“Elegy for the Library”

This morning I read a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by novelist Mahesh Rao (@mraozing). Online it has the title “An Elegy for the Library”— but in print it seems to have had the title “Lost in the Stacks”, pointed out by Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself) on twitter. “Elegy” — in the sense of lament— might be the right word for a piece that celebrates the virtues of libraries while maintaining an anxiety about their potential demise. But the idea of being “lost” (and found) in the library is also fitting — as Werner pointed out. In the NY Times piece, Rao does a good job of demonstrating the social power of a library as a public place. In Mysore, India, the library ‘lists “uninterrupted lighting” as one of its services — a real draw in a city that suffers from frequent power cutoffs. This is a place of refuge.’ In a world awash with information, librarians are the guides — Rao points to a poster of a Neil Gaiman quotation: ‘Google can bring you 100,000 answers but a librarian can bring you the right one.’ The agency of people and how they shape knowledge is stressed. Rao cites journalist and academic, Sophie Mayer, and her sense that in a library “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge – the book.”

This piece made me think of the libraries that I’ve used. In Glasgow, my hometown, there was a public library by my house that was attached to a Victorian-era swimming pool. I vividly remember reading Euripides’ Hippolytus in that library. The swimming pool has since been knocked down, but the library, I’m glad to say, is still there.

One of the powers of the library is the fact that it is a public, and physical, structure that persists. Its physicality is striking in a world where our information is increasingly created and stored on the internet. And its public nature is important. At my current university (University of Southern California), its research libraries are open to the public — which makes me proud. One of the characteristics of world class universities is the fact that their libraries are closed off from the public, and carefully guarded. When I was an undergrad at Oxford, my late night reading sessions at the Bodleian felt rarified. Rao’s piece stresses the democratic principles of a library, without using the word itself — the idea that public access to knowledge is important, valued, and supported. Rao is talking about the experiences of a library that anyone can have, but, as an academic, my experience of the library is privileged. With the institutional blessing, I have a kind of access that many don’t.

 

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Digital humanity?

In many ways, I’m not a digital humanist. I don’t know how to code. I’ve never built a database. I don’t work with “data”. My research would be quite challenging to communicate visually (with charts, infographics) in a way that would be satisfying. I have a basic literacy in html which is pretty much obsolete now. A lot has been written about the fact that “digital humanities” is difficult to define, exactly. When I was at Patrick Burns’ Ancient MakerSpaces digital classics workshop at the 2017 SCS — which showcased tools for creating and managing digital information within the field of Classics — it occurred to me that I had a different background than the majority of the other audience members. Many of the individuals in the audience had a similar level of technological literacy to the speakers — they could understand the presentations from a technical perspective in a way that I simply couldn’t. But I think it’s important for people like me — perhaps more “humanist” than “digital” — to be present in such spaces. These are the ways in which I do consider myself a digital humanist: I am present in a scholarly persona online, and I believe that scholars should be engaged in the project of the internet. I’m a digital humanist in the sense that I want to tell the stories of the humanities online, using its tools to reach a larger audience, and to increase the reach of learned networks beyond its traditional limits. And I see the benefits of bringing the forms of the internet, which encourage discussion, into the classroom (with blogging etc.).  And someone like me can perhaps help make bridges between the digital and non-digital humanists. Even if you yourself as a scholar are not engaged in a particular aspect or practice developing within your field — such as digital humanities — you’re still influenced by these developments. Weller (2011: loc 2612) calls this “network weather”, i.e. “changes in your environment are occurring because of other people’s use of these technologies and the behaviour they facilitate, even if as an individual you are not engaged with them.”  The digital humanities — which gives us online editions and commentaries of texts, databases of papyri, digital books, thousands of high quality images of ancient objects facilitated by creative commons license, and more — are already pretty incredible, and are only going to get better and better, provided they find continued support, financial and otherwise. It’s up to us to shine a light on these projects and tools, and to make sure our students — especially the graduate students who will shape the next generation of Classics — are given the opportunities to learn and use these tools.

Review — “Social Media for Academics”— Mark Carrigan (2016)

We’ve been speaking a lot about Classics outreach lately. And most agree that “outreach” – in the sense of a one-sided “reaching out” – is not quite the right term anymore. Alison Innes (@InnesAlison) recently argued for the term “engagement” rather than “outreach”, since engagement suggests a notion of exchange rather than the flow of knowledge in only one direction. The preference for engagement over outreach has been visible for a while — this was the takeaway from the “New Outreach and Communications for Classics” panel at the 2017 SCS, where speakers described community projects: teaching Latin to kindergarteners, high schoolers; working through Homer with combat veterans; connecting classicists outside of academia. The notion of outreach as engagement and collaboration is also at the core of the new Classics and Social Justice group, which wants to bring Classics to the least privileged in society. There have been some questions lately about whether or not twitter can be a useful tool for Classics engagement — in this debate, I stand firmly on the side that sees the value in twitter. There is much more to “outreach” than can be accomplished by social media alone, but it’s still a valuable place to start.

 

 

I use twitter in my scholarly persona — I tweet about my research, I live tweet conferences, I interact with other academics and non-academics interested in Classics, I find news about my discipline on twitter. If I were teaching right now (I have a research fellowship), I would be using it in the classroom. But I wanted to learn more about academic twitter from a scholarly perspective – to learn how it’s studied as a social phenomenon by academics. For this, I turned to sociologist Mark Carrigan’s (@mark_carrigan) book which came out last year, Social Media for Academics.

 

social-media-for-academics
Mark Carrigan, Social Media for Academics. Sage; Los Angeles. 2016. ISBN: 9781446298688

Although Carrigan’s book contains many helpful tips for academic blogging and tweeting, it’s not primarily a how-to guide but rather a sociological exploration of the state of academic tweeting as it exists today. As Carrigan writes (loc 166)¹, social media develop so quickly that by the time a scholarly work is finally published, the information it contains is already outdated. The first chapter begins by describing the almost unimaginable volume of information which is published on the internet every day, citing the Internet Live Stats project. If you click on this link, you can have the frankly nauseating experience of seeing how many blogs, tweets, emails, skype calls, tumblr posts are being made/sent in real time. But it’s a powerful way to show the vastness of the internet, its modes, and its growth. Sometimes social media are maligned as essentially superficial — but something more complicated, with greater consequences, is going on. Social media touch our personal lives, our political lives, and the state of our knowledge. Recently, I tweeted about how the current POTUS’ use of twitter will force future historians to come to terms with the nature of social media and its impact on society and knowledge — a compelling reason why scholars should now be involved in the project of the internet.

One of the best things that I got out of this book is that the notion of “scholarship” doesn’t have to be defined by the memory of past models, but by the actions which we now take. Carrigan — citing Weller (2011: loc 105)— writes that “scholarship is what scholars do.” The tautology of this definition is actually helpful – it can free us from saying “this action isn’t scholarly”, and allow us to say “well this scholar is doing this, therefore by definition it is included in the remit of what scholarship is.” Being freer about the definition of what is or isn’t scholarly can allow scholars to embrace parts of themselves that they feel they have to hide to live up to the image of academia. I’ve written elsewhere about how it’s no coincidence that those who are attracted to scholarly twitter are those from groups typically underrepresented by the “professor” archetype (PoC, women, LGBTQ+) — twitter is a new(er) space where the performative associations of the “professor” don’t have to be enforced. In fact, Carrigan notes that, if you are an established or even famous scholar, you can’t assume that that is enough to attract followers or to foster a positive reception of your social media presence (loc 2239). This is because social media is about prolonged, consistent engagement. It’s about what you’re saying in the moment, and it’s as much about listening as it is about broadcasting. 

What becomes clear over the course of Carrigan’s book is that the main activities of scholarship — writing, publishing, networking, engaging — are all involved (and, arguably, enhanced) when scholars use social media. The only difference is that, when we use social media, the actions that are essential to the life of the scholar are taken in public. 

For Carrigan (citing dana boyd 2014), social media have specific and significant qualities which bring scholarship into the public eye — persistence, visibility, spreadability, searchability

  • persistence: once ideas are posted they (theoretically) last forever— “the experience of twitter is similar to that of being at an academic conference, but a conference in which our conversations linger on indefinitely in the room” (Carrigan loc 276); in this sense, social media is a form of record keeping
  • visibility: ideas once posted can be seen by many people — with a platform like twitter, you don’t even have to have an account to see what’s happening on it; using social media brings your scholarly work into the view of the public, to whom you may otherwise be invisible — and it can also make your work more visible to other scholars 
  • spreadability: ideas once posted are easily circulated — sharing or retweeting brings information into the sight of your friends or followers, who can then pass it on to their friends or followers
  • searchability: ideas once posted can be found with search terms— and since they are persistent and visible, i.e. are lasting and accessible to everyone, ideas can be found even if they haven’t been widely circulated

Carrigan is sensitive to the issue that “public” is a complicated idea; he opts instead to call the online audience “publics” (loc 1174). When scholars use social media to publicize their own work, and also — by extension — the kind of work done by their discipline, who are they talking to? Although Carrigan mentions the usefulness of social media in teaching students, this is not his main focus — he redirects his reader to Megan Poore’s guide, Using Social Media in the Classroom (2016). Instead, the interactions which he seems to focus on are between scholars and other scholars; between scholars and non-scholars. It isn’t exactly the case, Carrigan says, that when we use social media we are really trying to talk to “everyone” (loc 1149) — instead, we’re engaging in a kind of narrowcastingdefined by Poe (2012) as “the transmission of specific information to specific interest groups.” Narrowcasting may seem to support the view that twitter is an echo chamber, but Carrigan argues that the scale of the dissemination of information via the internet is much larger than anything we’ve known before (loc 1159):

This is a potentially transformative environment for academic research because it means that intense specialisation need not lead to cultural marginality. Even the most seemingly obscure topics have a potential audience outside the academy.

There is an assumption that because academic interests can be very specific, there isn’t an audience for that level of fine grained detail. Well, that’s not the case. Talking about a topic to people who are interested is powerful — it may not be that many people in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still many more than would have access to you, if that access was predicated on entry into a university environment.

And when academics use social media — even in a “professional” persona — we’re bound to include elements of our lives beyond just our work. Carrigan suggests that this can create a “new collegiality” between scholars (loc 894), because it draws attention to the obstacles faced by individuals which otherwise might not be spoken about. From personal experience, I find this to be true — I think of Ellie Mackin’s (@EllieMackin) open discussion of the challenges facing early career academics and the challenges of maintaining mental health in academia, which have found vigorous support in the online community.

Carrigan also points out the potential for social media to present a fuller picture of a scholar when “all manner of ephemera…get aggregated together into a stream, mean[ing] you sometimes get better acquainted with someone through a process that is almost osmotic” (loc 936). The aggregate view of the scholar is something that I love about twitter. At some point or another, you may read my CV, or some personal statement, or a research proposal. And certainly, we have to work hard rhetorically in such documents to make ourselves understood, to seem vibrant, to demonstrate our value. But you’ll really get to know me as a scholar if you follow me on twitter; you’ll get a sense, after the accumulation of hundreds of pieces of tiny information, of who I am – what my values are, how I do my research, how I interact with my community. You’ll also get a sense of who I am as a human person.

Blogging is also a large preoccupation of Carrigan’s book. One of the issues with scholarly blogging, which doesn’t seem to be explicitly stated by Carrigan but is definitely on my mind a lot, is the fact that we as scholars work hard to produce research that we can’t really give away for free. Our success depends on publication in traditional media — we get promoted because we write articles and books. One model suggested by Carrigan which gets around this problem, is that scholars can “blog about the work, but not blog the work” (loc 735). Academics can write about the process of writing, as well as sharing resources which have been encountered during the research. Carrigan brings up the issue of speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously, and how various prominent bloggers deal with this. He cites Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winning economist who blogs for the NY times, who labels the more technical posts as ‘wonkish’ in the title to signal potential difficulty for mass readership. And then, there’s our Mary Beard, who writes short blogs for the TLS every few days. Both of these figures are world class academics who are secure in their renown and reputation; and they have the confidence to be able to write short pieces frequently. They also have the confidence to be contemplative rather than positivistic — they can say “I’m thinking about this right now” rather than “this is definitively the case”. But that confidence comes from being established. Sensible equivocation in them may read as uncertainty and luke-warmedness in individuals of lesser status. But I do think that the model of writing short blog posts reasonably frequently is a good one — one that I’m thinking of using in the future myself. 

Carrigan also draws attention to the usefulness of social media as research tools. This is definitely something that I’ve found to be true — twitter, for example, can have an archival function:

I frequently use tweetdeck to search for tweets I’ve made in the past about certain elements of my work. Blogging can have this function as well — working out some thoughts about a minor point and posting it online can serve as a organic growth of work, linked thematically rather than in a linear way — “the result is a ‘body of knowledge’ that is ‘more threaded and less sequential’ ” (loc 1558). Carrigan invokes Stuart Elden, writer of the Progressive Geographies blog, and his view that a blog is a “public notebook” or a “public set of bookmarks” (loc  1564). Live tweeting conferences also feels a bit like making notes in public.

In such a world where information is gathered (or aggregated) online, distraction is an issue. Anti social media screeds written by academics often begin from this point — that social media are a distraction. From what? Supposedly from the serious thinking and writing that happens when everything else is shut off. But for Carrigan, distraction is recoded as a positive thing, in the sense that, reading through the information that twitter and other outlets provide you ‘supersaturates’ (Gitlin 2002) the scholar with many relevant paths that could be followed. The problem, for Carrigan, is not that the distraction will lead you away from substantial to insubstantial thought, but that the distraction will lead you down many potentially fruitful alleyways which are different, if parallel, to the initial frame of inquiry. And Carrigan notes that this isn’t exactly — or at least necessarily — a bad thing. The issue is one which is actually very familiar to researchers — “The more we read, the more ideas we’re confronted with about what we haven’t read but should” (Carrigan loc 1509). 

A related point here (not brought up by Carrigan) is that keeping up with social media now means keeping up with the social, in a way that is more conscious than it once was. Classics has been in crisis over its relatability for the entire time that I have been a classicist. But increasingly there are classicists who are interested in speaking to an audience beyond just the one which has typically been granted access to a classical education — and for these scholars, “outreach” is an ethical issue. There are groups of people, underrepresented and/or maligned in the past, which are now becoming more visible than ever. And one of the ways in which these groups have become more visible, is due to the power of representation which social media give them. When scholars engage online – even if their research has nothing to do with social issues – they can be witnesses to the kinds of problems which their students and their colleagues face that don’t necessarily occur to them from just their own experience.

All in all, Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics is a very good book. It deals sensitively and sophisticatedly with a number of issues facing academics who want to engage with social media, providing several models and examples. Recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the sociology of social media.


Note 1: I read Carrigan’s book in its Kindle edition. Throughout this blog post, I use Kindle location numbers rather than page numbers. This is also how Carrigan, for the most part, makes his citations from other sociological works.