Twittering in the Wings: On Credentials and Institutional Compliance

While this is probably the textual equivalent of multitasking, I’m going to attempt to respond to Dr. Harris’ observations about critical discourse on twitter, since it actually has a lot to do with what I want to respond about regarding Fitzpatrick. This will all hopefully fit together in a moment.

As simple as it seems, I don’t think the technical allowances of Twitter allow for one-off critical discourse, particularly not when that critical discourse is actually critical. It’s easy to say, on Twitter, that “I really like what this scholar is doing here bit.lylink #tweet #epic”, but rather intensely more challenging to compose a response which might take issue–as my own stilted interactions with Tom Standage show. It’s impossible to fit Joe’s sentiment about the big-name panel in a tweet, particularly when he needs to spend more time on careful wording than concision. “Big-Name Panel was so TEDIOUS #4c14 #yawn #probablyshunnedforever” is not a satisfactory critical response, but it’s impossible to say “Saw Big-Name Panel, which was well-selected, but disappointing. Want to know more about Panelist’s ideas on [Issue-at-Hand], particularly when it comes to [Academic Soap-Box Issue] #4c14 #bigname” without pulling a + or a “(1/2) (2/2)”, which simply wastes more precious characters and risks dissolution in the sea of hashtag-filtered responses.

The perpetual personal surveillance that Twitter builds in doesn’t help, as a person can find your tweet about them even if you didn’t @ them. Twitter is all credentialed gossip, but none of the gossip can stay gossip, and the credentials can quickly become an albatross.

Seems Legit.
Seems Legit.

Twitter seems built primarily for praise, forwarding, or snark. Academic publication, as Fitzpatrick frequently points out, is built for analogous, but strategically different aims (11). Rarely is our praise unqualified (see: all of our blog posts on every author), but academic forwarding, (genteel) snark, and idea development are key–which is precisely why the current academic publication system hardly works better for these purposes than Twitter. Joe can’t tweet that the big name panel was tedious in the same way he can’t really publish a book out of Duke University Press about how tedious the panel was entitled [Big Name Panelist] is Silly. The peers are watching, and the credentials are at stake. An uncareful move might make Joe’s economy of reputation go the way of the Russian actual economy–and thus, academic speech has developed both an “ethical obligation to listen” (43), a means of gatekeeping (Peer Reviewed Publications), and a discourse based more on precision and diplomacy than concision (which is wonderful, but also not suited to microblogging). (For more thoughts on publishing, see Katie’s x5 post and all the comments on it regarding a new system of credentialing, funding, and publication not wholly unlike some of Fitzpatrick’s suggestions).

Fitzpatrick points out that this existing system of credentializing is necessary but restrictive–for instance, the abuse of institutional sponsorship to propagate outdated ideologies is protected by this system–and a more Twitterian, algorithmically-based system is similarly restrictive “bean counting” (47) reminiscent of the disastrous evaluation policies of No Child Left Behind (collective shudder). The disqualification of these open systems wholesale–emblematic in the early-2000s institutional dismissal of Wikipedia even as that publication does not employ this system–is not unlike the myth of Read Only culture I mentioned last week: it is, as Fitzpatrick put it, an artifact of an obsolescence-phobic “political project aimed at intervening in contemporary public life, perhaps with the intent of shoring up a waning cultural hierarchy” (2).

That’s why I’m glad Fitzpatrick gestured towards hybrid systems–while I still plan on writing monographs, it’s nice to think someday I might be able to write an article and put it out on the web for academics to read (since my field has no 100% applicable journal) and still have that publication “count.” Unlike Twitter, the web generally is not structured as to preclude academic forms of writing, and the fact that we tend to ignore that potential institutionally is disappointing. If the academic publication industry is a “zombie” system, shuffling along in an unsustainable fashion, academic writing in *form* and *aim* is less a zombie than (oh boy here we go) a cyborg–something not necessarily integrated with current technology that might be enhanced or reformulated to include it without particular difficulty.

Like the technophobic antagonists in every “Good Cyborg” story ever, though, we have to get over our institutional fear of this technology if we want it to work.

Official Tiny Leaves
Credentials: I Got ‘Em

My point, oddly, is this: the fact that Dr. Harris has no way to properly critique a panel for being tedious or nonproductive is already indicative of the serious problems facing not only academic discourse and publication, but the system of institutional influence and credentials that might allow the abuse of power by those who benefit from being able to be boring on big-name panels.

Case and point: last year I attended a conference on a prevailing issue in academia, and a very powerful, established academic (and Federal Funding magnet) gave a keynote speech on the issue. The speech was a tedious patchwork of outmoded ideology, institutional policy nonsense, statistics from the 1990s, and clearly-appropriated ideas on a series of projected slides. At the end, a room full of normally semi-revolutionary academic activists clapped.

Nobody said or tweeted a word.

Sentence Forming Nathan Fillion


2 thoughts on “Twittering in the Wings: On Credentials and Institutional Compliance”

  1. Michael,

    This was a really thought-provoking post. On the one hand, I totally agree with you that there is an institutional self-defense/self-preservation instinct at work in the reluctance to embrace publishing technologies where “reputation” and “credentials” are more democratically determined. And this is definitely a problem. I’m also with you and Joe about Twitter– critique generally requires more careful and generous language, which doesn’t lend itself well to concision.

    On the other hand, I wonder a little bit about the specific example of responding to a conference panel. Part of the reason I think it’s so difficult to respond to panels in writing is the strangely unequal footing these two modes of communication seem to be on. We know this about text: critiques written down in response to spoken dialogues or real-life situations often seem to be snarkier, more passive-aggressive, and less civil than they ought to be. I’m thinking of situations like the “friendly” little notes roommates leave for one another about cleaning hair out of the sink or washing dirty dishes. These notes often cause more problems– in the form of resentment, anxiety, and self-consciousness– than the original problem they attempted to address. If spoken aloud, these same critiques often seem less harsh and, well, more *human.*

    I’m not sure how far I can extend this comparison, since it’s unlikely that Joe would have felt comfortable in the “discussion” section of the panel in saying (to a panel of big names in a room undoubtedly packed with other big names), “Man, that was tedious and annoying. Do you have anything new to say?” BUT– he might have said something like, “I’m struggling to understand how this intervenes in x” or “I wonder if you might consider thinking about it in this different way.” In general, though, conferences (like Twitter) seem almost *too* public to be viable spaces for criticism.

    Interestingly, when we respond to *text* with text, there seems to be less inherent animosity (although of course, there are always those who choose to write in aggressive, confrontational ways). But if the panel had presented their work-in-progress on, say a blog, and opened it up to comments, I think it may have felt like an appropriate place to critique, or push back.


  2. Tweeter is not my ideal place for opening or following a critical conversation either, but I find it an interesting medium for sharing headlines, hints and keywords. I think we are prioritizing instant comments and instant replies to an extend that might ignore the natural time needed for brain to receive a new data or ideas, analyze it and to come up with some other ideas . It’s fantastic to share the moments of our thoughts or talks with each other through social network but to follow the sequences of argumentative thoughts we need what I would call a more patient context.I need a text to read, I need time to think about it, and I need a space to reply.

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