Posts Tagged twitter

On social media, digital politics, and personal change

As I gear up for my first semester at the University of Maryland, I’m thinking a lot about academic and social positionings, offline and on. More particularly, about my own online positioning and how it has changed over the past four years as I’ve made the transition from graduate student life to completing my dissertation and going on the market, to being an assistant professor in a teaching-focused university teaching composition, literature, and doctoral-level theory classes, to my brand-new status as a tenure-track professor doing interdisciplinary work at a large public research university. The change in my online persona has been marked and undeniable.  I have become much, much quieter.

My presence on Twitter used to be constant and vocal: livetweeting every conference I attended in queer studies, critical race studies, digital media; following and retweeting emerging news and political events (I most vividly remember the 2011 London riots); arguing; celebrating the benefits of the platform as I moved through the world in community with my Twitter friends, advocating its use both as a space for succinct, low-stress writing and as a platform for public intellectual discourse. I still livetweet most of the conferences I attend, but I don’t read like I used to, and I haven’t engaged in Twitter debate for a long time. Everything I’ve ever said about the importance of Twitter is truer than it ever was now that the platform has become so central to so many kinds of public life – but some recent discussions about #Ferguson made me realize that I don’t access the stream the way I used to. I think that Zeynep Tufekci (to pick one post from the dozens on the subject in my web history) is absolutely right in calling attention to the un-algorithmed Twitter feed as vital to the possibility of media justice; nevertheless, I followed and shared Ferguson news from inside my Facebook filter bubble. That was an interesting experience in itself; I learned that my activity there is such that I was given wall-to-wall Ferguson coverage and very few ALS Ice Bucket Challenges (though now the Challenge has crossed the Atlantic I’m seeing more of them). My Twitter feed, when I accessed it, had a much less unified perspective.

For those of you who follow digital humanities debate on Twitter, you may recognize the influence of Noel Jackson’s recent posts (storified by Adeline Koh) in this moment of contemplation. The abhorrent firing of Steven Salaita from the position he had accepted but not begun at the University of Illinois for his vocal, emotive public tweets against the genocidal war in Gaza is another thread that has been leading me to think about scholarly, political, and personal positionings. A third is the new publication of a second installment of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class in Academia recently published in the Seattle Journal of Social Justice, which I have been working my way through

Jackson calls attention to the relative silence of online networks of academics in the realm of digital humanities when it comes to the protests in Ferguson. He argues that if the humanities are to be public at all, then humanists must engage with what is happening on the ground. I agree with this premise, though critical caveats by Elizabeth Losh (Respect, Niceness, and Generosity) and Ernesto Priego (On the Public Humanities and the Reign of Opinion) on the ways that public online personae and political investment are rarely transparent reflections of one another ring very true. My own time away from Twitter has brought me to a deep appreciation of the temporality of the blog post.

I have seen some exchanges on Twitter in Jackson’s wake that illuminated for me why some tend to remain silent: when fear of appropriating a discourse not one’s own leads a white scholar not officially trained in race studies to hold back from expressions of solidarity with Black Americans, for example. People of color and those marked as other speak, knowing that their silence will not protect them (this article by Ramona Fernandez, a long and painful read, tells a story of what it can be like to endure that silence); silence does protect those who pass more seamlessly into the mainstream, where the risk is rather that we will appear to be giving assent to the violence of the status quo, and also that this appearance will become reality (read Sara Ahmed on the different experiences of bodies in systems that are or are not shaped around their movements and needs).

So, then, I’m reflecting on my own shifts in outspokenness and privilege.  Switching the locus of my online activity from Twitter to Facebook has been a retreat into such a protective silence for me, in many ways. It has not only been that; it has most immediately been a question of demands on my time as I shifted from graduate school (in which I had the immense privilege of being well funded and generously mentored by radical scholars) to a full-time position with a high teaching load. It has been a recognition of the institutional impossibility of maintaining the kind of openness I had as a student, once I realized that the tenure-track position I had been incredibly lucky and (again) incredibly privileged to maintain was not going to be a good long term home; going on the market without the support of a cohort of equally anxious peers was a lonely thing, and Facebook provided a higher ratio of comforting dog, cat, and baby pictures to distract me. It has also been a sign of the attention I’ve been paying to happier events in my personal life, which I wanted to share with those I am  more than with a scholarly audience. I do want to defend Facebook a little against the many who steer clear of its voracious surveillance and advertising; I’m far from the first to find that it’s become the digital space of the less digitally savvy, which for me includes many faraway friends and family. My Twitter feed, for all it has 1000+ followers, feels as if it reaches mainly the like minded, whereas on Facebook I’m constantly confronted by those awkward interactions between relatives, friends, and acquaintances (these include a fair number of internet-only friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve been interacting for more than ten years) whose life experiences are radically different than my own.

Anyway. I’m writing this post now, I think, as a reminder of the ways in which my new academic position charts a new relationship to scholarly visibility and privilege. I am no longer, praise everything, on the market; I am in a position where the things I want to do and the things I will be professionally rewarded for line up as well as I could hope for them to do. I may not have tenure yet, but I have access and a voice that have the potential to be powerful. And I need to use it mindfully; I need to use it well.

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Academic twitter: ethics and conversational nuance

I’m a little embarrassed by the extent to which this blog has consisted of meta-discussions about Twitter, lately. It’s been proving easiest for me to engage in discourse at 140 characters. But today is not the day that is going to change. Over the past few days, I’ve been following and participating in a discussion about the ethics of academic tweeting, which Adeline Koh has tirelessly gathered via The Academic Twitterazzi.

The debate over whether scholars should live-tweet sessions from academic conferences, especially without warning, saw a revival this weekend. Naturally the conversation itself, which has spawned at least one effort to draft formal guidelines for what should be considered fair game for the academic Twitterazzi, took place on Twitter.

“[I]t’s presumptive to assume that we should share other people’s work w/o asking,” wrote @eetempleton, an assistant professor of English.

“I would disagree,” rejoined @alothian, another English assistant professor. “when I speak & others tweet, I learn a LOT about my own ideas.”

One of my comments regarding this discussion was that the biggest danger is not the act of tweeting, but the way that one tweet can so easily be short of context in “retweets” and quotations. It is therefore both ironic and appropriate that my quotation in the article above not only takes my tweet out of context, but actively misrepresents the conversation it was a part of. In fact, I disagreed with a different comment of @eetempleton, and the tweet quoted by Steve Kolowich above is actually in response –– in agreement –– with mine.

I’ve used Storify to gather the conversations I was a part of yesterday, in order to show (hopefully) how much nuance and complexity frequently takes place within the Twitter stream, though it is often simplified when it is quoted elsewhere.


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[Edited to add this paragraph] There’s actually a far worse decontextalization going on in that article, which Mark Sample draws attention to in comments. His tweet was quoted, but shorn of its attribution as a quotation from a blog post by Roopika Rasam. In Sample’s words:

One, the problem of misrepresentation is not a problem with Twitter itself. Twitter in this case was more accurate than a national news publication. Two, the problem of misrepresentation tends to work against those lower on the academic ladder. In other words, credit floats upward. One could not find a more dramatic example of this deplorable dynamic than when the words of a female graduate student of color are attributed to a tenured male professor who is white. Furthermore, these words came from Roopika Risam’s very first blog post. Imagine the chilling effect upon graduate students when their first forays into academic blogging are also their first experiences with having their ideas stolen from them.

And finally, the fact that the perceived dangers of live-tweeting conferences have already been realized in other forms, which long predate social media, suggests that there is actually no new story here. It is the same story about knowledge and representation that we unfortunately know all too well. It’s a story, as Ms. Risam says, “about control and access.

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Twitterpated teaching

The Labor Day holiday is a welcome relief after my hectic first week in the new job. Among other tasks, I’ve used it to update this website, creating a structure of sub-pages to make things more manageable and adding some new material under the ‘teaching’ tab.

As I discuss in the classes page I just made, I’ve designed my courses this semester around themes of digital media and technology: in literature and culture, and in the practices of everyday life. As part of that, students in both my Digital Literacies college writing class and in my general-education literature class (Rage Against the Machine: Literature, Technology, Society) are actively participating in the technological cultures of our own time: they’re blogging and––more unusually––tweeting as part of their grade.

So far we’ve only had one week, and I haven’t yet begun to keep careful notes on everyone’s participation, but it seems to be going wonderfully. My literature students have tweeted insightfully about our reading (Forster’s The Machine Stops, the touchstone text for “Rage Against the Machine”), and my writing students are using their class hashtag not only to comment on the assignments and themes of the class but also just to chat and hang out, which pleases me.

Twitter, especially for my 101 class who are mostly new to college, has also been a useful way for students to let me know what is confusing them about the requirements, and to allow me to respond more informally than sending a class email. So far, because the required Tweeting hasn’t fully kicked in, most of the tweeters are students who were already familiar with Twitter; I hope that their example will inspire the others.

I’ve become very aware of certain limitations Twitter places on uses like the kind I’m making of it. I have had to frequently remind my students that when they click the hashtag link from their course website, they must select “all” rather than the preselected “top” link or they will see only tweets from users that Twitter’s algorithm has decided are worthwhile. Many of them access Twitter on their phones, where there seem to be fewer options for following a hashtag. I have also learned something I did not realize when designing Twitter into the course: when you run a search on Twitter, you never see 100% of tweets containing that string, because not all tweets are indexed. This is quite irritating for a teacher, and means that one of my tasks for Labor Day weekend is to follow all my students and organize them into class lists so I won’t miss their class tweets.

Both of my classes have technologies’ structures and limitations as part of their content, and so I expect to use the failings of Twitter and of proprietary systems more generally as a topic for discussion, especially in my digital literacies class. In many ways, one of my goals for the semester is for the students to critique my decision to use Twitter as one of the class platforms. But as of now, I think the advantages strongly outweigh the disadvantages. The fact that my classes are inhabiting a space that my students were already familiar with, even if just by reputation, has opened up a lot of space to talk about the different ways Twitter operates in different communities, registers, and contexts, while giving at least some of the students a chance to use a skill they never thought would be relevant in a college classroom.

Chuck Rybak made a great Storify, , ,

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MLA 2011 and #mla11: on tweeting conventions

I’ve just spent quite an exhiliarating weekend attending the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles. MLA had previously been known to me by reputation as a terrifyingly large conference, a place to hear academic rock stars strut their stuff but, for grad students, a purgatory that mainly had to be endured because of the job interviews that take place there. With neither a presentation nor the job market to worry about, and with the luxury of being able to recharge at home whenever I wanted, that couldn’t have been further from my experience. I was able to engage with the conference in a stress-free way and to immerse myself in the new modes of participation Rosemary Feal has been encouraging. When I ran into colleagues and told them how much I was enjoying myself, they tended to look fairly astonished.

Those who followed my twitter stream may have been less surprised. I’ve livetweeted quite a few conferences now, first taking the plunge at DML 2010 after lurking in digital media studies twitter streams more or less for as long as they’ve existed. I love swimming through the datastream, documenting comments, thoughts and interactions as they occur; I find more and more that there is a particular zone of attention it is possible to enter, where I can synthesize and transmit as I hear and engage far more intensely with what’s being said than I ever would otherwise.

The capacity to do that depends immensely on the style and substance of what is being said, of course. MLA is the largest conference I’ve ever attended, with a range of topics of discussion that’s so large it’s difficult to contemplate. For what it’s worth (and I wish I knew a way to easily link to portions of a twitterstream, but I didn’t tag panel numbers consistently), these are the panels I attended. I’d have liked to see more, but the disadvantage of a conference where you can go home any time you want is that you also have all your usual home commitments.

12. Labor in the Digital Humanities
74. Queerness and Disability
86. Writing with Eve: the Legacy of Eve Sedgwick
230A. Speculative Fictions: ‘Near Future’ Visions of Race and Politics
309. The History and Future of the Digital Humanities (#309)
366. Sedgwick’s Endurance: Writing with Loss
580. The Traffic in Gender: New Directions in Trans Scholarship

I wish I had managed to attend more of the “academy in hard times” panels and more on critical race studies, but what I did attend probably gives a good overview of my interests. I attended some of the intensely tweeted digital humanities panels, but more where there were relatively few people attached to their computers. In a digital humanities panel, tweeting made me part of an active backchannel conversation. In other panels, where I was either the only person tweeting or one of just a few, I felt like a broadcasting device, charged with bringing the discussion to those who would have liked to be present but couldn’t, and fervently hoping I wouldn’t misrepresent a speaker. I had some anxiety about sharing people’s words without permission, but enough online acquaintances (many from fannish and activist communities outside the academy, who would never have known about MLA but for its twitter presence) expressed interest my microblogging that I decided to keep going.

Making notes and tweeting in all those panels made me think a lot about the way ideas get presented orally. I often see comments complaining about the way humanities scholars read their papers aloud in conferences, calling for more dynamic modes of presentation. I agree with that to a a degree; no one wants to listen to someone mumbling into a sheet of paper, and we ought to study and practice presentation skills as much as we do writing. But outside the digital humanities panels I attended, most of the presentations I saw were more or less read, and that didn’t stop them from being easy to follow and engaging. I’ve begun to think about tweetability as an index for conference papers’ intelligibility: if they’re easy to parse into 140-character chunks, I am able to feel that I have assimilated what the speakers had to say.

There were two panels in particular where I found the talks sufficiently tweetable that I felt I was able to share with my community of scholars, fans, and online activists, letting them know what was being said inside the academy. The first was a marvellous panel on race and speculative fiction with papers from Chris Cunningham on Phillip K Dick’s imaginings of black leadership, Curtis Marez talking about the United Farm Workers movement as a political undercurrent to Star Wars, Shelley Streeby on queer families and black vampires in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, and Kara Keeling on District 9, globalized cinema and black futurity.

The second was Jack Halberstam, Dean Spade and Aren Aizura’s panel on new directions in trans scholarship, though I think my capacity to tweet there was aided by my prior familiarity with Jack and Dean’s ideas and speaking voices. One of the main points all the speakers made in that panel was that sometimes it is politically important to remain unintelligible, that much can be lost when what is marginal becomes comprehensible to dominant discourses. The best example is Dean Spade‘s work on the history of state-sponsored quantitative studies and what kinds of content they require in order to render citizens legible.

While it’s something of a twisted appropriation of the panel’s radical anti-assimilationist politics to say so, I think there is a similar value to difficult intelligibility when it comes to thinking about ideas. And that makes me want to resist my own desire to make every new idea condensable to a 140-character reduction. In the Sedgwick memorial panels, particularly the talks by Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, and Lee Edelman, the theoretical content of presentations was of an intensity that I find difficult to parse until I have written it down. Deep theory is not tweetable, at least not for me, though attempting to synthesize it on the run is fascinating and engaging as an intellectual workout. Listening to talks of that kind is an experience of grasping the insight that runs away before you can type to the end of the sentence. I tried tweeting what I could catch hold of, but I’m not sure it was useful. Still, I’d hesitate to say that these scholars should begin to give tweetable papers, should package their thought for easier consumption; I think something would be lost then too.

Crossposted at HASTAC

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