Recently, an old debate (well, old in the online realm) reared its ugly head again. The debate centers around one question: Is it right to tweet during a conference presentation? The same question was raised during the 2012 Modern Language Annual Convention, and it seems the debate rages. Apparently, some scholars would rather not have tweet bites (you know? Like a sound bite?) of their presentations sent out on the popular social media platform.
This debate adopted the hashtag #Twittergate, which is a hashtag I’m not particularly fond of because it evokes imagery of Richard Nixon reading his resignation to the nation. That is, it evokes a feeling that something illegal or wrong has been done. I take issue with the hashtag as only a means to bridge the Twitter chasm. It is a symptom of something within the academy, and that thing is certainly not illegal or wrong. It is, however, something much worse: It is sinister. But, I’ll get to that a little later.
Academics Love Silos
Let’s face it: Academics love silos. As much as they suggest they want to be interdisciplinary, their actions suggest otherwise. Academics are odd creatures. First, one will complain about lack of public funding but then will get upset about open access publishing. Meaning, an academic only wants something with the word “public” in it if it benefits them. If it doesn’t benefit them, then they don’t care. Open access publishing is public. Anyone with a laptop and Internet connection can access those publications.
Or, perhaps, an academic will lament their low pay and complain about people not understanding how much work they do but then won’t create dialogue with those same people to show them the work they do. I suppose what’s paramount to understanding the academy is it’s terribly contrarian, and while this isn’t always a negative quality, it doesn’t always lead to much progress academic contexts.
So, it’s not particularly surprising some academics would disagree with someone tweeting their conference presentation. I mean, the idea of letting folks outside one’s own field and the academy entirely hear about your work is absolutely crazy, right?
An academic’s identity is tied to a place, and these places are often disciplines. Even when one academic moves, they still seem tied to their home discipline. Furthermore, these places are walled off from the other places within the academy, which, in turn, are walled off from the rest of society. Does anyone else see a problem here?
It’s getting to the point where I am shocked moats have not been dug around department buildings on campuses, lest a comparative literature person should wonder into the sociology building. These types of issues provide enough ammo to mentally exhaust those inside the academy and to confuse those outside the academy.
In many ways, oppression happens in the places where it should be fought. The academy is one of those places, and the silo is an excellent example. A silo stops entry. It denies. It detains. It shields. It insulates, and it is difficult to scale. When an academic leaves their campus, they often wear their silos on their sleeves as badges of honor. They identify: This is who I am, this is what I know, and this should tell you if I’m willing to engage with you or not. So, taking a kernel out of an academic’s silo as they present is an unacceptable violation of their silo. While this is most certainly not true of every academic (for example: I know many academics who want tweets flying around), it’s so silly even a minority is worthy of discussion.
Don’t Tweet My Work. Oy Vey.
This gut reaction to shield one’s work seems rooted in ego, which is something I’m coming to shortly. But, before we get there, let’s talk about public. First, I abhor the public/private dichotomy. I don’t think it exists, and I’m currently working on a project focusing on its undue pervasiveness. However, this dichotomy shows up often in discussions of social media.
The argument from the “Don’t tweet my work” academic is threefold. First, they hold that their work is still in progress, and therefore it is not ready to be “published.” However, this argument is flawed because “to publish” means to be available to the public. So, by presenting at a conference, an academic is engaging in a form a publishing.
Second, many academics fear their ideas will be stolen, and tweeting will contribute to this theft. This is a ludicrous argument. Other academics do not sneak into sessions to tweet tidbits from the presenter’s talk in order to steal ideas. If we were to follow this logic, then every student who has ever taken notes during a class has stolen from a teacher. Should we confiscate those notes? Of course not. That would just be silly.
Third, academics seem to have a habit for holding onto their work more securely than one holds onto a newborn infant. They do not want to let it go, and many are convinced their work is the best work to have ever graced the hallowed halls of their institution. They believe they are delicate and unique flowers, and their ideas are also delicate and unique flowers. These ideas are beyond reproach and critique. This should not be surprising. We are ingrained with this thinking in doctoral school, and it is quite difficult to break out of it.
The publicness of an academic’s work at a conference negates their assertion that they should not be tweeted. I’m sorry, but if you don’t understand the concept of how a conference is public, then you might need to go back to doctoral school.
But, since we’re already here, let’s talk about it briefly.
An academic conference is by definition a gathering where people openly discuss their work with others. It is a public space. You stand in a room of your peers, you present your work, and then you await feedback. It’s a traditional practice and one that often produces boredom. Still, some people can’t be there and can only follow along with tweets. Others are in different sessions and follow along from there. Or people simply use their tweets as a means of note taking and archiving.
The point is all of these things are permissible at a conference regardless of a few academics’ feelings. All of this happens in a public space where people are often expected to have their laptops open and connected to the Internet. There is no expectation of privacy and to even attempt to force an expectation on an attendee who is tweeting is laughable at best. Why is it laughable? It is laughable because it assumes the academic forcing privacy into existence at a conference actually has the authority to do so. As many know, academics have little authority outside of the classrooms where their students are often held hostage.
Something Sinister This Way Comes
Ego. Everyone has an ego, and it serves both positive and negative functions in our lives. Ego makes us feel like we can do something impossible, but ego also turns us into insufferable prigs. It certainly isn’t that cut and dry; there are a multitude of egotistical states to be found in this world. However, I’ve never encountered an ego quite like an academic’s ego.
It seems egos become inflated in the academy for various reasons. Yet, one aspect seems to happen more often than other types in the course of an academic’s career: selfishness. The type of moralistic and criticalness coming from an academic clinging to their semblances is a dangerous and sinister thing. (This could perhaps be labeled psychologically as the “super-ego” but, for this post, I’m just going to call it “ego.”)
I’ve seen and heard of instances where academics become threatened by the very idea their notions will be shared with public audiences. This mentality reinforces the silo idea of the academy: some are in and some are out. Either way, it is detrimental to the progress of the academy and an enlightened society.
Honestly, when I hear or read academics complaining about people tweeting during their session, I chuckle. I chuckle because I wonder what silliness the academy will show me next week, especially if the silliness of this week is about tweeting. This type of urge to deny access to work in progress or work close to finished can be summed up in a short phrase reminiscent of toddlers: “Mine, mine, mine!”
It’s not my goal to be aggressive, but this attitude is ubiquitous in the academy. It happens a lot, and it seems we still abide it. Why? I don’t know why. I have a feeling, like most humans, academics want to be “liked”; thus, they don’t always confront humanity’s ugliness in the office next to them. I don’t blame them. It’s a hard world, and we all have to get by the best we can.
But, I grow concerned by the idea that academics really think they have power over other individuals in conference sessions. Actually, I find it sort of insulting. No academic of any rank has the right to tell me when and when not to tweet. Period. To assume they do is to highlight exactly how high an opinion they have of themselves.
What I think we forget about conference sessions is the audience is there as a courtesy to the presenter; it’s not the other way around. If I am at your session, it’s because I want to hear what you think. You should be grateful for my attendance because there are 50 other sessions I could easily go to, and in some circumstances, you would then just talk to an empty room. We should always be grateful to our audiences.
The selfishness of the academy is the sinister being of the hallowed halls. If your conference presentation is tweeted by many, then you should jump for joy. If it is tweeted by none, then you should ask yourself, why?
But…But…What About Context? Or Respect?
Finally, we land on the walls of context where those on the outside are the removed proletariat public jockeying for the chance to witness the mighty and hallowed noble academy deliver them a morsel of honeyed knowledge. The argument being as one tweets, the tweet bites are out of context. The kernel is removed from the cob leaving us an incomplete picture of what transpired.
My comment regarding this is one of interest. Well, it is of interest because I wonder if those who argue something is out of context are familiar with Jacques Derrida: Il n’y a pas de hors-texte (There is nothing outside of [con]text.) Everything exists within a context. Those tweets, while removed from the context of the conference room, now exist within the context of the conference back channel. As such, they mean different things than they once did. This is, however, not a negative thing. It should be seen as a teaser, and something encouraging people to react and engage via Twitter. Sometimes the most profound insight or advice arrives to us in 140 characters.
The argument for context is a trite one. It is almost meaningless because by suggesting one who tweets a conference presentation is removing a tidbit from the context in which it arose is ludicrous. The tidbit still exists within the primary context of the conference room, but it now exists within a different context–a secondary context– as well. There is nothing wrong with this idea, and academics should not be afraid of it. The only difference between the primary context and the secondary context is that academics presenting have absolutely no control or authority over the latter. It is this lack of control that infuriates and irritates them.
This issue of control leads me to the issue of respect. There is the understanding of respect within the academy that because one is an academic they must be granted a certain level of respect. Not to harken back to my childhood with a lovely fatherly idiom, but my grandfather and father have always told me: “You don’t just get respect. You have to earn it, and it doesn’t matter who you are.” I believe this, and it applies to academics as well.
I apologize if this bucks the norm, but just because you’re an academic, it doesn’t mean you automatically have my respect. As a teacher, my students have to earn my respect, and I have to earn theirs. Despite this homegrown folksy advice, we are told if a presenter tells us not to tweet their presentation, we should respect them and not tweet it. Sorry, but I don’t think so.
It’s not my job to bend to the fearful and chest-thumping whims of an academic presenting at a public conference in front of many other academics who are their to do the same. My job, as I see it, is to disseminate knowledge that remains cloistered. I think it is the job of those in higher education to spread knowledge like a virus. Knowledge should spread like the medieval plague, and Twitter is one way through which I cough knowledge onto others.
I would tweet your presentation even if you didn’t like it. I would tweet your public, verbose, and dry presentation even if you glared at me. I would tweet your presentation even if you stood over my shoulder screaming in my ear. The point is it’s not that I don’t have respect for you; it’s just I have more respect for knowledge than for a single academic ego.
I do have respect for people who stand up and release their ideas into a sea of critiques. All I do is prolong the flight of the ideas a little longer and in a little more brevity. Social media has become an integral part of our culture. We should not spurn it.
Perhaps we need to change how we think about conferences. Academics should go to conferences with the assumption everyone is tweeting their presentation, everyone is working to disseminate knowledge, and everyone is working to spread their ideas. In this way, academics will be better prepared to engage with both face-to-face and digital audiences, and they will come with a presentation they aren’t afraid to share.
A public conference space isn’t a space to hide your ideas. If you do, what’s the point in going? If it were that much of a problem for you, perhaps it would be best to stay home or just attend and not present.
There are options besides attempting to regulate and censor information at a public meeting of intellectuals. The dissemination of knowledge should be our highest priority–not the appeasement of academic aggressors.
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