The Guardian chose to publish a piece from a “serious academic” who made an argument that we shouldn’t share our work on social media.
So who is this “serious academic?” Well, we have no idea. They are an anonymous “young” PhD student. Does this mean they’re some kind of whistleblower, warning the world about the rampant public sharing of academic information?
Anyway, what does the phrase “I’m a serious academic” mean?
Here are some half-guesses:
- “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because it is unimportant.”
- “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is just too important for laypeople to think about.”
- “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is too complex for the average person to comprehend.”
- “I’m jealous of my colleagues because they have substantial things to say to the public, and I all that I’ve ever shared with the public is an anonymous spoilsport gripefest.”
- “I think my colleagues are sharing insubstantial things to the public because they’re not as Important and Deep and Serious as I am, and I resent that their public engagement is positively affecting their career outlook.”
- “I’m such a pedant that I feel the need to point out that ‘I am a serious academic’ is a clause, and not a phrase.”
(Am I missing an interpretation here?)
The piece in The Guardian is of hay bale construction, limited to two straw arguments. The first straw argument is that academics are sharing their work with the public to please our employers. You know, because academics are well known for doing things to please employers. The second straw argument against public dissemination of academic work is that the job market needs this as proof of “enthusiasm.” How is the use of social media tied to “enthusiasm” as a useful trait used by search committees? I imagine this PhD student would be rather surprised if they saw how these committees do their work.
This student, self-described as “perhaps naive,” is the archetype of the ivory-tower academic that does not deign to share their work with the public. This academic appears to be one of those folks who think that sharing work with the media somehow indicates work of a lower quality. (I knew that this was a risk of this site but I started it despite that kind of perception.)
When academics engage in social media, there are three audiences, all of whom are very important:
- Other academics
- An interested subset of the public
- The media
Being involved in social media as a scientist is useful for scientists to communicate with one another. It’s pretty common for productive collaborations to emerge from this route (I’ve had a few) and the cross-fertilization of ideas actually does happen. I’ve learned a lot from other scientists on social media, and others have told me that they’ve learned from me.
If you look at the non-academics who follow academic information on social media, this is not a random draw of people. It’s people who are already excited about this stuff. There are some people who follow me on Twitter and Facebook who aren’t academically researching topics related to my work, but are just into things like ants, ecology, rainforests, higher education, and whatever other stuff I share. As an academic, interacting with the public is my job, and social media allows me to do this more and better. Growing an effective outreach agenda can’t happen overnight, and some people are way better at it than others. But if academics showing “enthusiasm” for their research to the public is a bad thing to you, then you’re a total Grinch.
We can take our work seriously without taking ourselves seriously. And we must recognize that the things that we work on, while all-encompassing to ourselves, are obscure inanities to most of the public. By communicating broadly, we’re making what we do come to life to people who otherwise might dismiss it. Which makes a big difference when I’m sitting across the table from someone who somehow got the idea that eating transgenic foods is dangerous to one’s health because of a NOVA episode. (Which I find boggling how that happened, as I heard yesterday) If I’m an ivory tower “serious academic,” then my credibility with this GMO-fearing person is actually nil, because I’m out of touch and my university degrees and pedigree don’t mean a thing. But if my voice is heard and respected by members of the public outside the university — for better and for worse — that increases my credibility.
Even if you eschew social media because it’s somehow insipid, it might be worth being involved because this is a gateway to dissemination through more traditional media. Do you want your stuff in newspapers and high-visibility websites and on TV? Then get on social media, because one is the gateway to the other. When writers and reporters are looking for experts that are willing to engage with the public clearly and, yes, enthusiastically, then they’re looking at social media. The line between being a “professional Instagramer” and “valued source for mainstream media” is mighty blurry nowadays.
I have no idea if I’m a serious academic. I think what I do is consequential enough that I can’t keep it to myself and my little cabal of scientists. That’s why you’ll find me with hundreds of other ecologists tweeting under #ESA2016, from the Ecological Society of America meeting in Florida this week. (That is, if my delayed and rescheduled and messed up flights ever get me there, as I write this from the airport.)
If you think we’re putting academic work on social media to please our university or to appear enthusiastic, then you need to pull your head out of a cave. We’re here because we have ideas and causes and priorities that we are advocating for. Things like carbon pollution, gender and ethnic inequities, scale-dependent processes in community assembly, waiting for ecology to move beyond functional traits, the emergence of complexity in social systems, and whether or not there is any difference between the Costa Rican beers Imperial and Pilsen. There is a lot to talk about. If you don’t want to be on social media as an academic, then I’m guessing you don’t have any idea or cause or priority that you wish to advocate for. Academics are here to change things. We’re here to make new knowledge, but if we’re not doing anything to facilitate the conversion of knowledge into action, then we’ve not done our job.