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I am an educator. Being one is what wakes me up in the morning, and I can’t imagine my life without it. I am also a social media influencer, something I never imagined I would say. But, as we all know, the pandemic has caused us to reimagine life and our places within it. This was definitely the case for me when I finished my Ph.D. during the summer of 2020 but was unable to find a full-time faculty position.
My first thought, after sulking for a couple of months, was that I could use the time off to write. “Publish or perish” kept running through my head, and I knew I had to make sure I was competitive as possible once the hiring freezes ended. However, I also wanted to engage in teaching, research and service in a way that didn’t require me to wait a year for journal decisions or job offers, so I turned to social media.
I had no idea the impact it would have. I had already been on Instagram and Facebook but joined Twitter as well because it seemed to be the platform most academics use. I posted my first tweet on July 12, and it went viral. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that something I wrote had been liked and shared across all social media platforms more than 200,000 times.
I was also encouraged by the response because of how closely aligned the tweet was with my research. It said, “Increasing the # of Students of Color at your school without also addressing the systemic racism within your institution only increases the # of Students of Color dealing with the psychological trauma of your racially hostile environment.” The message resonated with so many people that not only were students and faculty members sharing it, but they were also tagging their own colleges and universities. This was their way of letting institutions know how they were falling short and what they needed to do to address the problem.
This strategy proved to be effective because people from several colleges and universities reached out to me for help with ways to better support students of color on their campuses. That made my heart smile, because the purpose of my work is to educate and advocate -- but I never imagined that was possible with a tweet.
The Impact Factor of Social Media
The experience made me realize that I could use social media the same way we use the discussion and implication sections of journal articles. And let’s be honest, when people don’t feel like reading an entire article, those are the parts they skip to. So with that in mind, I became intentional about posting content that would engage people in meaningful discussions, with the goal of creating change. Since then, my posts have been liked, shared and commented on more than one million times.
I describe below some of the benefits of this approach. My hope is that the academy will begin to acknowledge and embrace the impact factor of public scholarship via social media.
Reach. You calculate a journal’s impact factor by dividing the number of cited articles by the number of citable articles. But what would it look like to calculate the impact factor of public scholarship based on the number of times a post is shared -- the internet’s version of citing? I would argue that even the most well-respected articles in the field can’t compare to the reach that social media provides. And although the academy seems consumed with quantity, the diversity of the audience reached is also of importance. Thanks to social media, I’ve been able to connect with people globally in ways that I don’t believe would have been possible with a journal article.
For example, just last week, someone in Vietnam who wanted to talk about the connection between cultural appropriation and anti-Blackness contacted me. I am always in awe of all of the international followers I have that consistently like, share and engage with my posts.
Accessibility. Also contributing to the reach of public scholarship via social media is its accessibility. While higher ed claims to want to improve the lives of students, too often scholars talk at or about them rather than with them. But social media has allowed me to communicate concepts in a manner that doesn’t require a doctoral degree to understand -- and that encourages engagement rather than discouraging it by using too much academic jargon.
As a result, I have been able to witness teenagers become active participants in meaningful conversations. For example, my 14-year-old sister has facilitated conversations at her middle school around issues of social justice by using my tweets. Additionally, I’ve had friends tell me they’ve seen posts of mine shared by their family members and coworkers that have prompted conversations they wouldn’t have had otherwise. At the end of the day, the change we need in this world isn’t going to come from a group of scholars sitting around a conference room. These conversations must also happen around the dinner table.
Academic resource. Thanks to the accessibility of social media, people have used my tweets as a teaching tool in academic and community spaces. Even though everything I post is open to the public, I still have students and educators that reach out to me to ask permission to use a tweet in a presentation or lesson. This always means so much to me, because I want my work to educate students and also provide other instructors with the tools they need to do their jobs effectively. While the power of my journal articles and book chapters can be used to support students in higher ed, my public scholarship is what empowers and engages elementary and secondary school students.
Time. I acknowledge and appreciate all of the work that goes into reviewing journal submissions, but the only thing scholars hate more than reviewer No. 2’s comments is how long the process takes. It’s common to submit an article and not have it published until a year later. In contrast, social media allows us to engage in conversations as events are happening.
For example, during one of the hardest times in this country for Black people, I was able to facilitate discussions about the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. That allowed me to create two types of spaces: one that allowed Black people to process their feelings and another that allowed others to grapple with the root cause that led to such injustices. Although I’m sure that scholars have been able to collect meaningful data during this time that will result in powerful journal articles, the process won’t allow us to read those articles until later this year. If one of the goals of academic research is to push the field forward, then we need to be able to grapple with issues in real time.
Response. Finally, one of my favorite parts of public scholarship is being able to engage with readers, especially those who do not agree with something I have said. I absolutely love to be able to respond to a comment in a way that not only challenges the way people think but also encourages them to change their perspective and behavior.
Conversely, I also love when people challenge me. I am a firm believer that we should all be lifelong learners, and I learn from my critics as much as my supporters learn from me. While journal articles might positively influence scholars within higher education, it is unlikely that they will reach the hearts and minds of those outside academe. My work on social media has allowed me to engage with people who have approached me with hatred but then left our interaction acknowledging that I was able to inspire them to think differently. At the end of the day, that’s what we as scholars should endeavor to do.
This article was inspired by the fact that I believe I do meaningful work on a daily basis but will never get credit for it in the academy. I am currently on the job market and applying for positions every day, but where can I acknowledge my impact factor on my CV? What about other scholars? Where can they talk about that when they are up for tenure?
Although I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish, I am prouder still that I’m not the only one. A beautiful community of scholars has taken social media by storm and is creating meaningful change in the field of education. But those scholars aren’t getting the recognition they deserve, either. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It’s time for academe to do better.