Unpacking @AcademicsSay: Part 1

N. C. Hall  /  06/05/2016


This is my first blog post.

And the only reason you’re seeing it is @AcademicsSay, ostensibly one of the most influential academic social media accounts reaching upwards of 24 million views a month across platforms.

Although polite company warrants eyes-down, humblebrag explanations of the success of this social experiment as serendipitous, that’s not entirely accurate. Instead, the account growth has been markedly consistent, largely anticipated, and intentionally facilitated by strategies common to influential accounts.

To the extent the following may read as a self-indulgent, overthinking, faux-Machiavellian hyper-justification of writing procrastination, I apologize in advance. Below is Part 1 of a tl;dr overview of the varied growth hacking strategies derived mainly from observation, basic psychology, and trial-and-error that may or may not have contributed to the success of @AcademicsSay.


1.   Opportunity. When I set up my professional Twitter account in May 2013, there was no common gathering point for faculty or lightning rod for feedback/sharing. There were no clear accounts to follow first, nothing central that really got academics excited. I wanted to create that, first because it’s confusing and boring to go online and not have a place to connect with others. Second, I was feeling burnt out and needed a laugh. There were also no humour accounts for faculty, aside from scattered student-shaming efforts and @PhDComics for grad students, so I made one. I am not a humour writer. But you don’t need to be great when there’s no competition; you just need to show up.

2.   Tone. I am not a generally positive person. So when deciding how to sound online, I went with my regularly scheduled deadpan, sarcastic, depressing, uncomfortably self-aware over-explanations that make for awkward conversation. I also pride myself on avoiding the wrath of colleagues by getting a laugh despite my interrupting their work as a way of procrastinating on mine. So the overall tone of @AcademicsSay was basically an extension of what I was already doing, just in a more distilled online format. I then found a recognizable meme that fit the tone and went from there. Fortunately, as non-intellectual or unintentionally humourous aspects of academic content tend to get the most attention on social media (e.g., the “Gabor” effect), I was immediately in business.

3.   Authority. I regularly get comments, questions, and surprisingly impassioned critiques about the account behavior; hopefully this section addresses some of that. In addition to content tone, I incorporated from the outset a set of implicit cues to convey authority to potential followers and expedite follow/retweet decisions. This was for two reasons: first, to provide an ironic take on the stereotypical aloof, egocentric academic persona; second, to mimic the profiles of existing viral parody accounts in the history or science domains. Some examples involving language, formatting, colour, and ratios are below.

4.   Language. The word “shit” in the account name implies irreverence or catharsis and is unexpected in academic timelines, grabbing attention while providing ironic context for otherwise curse-free content. The account handle remained curse-free to accommodate more respectable manual retweets. Similarly, “academics” not “professors” were referred to in the account name to convey faculty responsibilities beyond instruction (e.g., writing, tenure requirements, work-life balance). As the content was to be more “water-cooler gossip” or internal self-talk than in-class “dad jokes,” the less-than-student-centered approach was intentional.

5.   Formatting. Tweet text was formatted to exclude “all caps,” emoticons, exclamation points, and question marks to mitigate impressions of attention-seeking and uncertainty. In addition to facilitating a deadpan or aloof tone, ending sentences with periods was also a bit of a inside academic joke not unlike how Kanye West describes the private hilarity of not smiling. To not dissuade engagement among academics who are typically less than familiar with Twitter protocols, I also initially tried to avoid including nonintuitive hashtags (e.g., #ecrchat) and acronyms (e.g., H/T) in favour of more accessible terminology (e.g., via, courtesy of).

6.   Colour. The colour profile was also intentional. Although the specific profile image (“avi”) was selected almost at random from my cell phone, it needed to satisfy two  conditions: it had to show well at lower resolutions and needed to be red. The colour red was emphasized based on research showing red to implicitly convey competitive success and dominance in affiliative and advertising contexts (e.g., CNN, Time, Science, Netflix, BuzzFeed, TMZ, TED Talks) and to solicit more online engagement (e.g., link clicks) than other colours. The image itself is simply a cropped photo of a graffiti art gorilla I took on the sidewalk after a disappointing trip to the farmer’s market. I’d like to think the gorilla signified other elements (e.g., stoicism, “300-lb gorilla” metaphor), but it’s mainly just red.

7.   Ratios. The account also manipulated three Twitter ratios to implicitly convey authority. First, an exaggerated “following-to-follower” ratio was achieved by not following other accounts (as per other parody accounts) requiring unidirectional follows vs. reciprocal “followbacks.” Second, the “retweet-to-follower” ratio was bolstered by deleting tweets that did not sufficiently resonate; a ratio consistently held to around 0.001. For example, tweets in Spring of 2014 (~30K followers) that did not reach 30 retweets were omitted (typically within an hour), with the exception of tweets including links or promoting content intended for “clickthroughs” (current cut-off is ~150 retweets <1 hour, >1K likes on FB; see @TheTweetOfGod, @SoVeryBritish for comparable ratios). Third, deleting tweets with insufficient retweets helped to improve the “tweet-to-follower” ratio. Off-brand tweets promoting specific accounts, lists, hashtags, sites, etc. were similarly omitted to provide an on-brand, content-focussed read for timeline scrollers (“grooming”). Overall, these ratios were maximized to create the impression of an authoritative, non-reciprocal, content-provider account where each tweet not only resonated but gained substantial followers.

8.   Branding. Similar to other viral parody accounts, @AcademicsSay does not reply or retweet. Instead, standalone text reposted from other accounts is formatted as per a typical academic quotation (“…” – @source), or (more rarely) as a screenshot image, to visually associate or “rebrand” it with the account name and image. The quotation format is immediately recognizable to academics but differs from typical (less visually appealing) manual retweets in which acronyms and the original account are inserted before tweet content (e.g., RT “@source …”). This form of attribution is generally appreciated by those referenced, avoids “Twitter plagiarism,” and facilitates portability across platforms (e.g., Facebook, Tumblr). However, it can also be seen as particularly distasteful (especially screenshots) as it effectively affords self-promotion and metric gains at the expense of direct engagement with source accounts. Given the markedly ego-involving nature of not following someone on Twitter or Facebook, it’s perhaps not surprising that this strategy has to date been the most negatively received.

9.   Images. One of the most well-known and easily implemented ways of increasing Facebook or Twitter engagement is to just add an image (e.g., by 35%). So after waiting three months to ensure that text-based content was resonating with followers (~7K), relevant images were introduced. At this point, I had decided to use the account to recruit for off-line research and consciously opted to forego whatever old-guard, intellectual cache was attached to excluslively sardonic text in favor of incorporating more accessible, existing visual content that elicited a more visceral response (e.g., May 2014: doubling new followers/day to 450+ by doubling down on comics, graphics, and screenshots). Given a long-standing body of work by academic comic legends (e.g., PhD Comics, XKCD) and creative efforts of emerging webcomic artists (e.g., Errant Science, RedPen/BlackPen, The Upturned Microscope), finding content wasn’t hard and I finally had a chance to indulge my long-time love of cartoons. I eventually introduced original images and memes to capitalize on social media norms, mocked up preview graphics to increase clicks for news articles or blogs (16:9 to prevent awkward Twitter cropping, better Facebook previews), and started embedding square blog logos that are automatically grabbed when link is shared.

10.   Attribution. Given the emotional and financial investment involved in creating visual content for social media, I eventually started to receive responses from artists requesting that additional source information be included in posts beyond that contained in the image. And after a few requests by original artists (e.g., @MacLtoons, Kemson Cooper), online criticism when attribution was not included (e.g., Paris attack graphic), and an education on attribution and copyright by my friend Jorge Cham (@PhDComics) following an uncomfortable Twitter/email exchange with artist @twisteddoodles, I not only research the origins of posted artwork (e.g., TinEye, Karma Decay, Veracity) but try to provide linkbacks to within-platform accounts or external sites to not deprive artists of potential exposure or income. Although posting images without attribution or linkbacks is more efficient (particularly when source/contact info is embedded), a well-worn strategy for expediting growth (see @HistoryInPics, IFLScience), and not unpermitted in the Twitter TOS (see p. 22, Agence France Presse v. Morel), it is more susceptible to removal on Facebook or Twitter (DCMA takedowns) on copyright grounds and is not a good look for an academic audience uncommonly preoccupied with attribution.

11.   Anonymity. I ran the account anonymously until July 2015 for various reasons. First, I didn’t want my atypical online activities to somehow influence my tenure deliberations. It also helped to maintain a focus on the followers, underscoring the aim of the account to resonate based on shared experiences rather than a self-indulgent showcase of intellectual, writing, or humour abilities. In this way, followers were allowed to perceive their engagement more simply as sharing a laugh or connecting with others by way of satire, as opposed to endorsing the attention-seeking efforts of a specific individual. This decision also helped to circumvent the awkward self-esteem-loaded “followback” expectation otherwise encountered with personal Twitter accounts. In a similar vein, demographic cues involving nationality (e.g., American spelling), gender (typically assumed female), race, rank, or discipline that could unnecessarily complicate or bias content perception and mitigate engagement were avoided. As an anonymous account, I was also allowed more freedom to make mistakes and experiment in term of content (e.g., topics, attribution) or growth strategies (e.g., branding, promotion) without risk of direct criticism or reprisal.

Maybe it’s because academics tend to be familiar with blinded research and manuscript reviews that remarkably few people ever asked who I was. Or maybe it’s that social media platforms generally promote engagement over attribution, a point illustrated by Twitter adding the “quote tweet” function in 2015 while at the same time quietly removing the automatic insertion of quotation marks and account mention (used for manual retweets) when copying tweets in the app (making it much easier to plagiarize). Regardless, it was only after my tenure was confirmed, account influence exceeded relevant benchmarks, the cache of “coming out” could be reliably predicted to bolster off-platform efforts (study recruitment), and these unconventional online activities could be justified in part as a public service to non-social-media users that I wrote the Chronicle piece about the account (as agreed upon one year earlier). However, judging by continued confessions of love for “whoever you are” or “you guys,” and minimal spillover to my personal Twitter account, people generally don’t seem to notice or care who’s running the account.

12.   Efficiency. To promote initial growth, I also pre-prepared tweets that released automatically on apps like Buffer (Facebook pages provide in-platform scheduling) and used free sites like Tweriod to determine optimal tweet times (now largely irrelevant due to international reach). Not unlike other parody or satire accounts, I also regularly repeat content. Although I had previously deleted original tweets to disguise this strategy (some accounts delete tweets wholesale, presumably for the same reason), I now keep them up to gauge growth. I initially felt comfortable repeating only after a 6 month lag (consistent with previous Twitter API restrictions preventing older tweets from being viewed), but now tend to repost within 2-3 months due to a follower base big enough to ensure sufficient sharing from those who would not have seen it, would not remember seeing it, or would not mind seeing it again. Although some repeats are verbatim, others are reformatted or modified (e.g., replacing “book” with “blog” 9 days later) to improve engagement. As for the account meme, the “shit xxx say” format itself affords specific efficiencies, such as a focus on what others say (observation is much easier than inspiration) and basic text (Siri dictation while waiting at Starbucks vs. curated content or creating visuals), as demonstrated by even single-letter posts gaining traction. Finally, one unanticipated consequence of this meme is the extent to which it actually encouraged crowdsourced feedback (replies, mentions, emails) that has to date been highly effective in terms of providing off-platform content, pop culture phrases (e.g., “all of the things”, “Netflix and chill”), timely memes (e.g., Game of Thrones), or even grammatical improvements for repeat posts.


So there you go: a quick introduction to some of the more straightforward strategies adopted a priori or over time to expedite follow decisions and account growth for @AcademicsSay. For more on the roles of analytics, experimentation, and emotions, or more awkward topics such as plagiarism, haters, and monetization, check back for Parts 2 and 3 in the coming days.


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How to Not be Boring on Academic Social Media

Author: @TheLitCritGuy
Original: TheLitCritGuy.com


For many academics it may seem that the rise of social media is yet another means of potential procrastination. Yet increasingly, certain academics have turned to social media not just as a way of accessing entertainment or as a tool for networking but as a means of engaging audiences in a brand new way.

Perhaps the most famous and well-known is @NeinQuarterly, an anonymous account that blends aphorisms, jokes and an expert level knowledge of German literature and culture to produce a fascinating and hugely popular account. Started by a former professor of German literature, @NeinQuarterly’s unique aphoristic and satirical style now appears in print in German and Dutch newspapers and last year saw the publication of Nein: A Manifesto, a book collecting his finest material that’s been published in multiple languages. On YouTube there is aside from John and Hank Green’s famous ‘Crash Course,’ PhilosophyTube, an account started from nothing just a few years ago that now has around 60,000 subscribers following their videos on Masters level philosophy.

Personally, my own anonymous account started for far less career-minded reasons. Having finished my Master’s degree and with a twitter account that I didn’t really use, I decided to dedicate it to talking about the thinkers and ideas that had intrigued me during Masters study and provoked me into applying for a PhD. I decided to cover literary theorists and critics who had been only briefly touched upon during my undergraduate degree. However, after starting the account I was convinced it would be largely ignored yet after tweeting to a few more widely followed accounts it picked up a surprising number of engaged and highly curious followers. Almost immediately, issues such as a posting schedule, what to talk about, and even the limits of my own knowledge became something that had to be dealt with. With a vocal and supportive group of followers I was forced to honest about my own limitations, my own inexperience, and allow myself to discover the liberating freedom of telling followers that I don’t know; that I would love to know more about something (something almost unthinkable in the high pressure environment of PhD research). The pressures of normal life meant that often the account became deeply personal as well as something academic and this seemed to only further the connection between me and the great groups of people who followed the account.

On top of this, anonymity comes with certain benefits that using social media with a name and a face doesn’t carry. From behind the “persona” of TheLitCritGuy my opinions don’t need to be run against what my institution or its managers might deem to be acceptable. Anonymity also allows the freedom for a kind of character to emerge. Behind anonymity, anger at the conditions of higher education for ECRs and students can be expressed more forcefully, and I also get to mash up jokes with theory without worrying colleagues will take me less seriously.

For academics who wish to take to social media and use it in a way beyond networking or sharing cat videos there is no sure fire way of doing things, but in the course of my own experiment there are a few things that I’ve found to have worked.

Firstly, have a distinctive voice. Anonymous accounts do not necessarily have a name or a face, but they depend upon having a distinctive perspective to offer. From Twitter the pseudonymous accounts @EthicistForHire and @CrankyEthicist from the name alone, immediately offers potential followers an insight into their account and what they are like.

Secondly, have a purpose. One of the most successful anonymous accounts in #AcademicTwitter, @AcademicsSay posts collections of jokes that connect really strongly with academics – jokes about coffee, about being overworked and the ever present catchphrase that ‘you should be writing.’ These highly sharable posts always keep the account highly focused and with a clear sense of purpose allowing it to grow to being followed by hundreds of thousands of people.

Thirdly, find your audience. Rather than just post into the void, the best academic accounts use the tools of social media to find an interested audience. Most notably, there are hashtags like #twitterstorians, where historians post and organise their thoughts, allowing an audience who want to engage with historians to find them. I always try and organise my own posting under #TheoryTime, allowing followers to keep up with what I’m talking about and catch up on topics they may have missed.

Fourth, expand. Whilst my own twitter account was successful, I quickly encountered the limitations of the form. I decided to expand my account into a research blog, as well as using the platform I built on twitter to write on new websites, bringing @TheLitCritGuy to a much wider audience.

Finally, connect. Whilst people follow an account or watch a YouTube channel to gain knowledge, using social media allows for academia to become more personally relatable – rather than a hierarchy of a teacher with students, twitter becomes a space of conversation and mutual education. Whilst I try and keep the important details of my life private from my account, a few personal details, personal opinions, and replies to followers makes the account more vibrant, more interesting and much more fun for those following.

It is this that makes anonymous accounts so effective too – outside of the structures, rules and roles of university networking, the anonymous account can become a place where academic researchers get to connect directly with an audience. Impact becomes something more than just a metric as people get to connect with academics beyond the realm of university organised public engagement events. Furthermore, this use of social media allows the public to see what life as an academic can be like, in all of its good and bad points.

Behind the anonymity of a nameless, faceless account I’ve shared some of the struggles of being an early career researcher, news about the state of the wider UK HE environment and the sheer joy of teaching as well as sharing and talking about my own research and intellectual passions. Whilst anonymous accounts bring a certain degree of freedom, there is the pressing awareness that my account won’t necessarily benefit my career within the university system. However, as more academics take to social media, using anonymous accounts allows for a new kind of creative, flexible academic to emerge, more closely linked with the public rather than embedded within the ivory towers of the university system.

I’ve received countless tweets, Facebook messages, and emails from people across the world, who, through various pressures felt they couldn’t pursue their own passion for literature and theory – needing a job, or dealing with their children they feel like they’ve missed out on a swathe of knowledge and it’s a genuine privilege to answer the questions and learn from them. Whether it be emailing economists about Foucault or letting a nursing student know more about phenomenology using social media has shown me that beyond the limits of the university classroom, people are curious and searching for new ways to be engaged and to learn. Social media can change how we teach and spread knowledge beyond the limits of the university and through anonymity academics might well find the freedom to connect with the public like never before.

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Who Do You Think You Are – Galen Strawson and Life Online

Author: @TheLitCritGuy
Original: TheLitCritGuy.com


One of the most often repeated complaints and criticisms around literary theory is that it lapses frequently into obscurantism and obfuscation. Whilst this is nothing but deeply unfair and inaccurate it has to be acknowledged that there is a great deal of theory that it often difficult to apply to the realities of modern life.  The effort of applying the abstract and removed language of the academie to the mundane details of existence is a hermeneutical exercise that we don’t always have the time or the energy to do.

This doesn’t mean that theory is irrelevant as how we construct and understand our lives are questions that theoretical writing directly concerns itself with – issues of identity, consciousness and perception are all areas that theorists have sought to understand. These complex issues are further problematized when one examines the shift in how the self finds cultural and social expression. It used to be that the predominate mode that this occurred in was face to face. We understood ourselves in the context of relationships, be they professional, familial or social. With the rise of technology and the now ubiquitous ‘social media’ that web of relationships has shifted online.

We have friends.

We have followers.

We get likes, RT’s and re-blogs.

Essentially, things have changed. Before I go any further this isn’t a plea for a return to a more idealistic and less technology driven social experience. The two modes of existence both share the same prevailing ideological model of how the individual understands themselves. We, speaking generally here, make sense of ourselves by constructing a narrative – one of the things that social media has done is make this process more obvious. One only has to look at facebook timelines to see the explicit construction of your subjectivity, your life as a coherent narrative, designed to make us look our very best.

To quote Dan Dennett;

 ‘We are all virtuoso novelists…We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character…of that autobiography is one’s self’

Contained within the quote are two inter-related theses, which the great analytic philosopher and theorist Galen Strawson identified as the ‘Psychological Narrative Thesis’ and the ‘ethical Narrative Thesis.’

Let me explain – the Psychological Thesis is a descriptive and empirical argument about how we see the world, a way of understanding life that is integral to human nature.  The ‘Ethical Narrative Thesis’ is an argument coupled to the first which posits a narrative understanding of life – that having or conceiving one’s life in a narrative sense is necessary or essential  for developing true or full personhood.

Now, one can think that these two interrelated ideas are some combination of true or false but it’s worth examining how these two lines of argument operate online. The desire for narrative reflects our desire for coherence – we want desperately for the things we encounter online to make sense, to cohere in some way so it should come as no surprise that is how we treat others online.

The majority of the time this isn’t really an issue and one of the upsides of online culture is that it tends to treat people as whole and cohesive individuals. Basically, viewing people through the lens of a Narrative works out quite well most of the time – it allows us to make quick and generally fairly reliable judgements about the other and present ourselves in such a way that we can be easily comprehended too.

However, there is an issue here – the narrative thesis is a totalising one, a structuralist way of viewing the world and each other. The vast majority of the time it may be sufficient to view ourselves online as a seamless cohesive whole that tells a singular narrative story but this quickly runs into a problem – diachronic consistency.

To explain that in less technical sounding words, the idea that persistent through time is a recognizable thread of consciousness within one individual just doesn’t hold up. It is not the disconnection within online life that irks, but the flawed drive for all of this to make sense, for all of our lives to be tied together in one neat package. We become authors who edit on the fly, making ourselves the neatest and tidiest selves we can be, desperate to excise the disparate and the different and the dysfunctional.

This isn’t a new problem – to quote the great Virginia Woolf;

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old…Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

Viewing these neat and tidy profiles, those expertly curated twitter streams and Woolf’s quote takes on fresh resonance. Life, indeed, does not seem to be like this. If social media and internet living is where we will all increasingly be it must become a place where the honest expression of the many different internal selves can find a place. Perhaps we need less narrative – less desire to be a coherent singular story that others *like* and more spaces where the individual can change, be contradictory and experience anew.

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How I Lost my Voice: On Anonymity and Academic Blogging

Author: Psyc Girl
Original: Stressful Times


I haven’t been blogging much lately. And yes, these navel gazing posts about blogging and voice can be really irritating. For those of you who don’t want to read further, here is the TL;DR version:

I miss blogging, but I don’t know who my voice is anymore, and I miss true pseudonymity. I’m not sure what to do about this. 

A big part of the slowdown is the fact that several people I know IRL read my blog now – that means when I write I picture them sitting at home in their track pants reading my inner thoughts and feelings. Things that I might or might not want to share with actual people I interact with face to face on a regular basis. It’s like being tapped into my frontal lobe and I’m not sure how I feel about that all of the time.

There are also readers who know who I am from the blog – they don’t interact with me in a face to face manner on a regular basis necessarily, but they could follow the rest of my life online if they wished. And I follow their lives. All of these things I don’t really get that bothered by (I don’t have a lot of choice in the manner even if I was bothered, let’s be honest) but it does censor my writing, compared to 5 or 6 years ago when I was literally sending pseudonymous words completely into the unidentified blogosphere.

What if someone who reads the blog outs me at work by accident? What if someone decides they don’t like me anymore and they out me on purpose? What if that angry post from 3 years ago comes back to haunt me because someone is upset with me? I can’t help but think these things.

There is also the delicate balance between blogging the details of my “real life” vs. my pseudonymous, general writing. For example, early on I made the decision to never blog about my actual research area. Thus, Agricultural Psychology was born – I focus on cow studies, corn growth, and chick studies. These give me helpful labels with which to communicate the overall process of being a researcher – but it limits the exciting things about my research I can really discuss.

I also try my best not to blog about something I’ve said in person to strangers who could accidentally stumble across the blog (who I don’t want to). If I make a joke on twitter, I don’t make the same joke in class. If I tell a story to a colleague, I don’t tell it on the blog. And vice versa. Sometimes this level of censure gets difficult – but as I develop a more offline social network of professional support, I find myself preferring to turn to them in person vs. the blogosphere, if I have to choose.

Third, there are things I want to blog about that are very important academic causes to me – but doing so would make me more identifiable.

Both of these last two points relate to the idea of whether or not pseudonymity remains important to me. It gives me a great deal of freedom in my writing. And as much as people can say academic blogging is dying, I disagree – I know of 2-3 academics who, in the past year, switched from identifiable to pseudonymous blogging so they could have more freedom in their voice. And I know identifiable bloggers who will not touch many topics on their blog because they cannot (for whatever reason) attach their name to their opinions.

What do I want? I don’t know. I could remain the same. I could lock down any additional disclosures of my identity. I could be more loose with my pseudonymity and not care if I’m identifiable. I could blog under my name. I have been wrestling with all of these options since I became a faculty member – the only thing I seem decided upon is not blogging with my real name displayed. There are many topics I no longer write about – teaching, graduate student mentorship, my medical concerns, my love life – because I no longer have complete pseudonymity.

Fourth, I realized about 12-18 months ago that I was spending more time online than I wished. I wanted my focus to turn to my offline life. It was hard to really take a look at how much time I was spending attached to a screen and to let go of some of the online interpersonal connections that were very important to me. Twitter, in particular, has a short memory – after a year of less activity on twitter, including deleting twitter from my phone, I have much fewer interactions online. I miss them. But my offline life is a lot more consistent with the way I want it to look. I’m sad to have made one sacrifice for the benefits of the other. Less time online = less blogging.

Last, my career has changed. I still have issues and experiences related to academia that I think are helpful to others – I have no intention to quit blogging altogether – but I’m spending a lot more time crafting my career lately. I’m removing things, adding things, and reconstructing things. I suppose one could argue that I’m welcome to blog about those experiences. I’m finding, instead, I need to do a lot of these changes alone. I’m not discussing them with others, but instead quietly reflecting and tweaking solo.

To summarize: I don’t quite know where my blog is going. I know that I want to be blogging more. I think as my career changes, the things I have to share change. But my personal life will probably stay in the closet, at least until I figure out which voice to wear.

On Student-Shaming and Punching Down

Author: Kevin Gannon
Original: The Tattooed Professor


A few years ago, trapped in the midst of final exam grading, I started posting some of the real howlers I got as answers on Facebook. I didn’t use students’ names, and I don’t “friend” students on FB, so this sort of venting seemed like an OK way for me to keep my sense of humor during the end-term crush.

I have felt guilty about doing that ever since.

Now, I vent plenty on Facebook and (especially) Twitter. PLENTY. But I deploy my snark laterally, or upwards–not down. Not any more. If I am the advocate for teaching and learning that I say I am, then I need to walk the walk. If I argue that failure is not a defeat, but something on which to build successes, then how can I use others’ failures as fodder for cheap laughs?

When I was doing my Ph.D. work, our department had a graduate lounge for our exclusive use, and I used it plenty. Frequently, a certain one of my fellow Ph.D. students would come into the lounge after leading a discussion section and, without fail, just go full blast on his students. THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING! THEY CAN’T WRITE! THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND HISTORY! And then he’d get personal. “Student X is a slack-jawed yokel,” that type of stuff. And I would think: Dude, if you’re that cynical now (we were both in our mid- to late-twenties), then I want no part of you when you’re forty.

Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then; hell, the internet was still fairly novel. But I imagine that guy, and others like him, probably LOVE the “Dear Student” series done by the Chronicle of Higher Education on its Vitae site (which is geared toward job-seekers and grad-school, early-career academics). And, to be sure, some of the behaviors in these columns’ sights might look like easy targets–just like the laugh lines in those student final exams I decided to publicly make fun of back in the day. However, it’s one thing to vent by trading stories and frustrations among trusted friends and colleagues. It’s another thing altogether to vent to vast swaths of the internet. And when it goes beyond venting, there’s a real problem. The “Dear Student” columns are mean. They punch down. They inflate the pedantic into the problematic, and then humiliate rather than empathize. And I’m certainly not the only one who has this reaction; yesterday, Jesse Stommel wrote a magnificent and eloquent essay on why “Dear Student” is such an awful idea. The entire piece is a must-read, but his point about the climate this type of student-shaming work creates is worth repeating:

Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin…Giggling at the water cooler about students is one abhorrent thing. Publishing that derisive giggling as “work” in a venue read by tens of thousands is quite another. Of course, teachers need a safe place to vent. We all do. That safe place is not shared faculty offices, not the teacher’s lounge, not the library, not a local (public) watering hole. And it is certainly not on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, especially in Vitae, the publication devoted to job seekers, including current students and future teachers.

He’s absolutely right. As one who has been particularly concerned with the (mis)uses of power in academic settings, Stommel’s admonition hit home for me. He put into words much better than I could have why I still feel guilty about my previous Facebook venting.

Again, this doesn’t mean the end of snark and sarcasm. But punch up, not down. Powerful tenured professor berating students or misusing his power to make life tough for female, LGBT, or African American faculty? There will be richly-deserved snark. Political leader who adapts a belligerently ignorant stance to justify depriving others of basic rights? You will be roasted on Twitter, and I will applaud and retweet. But calling out students–giving examples of their mistakes or missteps? No. As educators, we are the ones with the power. Student foibles are temporary. Our reactions to those foibles can be permanent–for both us and them.

Consider the following Twitter feed:
Twitter12 Twitter5Twitter3Twitter4Twitter9Twitter8Twitter1Twitter11Twitter7

 

All of these, actually, represent some of the “highlights” of my own undergraduate career. If my professors had been on Facebook or Twitter, and thrown these out on the internet (and it’s not like any of this crap I did was in private), what would have happened if I saw or heard about this “venting?”

Would I have gotten it together and kicked ass in my (second) Senior Year?

Would I have believed what some of my professors told me, that I should try for graduate school?

Would I have gotten in to a Master’s program, then completed it, then gotten into a Ph.D. program with a fellowship?

Would I have asked for the help I needed to address my increasingly deteriorating “lifestyle choices?”

Would I have been lucky enough to be in a position like I am now, where I can teach teachers and students? And in doing so, experience daily growth myself?

I doubt it.

I don’t like shame. I run and hide from what makes me ashamed, and do my level best to stay hidden.

I don’t know if my professors joked about me at the coffee pot, or traded stories about me at cocktail parties. But I do know that they took an interest in helping a student who was trying to get his act together. I do know that they helped build academic confidence for a student who may not have always been receptive to that help. I do know that they offered advice, perspective, and support–as well as references, recommendations, and cheerleading–to a student who wanted to pursue their field of study at the graduate level. I do know that they did this even at the times when I didn’t look or act as grateful as I truly was.

The simple truth is that I am where I am today–in all senses of the term–in part because others did not shame me for the things about which I was already ashamed. I was the “Dear Student” who the Vitae series has dead in its sights. What might we lose tomorrow as a result of shaming today? What do we do to ourselves, our colleagues (present and future), and our students if we revel in punching down at folks who may not even know they’re targets? What–WHO–gets damaged?

We all do.

So, I humbly offer a revised column:

Dear Student:

You’ll get better at this. So will we.

Faculty (a.k.a. former students)


 

Online Collaboration: Scientists and the Social Network

Author: Richard Van Noorden
Original: Excerpts reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 512,126-129, copyright (2014)


twitter_nature

Why scholars use social media (Twitter)
Adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 512,126–129, copyright (2014)

“A few years ago, the idea that millions of scholars would rush to join one giant academic social network seemed dead in the water. The list of failed efforts to launch a ‘Facebook for science’ included Scientist Solutions, SciLinks, Epernicus, 2collab and Nature Network (run by the company that publishes Nature). Some observers speculated that this was because scientists were wary of sharing data, papers and comments online — or if they did want to share, they would prefer do it on their own terms, rather than through a privately owned site.

But it seems that those earlier efforts were ahead of their time —or maybe they were simply doing it wrong. Today, ResearchGate is just one of several academic social networks going viral. San Francisco-based competitor Academia.edu says that it has 11 million users. “The goal of the company is to rebuild science publishing from the ground up,” declares chief executive Richard Price, who studied philosophy at the University of Oxford, UK, before he founded Academia.edu in 2008, and has already raised $17.7 million from venture capitalists. A third site, London-based Mendeley, claims 3.1 million members. It was originally launched as software for managing and storing documents, but it encourages private and public social networking. The firm was snapped up in 2013 by Amsterdam-based publishing giant Elsevier for a reported £45 million (US$76 million).”

“Despite the excitement and investment, it is far from clear how much of the activity on these sites involves productive engagement, and how much is just passing curiosity — or a desire to access papers shared by other users that they might otherwise have to pay for. . . . In an effort to get past the hype and explore what is really happening, Nature e-mailed tens of thousands of researchers in May to ask how they use social networks and other popular profile-hosting or search services, and received more than 3,500 responses from 95 different countries.”

For study infographics, see below. For more on the survey findings and to read the complete Nature article: http://www.nature.com/news/online-collaboration-scientists-and-the-social-network-1.15711.


nature-remarkable-reach

Adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 512,126–129, copyright (2014)

nature-idle-browse-or-chat

Adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 512,126–129, copyright (2014)

Interview | The McGill prof behind ‘Shit Academics Say’

Author: Shawna Wagman
Original: University Affairs (10/21/2015)


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.

news_oct21_shitacademicssay_644

Nathan Hall opens up about his fabulously popular Twitter persona

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.