolutionary force they are often credited with being.  And the usefulness of social media in academia would be nil if we stopped doing serious research that was vetted through the peer review process.  But whatever the inherent limitations of such technologies, platforms like Twitter do provide new opportunities — not just for those of us who already saw ourselves as working to effect change through scholarship, but also for those of us who previously viewed such work unrewarding or overly demanding.

Academics need not go it alone on this journey.  In fact, we shouldn’t.  It took me months to get the hang of Twitter — learning stylistic moves like the abbreviation of URLls, the use of thematic hashtags, and the strategic deployment of “at” signs.

Along the way, I fortuitously discovered technologies like TweetDeck and HootSuite, which allow you to schedule posts for future dates, but I also accidentally dumped half of my followers at one point through a series of ill-informed missteps.  Rather than force faculty to reinvent the wheel one by one, then — learning from mistakes as they go — institutions of higher education should begin structuring conversations about the work of scholarly engagement in the 21st century, and specifically about the use of social media in that process. 

Colleges and universities have everything to gain from this, including a more visible presence in public life and stronger evidence that research has a place in higher education alongside teaching — something that has come under fire in recent years as the cost of college has steadily risen. 

This might take shape through formal acknowledgment of social media activity in tenure and promotion decisions.  Or it might manifest in coaching for faculty in the use of various platforms — each of which has its own affordances and constraints.  Or perhaps it simply means that faculty arrive on campus and are presented not just with an e-mail account, but also with a road-ready blog space and a Twitter handle.

This isn’t just about Twitter, of course.  This is about public engagement in higher education; and that can take a range of forms.  A friend of mine maintains a blog that, since 2009, has received half a million views.  One of my energetic colleagues tirelessly engages in traditional face-to-face work in the Worcester, Mass., public schools.  And my wife’s uncle — a law professor at Yale — regularly stirs in me a deep feeling of inadequacy by landing his opinions in The New York Times.  None of them tweet.

Whether or not others join me in the Twitterverse, then, the deeper point is that academics need to throw off the delusion that our work is going to be found.  It will not be.  Instead, our scholarship must be made visible.  Social media seem to lower two major barriers in this process -- by making it easier to be heard, and by making it more immediately rewarding to engage. 

Connecting with the world beyond campus is a part of our mission.  And should we choose to accept that, we need to learn how to succeed in the task; even if it means communicating in 140 characters or less.


Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and author of Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools. He tweets @Edu_Historian.


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