An Open, Digital Professoriat

At MLA, scholars argue for the power of the web and social media to create a new generation of public intellectuals.
January 10, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- For several years now, some attendees at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association have blogged (or tweeted) the sessions. This year, however, the bloggers weren't forced to balance their laptops or splurge on Internet access. The MLA set up tables reserved for bloggers in each session room, sprang for wireless access in the convention center and the main convention hotel, and gave the meeting's (very active) Twitter feed priority play on the association's home page. One of the major projects of the meeting was "Narrating Lives," in which scholars answered questions about their lives as readers and scholars, with the results posted to YouTube.

From a scholarly perspective, the program also featured numerous sessions on digital humanities and the way that online worlds change the possibilities for humanities professors seeking to increase their visibility and impact. At a meeting at which much of the discussion was about devastating budget cuts that are blocking many scholars from advancing their ambitions (or even getting money to attend the conference or a job interview to justify the expense), the digital discussions were generally more uplifting, with people more likely to be talking about new possibilities than of crushed careers.

In one session (of course with its own hashtag), scholars discussed their visions for an "open professoriat."

Amanda French of the Center for New Media and History argued that Twitter and Facebook will help scholars reach much broader audiences (when promoting their traditional scholarship, published in peer-reviewed journals) than relying on the journals' own distribution methods. She said that if scholars want their work read directly (as opposed to having secondhand accounts read) they need to work with open access journals, as she noted data finding that Twitter citations of research tend to be open access or secondhand accounts of paywall-protected articles.

The reality, French argued, is that by opening up scholarship and sharing it online, scholars expand their base. She described using Twitter to let colleagues know that she had an article, "Edmund Gosse and the Villanelle Blunder," in the new issue of Victorian Poetry. She noted that this is a narrow topic, but said that she heard not only from friends and colleagues, but from people she didn't even know -- with one stranger writing that "he couldn’t find Victorian Poetry on his local newsstand." If scholars want the equivalent of being on the newsstand, she said, they just need to be open. French was fairly direct about her views, titling her talk: "Your Twitter followers and Facebook friends won’t read your peer-reviewed article if they have to pay for it, and neither will strangers."

David Parry, assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, was even more critical of traditional forms of scholarly communication -- and more enthusiastic about the potential of using new media. Parry said that academe has a true "ivory tower" problem in that not enough academics -- even as public support for and knowledge of their work erode -- see the need to connect with more people. He said the term "public intellectual" baffles him because he can't think of why an intellectual wouldn't want to be public.

"Academics are public servants, and we should contribute," whether by curing cancer or promoting new ideas about the humanities, he said.

The subscriber base of many journals is so low, he argued, that the presumed readership of many individual articles is in the single digits. "This is intellectual masturbation," he said, "talking to ourselves."

While some traditionalists may deride Twitter, he noted that Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism scholar, has more than 48,000 followers on Twitter, and that many of his posts lead to pieces that are much longer than a tweet. Rosen also has a blog and writes books and longer articles -- so his social media activity enhances his visibility but doesn't limit his traditional scholarship, Parry said.

While Rosen is a big name in his field, Parry said others use new media tools to gain influence they would never have on the basis of their names and current positions. He cited the case of Aaron Bady, a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley whose blog zunguzungu has influenced journalists around the world, prompting The Atlantic Monthly to call him "The Unknown Blogger Who Changed WikiLeaks Coverage."

Not everyone on the panel was certain that various new media forms could change things for the humanities. Samuel Cohen, associate professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said he is not opposed to social media, but wonders whether "the nature of the crisis [in the humanities] is such that social media can really address it."

Cohen said that the humanities are being hurt by battles over money and a revival of the culture wars. "It's 1994 out there," he said, with universities are being told to operate like businesses and some of those in power have decided that fields like foreign languages and classics can be defined only "as money-losers."

In this environment, he asked, while social media may connect humanists, he is less certain it will change the public debate. "Will Newt Gingrich read our tweets?" he asked.

Erin E. Templeton, assistant professor of English at Converse College, said that it wasn't just Newt Gingrich who is a potential audience -- and that is both a positive and a negative. “How open can we be really if our chair is following our Twitter stream, if our dean is our Facebook friend?" she asked.

Still, Templeton argued in favor of openness -- and for not just calling something "open" because its sponsor does. For instance, she was critical of Open Yale Courses -- in which videos of selected courses are available online. Because there is no interaction between the professors and anyone who views the material, "it's strictly passive," she said, with as much meaningful interaction as when she offers Jack McCoy advice while watching a "Law & Order" rerun.

Real openness is based on "exchange," she said, not just "consumption."

Some of the value of true exchange can be seen on small scales, and without the world watching, Templeton noted. She said that while she values her colleagues, she is in a department with a handful of people who are full-time English professors -- and without anyone who shares her 20th century focus. Her online communities provide constant interaction and feedback, she said, from those who work on similar issues.

"Openness is something to be celebrated," she said, even if it is also "something to be careful about."

In the audience discussion after the presentations, several attendees cited other benefits to being part of the "open professoriat." One person said that he served on dozens of peer review panels, and that many times, he has seen younger scholars' work get praised (and approved) because of the reputation of their social media writing. While there are of course times that someone will note a blog or Twitter feed and say "that guy's an idiot," this professor said that he has far more often seen an online presence boost a scholar.

Another made the point that the sort of public outreach advocated by proponents of using new media need not be done in isolation from more traditional forms of outreach, and suggested that humanities scholars could benefit from both kinds of visibility. "It's not just about Twitter," she said. "It's also about going out to the Rotary Club."

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