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:

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@AcademicsSay: The Story Behind a Social Media Experiment

Author: Nathan Hall
Original: Chronicle of Higher Education


I am not an intellectual, leading expert, or public scholar. I am a rank-and-file academic with the job of balancing respectable research with acceptable teaching evaluations and sitting on enough committees to not be asked to sit on more committees. And in my spare time, I run what is arguably one of the most influential academic accounts on social media: Shit Academics Say.

Since starting the account in September of 2013, it has grown to over 122,000 followers, gaining 250 to 300 new followers daily and ranking in the top 0.1 percent across social media influence metrics such as Klout, Kred, and Followerwonk. To unpack this a bit, tweets sent from my phone while recalibrating dopamine levels on the treadmill, or waiting outside my 3-year-old’s ballet class, are showing up in about 10 million Twitter streams and generating 200,000 to 300,000 profile visits a month, effectively making @AcademicsSay a bigger “social authority” on Twitter than nearly all colleges and academic publications. Not weird at all.

Although this might sound impressive, the popularity of the account is perhaps not surprising. First, academics use Twitter mainly for distraction, with tweets providing humorous details of academic content typically gaining the most exposure. Second, it is immediately apparent to new Twitter users that parody accounts like @kimkierkegaardashian, @NoToFeminism, or @SwiftOnSecurity tend to be more popular than traditional outlets — an observation that sparked an idea for how to personally connect with other academics in a not-boring way and on a scale large enough to have my procrastination count as research.

Like many academics, I have never been completely comfortable with the peculiarities, predilections, or pretentions of our profession, and have over time found myself both ashamed and amused while telling students to “please have a seat while I sit three feet away and finish this non-urgent email for the next five minutes”, or telling myself “I should be writing” when doing anything remotely enjoyable. And since starting this profession six years ago, I have also been regularly confused and frustrated by the cognitive dissonance I regularly encountered as part of trying to stay productive, employable, and, most important, fundable.

As a grad student, I had often heard that a retirement boom was coming, that course evaluations should not be believed until the third time around, and that all resubmitted manuscripts and grant applications are eventually accepted. However, I personally found these sentiments to be less than comforting after my own failed job applications (90-plus over two years), unsuccessful grant applications (15 since 2000), soul-crushing course evaluations (“He should have applied some of the motivational principles he teaches about to his own teaching.” — Winter 2015, paraphrased), and unjustified manuscript rejections (“I am a jealous and generally unhappy person.” — Reviewer 2, paraphrased).

And very much unlike a detached analysis of affect in which I was well-trained, I increasingly found myself dealing with unexpected combinations of emotion such as boredom/anger while grading, guilt/envy while reviewing a manuscript I should have written, or relief/shame after an internal grant deadline was extended. As an experienced overthinker, I was also able to convince myself that these wonderfully nuanced internal experiences were somehow unique to my beautiful mind. Whether it was self-disappointment over writing guilt on date night, resentment while teaching night classes instead of reading bedtime stories to my kids, or using humor to avoid feeling like a fraud while teaching content learned the day before or writing papers few would ever read, well-worn constructs like work-life balance and impostor syndrome didn’t seem to fit.

But I shouldn’t complain. I get paid to think about thinking about thinking, and start my first sabbatical this summer to ostensibly gain a “fresh perspective on an old problem” (aka: binge-watching Entourage). However, after a difficult year prepping my seventh new course in four years, accepting my sixth concurrent graduate student, and writing over 50,000 words to win at least one of three federal grants, I was burned out. I struggled to enjoy teaching, had little interest in writing, and, most heart-breaking of all, was no longer impressed by that special brand of meta-angst that can only come from grappling with motivational issues as a motivation researcher.

So why a Twitter account.

By the fall of 2013, I had done everything needed for tenure and was unusually motivated to do something that did not need a good reason. Something just for me, and not my CV. Although I had long disliked Twitter for its propensity for oversharing and groupthink, growing an anonymous parody account seemed like a not-boring way to poke fun at the profession that made my head hurt, maybe take myself a bit less seriously, and test an alternative hypothesis that I was not alone in being confounded by the curiosities and psychological challenges of an academic career.

What I quickly learned from Twitter was that my personal academic experiences were not at all unique, and more importantly, that it could be worse. Much worse. I was not a minimum-wage adjunct struggling to manage 12 courses a year and being fired at the end of each term. Nor was I a female, LGBTQ, or racial-minority scholar facing pretenure demands compounded by institutionalized roadblocks, or at risk of having my tenure revoked or position terminated by politicians or university donors. I was (and still am) a middle-to-upper-class white male who, although had trained for years for a job that perhaps wasn’t as intrinsically rewarding as expected, had job security, grant funding, and enough free time to Google “privilege guilt.”

So I soon started to take Twitter more seriously, and in addition to attempts at humor during my commute or while debating between an evening shift and Netflix, took a page from academic Twitter pioneers like Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) and began to experiment with academic community building. To my surprise, followers whom I had assumed were there just for the jokes seemed to very much appreciate referrals to informative hashtags, resource accounts, or professional-development blogs (e.g., #ScholarSunday, #GetYourManuscriptOut, @SUWTues, @AcademicKindes), with single tweets crashing websites and prompting unsolicited social network analyses or blog analytics.

More unexpectedly, this account also provided me an enviable VIP pass to connect with academics over some of the most fun, irreverent, and NSFW academic hashtags in recent years. Ranging from cathartic tweets about manuscript rejections (#SixWordPeerReview) and awkward attempts at romance (#AcademicValentines) to a torrent of sarcastic humor in response to gender bias (#DistractinglySexy), it’s hard to describe the giddy grade-school excitement of jumping into a rapid-fire fray of remarkably creative, clever, and brutally honest tweets from academics around the world ­— a uniquely engaging and not-often-enough experience unlike anything else in academia. And although I did occasionally attempt my own super-creative hashtags (e.g., #SixWordPaperTitle, #YoManuscript), I eventually settled on a better use for the account.

Over the past six months, @AcademicsSay has allowed me to recruit over 6,800 faculty and graduate students from over 60 countries to participate in three online studies on topics ranging from procrastination and impostor syndrome to work-life balance and burnout, resulting in one of the most comprehensive and international investigations of psychological well-being in academia to date. So beyond the account making my academic life maybe a bit less boring, perhaps the most important part of this experience for me has been the sobering realization of how deeply and widely these psychological challenges resonate with other academics and that I am in a unique position do something about it.

By January of 2014, I had reached 10,000 followers simply by joking about these issues, and was curious about how effective @AcademicsSay could be for conducting actual research. So I dusted off a failed grant proposal from 2011, submitted an ethics application, and started to apply “growth hacking” strategies to maximize account reach (e.g., adding images, pre-scheduling tweets, using Twitter lists). I began to pay attention to follower and tweet analytics, curate content for international exposure and cross-disciplinary appeal, and even created a graduate course on the topic as well as a parallel Facebook page that now reaches up to 1.5 million followers a week.

Basically, I have over the past 18 months been telling jokes on the internet and teaching myself about social media to give myself a meaningful shot at turning my anonymous online procrastination into an actual research program. Again, not weird at all.

So there you go. What was started as a private social experiment borne out of confusion and frustration quickly turned into something more: a one-of-a-kind experience of connecting with a previously unknown academic community through humor, an unexpected education in social media and higher-education issues, and an obligation to expand my research to address a very real need for longitudinal, large-scale studies on self-regulation and well-being in academia.

If you are a professor or graduate student and wish to participate in our study, please visit www.ame1.net/sas. If you follow at @AcademicsSay on Twitter or Facebook, thank you once again for your support.

And if you’re finding it increasingly difficult to convince yourself that pursuing an academic career was a not a terrible mistake, that your work impacts anything other than your CV, or that “data” is plural yet “agenda” is somehow not, you are not alone. I’m not sure if it gets better, but I’ll certainly look into it and get back to you 😉