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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.