Twitter as a Tool for Academic Networking? #NoThanks

This year, I have been honored to be a fellow in the second cohort of the MLA Connected Academics Proseminar, a fascinating group of current and recent Ph.D. candidates who meet once a month in New York City to discuss alternatives to the “traditional” academic career. As part of this process, we have been discussing how to maintain a professional presence online, which has been one of the major reasons that I have been working so hard updating my website recently. Recently in the Proseminar, the topic of Twitter came up as a potential solution to the impersonal feel of large, professional conferences and would help younger students network and spread their research despite the professional hierarchy that exists in professional settings. So, this month I decided to try it out. I had plans to attend the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts national meeting in Atlanta, and thought that Twitter might help me navigate the three interrelated conferences going on at once.

I went online, found the SLSA hashtag (#slsa2016), and immediately tweeted:

To be honest, it felt disingenuous. I was thrilled to be there, but to write something vague to an unknown number of scholars did not seem the best way to communicate it. Maybe if I tweeted about something more specific, I thought. I attended my first panel and really enjoyed the final talk on the Two-Culture debate and waited until the end of the Q&A to tweet:

After the Q&A, I approached the presenters, asking questions and exchanging email addresses. I then checked Twitter and noticed that someone had liked my first tweet, and two people had liked the second! I immediately followed both, assuming that this would help fill my newsfeed with more appropriate, SLSA-related posts.

At another panel, someone gave a talk about Pokémon. Since that reminded me of my childhood, I snapped a picture of his PowerPoint and tweeted to the SLSA-specific twitterverse:

This also garnered two likes, though the same as before. Once again, I interacted with the speaker after the panel, exchanging email addresses and engaging in thought-provoking conversations about glitches and research. Noticing that one of the speakers had posted earlier with the SLSA hashtag about this particular panel, I responded to his tweet, thanking him for the panel. He immediately followed me, indicating to me that I was doing something right.

As the day went on, I texted my external examiner, an Associate Professor who is a big name at this conference and who had encouraged me to attend. We met down in the lobby and she introduced me to dozens of scholars. For the rest of the conference, she took me by the hand, recommending certain talks and panels, presenting me to other scholars, and helping me engage in more direct, in-person conversations. While I continued to check my Twitter feed, I began to notice that there were only a few scholars on it, and they did not seem to be engaging in conversation with each other.

The following day, Katherine Hayles gave what would go on to be known as the most influential talk of the conference, and I made sure to tweet some highlights. However, I then noticed that one attendee had tweeted the same quote with TWO hashtags: #slsa2016 and #slsa16. Uh oh, I thought. I’ve been doing it all wrong! There were more than just a few people tweeting with the other hashtag — there must have been about 30! I had been communicating my (admittedly superficial) tweets to such a restricted audience! In another panel, I began using both, still receiving a similar number of likes.

On the final day of the conference, I attended a morning panel and sat near Katherine Hayles. In the Q&A, as always, I continued to ask questions and noticed that Hayles was vigorously nodding along with my comments. She ran out at the end of the panel to get to another talk, but at the lunch later that day, made a point of telling me that she appreciated my questions and politely asked about my work. In the meantime, my Twitter feed was surprisingly quiet.

Overall, I’m not sure how I feel about using Twitter at conferences. While several people in panels (especially the digital humanities panel) seemed to be using it constantly and consistently (even during talks), those participants did not seem to be interacting as much in person. I must admit, of all the people I tweeted, retweeted, followed, and liked, I did not meet a single one in person. We just never crossed paths. I also found that watching people with their phones out during presentations appeared unprofessional.

On the other hand, being actively engaged in the Q&As really did help me to network, and I left the conference with business cards and email addresses, along with a bunch of new ideas and insights! Seeing retweeted blurbs about panels I did not attend was uninformative, and seemed a missed opportunity in a conference where several panels happened at once. That said, nothing helped more than having a tenured professor take me under her wing. Indeed, this removed the inevitable awkwardness of approaching senior scholars as a graduate student.

Rather than tweeting and retweeting a mere thirty scholars on Twitter at a conference with over 600 participants, we should strive to make connections through actual interactions. Perhaps this should be made more explicit in our training as graduate students: that we should attend conferences with our advisors and mentors; that we should do research on the professors who will be attending and know enough about their research to pose useful questions following their talks; that we should not risk appearing unprofessional in any way by having our phones out during talks. While Twitter may be a nice way to make a big conference seem smaller, we cannot let this technology distract us from the real use of conferences — human interactions through critical, academic dialogue.

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Disciplinary Knowledge and Practices

The Preliminary Assignment

Our second meeting of the McGraw Teaching Seminar focused on disciplinary knowledge and practices. To prepare, we were assigned to groups composed of participants in drastically different disciplines. I was paired with a chemist, a political scientist, and a classicist. The assignment was to meet and discuss, learning about our own disciplines through the eyes of “novices.” Our assigned discussion questions were as follows:

  1. If you were to take an introductory course in my field, what would you expect to learn?
  2. What would you want to learn more about?
  3. What particular challenges do you think you would confront?

We then had to answer the following two main questions:

  1. Write a paragraph or two that reflects on the various novice responses toward your introductory course that you received from members of your breakout group.
  2. Write one course goal and a lesson for a class of novices in your field that addresses how you would respond to one of the perspectives you received from your breakout conversation. What would your goal be? And how would you design a class meeting around advancing students toward the goal?

My Responses

1. The first question that arose was: what is an introductory course in French? Language or literature or culture? In other words, is the focus teaching language as a tool or is it to help students read literature? There is an implicit answer to these questions in the way language and literature departments are structured: introductory courses tend to be language classes, with the goal to get students to more advanced courses in literature or culture. For the purposes of our discussion, we restricted talk to an introductory French language course.

We decided that a novice in an introductory language class would expect to attain basic competency in terms of communication. There was some discussion about which competencies were most important: oral or written. This conversation evolved into a more important one: how much of a language class consists of basic exercises in grammar and conversation? Language is a tool, determined by how students need to use it. This is true for any language: for instance, in academia, scientists speak a different “English” than that of a literary scholar or historian. In an introductory language course, how do you integrate how students will eventually use the language — elements of culture, literature, politics, history, etc.?

2. One course goal that should be necessary in an introductory French language class should be promoting a broad understanding of the history, culture, and literature of the French and francophone world. While spending class time on larger cultural discussions might seem antithetical to teaching a language or worse — a waste of precious class time — I believe that activities based on authentic cultural documents can promote discussion-based classes that leave a greater impression on students. Rather than isolating grammar points, such activities allow students to see grammar in action and participate in a culture that is not their own, promoting cultural understanding. There are two main dangers associated with this method: first, preparation takes much longer; second, these activities risk to discourage students if not properly scaffolded.

Activity based on Current Events

In light of recent events, an appropriate activity might take the form of discussion about last Friday’s terrorist attacks throughout Paris. This could involve “reading” some of the Twitter hashtags and images that have sprung up in support of Paris. Using Twitter hashtags as authentic documents is not only politically relevant, but is also a level-appropriate pedagogical tools since they consist of very few words and images linked to a specific context.

A hypothetical activity might have students look at the descriptions and images that people were posting to find their loved ones, have them discuss what they were doing at the time of the attack (this would be an excellent way to practice the two types of past tenses — the passé composé and the imparfait) and then to move it to a larger discussion of the greater significance of the attacks. To target the conditional tense, one could have students debate the French political response and its potential repercussions. Such an activity would also be a good moment to reflect on France’s colonial history and relationship with former colonies, many of which are Muslim-majority.

While some might criticize such an activity as impossible given the language level in an introductory class, as long as the objectives are clear and the activity is properly scaffolded, students will likely be more invested in current events than in a rudimentary discussion of how they got dressed in the morning. Indeed, French teachers have the obligation to discuss this tragic event at any level, as some of these students might hope to study abroad in France one day. Activities of this nature contribute not only to a more complete understanding of the French language (which is inseparable from the culture), but to the greater goals of a university education — to create well-rounded and engaged citizens.