Dr Emma Kennedy works as an Education Adviser: Academic Practice at Queen Mary University of London, helping academic staff develop and their teaching skills and showcasing good practice at QMUL. In this role, she provides strategic, developmental, practical, project and consultancy support for the development and enhancement of learning and teaching across QMUL. She also has a PhD in early modern English literature from the University of York. She also runs the website http://adept.qmul.ac.uk, which showcases innovative teaching from QMUL and beyond. Emma can also be found on Twitter.
In my role as Education Adviser for Academic Practice at QMUL, I’ve run several workshops on social media and digital identity for academics (and blogged about it here and here). In the workshop, we look at how to use a variety of social media platforms, blogs and website tools, explore what it means to be discoverable on the web and find out how best to connect with our most important professional communities. I also aim to get the workshop audience thinking critically about what they want out of the Web and why. This is fundamentally not the sort of workshop where people are forced into creating social media profiles that they don’t need. While I don’t think any single platform or activity is essential, however, I do think that engaging with issues of digital identity and communication are vital.
In this post I’m going to explain why I think taking control of your digital identity and engaging with social media can be beneficial. It’s structured around responses to three common reasons people give me for not engaging with social media: they don’t like technology; they don’t want to connect with people online; and they don’t have time.
A: You have a digital identity whether you like it or not.
Unless you’ve led a particularly reclusive life, your name is already out there, and things about you are already discoverable on the Internet. Whatever you think about the right to be forgotten, the bottom line is that you are there, whether you want to be or not. So rather than stick your head in the sand, it’s much better to face the situation head on. You can’t control whether people Google you, but you can control what comes up first when they do – make sure you have a blog or an official webpage with your name on it. That way, you can present to the world the aspect of yourself you most want them to see – even if that is a webpage with just your phone number, asking people to connect through non-digital means. You can also think about the platforms you use to share your work: many people have deleted their accounts on academia.edu for example following the controversies detailed in this article.
Q: I don’t need to connect with others! I have a great department!
A: You have a community beyond your institution – why not use it?
Only interacting with people in your institution, and whoever you run into at conferences, can lead to a very narrow perspective, giving people at the top of your own department a disproportionate influence and preventing you from seeing how other departments run things. Extending your community beyond your institution can be exceptionally powerful in this regard. Broadening your community gives you many more opportunities to connect your work with that of others. The more people with whom you can potentially interact, the more likely you are to find people whose work is interesting to you, or who are interested in your work. It can also be lovely just to link, however frivolously, with scholars in one’s field. Never underestimate the power of solidarity, especially in marking season or during a long, dark night of proofreading. More seriously, social media provides a vital community to early career researchers, especially to those from minority groups or to those who may suffer from others’ abuse of power. A community from beyond your department can make it easier to stand up to others within it.
A: Overwork is already a problem. Why not use social media to garner solidarity, make your work visible and protest against unequal distribution of labour?
I completely understand this one. Getting used to new platforms and potentially creating content both take time. However, think about the times you feel overworked as an academic, or when your academic friends are overwhelmed. It’s usually during marking season, or perhaps at a time when lots of students need support (finals week?). Conference season can be pretty tiring too, especially if you’re not extroverted. In some ways, that’s just how it is with any educational endeavour – there’s no teacher who doesn’t want to spend less time marking. That said, solidarity and community can be a helpful way to protest and just to get through what one popular hashtag on Twitter called #markinghell. It’s also a way to find out how representative your workload is, and may even provide ammunition for protest if you can point out that X number of academics at a similar department were shocked by your workload.
I also want to distinguish here between being ‘always on’ and using the web with self-awareness. I run my department’s Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and I run a team website along with my own (both with blogs attached). Of course this means that not every blog is updated weekly (or even monthly) – I’m able to prioritise when I need to. It also doesn’t mean I’m a slave to my notifications: in fact, I’ve turned off notifications for email and all social media accounts on my phone and only get email notifications on my computer between 9 and 5. If I’m working late, I want to be working on something deeper than answering emails. If having a Twitter account would make you feel obligated to check it 24/7, that’s because you put pressure on yourself to be always available, not because of Twitter’s unique aspects. I’d bet you check your emails constantly as well – and you’re not alone.
The pressure on academics to be ‘always on’ isn’t due to social media, or the existence of blogs. Rather, we need to cast the blame much wider: students are taught to expect constant presence by comments such as Jo Johnson, for whom teaching excellence means ‘emailing feedback at weekends, and by universities such as my own, where evaluation forms ask students how ‘available’ their tutor was. Institutions use these evaluations to judge teachers on their availability, even as they make it harder to be available by increasingly employing teachers on casual contracts. Universities are simultaneously reducing what they’ll pay for while also asking students to judge teachers by the amount of unpaid work they do. Increasing tuition fees and reduced public subsidy have created a consumerist framework in which students ‘purchase’ education; universities have compounded this by judging staff by criteria more appropriate for customer circumstances judged. In these fraught circumstances, solidarity among scholars is more important than ever.
Digital identity and social media presence, then, isn’t just another box to tick on the route to the perfect CV. It’s a set of tools that you can use to connect with fellow researchers from around the world and to present yourself as you’d like others to see you. You can make yourself more discoverable, make your invisible labour visible, talk about the things that you love the most. You might even connect with people from outside academia who find your research interesting, and from whom you can learn a great deal. More politically, you can use it to reach out to communities and create solidarity when your sector is under pressure. I’m certainly glad to have met many wonderful academics on Twitter, who alert me to injustice and give me a valuable sense of perspective. If you’re still not certain, why not go to Twitter.com and just put a term that interests you in the search box? Keep searching and browsing, and I guarantee that you’ll find a conversation you want to take part in.