Twitter is (mostly) a meritocracy. Academia (mostly) isn’t.

14 05 2012

What I enjoyed most about Katrina Gulliver’s “10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics” is that it reminded me of how different academic tweeting is from actual Academia. Take this point, for example:

A common error I see some academics make on Twitter is to set up an account solely to promote a new book or project. As academics, we all have things to promote from time to time: books, conferences, calls for papers. But in order to promote something successfully on Twitter, you need to already have an audience. Why would anyone follow an account whose sole purpose is a sales pitch? Build an audience first, and the audience will follow if they like you and will then listen once you have something to pitch.

How do you build an audience? Unless you’re Niall Ferguson (who obviously gets people to follow his account without Tweets because he’s on TV), you do that by being interesting. On Twitter, that means you have to be witty, funny or useful on a regular basis for a very long time.

But here’s the beautiful part: It doesn’t really matter who you are as long as you’re interesting. As Karen Kelsky wrote the other day:

What I learned in my years in the academy, particularly as an administrator, though, is that the academy is actually far more commonly a land of rule-followers and risk-avoiders. It is the ultimate hierarchical organization. I mean—grad student->asst prof->assoc prof->full prof->endowed chair->dean-> provost->chancellor-> president—this is a hierarchy as intense as any military or corporate system.

People at the bottom of the academic hierarchy have just as much chance to collect Twitter followers as tenured professors do, and I think that’s just awesome. I say this from a position that’s pretty much right in the middle in every sense of that word. I know idiots and geniuses both above and below me because success in academia, at the very least, does not depend at all upon whether or not you are interesting.

So what does it depend upon? Look, you can probably answer that question as well as I can so I’m not going to anger anyone unnecessarily by trying to cover everything. Instead, I want to try to take another bite at the apple and see if I can explain what I tried to say in this post a little better than I did last week.

Success in academia depends upon whether a market exists for your services. I studied labor history in graduate school oh so many years ago. The year I got my current job, there were a grand total of two ads that even mentioned that specialty as part of the job description. I was very fortunate to get one of those jobs. However, had I studied something else, I would have had a lot more places to apply.

This seems self-evident to me now, but I really wish somebody had told me that while I was still in graduate school. You can be the best job applicant ever, but if you studied in a field where nobody’s hiring your merit won’t help you a bit. Likewise, if you’re applying for a job at a teaching institution and nobody taught you how to teach, that institution isn’t going to be willing to take a chance that you can learn when there’s an experienced teacher applying for the same job (and there almost certainly is in this day and age).

Graduate advisors need to understand that their students operate as part of a labor market. Indeed, so do they (which may explain why I haven’t got a raise in the last four years – at least until July). Your dean probably understands that they sell their services on the labor market. In fact, I bet that’s why they wanted to become an administrator in the first place.

Too bad we all don’t get paid for tweeting, huh?


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5 responses

14 05 2012
Katrina Gulliver (@katrinagulliver)

Thanks for the shout-out!

14 05 2012
Rohan Maitzen

“Success in academia depends upon whether a market exists for your services. . . . ”

That’s true at so many levels, and it it also runs counter to an idealized concept of academia, not so much as a meritocracy but as a place that above all cherishes the free flow of ideas and information.

“Graduate advisors need to understand that their students operate as part of a labor market . . . ”

I’m curious, given what you say here and in other posts, whether you are comfortable describing the Ph.D. (in the humanities and social sciences, at least) as “professional” degree. I had quite a long exchange – on Twitter! – with a colleague about this that turned in part on his refusing that description in favor of calling the Ph.D. a “research” degree. While the idea of it as a professional degree may be reductive (I believe his word was “utilitarian”!), I wonder if his alternative isn’t wishful or even a bit dodgy given what students (in my experience) embark on the degree for (not research for its own sake but a job in academia).

14 05 2012
Jonathan Rees

Rohan:

I wish it were a “research” degree, but we all have to eat.

15 05 2012
Polly

Niall Ferguson. Ugh.

5 06 2015
¿Cómo te haces con una audiencia? | Almacén de Derecho

[…] Jonathan Rees, explicando que twitter es una meritocracia y la universidad, no. […]

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