A Serious Academic, am I, am I

The Guardian posted this article on academic use of twitter yesterday and, rather predictably, academic twitter “blew up,” which for academics means using a hashtag to furiously state how important being online is and sharing a blog post by the Tattooed Prof. I did not partake in the hashtagging (#seriousacademic), but I did a lot of stroking my chin and murmuring to myself in support of these statements, support that alas the various tweeters had no way of recognizing due to my silence. If you’re reading this now, consider your point well received. So, academic twitter stirred itself gently into the frustrated simmer sometimes described by the overly dramatic as a frenzy, and before very long we had identified the writer of the original piece as the personification of academic privilege, an avatar of whiteness and lecturing and tweed, the vanguard of insidious power structures and cultural expectations that demand conformity and make exclusion an art form. We did all this, and I say “we” despite my twitter silence because yes, I was in there too, nodding and stroking my chin in a really rather patrician and conformist academic way indeed, when perhaps I should have been flexing or base jumping while reciting the opening chapter of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or something, I was there in spirit; we did all this because we are academics, because it is 2016 and everyone and their dog now points out cultural and political structures of limitation with gusto as if we figured it out a few months ago, and because those structures are terrifically insidious and have a nasty habit of continuing to accrue influence even when being cited as an ultimate, almost eschatological, target of opposition.

Incidentally, that paragraph had monstrous, unfettered sentences and willful use of commas, which are both things serious academics do not do, unless you consider the fact that they spend so much time telling each other not to do these things that serious academics actually do this a lot. In fact, we do a lot of things we tell ourselves not to do, not because academia inherently promotes contradictions (although it does) but because we are human beings.

Anyway. I agree with many points made yesterday, and as someone who spends a lot of time on twitter, I both recognize and share the desire, the need to defend and champion the value of being an academic person who uses the Internet. History Respawned is one of the most enjoyable and intellectually rewarding things I have done in my career, and it simply wouldn’t exist without the kind of engagement decried in the original Guardian article. Indeed, Bob Whitaker created the series specifically with that engagement in mind, but according to traditional ways of evaluating scholarly work the series has little value. As Dean Burnett and Kevin Gannon (the aforementioned tattooed professor) do such a great job of pointing out, online engagement and the use of online tools, including twitter, actually democratizes academic work and allows for boundaries of engagement to expand in exciting and unpredictable ways. Speaking personally, my favorite thing about being an academic on twitter and on the Internet more broadly is how extremely forgiving it is. To date, if you follow me on twitter or visit this blog you are more likely to hear my thoughts on a video game, professional wrestling or the state of Liverpool FC’s midfield than you are to encounter a considered discussion of academia. Yet when I do seek to make contributions, or share some thoughts on History Respawned or another project, there are people there to offer opinions or support. The beauty of it all is that the borders between these various things are porous, to say the least. I revived an interest in professional wrestling mostly out of a desire to write about it academically. I take the importance of academic engagement with video game culture very seriously. I am a sports historian, and so although I am likely to ask the University of California Press to publish my book that explains, once and for all, why Robbie Fowler was the best striker playing in English football in the 1990s, it is rather important that when I write about public engagement with a capitalist spectacle that I have some inkling of what I am talking about not just on an intellectual level but on a level somewhat deeper (that is still, in its own way, a vital part of the intellectual mind). Essentially, it is very much a plus, and not a minus.

It is also an aspect of academic life I very much did not expect. I have a significant amount of sympathy for the author of the original piece, because his or her writing created an important conversation based entirely on the presumption that they were utterly, utterly wrong. This sympathy exists despite the fact I agree that their argument was essentially incorrect and badly expressed, in fact my sympathy pours out because of this, because I have done the same thing myself, but also because I remember being in graduate school. My own preconceptions were completely skewed. I imagined myself as an older man (magically, with my 20s and 30s taken care of by Time) doling out wisdom to young minds and seeing my work adorn the bookshelves of the world. In essence, I saw myself working at an imaginary institution one part University College Cork (my alma mater), one part Yale University and one part complete fiction. Those were not partitions of equal dimension, either. The predominant culture in graduate schools across the country in response to this, horrifically, convinces most graduate students that their failure to attain such a position is irrefutable evidence that they are inferior. Inferior to others, yes, intellectually, as writers, in every possible way that you could think, so that there are thousands of people wandering the United States today with doctoral degrees convinced, deep down, at least in their darker moments, that they are nothing but a drag on society and a failure. This is not helped by the putrid state of the academic job market, but neither is it limited to the ranks of those not in tenure-track positions. So, yes, I have sympathy for the writer of the original piece, because either they are one of the lucky few who will get a job at one of the top fifteen or so destinations in the country, according to those preconceptions, and thus live out a life of blissful ignorance, occasionally writing an op-ed for the New York Times or a similar publication complaining about how difficult it is to research while having to teach more than one class at a time; or, and this is more likely, they will be vomited out in a few years to a job market that, if I can be rude for a second, does not give a shit about them and is cruel in ways that were described to me in detail but that I still failed to recognize until I encountered it. Cruelty that only became more apparent when I did get a tenure-track job and others did not.

It is all ahead of this young writer (I assume for the purpose of having a subject to consider in my head while I write that they are in their early 20s, which is egregiously ageist of me and also inexplicable, as I was not in my early 20s when I began graduate school) and I wish them the very best. The article also touched on something else of interest. Academics are very, very good at making work for themselves, at taking a good thing and thoroughly ruining it. This has led in large part to a Tyranny of Good Ideas in the form of progressive pedagogy, which when cited and shared uncritically essentially assumes those who continue to lecture in the Year of Our Lord 2016 CE probably end each semester with some kind of ritual where the students partake in lots of chanting and nodding towards an enormous figure in the quad woven from thistles and twine before burning it with monographs written after 1978 as kindling. It also leads to extremely confusing, sometimes downright oppressive, ways of evaluating one’s contribution to one’s institution (for those of us in academia who have one; I didn’t miss the point of Dean Burnett’s piece, I promise). As a result, academics across the United States labor towards research expectations established by experience at wealthy, elite institutions, despite having a fraction of the resources and time needed for those expectations to make sense. It is not reasonable to tell someone she will be teaching eight classes a year for the next five years but that she probably needs a book in production, or an article in a “top tier” journal, or whatever the standard of her field may be, by tenure and promotion time, but that is happening. A lot. I share the frustration across academic twitter in the last two days that good work done online and engagement on twitter and digital projects without notable funding do not garner enough attention from institutional administration in conversations that affect careers. I have spent massive amounts of time working on video episodes and podcasts designed for a broader audience, and it can be galling to see it listed somewhere as a supplementary bonus, equated with vague elements of service to the university no one can figure out how to categorize, rate or evaluate. That impulse takes a lot of the fun out of academic life. It is important we do not allow ourselves to get to a point where young academics have to maintain a significant online presence as a minimum. We must recognize it as a plus in a sea of pluses being produced by academics of differing styles and backgrounds and interests. It is vitally important that we do not take something vibrant, something that celebrates possibility, and craft a set of expectations that then become standardized. That is an old trap. That is where this concept of the serious academic, in the more pejorative sense, thrives.

The strongest argument in favor of academic engagement online is the one that celebrates the diversity engendered by such activity. Not participating should be allowed to be part of that. Just, you know… try not to stake out your own hill and claim it as the only legitimate spot. The beauty of it all lies in its freedom. I should point out that being active online takes time. Sometimes a lot of time, depending on what you are doing or what your goals are. It is time that needs to be recognized. Some of of us have it, some of us do not, some of us want to spend it doing other things. Do whatever you want. The freedom is what it is all about. The freedom to just talk about video games (I just finished the first two Dark Souls games, and they are very good), the freedom to write a blog post, check it for spelling errors and just post the thing, the freedom to say or write things and know they will be heard or read, because I am a serious academic, and this is serious stuff, but it is nice to have spaces where we can just talk and experiment and let everything run together. It is a lot more fun this way.