Twitter and Safe Academic Spaces

Dedicated to the women who kept on reading my thoughts, even when our ideas were discounted.

I considered not writing this post.

I considered just shutting up and letting the discussion about Twitter and academics that emerged late on Saturday, September 29th, 2012 speak for itself. It started when Josh Guild mused out loud on Twitter ”Still waiting on that ‘ethics of live tweeting in the academy’ convo.” What ensued over the next 24 hours was exactly that: a conversation about live-tweeting conferences and ethics, a lively, intellectual conversation that I was a part of. The next days after that the conversation was hastily rehashed in an Inside Higher Ed post titled “The Academic Twitterazi” and many of the people who had participated in that lively conversation had been almost ignored.

I considered keeping my thoughts on the matter because the energy I was putting into handling (and ignoring) the negative reaction and outright dismissal on Twitter was too much for me to handle at times. (Tressie Cottom did an excellent job drawing attention to that dismissal and how that ties into broader issues of racialized and genderized power.) Not that negativity and dismissal was the tone of all of the tweets on the #Twittergate hashtag, but those were the ones that affected me.

But days after, I saw a tweet in my timeline, referring yet again to the conversation I had on Sunday with several of my tweeps about live-tweeting academic conferences. The tweet said something about along the lines of “What, are we STILL talking about tweeting at academic conferences?” And I was done. I knew I couldn’t stay quiet.

So, for starters: Yes. Yes we are. Just because this isn’t a new topic (and posts by Bethany NowviskieErnesto PriegoJay RosenKelli Marshall, and J.J. Cohen illustrate exactly that) doesn’t mean that the use of Twitter in academic conferences does not deserved to be analyzed in closer detail now. In fact, three of the women who participated in that weekend conversation blogged last week about power dynamicscontrol, and the idea of academic branding as it relates to live-tweeting conferences.

I am not here today to debate what to livetweet and how to livetweet an academic conference. Several academics have blogged about exactly that. I am not here to debate whether academics should be on Twitter or not. As far as I am concerned: different strokes for different folks. I enjoy being on Twitter. If you don’t, that’s okay.

What got me thinking during that conversation on Twitter two weekends ago, and what’s still on my mind today, is the idea of conferences as a private space for testing ones ideas.

The next day, @eetempleton and I discussed what she called the dissonance of tweeting. For her:

Later that day @briancroxall and @janineutell pointed out: are conferences public spaces?

All of this leads me to these questions: who sees the academic conference as a safe space? Why? What is it about the space of the academic conference that seems opposed to Twitter?

Firstly, a confession: I don’t subscribe to this view of conferences as a safe space for test-driving ideas. I have always felt that my ideas needed to be ready-to-wear when I went to a conference. On the other hand, Twitter for me is my trial-and-error space. Since joining in May 2009, I have tweeted many half-baked ideas, many research topics, many tweet-length chunks of my work, and my followers have responded with plenty of thoughtful and encouraging tweets. Whether it was something I was missing, something that sounded neat, or something that could be better explained, I always learned from those Twitter exchanges. Twitter helped make academia tangible, real to me. I had heard of these kinds of exchanges as a graduate student—ironically, I was always told these exchanges would occur at conferences—but I had never really felt what it was like to go out into the world, share my research and engage my audience until Twitter. Maybe that says more about me as a graduate student than about Twitter.

As a graduate student I heard that conferences were the place to be. I was supposed to go to conferences, present my work, exchange contact information, attend other people’s panels. I have attended my fair share of conferences, but for each one I don’t remember feeling as energized and engaged as I did when l I attended the EMP Pop Music conference, the first conference I went to after signing up on Twitter and after disappearing for a two year conference hiatus. I live-tweeted panels as an impulse: I saw my fellow academic tweeps do it, and since I had learned and enjoyed the live-tweeting of others so much, I wanted to do the same for those on my timeline. Perhaps my followers grew tired quick of my flurry of #Popcon tweets, but I thought this was my obligation as an academic on Twitter.

However, I was made aware during my conversation that weekend that others may see the conference as a space where they can safely share their ideas, without the prying eyes/tweets of others (even though the notion of who is seen as “prying” is problematic). I think many of us need to respect that others may be uncomfortable with us tweeting about their papers, no matter how wonderful they may be or how enthusiastic we may feel about their work. For them, I, the live-tweeter, may have made a decision they were not ready to make. And this is what made me think on Sunday: what makes the conference panel safe? For whom is it safe? Who can claim it as safe, and who is left out? This brings to mind Tressie Cottom’s post “An Idea Is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine”, the first one to appear after the kerkuffle (as IHE has called it), a post that deftly points out how power and control intersect ideas about what conferences are and are not.

Aaron Bady discusses in his excellent blog post for The New Inquiry, “My Norm is More Normal Than Yours: Academic Tweeting and Loose Fish,” how live-tweeting creates a situation in the academic conference that did not exist before, and in this way brings up all sorts of questions and assumptions about tweeting and about conferences. Moreover, Bady explains that the public/private binary (which has been invoked in the conversation, specifically in the sense that academic conferences are supposedly “public” when in reality there are all sorts of fees and expenses that prevent many from attending these events) is not as clear cut as it seems:

“The claim that there has always been a clear sense of the divide between private and public is not only always false, but it tends to mask (in an ideologically informed way) the much more complex and messy social reality we actually live in, one in which different kinds of information flow are appropriate for different places, and in which the dividing lines are constantly in flux and constantly being debated.”

Something that Bady addresses and that has come up several times in my timeline is whether conferences are public or private. Even though some of us who have reaped the benefits of talking about our work via Twitter may feel there is nothing to fear, others may think of Twitter in terms of archiving, in terms of its so-called “longevity,” and in terms of its searchability online. Just think about the announcement by the Library of Congress that they would keep an archive of every public tweet. Contrary to the “published” feeling of a tweet, a conference panel with only four or five attendees may seem like a safe space for them to try out ideas. Twitter, especially for the folks who don’t use it or are novices, may seem as a dangerous place to toss a half-baked idea, especially when with the click of a mouse that tweet can be stored in someone’s favorites. In this sense, do conference fees, flight expenses, hotel rates become the price some pay to enter that safe space?

I think the idea of whether a conference is a private (by invitation, payment only) or a public (you present your work to a bunch of people) is also under consideration here, along with the ethics of live-tweeting. And the truth is, those who are bothered by tweeting see conferences as private spaces and Twitter as a public/published space. In a sense conferences are private. They are not genuinely public spaces. They involve money, vetting, and work. Not everyone can just walk into a conference. The Twitter conversation that spurred this post revealed that the ethics of live-tweeting conferences is not just about tweeting. It’s about assumptions about conferences along with expectations of privacy—but it’s also about the lack of access to that same space for trial and error that many academics hold dear as well as legitimate and valuable. If this is so, Twitter enables many who do not have access to those spaces of legitimacy (either because of cultural capital or because of financial straits) to become a part of the conversation.

Mind you, I am not saying we should ban Twitter from conferences or that we should all be live-tweeting. As a general rule, I stay away from telling people what to do. What I am asking for is a reconsideration of why some prefer the space of the conference more than others, and how some digest the information presented differently than others. What I am asking for is a reconsideration of how and why we use Twitter at academic conferences.

So, back to that tweet that spurred this post: are we still talking about livetweeting conferences? Yes, yes we are. And I claim the right to expand the discourse. If that bothers some, we’ll all have to deal.

Academics on Academia: Grad Student Guilt (Fourth Installment)

Janni talked in her last post about the importance of support networks, both professional and personal. She emphasized that support networks not only help us in terms of job prospects (which is what first comes to mind when we think of the term “networking”) but also emotionally: in a career track that can be isolating and challenging, having people you can count on can make the difference between finishing and not finishing.

Janni’s post brought to mind the myth of the life of the graduate student…a myth I’ve mentioned time and time again when I talk to student writers in my line of work, or when I refer to my own experiences as a graduate student. You see, as graduate students we are discouraged from discussing our “personal lives.” We are supposed to be completely dedicated to our work. I can’t count the number of times I talked about or heard others talk about all the work we have to do, how we haven’t left the house in days, how we fell asleep in our office because we had to hand in that paper in the morning. Even though we talk about these things and we are aware that they are not necessarily positive things, we try to top each other in our stories of academic agony. We do it because we believe, deep down, that a committed graduate student does not have a life. The only life he/she has is the life of the mind. And so we put the pressure on ourselves and on each other.

The problem with this mindset is that it is a myth. Yes, I said it: a myth. This vision of a graduate student who eats, sleeps, and dreams scholarly work is rooted in an ideal, an unattainable ideal. We tend to think of this ideal graduate student who doesn’t do anything else other than think deep thoughts and be brilliant as the bar that we should live up to. When we fail to meet that ideal, we suffer graduate student guilt.

Graduate student guilt, as I like to call it, is a dangerous thing. This is what it sounds like: when we take time to watch a movie, we complain that we wasted our evening. When we have some free time we think first about what we should do for work when our body and mind probably needs a break. When we can’t write down 10 pages for the day, we curse our inability to produce. Grad student guilt can harm us because it can prevent us from seeing all the work we really are doing and focus on our shortcomings. We forget that few careers require that we commit all of our lives. We may think we have to fork over our lives to graduate school, and that only in that way will we be good enough. The truth is that we need balance. Balance keeps us sane.

The academic culture that graduate students are coming into now is harder than the culture I came into, and I’ve only been in graduate school eight years, total. The demands are more intense, the expectations even higher. Graduate students are expected to produce during the course of their studies at the rate of tenure track faculty when they don’t even have a clear grasp of the field. Add to this the myth of the single graduate student who has no emotional attachments. How many graduate students have families, have spouses, have children? How many graduate students work part time or full time off campus? In these cases, they feel guilty because they don’t commit every single moment to school…or the opposite: they might resent the people around them because they keep them away from academic work.

There is no easy solution to this problem, but I suggest starting by talking to students about mental health and how to manage their time. Grad school is not easy; it’s not supposed to be easy. However, students should not isolate themselves or  beat themselves up because they don’t meet unrealistic expectations. It’s all about clarity. We need to teach students how to take better care of themselves so they can take on the challenges of academia.

Academics on Academia: A Little Help From My Friends (Third Installment)

One of the things that Janni pointed out in her last post was the importance of support from faculty in helping students succeed at the graduate level, particularly as mentors. It made me think about how I had yet to touch upon the things that made a difference for me as a graduate student, especially after my rough start in the Comparative Literature department of my school.
In my last two entries I talked about the feeling of anxiety and frustration that has ebbed and flowed throughout my grad school career. This feeling is very real. However, I noticed this recently. You see, being a long-distance dissertator, away from my committee (many of my grad school friends were gone before I left Upstate New York for Kansas City), has made me reflect upon what happened the last six years. I felt so unprepared to work on the dissertation, my first chapter was a fluke, and I had no grad school peers to talk to face-to-face. (I probably could have called someone, but I didn’t. I felt like my failures were my own.) The year and a half that I have been away from New York have made me think long and hard about my experience as a graduate student and about the requirements and obstacles students encounter throughout their graduate careers. This colors my view of higher ed.

However, my grad school experience consists of more than frustration, obstacles, and questions. Even though there were classes that frustrated me to no end (like some classes that were required of new grad students), there were also classes that made a difference in how I think about the world. The professors I remember from my college career made me think about subjects in different ways. They introduced me to new authors and asked difficult questions about my paper topics. Some of them even told me that they believed I had something interesting to say, or that my approach was an innovative one. (This could also be because I wanted to talk to these professors. I interacted with them in office hours or in the hallways or at department parties.) These classes reminded me why I went to graduate school in the first place.

The support I received throughout graduate school, in the shape of peers and faculty mentors, has been invaluable. They are the reason why I haven’t given up on higher ed. Having friends who I could talk to and who understood the excitement of coming across a source that changes where your paper is headed helped me make it through finals week again and again. Later, finding people who had toiled through chapter revision after chapter revision, with babies in tow or sick parents or flooded apartments, reminds me that the myth of the grad student who sits in a study carrel all day and thinks deep thoughts is just that: a myth. In reality, we all struggle to find time to work. We all have our own balancing act.

Finding mentors to talk to and be honest about the work that being an academic entails has been the best education I could have received. I don’t think there’s a workshop for the kind of advice and support that my mentor in my department back in Upstate New York, for example, has given me over the years. More importantly, she is a living example of what being a female academic looks like. Her presence, like Janni’s reminds me of the importance of having more women and people of color in faculty positions (and in higher education in general). We need to see more of their faces in front of the classroom, in offices, on committees. We need to make that work visible for others.

Higher education, as an institution, is flawed and needs fixing. When I hear people tell graduate students “don’t go,” I know they might have our best interests at heart; at the same time I feel like this shows no understanding of the importance of having people like myself (a woman, a mother, a Puerto Rican, a person of color, a first-generation college student) make it all the way to the PhD. The people I’ve met along the way have showed me that funding is not the only thing we need to succeed in graduate school (it sure helps, let me tell you). The human resources are essential as well.

My big point today is that I am here, writing about academia, because I care. I am also here because somebody cared about me.

Academics on Academia: Any Questions? (Second Installment)

I had so many thoughts in response to Janni’s post, I had trouble going with one idea! I decided to start with something that came to mind after reading her post and talking with some readers via Twitter. If there is one thing that stands out to me from our communication, it’s that our experiences as Latinas in higher education are vital to highlighting and understanding how academia works. This time around I want to share one of my most vivid experiences as a graduate student:

I started out in the Comparative Literature program at my university because, as I understood it, it was the way into the PhD in Translation. (The reason why I switched from English to Comparative Literature for my MA is a whole other post in the works.) The first day of my Master’s I was so excited to be moving in a new direction and to be with other people who were as interested as I was in pursuing critical thought at the graduate level. However, that feeling of excitement left quickly after my first class; in its place came a feeling that would eventually become very familiar: a feeling of anxiety and frustration.

The first class I ever took as a Master’s student was a course titled “Proseminar in Comparative Literature,” a course where new graduate students are introduced to the conversations and issues inherent to the discipline. Throughout that semester I read texts and listened to class conversations on authors and topics I had no clue existed. Very few names stood out to me, and the ones who did I had to go back and read up on them. Oftentimes I felt lost and confused. As a result, I spent most of my time outside of class trying to figure out who these people/trends of thought were and why we were discussing them in my class. It didn’t help that the class eventually devolved from a seminar format co-taught by two professors into two-sided conversations between the professors with occasional references to the readings we had done.

I figured out (close reading has always been my strongest suit in scholarship) that most of the readings were by continental philosophers and about trends of thought that I had not studied closely as an undegrad, even with my extensive humanities education. Neither of the instructors placed these readings in context for us; they seemed to assume that everyone knew what was being discussed. Some students participated in these conversations (oftentimes those who had a background in continental philosophy), but oftentimes the professors lectured. It was an intimidating situation; add to that the fact that most of us were new and barely spoke to each other. I spent a lot of time that semester wondering what I had gotten myself into and whether this is what I wanted to do the rest of my college career. I eventually switched departments; the following semester I changed to English because I felt that would be a better fit.

Years later, I spoke to a friend who I met that first semester of graduate school. I switched departments and she stayed in Comparative Literature. We were reminiscing and laughing about that first semester, and we finally talked about how lost we both felt. Finally, someone who shared my feelings! She revealed to me that a lot of people in that classroom had felt the same way. I wasn’t alone: a lot of us had no clue what was going on. How we each managed to write a 25-page paper at the end of the semester and pass is a mystery.

As I was reflecting upon Janni’s post, I thought about the responses I received on Twitter by people who said my experience sounded very familiar to them. This made me think about my experience that first semester of graduate school. If we’re confused, if we’re unsure, if we’re lost, why don’t we say something?

This is not an easy question to answer. Melonie Fullick, in her two posts on graduate students and mental health, explains that this tendency to stay quiet and hunker down is part of the culture of academia. Moreover, there is a belief that if any of us has a problem, we are an exception and we must deal with it on our own. But oftentimes it’s not just us; we are not the only ones do not know, and we need someone to help us navigate the turf of academia. In my example above I was caught in a class that was poorly designed. If I wasn’t the only one who was lost, and if the class was meant to introduce the conversations and topics that Comparative Literature scholars are discussing, perhaps the professors could have done a better job at framing these conversations instead of assuming we all shared the same background and the same cultural capital.

Janni pointed out the importance of mentorship in navigating academia, and this made me wonder about peer mentorship. If I had a peer mentor to talk me through that first semester, would my experience had been different?

Academics on Academia: Ignorance Is Bliss? (First Installment)

*Updated post

My friend and colleague Janni Aragon and I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between academia and women and people of color. A lot has been said about imposter syndrome, that feeling of not belonging in a career, that you ended up there by luck. It’s that sense that you’re not supposed to be here/there. Although this can hit men as well as women, and whites as well as people of color, we both agree that this syndrome affects women and people of color hard, especially because we are always made to feel like we are the exception. It is also difficult when you know that you are one of a few at the graduate level; the pressure can be staggering. This is how the “Academics on Academia” series came about. I will start the series with my post today, and Janni will respond to my post on her blog.

When I first went away to college I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be a teacher. These were two things that went hand in hand. Like Ashley mentioned at Small Strokes Big Oaks, “I loved books so much I wanted to create them.” But I also wanted to share the books I liked with others and talk with them about these books. I thought teaching would be a good way to do this. As I made my way through my bachelor’s degree, I saw in a PhD the way to the professoriate. So, I set my sights on becoming a professor: I was going to get a PhD and teach literature.

One of the things that I liked about being a grad student was that I saw (or believed to have seen) a clear, determined path. I knew (or I thought I knew) what I needed to do to become a professor. It wasn’t until later that I discovered there was something called “the tenure track” and rankings such as associate professor, assistant professor, full professor. It wasn’t until later that I found out that it wasn’t enough to be smart and hardworking and passionate. You may think I’m naive for not learning more about my career of choice when I signed the acceptance letter that guaranteed me funding for the next five years of graduate school. But honestly I didn’t hear much about these rankings or about The Tenure Track when I was at  the University of Puerto Rico. All I knew was that there were professors I admired and they did what I wanted to do: teach literature. They came to the United States and studied PhDs. Then they returned to Puerto Rico at taught at La Iupi, my alma mater. I did well in their classes, and they advised me on my work and wrote letters of recommendation for me.

I learned quickly at my new school about becoming a professor. Tenure track was the Holy Grail: you worked your butt off from the MA to the PhD, you wrote field exams, you picked a committee, and you wrote a dissertation. Even though I knew there were some who took a long time to finish or who never finished at all, this was never discussed. I didn’t ask either. All along I believed that hard work and insightful writing would get me through. I don’t think I had a single conversation with a professor during my MA about what going on the job market entailed. It wasn’t until I made it to my PhD that I found out what this “market” meant and what I needed to do to succeed at this job market. On the other end, I heard from fellow graduate students that I would never get a tenure track job at a Research 1 university (another phrase I picked up in grad school) because I went to a lesser-known public university in New York. I had chosen this school because it had a PhD program in Translation (even though eventually I switched back to English) and it was close to New York City. Closer than I had been in the past sixteen years I spent in Puerto Rico, at least. Much later I began to notice that I lacked the cultural capital to navigate the job market for the career I had always wanted. The more I learned, the less I knew…that’s how it felt like.

But I stayed the course. After all, I wanted to become a professor and that’s what you do with a PhD, right? I look back, visibly a different person from that wide-eyed young woman who applied to only one school for her PhD (the one school who had guaranteed funding from the start), and I only now understand why I feel so anxious about my job prospects today. I am about to finish my dissertation and finally get the PhD I dreamed of getting. If I feel anxious it’s not just because of my dim job prospects; it is because I found the certainty of the career path comforting, and that certainty is long gone. I tend to plan for everything. I find comfort in certainty, in routines, in following recipes, in reading instructions. (For someone who values critical thinking as much as I do, I sure do rely on certainty a whole lot.)

I was not educated about job prospects as an undergrad…and as a graduate student a lot I’ve picked up is through conversations, observations, and articles. The workshops at my school focused on cover letters and interviews. It wasn’t until I found a mentor that someone finally had the frank conversations with me about what it takes to make it in academia. It wasn’t until I started working on my dissertation that I started to read about the state of the job market, sad story after sad story. The machinations of academia are a big mystery, and you don’t find out much until it’s too late, at least for some. The cultural capital becomes essential, as does mentoring. Who knows the ropes? And who is passing down this information?

I’m eager to hear your thoughts, Janni!