“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” – Alexander Pope
“I want you to take a Post-It and write, ‘Don’t write like an academic.’” said my new Digital Communications professor. “Stick it on your desk, your wall, your computer. Anywhere you’re working. And don’t forget it.”
I blinked. But, ever the conscientious student, I slowly wrote it out in my notebook. (Yes, in ink, on paper.) I underlined it twice.
As a mature student, I had enrolled in Humber College’s Professional Writing & Communications post-graduate program. I came armed with 6 years’ experience as a teaching assistant in Brock University’s English department, and a Master’s degree which focused on 18th and 19th century literature and gender studies. I loved studying that period, where manicured sentences wound long and lush as a garden path, heroic couplets were the chosen form of intellectuals, and you could stand on a Richardson novel to change a light bulb. Sadly, no one ever did beat down my door after graduation to discuss Judith Butler or Mr. Darcy’s masculine performance in Pride and Prejudice. So here I sat in this classroom, fluorescent lights buzzing, OSAP accruing, determined to bridge the distance between the ivory tower and the landscape beyond.
And, over the next eight months, my writing changed. Write for screens! Know your audience! Drop those adjectives! Bullet points! I ducked red pens and track changes, as my clauses fell away like petticoats. Watched as murdered darlings dropped breathless to the floor, certain I’d never recover from the sacrifice. In time, I learned to step over them.
But if I bristled at changing my writing, I positively shut down when I was told to sign up for Twitter. As part of a teeny generation that has recently been dubbed “Xennials,” I grew up with the luxury of picking and choosing the parts of digital life in which I participated – and Twitter was not one of them. I dutifully claimed my handle, but I certainly didn’t see how I would ever need it in the workplace.
Is a tweet different than a heroic couplet? Yes, that’s a silly question. And no, it’s not silly at all. Alexander Pope may not have constrained himself to 140 or 280 characters, but he did know how to pack a nice, salty punch into two short lines. I learned to make my peace with the fact that a tweet is a similar burst of information, deliberately chosen to display its author’s worldview. As with any writing, both form and content are debated. Some are written poorly. Some are politically charged. Some will send you careening down a bot-peppered rabbit hole into chaos. Some are profound, impactful, and memorable.
When I did my internship at House & Home Media, in the third term of Humber’s program, I was surprised at how many of my days were spent focused on their social media and online presence. From there, I did a short contract at the Toronto International Film Festival, where my work was solely for web. And when finally, happily, I was hired for the Journals Division at the University of Toronto Press, it was as their Digital Marketing Coordinator. Now, one of the largest parts of my job is to run their Twitter accounts. And I’ve been pleased to find out along the way that Alexander Pope and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu both have hashtags, and that a “Swiftie” not only refers to songstress Taylor, but satirist Jonathan.
I slid back into the academic world like a hand finds its glove. I knew this world. I loved this world. But what was different was that I now knew how to promote this world. And I also knew that, in some ways, it would be a challenge. Part of each day is spent finding newly published contributors on Twitter in order to market their articles and gain a wider reach. I search for the handles of their university departments. I track and promote the work of grad students. Though they are often quite sparing with their words, I try to get scholars talking on social media. Much like I once balked, some don’t see the point of being on the platform at all.
As humanities majors, we’re told we have a wide variety of skills; we just need to market them. But we are rarely taught how, and many of us are more comfortable curled up with a good book than we are singing our own praises to potential employers. One week into my job at UTP Journals, I went home to my own academic, a quiet historian who’s writing his dissertation in Russian history, and told him to make sure he uses social media to promote his research. That when the time comes to apply for one of those coveted academic positions, to show not only that he can write, teach, and produce, but that he can help promote the department on its digital platforms. Useful advice? Academics on hiring committees would know more than I.
Is the debate about writing for social media similar to the heated debates about the potential dangers of the novel when it first appeared? Poetic license with the sonnet? The modern, post-Victorian aesthetic?
Today I saw a man reach out to another I follow on Twitter: “It grieves me that I’ve had to degrade myself to contact you over Twitter. Is there really no other way to reach you?” I trust that by this point you know that I understand the sentiment, but here is the truth, the raw truth for those of us who, as author Tim Bowling puts it, are “dragging the bloodied pelt of the twentieth century” behind us: social media is simply an exchange. A hand reaching out across a shrinking globe to participate in community. How does Alice not fall down the rabbit hole? If I ever find out, I’ll let you know. Sometimes I feel like I’m leasing space down there.
But here is what I also know to be true, as the world in which I once belonged shifts shape into something new: there is a way to marry the two, and to retain the integrity and traditions of the former.
I was recently in Washington D.C. at the American Historical Association meeting, and my colleague was attending the Modern Language Association convention in New York City. As I was tweeting from both, what struck me was just how many academics were reaching out to each other in kind and positive ways. During the worst of the January storms, there were offers of child-minding services for presenters if daycares were closed, promises to post grad student papers online if they couldn’t attend their sessions, and gentle reminders to tenured professors that a drink and a chat with a vulnerable adjunct can go a long way.
Can you fall down the rabbit hole, Alice? God help you, yes.
But you can also find support in an online academic community that will help you market your research, increase your career options, and put you in contact with new publications. You just need to make sure you’re opening the Twitter handle to the right door.
Published in Audaciousmag – March 09, 2018