Thursday, July 13, 2017

When social media meets the academy

After I started my PhD program, I gave up much of my social media and blogging activity (though not all). This was for reasons of time, energy, but also voice and skills. I read and write so much for school that it's not exactly what I feel like doing when I have free time. In addition, the skills and voice I use for blogging and education writing are different from those needed for scholarly education writing. And, I needed to take some time to learn the later. I have started writing more again recently--more on this here.

This dichotomy came up during a seminar (David L. Clark seminar) for doctoral students I was a participant in at the Annual AERA Meeting this past spring in San Antonio, during a panel discussion entitled "The Role of Education Research Outside of the Academy." On the panel was Morgan Polikoff, a professor of education policy at University of Southern California, who happens to be one of my pre-PhD program #edutwitter pals.

Morgan addressed the confluence of social media and academia. In a nutshell, he said that while it's important to still hold your work to high standards and to make certain stipulations before agreeing to work on non-academic enterprises, activity on social media and doing non-academic writing strengthens, and doesn't supplant, academic writing. It can also help academics to share, articulate, and get feedback/push back on their work and ideas, especially from those in education but outside of academia.

I was glad to see Morgan advocate for academics having a place and presence on social media. I agree: Activity on social media and informal writing can be part of being a public intellectual and is a way for scholars to communicate with other academics and with non-academics in the same field.

But for me, I had a reverse path in that I was active and had a presence on social media before going into academia. While, as afore-mentioned, I took a break, there was no way I was going to walk that back or dismantle the web of connections and relationships I had made via social media and blogging, nor did I want to just discount all of the work and non-academic education writing I had done.

What's been especially tricky is the clashing of diminished power hierarchies on social media (not eliminated, mind you, because I think those hierarchies do reassert themselves) with the rigid hierarchies that exist in academia. Before my PhD program, I was on equal footing on twitter with academics and any other #edutwitter folks. What mattered is what I had to say, not what my status was. When  I started grad school, all of a sudden I wasn't on equal footing.  Previously, I could just speak my mind and now it was kind of like, what do I know, I'm just a grad student.

Now, there is some reason for this that I respect and understand. Expertise in educational research is expertise in educational research and I didn't really have much, which is why I went to grad school, so that I could fully feel like I knew of what I spoke and so that I would gain knowledge about educational research. But it's also been frustrating: Even as the academy is more open socially and in terms of critique and debate of ideas, if you are in it, you are supposed to, you know, Know. Your. Place. Which means you are expected to refrain from critiquing or challenging the ideas of those above you. I luckily have found an adviser who balances addressing my novice expertise with encouraging me that not always knowing my place is one my strengths. (She might change her mind when no one will hire me or when I get fired from my first job out of grad school.) In addition, I have heard from far too many established academics that non-academic writing and social media activity are frowned upon, until you get tenure in which case it will simply be ignored.

Getting back to the seminar and Morgan, this was interesting because, as I said, I was in touch with Morgan before I was a PhD student. Though we like one another, we do not always agree on educational policy and practice, so I probably tweeted at him that I thought he was wrong about something. But all of a sudden at the conference, I was nervous. Am I supposed to call him Dr. Polikoff now? After all, he was on a higher plane that I was. What if he thinks my work stinks? After all, he does have expertise that I don't.

Ultimately, while we should respect our elders and all, many of the students coming to the academy will already have a social media presence that they shouldn't be asked to renounce or give up. The academy is going to have open itself up to social media as a valid place for academics to exchange and debate ideas, and to engage in professional activity. And while that happens, the academy is also going to have to let some of those rigid hierarchies loosen up a bit. Because for people like me, that cat is already out of the bag and we're not putting it back in.