A Blog Post About Blogging & Social Media In Academia. Specifically Theatre. Featuring: Risks! Rewards! With an Appearance By: The Near-Criminal Neglect of Pedagogy Training in Grad School!

I went a-conferencing this past weekend, to the American Society for Theatre Research in Minneapolis (#astr16). I was invited to speak at a career session called Beyond the Journal: Social Media, Blogs, and Podcasts, with scholars Brian Herrera , as moderator and general theatre/social media/digital writing expert, and Pannill Camp, who spoke about the important and exciting On TAP podcast. It was pretty awesome to somehow get invited to this party (if a 7:30 am Sunday session can be considered a party. Indulge me.). Many thanks to the Career Sessions organizers for the invitation, should they ever stumble across this post.

There was quite a bit of overlap in our discussion. A quick-and-dirty overview of topics that arose: unpaid labor versus service; whether or not things like podcasts and blogs “counted” (they don’t – thus, service); rewards, risks, audiences, and codes; tools (and who owns/controls/funds them); finding a voice (or voices, in the case of On TAP); structure, origins, methods, and sustainability.

We were told to prepare some informal remarks. I, however, thought that it was appropriate to generate a blog post when presenting on blogs. So with my usual ass-backwards brand of logic, I whipped up some thoughts, and then proceeded to self-edit and skip over quite a bit in the session itself for the sake of time (and so that I wouldn’t bore anyone to death). But here’s the long version. Feedback, comments, and debate are welcome, as always.

More than a few higher ed bloggers/advisors suggest that you create a “digital presence” before going on the job market. “Don’t let ratemyprofessors.com be the first thing a search committees sees,” they say;  so, I created a site for myself over three years ago. I tentatively posted something (mostly nonsense). It felt…awkward.

I joined Twitter around the same time I created the site. Twitter gave me a better sense of trends and conversations in other fields. Grad school is a lonely and isolating experience, and somehow Twitter opened things up for me, ever-so-slightly, towards the end of my doctoral studies. While you have writing blinders on, it is sometimes difficult to realize that other disciplines even exist. I wasn’t wildly active initially, and I still don’t have a ton of followers, but Twitter lets me peek into (and sometimes participate in) conversations I wouldn’t otherwise be having. There are still academic silos (and there are academics researching how academics use Twitter, silos and all), but between back-channeling at conferences and these aforementioned productive openings, Twitter has been helpful for me.

And, frankly, if Twitter and Talisker did not exist, I wouldn’t have made it through the recent debates.

Initially, this all felt a little dirty, this venture into social media and blogging. There was a self-promotion aspect that I was not entirely comfortable with. Typically, you share your, “hey, look at this thing I just posted!” message on social media. You might find yourself tracking your stats and “reach.” GoogleAnalytics has a particularly troublesome feature, where you can see IP addresses by geographical location. This was dangerous during active job searches, and I will admit I checked this as often as the AcademicJobsWiki: both were horribly depressing.

By the way – thus far, my most viewed and shared blog post is titled “The Ways in Which Indiana Jones Lied to Me About What My Life as a Professor Would Look Like.” There are .gifs. Hard-hitting stuff, clearly.

Did setting up a site or joining Twitter – i.e., getting an active “digital presence”– make any difference on the job market? The answer is an absolute and resounding no. Two years on the market, with all the “right things” – fellowships, publications, strong letters, teaching materials – etc., and I didn’t get an interview anywhere: except at my current institution, where I had worked as a Writing Fellow, an adjunct, and on a full-time sub line. By the way, I noticed that I am perhaps one of…three? community college faculty at the conference, which I find…interesting. And I love it at LaGuardia Community College. But all the work I poured into the site was for naught when it came to the job market. It is another thing that I maintained and built for academic work; another unpaid labor, another investment of time and money when I couldn’t probably quite afford to devote either (like, you know…conferences), all in the hopes of somehow networking or getting “the job” (again, like…conferences).

But, this isn’t to say I regret it. I don’t regret coming to ASTR this year either, even if I’m paying for 60% of it. It has been an awesomely fantastic conference. And that 60% is still a much better deal than a lot of people here: especially as I am speaking from a position of privilege, with a full-time tenure track job. Too many of our colleagues have no such support.

So – why no regrets about my increased digital presence? Mostly, because I quickly grew to realize the value of social media and digital platforms, beyond my initial assumptions about shameless self-promotion in a horrendously dehumanizing and soul-crushing job market.

These digital spaces allow me to share my research and teaching, to reflect on shortcomings, to realize when I’ve hit a wall, to tweak things, to exchange ideas – and to develop my writing voice. I feel, in many ways, the spirit of exchange that could be enacted via digital platforms is antithetical to the aims of graduate education. In grad school, there are different objectives: dominating, controlling, and manipulating your material; planting your flag, in imperialist fashion; peeing on your niche-cum-fire hydrant (apologies, I promised some folks that I would work that metaphor in). You must mark your territory, and establish yourself as an expert. That is your “thing,” which you are then expected to dispense of, in expert-like fashion. Your exams and orals and defense are made to reify and solidify your expertise and your contribution, and to perhaps summarily dispose of you, if you show weakness or gaps. I am not decrying expertise: what I am deploring is the fact that this expertise comes at the expense of the reflective, sharing, and communal practices that shape good pedagogy, good learning, and stronger academic work overall.

Teaching is a craft and a practice. If someone claims to be an expert in teaching in the same way one is an “expert” in their field, I get awfully nervous. The self-doubt and critical reflection that we see as “impostor syndrome” in our scholarly work is exactly what makes good teachers–this desire to constantly self-improve and acknowledge weaknesses. We’re not going to get better at this craft of teaching unless we share our materials, our successes, and our failures with one another. Some have mentioned to me that ASTR and other conferences serve as an escape from teaching and their daily lives as educators. But I don’t see how our scholarship is sustainable if we do not nurture students and thinkers – and future teachers, if we are working with graduate students. As Susan Bennett said earlier at this conference: “We have the privilege of education and support. Our most important job is to provide access opportunity to students.”

My blog became, in large part, a way of publicly sharing materials and reflecting on my pedagogy. I know some folks hoard their teaching materials: and why wouldn’t they? We are told throughout graduate school to “protect our work,” and as a result we cultivate it in fervent isolation. Teaching is a labor that often goes unrecognized, undervalued, and certainly under-funded. Teaching is somehow consistently frowned upon within many disciplines in higher ed, as something that is not as worthy of our time and efforts as “scholars.” It makes sense that one might be protective of the materials that took hours to generate, often with little or no institutional support or mentorship about pedagogy. In this position and with this prevailing attitude towards pedagogy, many grad students new to teaching end up needlessly reinventing the wheel. I have been told by entirely too many colleagues that they shudder to think about what went on in their classrooms the first couple of semesters when they were beginning to teach. I believe the lack of pedagogy training in most graduate school programs is damn near criminal. Until we address this deficit, we must get more teaching materials out there for people to adapt and remix for their own purposes.

For me, the results have been tangible, and rewarding. I have had numerous graduate students, colleagues, and virtual acquaintances give me feedback, thank me for just sharing materials (full stop), and – most helpful and fantastic –  tell me how they have improved on or otherwise tweaked these materials. My own teaching has been bettered by these exchanges.

And it’s not just our pedagogy that can be enhanced by these venues. My scholarly work online has been productive in ways that my peer-reviewed scholarship hidden behind a paywall cannot be. Blogging helps keep me honest – or at least makes me attempt to be honest – during research trips or while working through material. I used my blog to document my trip to the Gettysburg Sesquicentennial, and I’m trying to work through some late 19c plays featuring the Civil War for a series called Bad Play Fridays (it was supposed to be weekly. The last post was in August). After expanding a dissertation footnote into a blog post, I got to share a bit about Charles Sager –  an African American playwright and stage manager at Chicago’s Pekin theatre – for a CBC radio story. My institution is quite large, and the site has increased my visibility and my involvement in other projects on campus.

More importantly, digital spaces are workshops, where I can informally think through things and get feedback and advice (both virtually and face-to-face, when I encounter colleagues in the flesh). It lets me explore a voice that I don’t always have access to in the confines of peer-reviewed writing. Mostly because they seem to often frown upon cussing and gifs.

But, most of all, I think that we need to be open and exchange our ideas beyond the peer-reviewed journal, beyond the conferences where many cannot join us (due to financial or life situations), and well beyond the departments, niches, and fields where we work. As scholars of theatre and performance, I often think it odd that we are stunningly narrow-minded about conceptions of our own audience, and questions of accessibility.

A recent thread posted on Twitter (November 2nd) by Clint Smith, a doctoral candidate in Education at Harvard neatly gets at what I’m after – and I think his point can be applied to other forms digital communication (blogs, podcasts, etc.) as well.

There are risks. There is the question of academic freedom that some may (or may not) have, as was pointed out in the replies to Smith’s tweets. There are issues of platforms: who owns it? Is it sustainable? How might our exchanges or digital selves be monetized or exploited by corporate entities? Are these platforms truly accessible?

For PhD students or recent grads, already overwhelmed with unpaid labor, immersed in the anxiety of the job market, and coping with poor working conditions: please realize that cultivating a digital presence might not be a worthwhile endeavor immediately. I’m not saying –  “don’t;” but I’m also not saying, “OMG, if you don’t do this right now, you aren’t going to get a job.” But if you are a mentor to graduate students, you should seriously consider how you support your mentees – especially in terms of pedagogy – and make teaching materials accessible to grad students, digitally, even if it is a resource that is cultivated and maintained within that department only. (And, you know – do actual PD in pedagogy. Often. And make teaching-related assignments part of your grad school courses.). TT faculty members, as a whole, should ask how they might use digital platforms and social media to make their own work more accessible to students, colleagues, future teachers, and the general public. Let’s consider how we might “commit to ideas,” and to sharing them, beyond the “traditional” academic venues.   

Header image: “Isolation,” rich_f28. Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0.

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