How to be a connected academic

Today I finished reading a novel. This weekend I entered the world of Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author by Paul Ewan. It was a seven day loan from the local library so needed undivided attention. I thought here’s an incentive to finally read a novel again — a deadline.

Also the title seemed self-help. Academia is much more public these days…

Francis Plug has a dream to be an author. He attends Booker Prize winner events in order to find out how to act like a prize winning author. He provides tips for what to wear, how to shave and how (not) to behave. In the grand tradition of great 20th century authors like Ernest Hemingway and William Boroughs, Francis Plug also drinks. The novel is humorous about public drunkenness, reminiscent of He Died with a Felafel in his Hand, but is gentle and sad about the loneliness and alienation so often linked to mental health issues. Francis Plug is so keen to be an author. In fact, it is his only hope for survival as his life spirals out of control. But Francis Plug is petrified of the spotlight.

These days bookish people, such as writers, are commonly found on stage, headlining festivals, or being interviewed on TV…It’s not that authors have suddenly become more extroverted — its more a case that their job description changed.

These days bookish people, like academics, are commonly found online. Headlining Twitter chats, or being interviewed on Q&A or First Tuesday Bookclub. It’s not that academics, who pursued the profession because of their love of the library and late night private chats have changed. It’s just their job description has changed.

I often worry about being pressured to be an extrovert. I love history. History lets me live in a world of books and essay writing. I became a history teacher because I loved that idea so much. I fell in love with the Academy because it seemed like it was an industry that was the ultimate manifestation of that love.

But all of a sudden the flashy, multi modal challenger, impact has come on the scene. To be a success an academic needs to be visible. Without visibility they will vanish (which seems like a mighty fine idea to me if a pay check kept coming in). There is so much noise out there. Academics promoting their work: tweeting, blogging, Research Gating; on TV, YouTubing, Periscoping. The need to be more and more creative in this realm to rise above the white noise. The pressure to engage or lose a job (before you even get one).

It’s exhausting.

When I started on Twitter it was fun. I found a group of women (#phdmum) who supported each other through to the completion of our PhDs. We shared our ups and downs and gushed over baby photos. Now every time I open Twitter it’s work. It’s like opening my email after a week off.  It’s like going to a conference. Nearly every tweet is enthusiastic about #PL (professional learning). What happened to social media? That great good place that became a virtual pub or coffee shop?

The game has changed. A game that people who like sitting for hours in the library and writing essays used to be good at. Sure alternative academics (#altac) or consultants can be hired to do a lot of the social engagement, but that will only work if the academic-consultant relationship is close. Eventually, the money for such help will dry up and the expectation that academics do their own social media will take over. It’s happened with geographic information systems (GIS). Not so long ago companies that needed it would have a GIS expert. Today every mobile phone has GIS and people are expected to do it themselves. It is taught at schools. So is social media, and social media is a much simpler system..

I am an academic that needs some cave time. I am an introvert. I need to turn off the electronics and find a novel. It’s good for my mental health. Tomorrow I will go to the office, open Twitter before my email and get back to work. But today, I am going to write this, shut my laptop and go back outside with my book.


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