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Social Media, Service, and the Perils of Scholarly Affect

Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Robin DeRosa
she” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0

I am not a scholar, at least not in the traditional sense.

Almost 5 years ago, I wrote How Highered Makes Most Things Meaningless. It also appeared on Inside Higher Ed. It remains one of the most-read pieces on my old blog. And even though I don’t post there anymore, my old Blogger site still receives over 2,000 hits a month. Five years later, I’m still left wondering whether the work I do online counts. It matters, but does it count?

Recently, William Thomas, Chair of the Department of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities and Professor of History, offered a typology for digital scholarship. He breaks it down to three types: Interactive Scholarly Work, Digital Projects / Thematic Research Collections, and Digital Narratives. What strikes me in these categories’ descriptions is that they are all still deeply embedded in traditional forms of scholarship and scholarly expectations: theory, rigor, methodology, evidence, citation.

Scholarship, even in its digital form, is still narrowly considered. We are conditioned to accept old rigor in new clothing.

But my work, what I do on Twitter and through my blog and elsewhere, has become a kind of Thematic Research Collection, one that other scholars are mining for their own scholarship, but lacking in some of the other features Thomas describes. He defines Thematic Research Collections:

Combining tools and archival materials framed around a historiographically significant or critical problem, these projects are sprawling investigations into a major problem … Scholars embed interpretive affordances in the collection and use these affordances to open up new modes of inquiry and/or discovery … Often traditional peer reviewed scholarship is derived from the thematic research collection. The next phase of thematic research collections might feature interpretive scholarship embedded within and in relationship to the collection.

My “sprawling investigation” includes (but in no way is only about) contingency, gender, and digital labor and affect. My network, my RT’s are my curration, my pulling from various sources and formats. But my work through social media is also highly personal, history as it is happening. This is the natural progression of working “out loud” the way I do, and in fact I celebrate and embrace the deepening and understanding of evolving fields. However, that my work is considered secondary, in terms of its scholarly rigor, is problematic — who really benefits from the work I’m doing?

Perhaps the resistance to my work as a legitimate scholarly exercise comes from the simple fact that I didn’t set out to create something “scholarly” when I began tweeting; however, I always tweeted as a scholar, academically trained and practiced, and I did and do always tweet with a purpose. Maybe not an explicitly stated thesis, like an essay or book (although I have tweeted and blogged enough for at least two scholarly tomes), but a purpose informed by my positionality as well as my evolving scholarly understanding and knowledge. I have informed and inspired scholars and scholarship; for examples of studies that heavily rely on my work on Twitter for their research and conclusions see here and here and here. Maybe it’s because *I* haven’t yet made the final step, which is turning my work into peer-reviewed journal articles. Tressie McMillan Cottom has a powerful example of turning her own experiences and work in social media circles into an important journal article. But should I have to? Should anyone have to?

As a result, I am, for lack of a better term, having an impact. I am being cited. But the work being cited and where it is having an impact are outside of traditional models of scholarship. I am embodying the challenge of dual relationships and context collapse in higher education. Except the institution doesn’t recognize much of the work, and the context collapses into an abyss of work that isn’t seen as work, scholarship that isn’t really scholarship.

There are those who are trying to articulate the argument for Networked Learning and other Digital Scholarship to “count” — scholars such as Bonnie Stewart, Deb Verhoeven, and Martin Weller are pushing open the definitions of scholarship. I want to argue, however, that coupled with the non-traditional appearance of digital scholarship, how digital work has been described and named within the academy remains a serious obstacle to its full legitimacy.

It has been largely agreed upon that blogging is not scholarship, at least not in consideration of peer-reviewed scholarship that we typically consider in hiring, tenure, and promotion. In fact, blogging should instead be considered service. Service, the most maligned of the pillars that academia is built upon, even more so than teaching. Service, the most gendered and racialized of the pillars. We can never do too much research and scholarship. We are warned against teaching too much. But we are often punished for too much service. Except when we are also punished for not doing enough.

At this past year’s MLA, there was a session on these tensions between teaching, research, and service, and the unequal nature of the conversations around them (here is the Twitter archive of the session). While it isn’t captured in the Twitter stream, there was an observation from the panelists that there is serious intellectual work, research, and synthesis in many of the service duties imposed by administrative responsibilities within the institution. This kind of service work could and should be seen as a form of scholarship.

Can we then also think about the serious intellectual work, research, and synthesis involved in the so-called service work many of us are gladly partaking in through Twitter and blogs and other forms of digital engagement? These kinds of skills, of transferring knowledge and communicating with different audiences, of collaborating and developing networks in a variety of circumstances, are valuable to our institutions as well as to our students.

I am, in very real ways, a primary source, one that is being used in scholarly research. I am also a better pedagogue because of what I have learned through my social media work. One of my hypotheses is that social media work involves a great deal of affect, of emotion, which is again, a gendered and racialized concept, particularly when considered alongside traditional scholarship, typically understood as unbiased, informed by fact and not feeling. Scholarly networks of trust and of collaboration that rely on affect to be effective, as well as traditional scholarly research and dissemination.

But then, how do we reward or measure or acknowledge this form of work in an environment that typically only rewards dispassion and “neutrality”, where passion, as bell hooks notes, or “excitement … was viewed as potentially disruptive” (Teaching to Transgress 7). hooks is pointing to how she is to appear in the classroom, but this excitement, these emotions, are even further excluded in the treatment of our research, particularly through our writing — to show emotion is to be unprofessional, unserious, unworthy. To be a professor is to be a professional and to be a professional is to limit affect.

Aimée Morrison recently wrote about her coming to terms with the emotional nature of teaching and learning:

“Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.


When I teach, I necessarily make myself incredibly vulnerable to my students, by reaching out to them with ideas and sources and methods and assignments and illustrations, and asking them to hold on.”

The title of the post is “Teaching and All The Feels”, while I could have just as easily titled this essay, “Research and All The Feels.” The work I do on social media, the research, the teaching, the learning, all involves a great deal of emotion, of vulnerability, of excitement, of disappointment, of affect. This is work that is not particularly valued in higher education, work that is seen as feminized, as irrational, as less-than. My affective, intellectual work, my service-through-social media are not valued.

But how do you measure the impact, the rigor, if my blogging and social media presence are, in fact, a form of scholarship? Four years ago, I wrote a blog post about contingent faculty issues, as they related to my disciplinary organization. The post lead to a pretty intense discussion on Twitter with then-incoming MLA President Michael Bérubé about the importance of tenure, and was followed by another blog post. Four years later, this book by Bérubé is set to come out.

I bring up this example for a number of reasons. Although it lacked the trappings of more traditional scholarship, my blog posts and subsequent discussion on Twitter were deeply informed by both personal experience, observation, and research. I had an impact, I helped reshape someone’s, a very important someone’s, view on contingent faculty issues, tenure, and academic freedom. I was involved in the “conversation” at the highest level for my particular profession, a conversation however that was as filled with strong emotion as it was sound research.

But I doubt the exchange (and subsequent blog posts and conversations) will show up on the Works Cited page. Who gets cited, acknowledged, named are all important considerations when it comes to the reward system we have set up in academia. If we aren’t cited or show up in citation indexes, we sometimes quite literally do not exist. These formal academic networks of citation are about the livelihood of aspiring scholars and academics. But they are also about respect, about recognition, about being included.

These are preliminary thoughts, the start of something that I hope turns into a much larger conversation. There are still things I haven’t read, people who know more than me whom I haven’t spoken to. But, what started as a feeling, for me, of something unrewarded, unnamed, unspoken, informed five years of being immersed in social media and networks and my own embodied experiences within and without, has become a tentative place to start having a larger conversation around the critically affective work being performed by scholars who would not be called scholars.

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