Friday 21 February 2014

Academia and Social Media

Dr Nadine Muller
Technology is changing the way we access information, and how we communicate. Nowhere is this more apparent than in academia. Social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and blogging platforms such as Blogger and Wordpress, are increasingly being used to raise profiles, to disseminate research, and to make links with potential collaborators.

Is it possible to embrace the new technology without compromising your integrity or short-selling your research? Yesterday Dr Nadine Muller, a Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, spoke to the Early Career Researcher Network about both the difficulties, but also the potential benefits, of using social media.

Many in academia are hostile to social media. It’s an additional demand on your time, and there is expectation that you need to be available and responsive all the time. It’s like time’s winged chariot, always at your back, harrying and harassing you. But Muller pointed out the benefits:
  • Resources: there is a culture of sharing on the internet. Although it goes against the commercial imperative of publishers, you can seek out articles direct from authors, and get access to resources that wouldn’t be available conventionally;
  • Knowledge: it gives you access to additional knowledge beyond academia. For instance, Muller has an interest in the cultural understanding of widowhood; by engaging with widows groups on Twitter, she was able to disseminate her work more widely (see below), but also to gain access to a more immediate well of experience;
  • Writing: many academics find it difficult to start writing, to face the blank page. Writing a blog post about your research and your ideas is a good way of corralling your thoughts and drafting your article. It doesn’t have to be perfect; as Muller said, ‘you don’t have to be brilliant every day’;
  • Thinking: similarly, drafting your research via blog posts helps you to refine your research questions, and receive useful feedback;
  • New Audiences: Social media reaches beyond academia, to the engaged and interested generalists, to policy makers, to teachers, and to anyone else who might benefit from your research;
  • Networking: research, especially in the humanities and areas of the social sciences, can be quite isolating. Social media allows you to connect, to discuss and to interact whilst still remaining at your desk;
  • Opportunities: Social media raises your profile, and creates and opens up opportunities that you may not otherwise have.
Beyond research, social media is increasingly important as a teaching tool. For instance, Muller encourages (and sometimes requires) her students to engage with each other through Twitter, through creating a blog, and through critical debate on discussion boards.

The difficulty with this is twofold: firstly, we make the assumption that students are naturally adept at using social media, and yet we provide very little training for them. The same is true for staff, who are encouraged to tweet and blog without any initial hands on support or training. Secondly, if students are more formally being assessed on their social media work, what criteria should be used?

Throughout the session the audience had been questioning Muller, and a number of issues were raised, such as the how to avoid plagiarism and balancing private and public personae. Through discussion it became clear that these weren’t the bĂȘte noires that they had been built up to be: if anything blogs helped avoid plagiarism by putting your thoughts into the public domain at an early stage, and the private/public divide could be handled by using different platforms, or different accounts, for different parts of your life.

Muller finished by highlighting two key problems with social media:
  • Firstly, it lends itself to procrastination. Whilst blog posts could be used to kick start your writing, the potential for diversion and delay is endless;
  • Secondly, exploitation. Social media is often seen as an ‘add on’ to your duties, and there is often an expectation within your department or centre that you would be willing to build a web presence for free. The sooner that social media skills are professionalised, the better.
Muller used Prezi for her presentation, consisting of a series of images that sparked different issues. For that reason the slides won’t be available afterwards. However, I would encourage you to read her excellent website, and follow her on Twitter, to find out more about social media and the new academic.

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