Interview | A Wry Look at Academic Life

Author: Andrew Mahon
Original: McGill News (08/18/2015)

Nathan Hall’s sly and witty observations about academic life have attracted a large group of devoted Twitter followers

According to a tweet from Nathan Hall, there are two types of academics: those who use the Oxford comma, those who don’t and those who should. (Give yourself a minute to let that sink in.)

One could argue that there’s a third (fourth?) type of academic, the kind who shares sardonic and pithy nuggets of academic wit with some 130,000 Twitter followers in what has become a wildly successful social media experiment called Shit Academics Say. That third group would have a single member — Nathan Hall.

Hall, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, is the man behind more than 2,000 humourous observations about life in academia (including the one referenced in the first sentence of this article). A former elite-level Angry Birds gamer in search of a new hobby, he launched Shit Academics Say under the username @AcademicsSay in September 2013.

“I started a Twitter account as a hobby; one where I didn’t have to leave the couch,” he explains. “It also seemed like an interesting way to connect with people.”

The idea of a ‘shit [insert group name] say’ meme seemed like a good fit for addressing the quirks of the university world — even if the concept had been done before.

“Academics are usually two to five years behind popular culture,” he says. “I knew the meme was dated but also that academics would easily recognize it.”

But from the first tweet from this account (“Don’t become an academic”), it was clear that Shit Academics Say was not going to be your grandfather’s social media hobby. By simply making jokes about academic life, @AcademicsSay attracted its first 10,000 followers in  five months and it was clear that Shit Academics Say had struck a chord with students and professors.

With an admittedly obsessive focus, Hall set his sights on Twitter world domination and employed painstaking research in his efforts to grow Shit Academics Say. He started applying growth hacking strategies, using images, colour, and punctuation strategically, pre-scheduling tweets, and posting in a timely manner (after Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek’s Spock) died: “Live long and publish”). He also monitored analytics and edited content for broader appeal and international audiences — in a bid to build up his audience base in Australia, for instance, Hall carefully determined the optimal times for tweeting to that continent. When famed American statistician and writer Nate Silver re-tweeted @AcademicsSay (“Data are.”), Hall knew he was on the right track.

“My objective was to get my numbers as high as possible,” he says, “both as a personal challenge and to test its usefulness for actual research.”

Analytics aside, Shit Academics Say works because Hall is adept at sharing the primal themes of academic life, drawing on his research and experience to tweet about procrastination, writing (or not writing), guilt, tenure (or lack thereof), engagement and other emotional highs and lows.

“Academics want to laugh and I needed a laugh too,” he says.

Beyond the humour and the skewering of academic life, Hall’s Twitter followers provide a unique resource for research in his work as director of McGill’s Achievement Motivation and Emotion research group. By soliciting followers of his Twitter account (and its Facebook version with 94,000 followers), Hall has recruited approximately 9,000 faculty and graduate students from almost 80 countries for online studies on topics ranging from procrastination and impostor syndrome to work-life balance and burnout.

“Shit Academics Say allowed me to reach a lot of people,” say Hall. “And I now have the opportunity to directly share the results of this research with others.”

Hall is now recognized as a bona fide social media authority. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently invited him to expound on how he developed @AcademicsSay, noting that Hall’s sly Twitter offerings have earned more attention on social media than the official Twitter accounts of such august universities as Harvard and Oxford. Hall has some advice for all those bi-monthly Twitter authors out there looking to take their tweets to the next level.

“It’s important to understand what the platform is and take advantage of its unique features,” he says. “Do some research, do something different and share real elements of your life. Share your insights, thank others for sharing, ask questions and, above all, have fun.”

A sampling of what @AcademicsSay: