My university’s PR department recently invited me to talk about the benefits and limitations of using Twitter in support of research and teaching. As a communications professor (trained as a sociologist), I spend a lot of time playing with digital media, experimenting with and thinking critically about how technology affects intellectual labour, the delivery of education, and social relations among faculty, administrative staff and students.
Universities are confronting the effects of social media, as are medicine, public health, law, government, policing and other major societal institutions. Incidentally, these institutions were also forced to confront and adapt to the introduction of myriad other kinds of technology, from presentation software like PowerPoint to the Internet, video recording, the microphone, the fax and photocopier, television, the telephone and…well you get the picture. One recent experimental study concluded that if used effectively and in support of sound pedagogy, Twitter has potential for enhancing student learning and increasing engagement. Another study provides a compelling argument which challenges the transformative potential of social media in the classroom. Funding agencies, such as Canada’s Tri-Council (SSHRC, CIHR, NSERC), are more assertively encouraging grant recipients to promote ‘uptake’ of their research to a variety of end users (e.g. policy makers, community organizations, clients and consumers of social services, etc.), and have developed knowledge mobilization strategies to advance this agenda. Although tweeting about one’s research is not in itself a strategy for dissemination, if used effectively it can support a range of knowledge mobilization efforts, such as producing documentary films, brochures, theatre, and other media that advance the core findings of funded scholarship.
In my presentation I covered how I use Twitter in five different ways, and referenced a recent online conversation I had with other professors who use Twitter in their work (here’s the Storify version of that conversation).
Research: Twitter is both an object of analysis and the medium through which I do some of my research. Some of this work examines how social media is altering the ways institutions and actors within the arenas of politics, business, and civil society communicate. I’ve explored how Twitter and Facebook have affected local and national political campaigns, been used to promote NGO and nonprofit causes, as well as how corporations use digital media as a tool for managing crises and restoring reputational damage. I am also increasingly conducting “live research”, which involves monitoring social media for “hot” events in several areas of substantive interest (e.g. public health, environment, and homelessness). This blog post about the 2011 Ottawa endoscopy infection scare (which I’m presently developing into a journal article) was written over the course of several days after news of what occurred was first live-tweeted at an Ottawa Public Health news conference.
Building Profile: I described in my presentation how I use Twitter to supplement traditional knowledge dissemination and profile-building activities, such as writing for peer-review and attending scholarly conferences. In practice, this involves linking peer-reviewed research (my own or work by others) through my Twitter feed if the research addresses a contemporary issue or event that may be generating or attracting policy or media attention (see examples here and here). I will admit to having felt uncomfortable about “flogging” my own work in this way. Eventually I came to realize that I write not just for myself but in order to be read, not only by other academics but a variety of audiences: policymakers, journalists, community organizations, activists and people in business.
Professional Networking: if funded, my next project will apply ethnography to examine the occupational rhetoric and culture of public relations in an agency setting. Although I worked for a brief time in a PR firm years ago, my knowledge of the cultural milieu of PR agency life remains essentially impressionistic. Importantly, no serious qualitative research into PR agency life has ever been done before. Twitter has been a valuable tool for helping me to network and build rapport with public relations educators and practitioners, both of whom spend a lot of time using social media in their work.
Twitter has also been instrumental in helping me to meet and learn from other researchers in my field and other disciplines. In addition to using Twitter to search for and share research, I also use Academia.edu, a social network for academics, to assist with literature reviews and to ask questions of other scholars who post their work (published and unpublished) on their profile pages.
Teaching: I described how Twitter allows me to share links to news reports, clips from films and other pop cultural artefacts, as well as current or emergent research about course-relevant themes and topics. Sometimes this has taken the form of what I call a “trailer tweet” that provides a snapshot to help focus a broader discussion. To prime my second year communication studies class for a lecture about the Frankfurt School and its critique of the culture industries I tweeted (during the early days of the Occupy Movement in the fall of 2011) an interview with Theodor Adorno in which he talks about the relationship between popular music and protest.
I have also used Twitter to pose trivia questions that relate to course material and to solicit feedback from students following lectures or presentations. All of this activity is used to supplement other efforts of communicating with students in person, on the course website, and in the classroom. It’s unclear whether this activity has made a lick of difference in terms of enhancing student learning and increasing engagement. At this point I would conclude that while it may be helping to keep students aware of the course between classes, it hasn’t helped foster intellectual curiosity, analytical thinking, or debate. Yet I remain interested enough to continue experimenting and evaluating, and learning from others who are doing the same.
Personal: I also talked about my use of Twitter for things that have nothing to do with my work. Twitter is one media platform among several others I use to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues, and to share aspects of my personal life that are not directly related to my work: the funny things my kids say, promoting social causes I care about, and my love of music, sport (especially cycling and running), and even television (although, technically, as a communications professor I only watch and talk about Mad Men for the science). It’s also a great space for participating in crowd-sourced satire.
Some might dismiss this activity as excessively mundane, but so what? University professors log on, goof off, and look things up too. My friend Richard Smith, who is the Director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) at Simon Fraser University, writes that while tweeting about silly things “might not be the most edifying use of a communication medium…we can all afford a bit of drivel in our lives. At the very least, it shows others that we are human, too.”
Finally, I concluded by summarizing what I see as some of the main benefits and potential drawbacks of the time I spend playing around and working in the digital mediascape. While it has certainly contributed to and enhanced my research, profile building, networking and teaching, it is also a demanding activity that takes time away from other things I could be doing, like preparing for a class, finally finishing that journal article or enjoying an extra 30 minutes of sleep. There are also important ethical questions relating to privacy, power, and identity, among other issues, that I can’t possibly address here but which I think about often. Moreover, I remain unconvinced that social media is truly as ‘transformative’ as digital media enthusiasts would tend to argue . Finally, I also reflect a lot on the self-promotional nature of this activity and of the dilemmas this raises about the commercialization of academic work.
If you’re a university or college professor who embraces, is curious about, or refuses to use Twitter in your research, networking, or teaching, I’d love to hear from you. I’m also keen to hear from students about their experiences using social media in the classroom. And if you just want to tweet me what you thought of this week’s episode of Portlandia that would be cool too. You can find me on Twitter @josh_greenberg.