Since Nathan Hall introduced the world to Shit Academics Say in 2013, his humorous Twitter account has become one of the most popular related to academia, with nearly 140,000 followers. Dr. Hall, an associate professor in the department of education and counselling psychology at McGill, says his once anonymous Twitter persona (he outed himself, so to speak, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in July) has woven itself into his life. His Twitter presence is part pastime, part social media experiment and a catalyst for his investigation into the subject of psychological well-being in academia. He recently spoke to University Affairs about his adventures.
University Affairs: How did you first get interested in Twitter?
Dr. Hall: At first I went on [Twitter] admittedly for some self-promotion, to share the research that I had been doing. People didn’t really seem to care for that. Then I saw these accounts – parody accounts, joke accounts and meme accounts – that were taking off fairly quickly and I was curious about how they were doing it. There was the well-known Shit My Dad Says account – that’s actually how I learned about Twitter and why I thought it might be interesting. Also, there had been a lot of anxiety for me getting ready for tenure. At the time I was feeling fairly burnt out and disillusioned and I actually wanted to see if people felt the same way I did. What I realized is that people online, on Twitter and other social media, were engaged in sharing things more widely, talking more candidly about issues. I felt like I was missing out.
UA: What did you think you were missing?
Dr. Hall: I realized that online, people were talking about the human issues related to the profession. I discovered this whole anonymous professors’ subculture on Twitter where they were connecting with each other over manuscript reviews and students. I started watching the accounts that were popular, like that of Raul Pacheco-Vega, watching what he was doing to connect scholars with each other. I was also watching meme accounts, like Research Ryan that got pretty popular. I had to google what the word “meme” meant to find out what it was. Then I attempted my own – Research Wahlberg (appropriating the image of American actor Mark Wahlberg) – on a dare to share a laugh and connect with people over issues that I thought I struggled with alone. Basically I settled on Wahlberg as an unconventional character trying to pass off statistics and research methods while being flirty or seductive, which to me was just a joke in itself. Eventually it got awkward looking at half-naked pictures of Mark Wahlberg when I was on the train during my commute to work.
UA: And from there you started your Twitter account, Shit Academics Say?
Dr. Hall: It was actually my wife who suggested I needed a new hobby. At that point I had done what I needed to do to get tenure and so I had a bit more time to think. I started the account to try to talk about the kinds of things faculty talk about when they are finished class, when they see other faculty in the hallway, when they go to the mailroom or chat with the staff or admin people. I wanted to tap into that, an after-hours approach to how faculty feel privately, on the weekends when they are on a date and feeling guilty about not writing, or when they are in a meeting with a student. It’s the self-talk that you hear yourself engaging in. I wasn’t that comfortable with that because I’m still relatively new to the profession, I’ve been working for about six years. What I realized about social media is that it’s more fun when more people are playing. I thought I would try to get more people involved and I thought humour might be a good way to do that.
UA: Why did you make the account anonymous?
Dr. Hall: I started off anonymously just to make sure my age, race, gender, discipline, none of that, would get in the way of the content. I think removing myself and my ego allowed the account to travel faster because the focus was on the people reading it and sharing things rather than on the person writing it. Given that I was trying to be funny, I think people gave me the benefit of the doubt. There were a lot of jokes that really weren’t very funny. People replied saying thank you for trying to share some laughs.
UA: What are some of the rules or parameters you set for yourself about how you engage on Twitter with this account?
Dr. Hall: Certain things I did to mimic other accounts, while other things I developed on my own. I learned that the best way to try to grow an account quickly is using implicit cues to convey authority. I don’t have questions, I have statements. There are no question marks, no exclamation points, no all-caps. I hoped that people would recognize that this was a little bit of a persona, a gag, a shtick, much like Kanye West refusing to smile in photos. There are other things I do that are pretty typical on Twitter to command authority: I don’t follow anyone, I don’t reply or retweet. It’s part of a branding strategy to get your account to grow more quickly.
I also engage in timeline grooming, which means I delete tweets that don’t hit very well with people – it makes everything you produce look more authoritative. People don’t realize you can delete tweets and that you can manage an online presence the way you would host a dinner party, in that you clean up ahead of time. People come to the account and they see a low number of tweets with a high number of followers and each tweet has a high number of retweets. All of this combines to make for an authoritative persona which I then counter with clear and honest heartfelt expressions of gratitude for people supporting the account.
UA: Let’s talk about being funny. How do you come up with the funny tweets? Have you discovered an academic sense of humour?
Dr. Hall: I’m not sure if there is an academic sense of humour. My sense of humour tends to be a bit dry, deadpan, a bit of a buzzkill type thing. To me it’s very funny if it makes people laugh at something they shouldn’t be laughing at. It’s more meta-level: I make jokes about making jokes; jokes about metaphors. The sequence of the tweets is sometimes a joke to me too: I post one thing that’s very funny and then one thing that’s hilarious and then one thing about how an academic quit his job, so it’s a rhythm and it actually builds momentum.
I tend to use idioms and proverbs. I like to take quotes that have been done before and just change the ending. For example, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it as a question.” Or “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” That’s a quote from Albert Einstein but I attribute it to “someone with limited experience trying to explain things to a six-year-old.” Some of these quotes, they sound very profound but when you try and incorporate them as useful life lessons in academia, they aren’t as useful as you might think.
UA: How do you incorporate tweeting into your life? Do you dedicate a certain amount of time each day to working up jokes, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
Dr. Hall: I drop my daughter off at daycare and my son off at school and then I have a 47-minute train ride and an 18-minute walk to get up the hill to my office at McGill so some days I can be commuting for three hours. That’s why I ended up getting on Twitter in the first place. On the train you don’t have room for a laptop but you do have room for a cell phone to scan what people are writing and thinking. Other times throughout the day – waiting at the Starbucks’ drive-thru or waiting at my daughter’s ballet lesson, or while I’m on the treadmill – I use that time to read things on Twitter. I could also dictate text into my phone and release it later. I could actually crowd source in the sense that I could put something online, and people would comment back, which would give me more ideas about the kinds of things people wanted to joke about. It’s a bit of a weird juxtaposition because when I get notifications on my phone, I’m often in weird places. I’m outside Pharmaprix finding out that I’m being discussed on CBC radio, or coming out from watching Captain America to find out that the hashtag I started, #yomanuscript, was trending in Australia for some reason. The online Twitter celebrity juxtaposed with everyday family and academic life I find amusing. You’re changing a diaper and meanwhile on Twitter, people are calling you brilliant.
UA: What has Twitter celebrity done for you?
Dr. Hall: It really hasn’t done much. It’s just an opportunity to promote my work and give back. I’m very fortunate; a lot of people don’t have this. To receive tenure actually comes with a bit of privilege guilt. I have more time and I feel obligated to give back.
UA: Would you still stand behind your very first tweet: “Don’t become an academic”?
Dr. Hall: I am not sure. I was being sarcastic. I had become disillusioned from being on the tenure track and being burnt out after applying for grants that I didn’t need to try and demonstrate fundability, teaching classes that I didn’t have expertise in, and nominating myself for teaching awards in order to make sure I could keep my job. Everything on the Twitter account has a touch of sarcasm and often it has more than one meaning behind it.
UA: Tell me about the research that has come out of this social media experiment.
Dr. Hall: Since January of this year I’ve run three studies and recruited up to 9,000 people across almost 80 countries for research examining well-being and self-regulation in grad students and faculty. I’m looking at issues ranging from motivation and values, to procrastination, depression, work/life balance and coping strategies. I also look at hidden failure experiences that people don’t talk about. For example, I ask: How often do you have manuscripts rejected? Do you obtain sub-par teaching evaluations? Do you have grants rejected, or students leaving you as an advisor? It’s that hidden failure where you can walk around all day and not be able to talk about some of these things. I wanted to assess that.
I felt part of the reason faculty go online is because of the isolation. You encounter a lot of things you can’t explain to other people, the feelings of failure where you work for months and write tens of thousands of words to win a grant and then you get absolutely nothing – it’s all or nothing. It’s a different feeling of failure than a student getting below a cut-off on a test. It’s an outright absolute abject failure that you often don’t talk about. That’s where social media comes in and connects people to each other to share experiences, to talk candidly about these issues. I can explore these issues empirically now – I can look at self-regulation and what strategies are more effective for dealing with stress among different types of faculty in different countries. There aren’t really very many others who have used social media to this extent to allow this kind of research to be done. It is fun, it is engaging, and it’s a personal challenge to see how far I can go.