Twitter suits me


I’ll admit up front that my view of so-called “Academic Twitter” is shaped by the fact that without Twitter – in conjunction with this blog – I wouldn’t have a “career” (if that’s what that it is) that has to do with academia (whatever this is).

We talked about academics and Twitter and academic Twitter because of a recent opinion piece at the Chroniclein which a trio of academics (Katherine C. Epstein, Irina Dumitrescu, and Rafael Walker) weighed in on the question, “Is Twitter making academia stupid and mean?”

Of the three short plays, Professor Epstein’s has been the most played on Twitter, probably because it is the most critical of Twitter and academics tweeting.

Let me start with general agreement that Twitter, as structured around “engagement,” does indeed reward the kind of behavior and talk that is counterproductive in academic spaces. It can bring out the worst in people and the examples of people (including academics) misbehaving are obvious and numerous.

But there are a number of other claims that are not so much wrong in an objective sense, but are so shaped by a worldview steeped in a narrow and perhaps too rosy view of academia, that they fail to capture the dynamics of academic Twitter.

Professor Epstein’s general argument is stated with admirable clarity: “Twitter represents the denial of the values ​​that academia is supposed to represent”.

These values ​​are:

  • Critical mind
  • The importance of know-how
  • Scientific rigor and discipline

I’m a fan of those values, so it seems Professor Epstein and I can find common ground, but I think she stumbles with her criticism of Twitter as a poor vehicle for critical thinking.

She argues that Twitter’s “grammar” (the 280-word tweet) is “designed to shorten the critical thinking that we in academia purport to teach.” This is not the place for “sustained, complex argumentation, the minimum unit of which is a paragraph”.

Even “tweetstorms” don’t count because they “don’t require the structural rigor” of longer forms.

For Epstein, the academic study is designed to “strengthen the muscle” of “complex argumentation”. Twitter “causes atrophy and even tearing of this muscle”.

While no one should confuse a tweetstorm with an essay in terms of an end product, Epstein confuses an end product with something (critical thinking) that is properly considered a process.

Capturing an idea in a tweet that will grab attention and advance understanding is actually quite a difficult feat, requiring great message and audience focus, hallmarks of critical thinking. Of course, tweets don’t require critical thinking, but for Epstein’s claim to be valid, the format would have to make it impossible. This is manifestly false.

My most recent book (Sustainable. Resilient. Free. : The future of public higher education) was conceived on Twitter, hatched on this blog, and is now “born” like the book.

I also don’t forget that the tweets and blog posts get a lot more attention than the book and have had a lot more influence on other people’s thinking. To the extent that I’ve sold books, it’s almost 100% through the profile I’ve built online and via Twitter.

If I were an academic, I understand that only the book would count as productive scholarship, but luckily for me, I don’t have a job!

Professor Epstein’s next complaint is that “the mix of credentials and personal identities in Twitter’s bios attacks the concept of expertise”. Epstein thinks knowing that someone is both a teacher and a “cat lover” confuses readers as to which person is offering a particular opinion at any given time. She says, “Professional credentials are a shared resource. When individuals devalue the title by abusing it, they devalue it for everyone.

I don’t know what to say other than that if I was on Twitter I would respond to this tweet-length claim with a meme of The great Lebowski featuring Jeff Bridges as the main character with the quote, “It’s like your opinion, man.” Knowing that a professor is a human being with passions outside of his discipline has never diminished my opinion of his scholarship or his teaching.

The biggest problem with this statement is that professional titles are confused with the existence of expertise. I’d like to believe that some people consider me an expert in things like the pedagogy of writing, but I don’t have the credentials strictly to point that out. I have never been a teacher. I don’t have a doctorate.

In other words, to modify one of the earliest internet memes, “No one on Twitter knows you’re a deputy.”

On Twitter, I follow dozens, if not hundreds, of smart, critically minded and committed academics who are in contingent positions or who have left mainstream academia, people who don’t have the credentials that Epstein appreciates but who nonetheless have valuable contributions to academic discourse.

I would argue that academics’ use of credentials (and rankings built into elitist structures) as a control mechanism over who is qualified to speak does more harm to academic discourse than professors confessing which football team they follow in their Twitter bio.

Although there are obvious downsides to the open nature of the platform, it is certainly possible to use it in a way to draw attention to your ideas and increase your visibility among academics and non-academics alike. .

I am thinking here of one of my role models as a public scholar, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, whom we now know as an opinion columnist for the New York Timesauthor of a National Book Award finalist and fellow of the MacArthur Foundation (among many other accomplishments), but I remember reading for the first time on Twitter and his blog (

While Dr. Cottom was building a strong scholarly profile of refereed publications, she was also writing broadly and penetratingly for a wider audience, writing that included tweets.

Now, I wouldn’t say Twitter was necessary for Professor Cottom to realize what she’s accomplished – I tend to believe talent of this magnitude wins out – but I would say her ability to raise her profile apart from the access control mechanisms of higher education played a role in her ability to devote herself fully to her work and to obtain the recognition she deserves.

I’m sure well-meaning academics told her not to blog or tweet, but luckily for all of us, she didn’t listen and in turn became a widely read vital voice in American culture.

Finally, Professor Epstein calls Twitter “a fundamentally unscholarly place, without responsible editors, and without even the pretense of peer review”. This is where one goes to self-publish, or less generously to talk about scholarly topics without any of those irritating checks and balances that scholarship demands. The academy consists of scholars discipline, unsophisticated do what you want.

It’s true, but then? No one would say it is the equivalent or substitute for a peer-reviewed college scholarship.

And while there is no peer review, there is certainly an opportunity for peer feedback. I often use my network of scholars on Twitter to pitch an idea and receive feedback and criticism. I also don’t have to wait months for an answer.

I also note that the academy’s credentialing and hierarchy structure seems to make room for “do whatever you want” for some elite faculty. For example, Steven Pinker is not only allowed, but rewarded for straying from his core discipline of linguistics and into a book about the Enlightenment, a book that true Enlightenment scholars don’t think will pass.

In fact, it’s on Twitter that Pinker enlightenment now has been subjected to a small amount of peer review, as evidenced by Ted McCormick’s verification of some of Pinker’s footnotes and finding them willing (to say the least).

In this case, we see an academic on Twitter acting as a necessary fix to a top academic who has reached heights where the potential peer review fix doesn’t matter.

If someone in (or out of) academia asks me if they should be on Twitter, I tell them the truth, I have no idea. It may be a terrible place, but it’s also a place that – at least for me – has been much more welcoming and supportive of my academic pursuits than academia itself ever managed.


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