Where academics procrastinate online and what this reveals about life as a researcher

As Shakespeare already said: ‘Thou shouldst be writing.’ © Taryn, CC BY-SA 2.0

Even the busiest academics need to pause every once in a while. Thanks to websites like ‘Shit Academics Say’ and ‘Lego Grad Student’ procrastinating online has never been easier. A look at a phenomenon which shows university life from a not so serious perspective.

In 2017 there is no prize for saying that the Internet is paramount for our daily lives. Such blatantly obvious statements are about as exciting as saying that the fire was the most important invention in the history of humankind, or that there seems to be rather a lot of Donald Trump-related news about lately. Still, the consequences are real and few groups feel them more than academics. After all, the Internet — the greatest performance project of all time, as Virginia Heffernan refers to it — is their invention. Forget about reliable communication after humanity has bombed itself back into the stone age during a nuclear war; the Internet’s primary intent was to make life easier for the people who made it.

Yet, as we all know, technology can be a tricky thing. Developed to solve one problem, it can quickly create three new ones where we least expect them. In that sense, the Internet quickly became a double-edged sword for its inventors: a useful tool for research, networking and idea sharing on the one hand, while simultaneously being the most powerful distraction from the very tasks that constitute research. With the Internet, procrastination upped its game. It’s not only your average Joe who kills time online by reading ‘1000 places to see before you die’ articles, or by watching cat videos, Kim Kardashian’s preposterous posterior or the latest creative vagaries of the five-year-old who appears to have hijacked the US-President‘s Twitter account. Academics do that stuff too.

‘Shit Academics Say’: Where academics go to have a laugh

Which leaves us with the question: Where do boffins go when they need a break? If I take a look around the Facebook and Twitter profiles of the academics I know nothing seems to be conspicuous at first glance. They are largely interested in the same stuff as the rest of the population, and why shouldn’t they be? It is only on closer inspection that I find evidence of a few websites which you probably wouldn’t expect to find among the favourites of a plumber from Beare Green. ‘Shit Academics Say’ is one of them. The genius behind the account is Canadian psychologist Nathan Hall, an associate professor at McGill University in Montreal. What started out as a place where he could share his frustrations and musings about academic life with fellow sufferers, quickly turned into an insiders’ tip owing to its snappy, sarcastic comments. By now ‘Shit Academics Say’ boasts more than 200 000 followers on Twitter only.

The popularity of Hall’s posts is due to more than just their witty language. It’s the things he talks about that ring a bell with many in the academic community. A post like ‘Academic life is 10% what happens to you, and 99% making it count for multiple sections on your CV’, might not sound funny for most of us, for an academic, however, it’s an ironic comment on CVs which are turned up to eleven to get an edge in the merciless race for position, attention and (most importantly) grants.

Other posts follow a similar trajectory. Writer’s block — a common disease among scholars everywhere — is parodied with comments like ‘Active voice: I will write. Passive voice: Writing will be done. Passive-aggressive voice: I love how you always say you’ll write but never do’ and on Valentine’s day, Hall surprised his followers with an Open-Access special: ‘Roses are red. Violets are- [See below for full text purchase options]’, of course referring to the sorry state that many academic articles are not available for free but have to be acquired for staggering sums if one’s institution has not subscribed to the relevant journal. Even procrastination in academia does not get spared on ‘Shit Academics Say’:

Both for academics and students ‘Shit Academics Say’ provides a welcome take on university life. Procrastination here suddenly no longer feels like a waste of time but becomes a self-reflective practice which helps to shake off the stress that often goes along with academic life. For those who cannot get enough of ‘Shit Academics Say’ but like it a bit spicier there is also ‘Research Wahlberg’, Nathan Hall’s first creation. You might be wondering what US-actor Mark Wahlberg — better known for his appearances in films like ‘Ted’, ‘Planet of the Apes’ or ‘The Departed’ — has to do with research and the academic world, but the answer is actually dead-simple: nothing. Despite, or in fact, because of this crass contrast many academics and students love to click through the countless Wahlberg memes, where statistics, p-values and the differences between quantitative and qualitative research are turned into saucy chat-up lines.

Life en miniature — Lego Grad Student’s look into the academic abyss

Another, less frivolous example of academic ‘memevaganza’ is provided by ‘Lego Grad Student’ which solely focuses on the woes and worries of — you can already guess it — grad students. In comparison to ‘Shit Academics Say’ we know very little about the mastermind behind this delightful collection of Lego-art. Apparently, he is a former PhD student at a university on the US west coast but that’s about where our knowledge of him ends.

His detailed Lego-miniatures are less concerned with science or research in general and more with on the social and personal challenges in the period between submitting the first research proposal and finally being bestowed the doctorate. Consequently, self-doubts, impostor syndrome, problems with fellow students, faculty or supervisors, financial troubles and a miserable social life are turned into humorous vignettes, with Lego serving as the extra layer that makes these sometimes painfully accurate and bleak portrayals bearable in the first place.

The remaining question is why these websites are so popular with academics around the world? Well, the first thing is, they are funny, like genuinely funny, especially as soon as one has taken a first look behind the curtain of academic life. Researchers need distraction, too, so why not in the form of self-deprecating tweets and blog posts?

© http://legogradstudent.tumblr.com/

More important, however, is maybe another factor. What all sites offer is a form of catharsis, a remedy through humour. Not only is it hellishly funny to scroll through the wealth of amusing material, it also offers academics a way to laugh about issues that are rarely talked about outside of academia, despite constituting an inherent part of their everyday lives. Jokes about lazy students, the agonies of the peer review process, or if one should rather believe in Santa or research grants might mean nothing to the rest of the world, but for academics, they offer the chance to let off steam about problems that follow them around like a loyal dog his master.

Finally, one of academia’s own might be the place to turn to, if we want to understand what’s going on here. In 1983, the late Benedict Anderson coined the concept of imagined communities. While Anderson initially developed his idea to analyse nationalism, his theory was soon taken up by other academics and applied to various parts of social life. According to the political scientist, a community is ‘imagined’ if its members are too scattered to know each other. Yet, they form a community not based on physical proximity but through shared values, ideas and interests. This exchange is enabled by media which transport these ideas through images, texts, or nowadays tweets, posts and memes. Therefore whenever an academic hits ‘like’ on a site like „Shit Academics Say’ or a student shares one of ‘Lego Grad Students’ posts, it does more than just strengthen these ideas through reiteration, it is also a signal that he belongs to this community. Just as the football fan waves his scarf to show everyone which team he supports, the academic tells the rest of the world (or at least his Facebook friends): ‘Look, I am part of this world!’

Or maybe I am wrong and it’s really all about procrastination in which case I really should stop here and get back to my coursework…

Felix Simon is a journalist and graduate in Film- and Media Studies of Goethe-University Frankfurt. He currently studies Social Science of the Internet at the University of Oxford and writes for the “Feuilleton” of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (F.A.Z.) as well as the online-edition of “Die Welt”. On “Mediumhe writes about various topics. He tweets under @_Felix Simon_.