by Laura O’Brien (University of Sunderland – @lrbobrien) see author bio below
A couple of weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about small group seminars, and how to keep them ‘fresh’. As we swapped tips and discussed past successes and failures, I mentioned a similar conversation that had taken place on Twitter a few months ago. Following a question from Joanne Bailey of Oxford Brookes about ideas for livening up seminars, Twitter’s community of historians – the ‘Twitterstorians’, if you like – responded with a wide range of advice and suggestions. (The conversation has subsequently been compiled using Storify, here: https://storify.com/JBHist/great-ideas-for-seminar-teaching)
My reference to Twitter as a source for teaching ideas and inspiration reflects the usefulness of this social media tool for my work as a historian. I began using Twitter for more social reasons. As I began to follow increasing numbers of historians, universities, research centres and archives, however, the benefits it offered to me as a historian rapidly became clear. I realised that Twitter was acting as a kind of permanent (albeit ever-evolving) version of the kind of conversations historians have traditionally had at conferences and seminars.
‘Academic Twitter’, as I’ve come to rather clunkily term it in conversation – as if to lend it extra credence for those yet to be convinced by its usefulness – is a steady stream of news, event notifications, publications, ideas and commentary. The purposes to which it can be put are as many and varied as its users. For me, it has assumed much of the position previously occupied by the mailing list: a kind of academic version of the local shop window, advertising seminars, lectures and jobs, announcing a new book or article, or seeking help, advice or just some much-needed support from other historians.
It has allowed me to discover work that I might not otherwise have come across, and exposed me to the perspectives of a wide range of historians across the world on both the past and the present. The rise of ‘livetweeting’ seminars and conferences allows me to keep up with events happening hundreds or thousands of miles away. Being on Twitter means that I can keep an eye on the activities of colleagues and friends all over the world. It is, to all intents and purposes, an academic network as well as a forum for academic discussion and debate. Its power in this respect was highlighted very clearly for me last summer before the SSFH conference in Durham, when I realised that I already ‘knew’ all the participants in the panel I was chairing through Twitter (and could thus send them a direct message, rather than an email, to ask for biographical details in advance).
Twitter, like any form of social media, is not without its problems. Its openness is a double-edged sword: a crucial part of its appeal and usefulness for historians, especially in publicising your work, but also a potentially serious pitfall. A key question for those using Twitter for academic purposes is what one should release into the ether. This is particularly pertinent when one discusses teaching. In May 2013 the Times Higher Education supplement asked its Twitter followers to share their experiences of their ‘worst student’, using the hashtag #myworststudent. It was totally inappropriate, could be construed as a form of bullying – and was a perfect example of what not to say on ‘Academic Twitter’. Many other colleagues agreed – Kirsty Rolfe’s blog post on the subject sums it up nicely: https://avoidingthebears.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/talking-teaching-on-twitter-and-talking-nicely-to-students/. As Rolfe notes, it’s fine to share news of a particularly successful teaching session, but (as she puts it) ‘it ain’t OK to take out teaching frustrations on social media’.
Academic users also face the issue of the extent to which their Twitter presence should be wholly professional, wholly personal or a mixture of both. A quick glance at my own Twitter profile will show you that I’m a firm believer in the latter approach. I don’t see the problem with following a tweet about something I’ve seen on Gallica or a link to a journal article with ones about television, public transport, or (and this is genuinely the most recent thing on my profile at the time of writing) a retweet of a cartoon (by a fellow historian) of Thomas Cromwell and his cat, as depicted in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. I love history and I love being a historian, but I am also interested in lots of other things – so I tweet about these things too.
What advice would I give to the beginner Twitterstorian? Try to follow a mix of people or institutions relevant to the discipline and to your work. Twitter feeds run by university departments and research centres are a great source for news on seminars, events and job vacancies. Library and archive feeds are also useful, like the BnF (@ActuBnF), the Archives nationales (@ArchivesnatFr) and Gallica (@GallicaBnF) – Gallica’s feed features items from the digitised collections. I also like following publishers for details on new publications (and, from time to time, discounts!)
One of the good things about Twitter is that it will recommend people that you might be interested in following – this is how I’ve come across a lot of people and institutions I didn’t know had a Twitter presence. If you’re going to a conference, check if it has a dedicated hashtag (e.g. #ssfh2014). Follow people working outside of your immediate area of academic interest and outside your discipline. We talk a lot in academia about ‘interdisciplinarity’ – Twitter can be used to create a genuinely interdisciplinary stream of information and ideas.
Above all, join in. Obviously, this doesn’t mean ‘be on Twitter at all times’ – there is such a thing as oversharing, and (interesting and all as Twitter may be) you still need to do your research, go to meetings and teach your classes! But the truth is that ‘Academic Twitter’ works best as a conversation involving many voices.
Laura O’Brien is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Sunderland. She is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century France, with a particular interest in visual culture (especially caricature), revolution (especially the revolution of 1848), memory and commemoration, and the cultural history of French Catholicism. Her current research looks at how the memory of the revolution of 1848 was constructed and interpreted in France from the mid nineteenth century to the Fourth Republic (1946 – 1958). Her book, The republican line: caricature and French republican identity, 1830-52 [link: http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9780719089350] will be published by Manchester University Press in July as the latest instalment in SSFH’s ‘Studies in Modern French History’ series.