dozens of mannequin hands arranged on a table, holding pocket mirrors
17
Nov
2015

Redefining Service for the Digital Academic: Scholarship, Social Media, and Silos

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Written by
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Reviewed by Jessica Knott and Sarah Honeychurch
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mirror communication” by Tobias S.; CC BY-NC

I appreciate the agility available to the digital academic, but there is something a bit fun-house about all of this to me.  Every day as part of my work as a college English professor and department chair, I encounter scores of new people in the digital space.  We have exciting conversations about teaching and learning; we are shaping a new kind of work in higher ed.  

I also encounter several different versions of myself.

  • Sitting at my kitchen table with a smartphone and a laptop trying to figure out how to do a live chat on Periscope as part of growing audience engagement around a new book project — and not being sure which screen to look at.
  • Arguing in a meeting for why using a WordPress site for a major service initiative, instead of our university’s assorted content management systems and portals, is a better idea — more “agile.”
  • Running a Twitter account for a scholarly journal I edit — and getting notifications about myself.

In his book The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual, Donald Hall talks about a holistic vision of academic work, one that integrates research, service, and teaching.  Furthermore, he talks about the necessity of such a vision for creating a fulfilling career, a kind of self-fashioning, and he tries to give academics the equipment they need to argue for the fruition of that vision, that self, within their own institutional context.  

Some days, I see my academic self as multiplatform, in a sense.  That self is fluid, moving with some ease among the silos of research, service, and teaching; that movement is facilitated by the networks I’ve created and the networks I share throughout the digital space.  Like the pathways in a brain, they crisscross, they intersect, there are multiple conduits for information and multiple opportunities for synthesis.  As someone who has always seen research and teaching and service as existing in symbiosis, I’m comfortable with this fluidity.  When I write about assessment on our Middle States self-study blog, I’m reflecting on my teaching.  When I teach my students how to use our course blog to analyze and write about illness bloggers and making pathography public, I’m adding to my own research on life writing and narrative (not to mention reflecting on my own practice as a writer).  When I work on a scholarly project about teaching modernist women’s writing in English, I’m learning more about my own teaching, and seeing connections between pedagogy and a long-standing research agenda.  When I work as the editor of a digital journal, I conceptualize what it means to participate in a scholarly community, and that thinking comes to bear on much of my other work.  And much of this takes place in public, in my discipline and at my institution, within this vibrant network of other academics,

Sometimes, though, when I’m updating my editorial content calendars for four different blogs, toggling back and forth between multiple Twitter accounts, and moderating comments with bated breath hoping they stay civil, I ask myself how it happened that my job description as English professor and department chair came to include social media manager.  Is this an inevitable state of affairs for the digital academic?  Is it service?  Is it scholarship?  Is it part of my work as a writer or part of my work as an administrator?  How do I manage the emotional labor costs that come with this work?  How do I manage the multiple versions of myself?  Of others?

At the inception of these endeavors, and for the most part, I envision my work in the digital realm as a creative response to the objectives and demands of both service and scholarship.  I find producing content for these sites to be an act of creativity.  Furthermore, I envision in the design and implementation of these sites different versions — for campus colleagues, for scholars in my field — of networked community.  Using the platforms at my disposal and my ability to write for a variety of contexts and to a variety of purposes, I see these tasks as having the potential to support the work of my colleagues at my institution, in my discipline, and in higher ed at large.  By its very nature these endeavors also demand a kind of emotional labor, as well as intellectual labor, an ability to engage multiple people from multiple perspectives:  managing anxieties about the future of the institution and academe, supporting and flourishing good ideas, celebrating accomplishments.

These endeavors require the valuing of transparency and responsiveness, a willingness to work in public and to help others feel comfortable doing the same.  Perhaps as a digital academic, I can activate participatory networks in my “service” as I have in my “scholarship,” a process which has been theorized by Bonnie Stewart.  I imagine the space of the Middle States self-study site, for instance, as offering an opportunity for members of the university community to not only learn about the work of self-study and accreditation, but also to ask questions, to critique, to probe the nature and value of the endeavor.  Once those networks are activated, though, the boundaries between “service” and “scholarship,” the boundaries that keep those networks self-contained, start to dissolve.

I think a lot of this is valuable work — the creation of rich content that is meaningful to my institution and discipline, the managing of these sites as a way to engage audiences and develop digital communities and networks, the labor of the digital academic that seems to pay off in exciting collaborations and continuous feedback and interaction as more and more of us can engage across time and space in new ways. I want the online spaces I manage as part of my work as a faculty member and chair to be the networked, and supportive, communities that generate great ideas, as I find in other aspects of my work as a digital academic.

This has stopped seeming like service for me.  It seems like something else.  Digital work is both creative and affective.  It generates new knowledge for disciplines and for institutions, and it makes the connections needed for cultivating human and social resources.    

Lee Skallerup Bessette talks about social media work as scholarly, suggesting that it should be shifted out of the silo of service and into the scholarly.  When service work is devoted to the intellectual health of an institution as well as the intellectual, scholarly, and pedagogical goals of colleagues both on campus and beyond, does it not cease to be merely “service” and does it not shift into the realm of the “scholarly”?  If digital work, if labor in the realm of social media facilitates these aspects of what it means to be an academic, then it seems we can deploy in very helpful ways that symbiotic model offered by Donald Hall of the academic self.  

My sense of both exhilaration and exhaustion at the end of a workweek managing this aspect of my job tells me that interpersonal interaction around academic and intellectual labor is more important than ever — no matter that it takes place primarily in the digital space.  Furthermore, it is essential to many of the “products” we make in higher education:  students who feel personally attended to and fulfilled, colleagues who feel like their contributions matter, writers with whom one works who value editorial intervention and collaboration, administrators who feel like we’re all on the same page when it comes to “mission” and “vision.”

Perhaps engagement in the digital realm can allow us to flourish that symbiosis and synthesis in others.  As I think about the “social media creator” component of my job description, I realize this work could be redefined not as “service,” but as something else:  the creation of opportunities for scholarly communication around the intellectual work of the university, and the creation of opportunities for flourishing colleagues in their own attempts to craft an academic self.  The digital can provide a space wherein we might find possibility for ourselves in the dismantling of silos, and the generating of symbiosis across service and scholarship.

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