twitter, the mla, and public spheres

It always irritates me when academics bag on twitter, diminish it by accusing it of diminishing language. Not surprisingly, this just happened in the august permalinks of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Sure, it’s easy to look at the twitter trends and take away that microblogging is simply a means for news, gossip, crass consumerism, and tv/movie reactions. Or things of less substance. But that’s not how I use it, nor really the near-200 people I follow. In fact, in the months since last April that I’ve been on twitter (you can find me at @parezcoydigo), I’ve found myself involved in or exposed scholarly conversations I would have had a hard time to before. Do these conversations occur just in 140 character snippets? No, they don’t, because twitter is a pathway to scholarly community. Of course, those of you on twitter know this.

This year I’ve followed a number of conferences on twitter, including ones I would have liked to attend (THATcamp and its regional offspring), and those I would have had no interest in attending, but wanted to follow (the AAA, for example). You can consider those conferences like those friends of yours on facebook that you’re happy to know what they’re up to, but have no energy to maintain real relationships with. The MLA certainly falls in that category for me, especially as an historian who’s often very cranky towards lit people who so botch up historical epistemology. That said, during the conference tweetdeck was open constantly on my laptop, and I followed the stream of tweets.

Probably the biggest “digital” story from the MLA, or at least the biggest story amongst the twitteros of the MLA, was Brian Croxall’s paper in absentia, published simultaneously on his blog as it was read to his panel. Prof. Croxall (@briancroxall) is an adjunct at Clemson University who couldn’t make it to Philadelphia because he had no interviews and, well, lives on adjunct wages. He’s also one of the digital humanities, library,  and ed tech twitteros I started following a while ago (along with @dancohen@jimgroom@foundhistory@clioweb@academicdave, @mojo_girl@jcmeloni@katrinagulliver, and many many more). Much of what I would have liked to say about Prof. Croxall, his paper, and the MLA has already been said, particularly in this great post by @academicdave. Indeed, it was that post that prompted me to write this one. All I have to add is a huzzah, and to state that in my personal experience, @academicdave’s combined observations that the real story of Brian Croxall’s paper is the disconnect between his virtual street cred and his struggles on the job market AND that “digital humanities” needs to reckon with this disjuncture by becoming something more than old practices with digital tools is right on.

Parry links to a great piece by Amanda French (@amandafrench) that argues the promise of social media to academics is the promise of reformulating and amplifying scholarly communication. In it, she estimated a mere 3% of MLA conference goers tweeted during the conference. I doubt it’s risky for me to prognosticate that percentage will be much lower at the AHA. But, those numbers mystify the power of the reformulations and amplifications of scholarly community that social media are providing. For now, these new public spheres of academic engagement are limited (at least for historians) by the relative paucity of participants. Nonetheless, the potential for engagement across disciplinary boundaries, and across artificial divides between the ivory tower and the “real world” (I absolutely hate this manufactured straw divide- as if my bills aren’t real, nor the 60 hours/week I work) are astonishing. The Humanities, under perpetual crisis, need a dose of relevance that has nothing to do with the predictable screeds of deified job-training. Can social media, “virtual” communities of scholars and non-scholars, restructuring and amplifying engagement aid in the renewal of the Humanities writ large? Man, I sure hope so. Because all that information out there needs a good dose of knowledge too. It’s hard to imagine, though, such change occurring less people like Brian Croxall get job cred to go with their street cred, straight out of Compton.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Conference Reports, Digital History
2 comments on “twitter, the mla, and public spheres
  1. Chad: un punto que debería considerarse es si el (posible) éxito de Twitter en la comunidad académica es una variable dependiente de los estilos de comunicación. La aparición de un recurso excelente no implica necesariamente su adopción fuera del entorno que le dio origen. Al menos, en la mayor parte de los medios universitarios que he conocido en distintos países “latinos”, los académicos prefieren difundir sus propuestas inéditas en un entorno conocido y controlable. Existe, desde luego, mucho interés en la construcción de redes….mientras sean privadas.

  2. ctb says:

    Felipe– tienes razón, y hay, sin duda, culturas academicas distintas en las varias paises de la región. Mi experiencia en Ecuador, pues, ha estado que hay círculos o, sea, “clans” que están definitivamente marcado dentro y afuera con sus mismos redes privadas.

    Lo que me interese es que como mínimo en los Colleges of Arts and Sciences aquí en los Estados, siempre se salen del tema de la interdisciplinaridad, y para mi, las experiencias de más eficaz con el concepto ha side en la comunidad de Digital Humanities que entró por twitter y mi blog.

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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