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As family members, longtime readers and close friends know, I enjoy the occasional metaphor. One hit me this week that I can’t quite get out of my head.

In discussion with a colleague about ways to keep in touch with developments at other colleges, I described occasional conference travel as sort of like a periscope in a submarine. On campus, as in a submarine, you’re in a closed, pressurized environment. (Yes, grammarians, I know I used “as” there, making it a simile instead of a metaphor. Just roll with it.) There aren’t enough people around to take your eye off operations for very long. The ceiling is low. It’s easy to lose track of where you are and where you’re going.

When you raise and look through the periscope, though, you can see above the surface, even while still being in the boat. You can see what’s coming. What you learn from looking above the surface can inform what you do in the ship. It can confirm direction or give warning of hazards. If nothing else, it can offer a different perspective.

As I thought about it more, though, the metaphor isn’t quite right. Conference travel, by definition, involves travel; it means getting off the boat. It’s closer to shore leave, though presumably with less debauchery. Using the periscope involves staying on the boat and possibly looking only for a short time. (Admittedly, my image of a submarine comes from the 1966 Batman movie, starring Adam West, so it may be a bit dated.) By that logic, academic Twitter is more like a periscope, and conference travel is more like shore leave. You can check Twitter briefly without leaving the ship, and it can update you on all manner of things.

As with a periscope, you have to know what you’re looking for with Twitter, and you have to aim in the right direction. Meaningless shiny objects abound, some robotic, some empty. Don’t let them distract you.

If you follow the right people and institutions, Twitter can function as a self-updating annotated bibliography. People tweet out links to articles, often with a sentence or two providing context or commentary. Not every link is gold, but over time you learn which sources have higher batting averages than others. In my work, it has become an essential way to keep up with national dialogues around higher ed and higher ed policy while still being on the ship. And sometimes it leads to connections with people that turn into real-life connections at conferences, which can be great fun.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you use as periscopes? Does it work?

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