I’ve Got a Serious Problem with “Serious Academics.”

Earlier today, a robust debate emerged around an article in the “Academics Anonymous” section of The Guardian‘s “Higher Education Network” and its sweeping denunciation of social media in academe. With the charming title “I’m a Serious Academic, Not a Professional Instagrammer,” the author takes pains to tell us they are a PhD student and not “some cranky old professor harking back to the Good Old Days” before deploying every trope in the cranky old professor playbook. Lament the current “selfie culture?” Check. Decry people “too busy checking their phones to look up and appreciate their surroundings?” Check. Complain about people tweeting at conferences rather than honoring the speaker with their full attention? Check. Repeated earnest declarations of “seriousness?” Oh, boy, you got it. I AM A SERIOUS PERSON DOING SERIOUS THINGS. SMART THINGS. TOO SMART FOR YOUR INSTAGRAM FRIVOLITIES.

As you’d expect, the reaction has been swift on social media. The #SeriousAcademic hashtag is, as I write, the scene of a lively (to say the least) conversation about the intersection of “real academics” and social media. And there have already been some great responses, in particular Dean Burnett’s “I’m a Non-Serious Academic. I Make No Apologies for This,” also in The Guardian. My intent here is not to duplicate the work of excellent critiques like Burnett’s (seriously; read it), but rather to point out how fraught the idea of a “serious academic” really is.

Who gets to be a “serious academic?” What, exactly, does a “serious academic” look like? How does a “serious academic” behave? For much of the Academy’s history, and all too often in its present incarnation, the answers to these questions are framed in ways that exclude rather than welcome. Serious Academics™ are white, male, upper-middle or upper-class, full-time faculty members at elite-or at least research-oriented-institutions. Look at the demographics of our profession, especially the upper ranks of the “prestige” departments and institutions. Hell, just do a Google image search for “Professor”:

Look at all the white people!
Look at all the white people!

Claims of academic seriousness tend to involve implicit norms about who gets to be an academic in the first place, and that’s a problem. The #ILookLikeaProfessor campaign this past spring saw a wide range of academics critique these assumptions in powerful and eloquent ways, and the ongoing pushback against the biases so prevalent in numerous sectors of academia testifies to the continuing resonance of that critique.

In many ways, the question of “serious academics” is a debate over the spaces in which academics move, converse, and engage in the scholarly work that’s at the heart of our calling. Thus, the Guardian piece dwells on conference behaviors:

When did it become acceptable to use your phone throughout a lecture, let alone an entire conference? No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, you will not be truly focusing your attention on the speaker, who has no doubt spent hours preparing for this moment.

and interactions with the larger public:

I have seen many using social media to voice very strong opinions, often criticising the general public en masse. Given that taxpayer money forms a substantial portion of our research funding, this kind of outburst risks alienating the very people we are trying to engage with.

and the spaces where our scholarly work occurs:

But surely the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher.

These assertions are predicated on a highly contingent and particular set of assumptions, though. To decry conference session live-tweeting, for example, one has to believe that conferences are the very model of Serious Academic™ behavior rather than, say, sites of sexual harassment, copious amounts of alcohol, or misanthropic tendencies disguised as “rigorous discussion.” One also has to believe that scholarly conversations only occur in closely-curated spaces where the boundaries are clearly drawn between legitimate residents and trespassers. To dismiss social media activity as merely posturing for the job market, or some sort of illegitimate shortcut to promote one’s scholarly brand, ignores the fact that posturing and self-promotion have always been the principal hallmarks of self-proclaimed Serious Academics™.

Let’s call it what it is: the argument of Serious Academics™ against social media is not a critique of shoddy scholarship or the lightening of professional standards. It’s a rear-guard action against the increasing diversification and democratization of scholarly space.

If you think social media isn’t a space for Serious Academic™ stuff, your imagination has very narrow limits. Social media, like conferences, symposia, articles, lectures, and pedagogy, is a scholarly tool. And just like all these other things, it has other uses besides its scholarly toolness: some good, some not. But to single out social media for particular derision is to miss the point of how we as academics can-and should-engage others in our work. Yes, there are well-documented problems with harassment and other bad behaviors on social media, but stopping there ignores the fact that these are problems inherent in academia itself: the structures of privilege and choices made by bad actors in any medium. I’d argue that social media, particularly Twitter, has been quite effective in organizing resistance to these ills, and publicly repudiating bad behaviors in an effort to create a better climate in academe (see the #femfog controversy on medieval twitter, for example).

Moreover, social media has created opportunities for public engagement by scholars who don’t fit the stereotype our Guardian essayist privileges. Speaking as an academic at a non-elite institution who doesn’t look or act like a Serious Academic (as I’ve been repeatedly told), I can say that me and others like me have found social media to be a democratizing and invigorating scholarly space. This blog, and my activity on Twitter, has opened my scholarly world to places and people I would have never interacted with otherwise. None of my journal articles reached 500,000 readers; my blogging on the Confederate flag and the racism inherent in southern secessionism did, though. And if you believe, as I do, that scholarship must engage in wider conversations, this is a win. My Twitter “essays” pushing back against efforts to sanitize parts of the American past weren’t in a refereed journal or part of a carefully-selected conference panel, but they opened the door for my upcoming appearance in a documentary about race and the American carceral state, which will reach more than the small handful of attendees at a Sunday morning conference session. And that’s the point of serious scholarly work. It should not, indeed cannot, exist in a vacuum. It must intersect with, engage in, and inform our larger discourse. This is true whether that scholarly work is on the mating habits of red pandas, the place of slavery in the US Constitution, water rights and management, or nanotechnology. What we do matters, we tell the numerous critics of the liberal arts, university research, and higher ed in general. If we narrowly circumscribe “serious academic” activity to venues detached from the world, and condemn those who seek to breach that divide, we undermine every claim we’ve ever made about the inherent value of higher education and scholarly work.

If what we do matters, who’s doing it matters even more. I listed the ways in which social media has given me opportunities above as just one example of how the boundaries to the scholarly community need to be broadly-conceived. I’m half-professor, half-faculty developer. I’m at a small, non-elite school in flyover country. I’m the product of state universities, not the Ivy League. I wouldn’t be in the scholarly conversations I’m in without using social media as a lever. My work, my teaching, my publishing-none of these would look like they do without the communities and relationships I’ve been able to develop on Twitter. And I’m just one example among thousands. Adjunct faculty, alt-ac and post-ac scholars, faculty developers, instructional designers, K-12 educators, independent scholars-these are the people doing exciting and innovative scholarly work. These are the people engaging with the larger public discourse in creative, important, and effective ways. These are the people who represent what academe should be: a democratic space where ideas and conversations intermingle and rise or fall based upon their substance-not from what their participants look or act like, or the formality of the venue in which they occur. That’s the space to which we, as scholars of all stripes, should aspire. To cast aside some of the most effective tools for doing so because they are sometimes used maladroitly is a stunning refusal to embrace what we say are the fundamental aims of scholarship and the life of the mind. Attempting to prescribe what behaviors Serious Academics™ should display is a fool’s errand that does nothing but confirm the worst features of privilege and exclusionary mindsets in the academy. It means ignoring many of the most important voices we have. It means an academy whose isolation makes it useless. It means turning the clock back to a time in which many of us academicians wouldn’t have been allowed inside the door.  And that’s some Serious Bullshit.™




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26 thoughts on “I’ve Got a Serious Problem with “Serious Academics.””

  1. Great post, Kevin, although I worry sometimes that Twitter is killing my attention span. “Look–Shiny Metal Object!”

    I’ll just suggest one correction to your caption of the images that pop up for “professor:” it should read, “Look at all the white men!”

    1. Correct, Historiann. Some of these men are just like the others, some of these men are just the same! (sung to the tune of “Some of these things are not like the others)

  2. There is also the fact that many people actually *take notes on their phones* and so they may be paying quite close attention to a speaker even though it doesn’t look like it. The days of phones being only phones are over. So yes, there will always be a segment of the population that prides itself on its Luddite snobbery, and I say “Whatever.” They are on the shore, harrumphing while the rest of us explore strange new worlds and push boundaries of knowledge and, as you say, making what we do relevant to the world at large. Guess who’s gonna get funding in the end? Yeah, the ones who are embracing ways to connect with the public.

    1. I’ve actually stopped taking notes on my phone because I realized that older profs (even those with smart phones) did not understand that I was using it for that purpose. I was losing ‘serious’ points!

      1. Yep, I just realised that too! I used to think it was less intrusive than having a laptop. Now I bring the laptop so I can have notes and tweetdeck open at the same time!

  3. I have no problem with blogging, reaching out to less rarified audiences–I think this is a good thing for academics to do, but I don’t think everyone should be pressured into doing it. I must say that the people I know who seem to have time to build a prominent profile on social media are mostly men–mostly tenure-track or, more usually, tenured, middle-class white men who know how to network and would do it well in whatever trendy way the period demanded, because they have the social capital to do it, and usually they are not primary caregivers of children or aging parents who may not have the time to devote to this in addition to all the other crap academics have to do now to keep their jobs. Maybe this is just my experience and the vast majority of Tweeting and Instagramming and blogging people are not privileged people. But it is in fact the case that universities are trying to get us to Tweet etc. etc. in addition to all the other crap we have to do, in order to promote the university, and I too have resisted that, and that is totally a legitimate thing to resist and doesn’t make me a snob or a Luddite, but someone who is p*ssed off about all the juice that they are trying to squeeze out of me and my colleagues now. And it does irritate me that so many people now seem incapable of sitting and listening to someone for 15 minutes without looking at their bloody phones. A decent attention span seems like something a serious academic (TM) should cultivate, and I think the research is pretty clear that social media do not promote decent attention spans–at least the research I’ve seen. So the fact that you like doing blogging is great, and no one should put you down for it, but please don’t make the mistake of stereotyping those who don’t in response.

    1. If that person is reading out loud from a piece of paper as one would to children you are damn right I will pull out my phone. If I sat too far from the door to simply leave.

    2. Yes although I do think some people have missed the point of the original AA article which as I understood it was that it is in fact the many young ECRs without permanent positions (like myself) who feel the pressure to promote their research ‘brand’ and network on social media so that they appear dedicated to their work and committed to a career in academia, when perhaps all some of them want to do is eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream while watching Game of Thrones. I wouldn’t have thought that tweeting about research all the time does a more productive researcher make, but I’m obviously in the minority!

      1. I’m an ECR, and Twitter and blogging have been amazing for meeting people like me, forming communities who share the struggles of PhD, poverty, and job hunting. Twitter is also a place I go to listen: I follow indigenous community leaders, black journalists, people from different faiths. I have had my perspective widened and, I hope, that being openly non-binary and trans, I do the same for others. I agree that if it seems like another ‘chore’ forced on over-worked and under-appreciated staff social media is going to take time away from something you’d rather do. For me, tho, it gives me a constant stream of support exactly when I need it – the global reach means people are online at 4am if I can’t sleep!

        1. I definitely wouldn’t want to berate Twitter or people who use social media to engage in other people’s work, make connections and have their perspectives widened. Clearly that’s a beautiful thing. The issue for me is that it has become an expectation that one will do so and I have a problem with the idea that if I don’t have a blog about my research and I don’t tweet about it all the time that that somehow means I’m a less active researcher. It’s a really odd perception we have that if someone is doing stuff on social media all the time we think that means they’re really prolific… I would really like to know if academic interview panels really do look at candidate’s online profiles when deciding whether or not to appoint them, because I actually don’t think it should matter a jot whether you have a blog or not.

          OK rant over 🙂 thanks Kevin and all for your insights, I do think these are really important discussions for us to be having, and kinda ironic that they’re happening on here! 😀

    3. My intent wasn’t too do so, and I am sensitive to how these spaces can be placed of privilege, too. As someone at a teaching institution with a 4-4 load, I also understand the time consideration. I fully support someone who chooses not to interact with scholarship and conversation in these spaces, but the original article demonstrated, to me, an elitist and absolutist argument about why that would happen.

  4. Powerful argument~ We are blessed as academics to have social medias to share, network, challenge, engage and as you pointed out, resist and thus create real change that is community focused. I am reminded of the medieval image of dophin and anchor, or the ancient feathered serpent; without the dialect of tradition and the novel we stagnate and act counterproductive to reaching our goals.

  5. This is “fun”, oh wait, is it okay to have fun while reading this?

    Great points in the article and replies.

    Here is another vantage point: Whats effective is relative/contextual and its neither serious nor non-serious. So if the goal is seriousness, then great, but if otherwise, then some may need to lighten up. 🙂

  6. “democratization and diversification” are computer-industry buzzwords for deskilling of various sectors that they are working hard to eat alive.

    the computer industry’s hostility toward higher education, intellectual work, and non-business-oriented academic inquiry is well-known and palpable, and this post shares them.

    the original piece was very clearly about the fact that academics are now expected to do a whole raft of additional work along with their research, even prior to having jobs, in order to maintain employment. where it was once “publish or perish,” now it’s “publish, social media, blog, or perish,” and still probably perish anyway.

    academia is the one place in society where slow thinking, the long view, and a resistance to immediacy are championed. you want to get rid of that, in the name of “democratization.” what you mean by “democratization” in that case can only be understood as “take academia away from those who do the work and take the time to become academics.”

    on the one hand, I completely support any individual academic’s decision to engage in social media. on the other, the fact that it is becoming a default labor expectation for already-highly-precarious employment is very worrying. as is the fact that, as soon as anyone begins to worry about it–and well they should–they will be immediately subject to mockery, contempt, and discussion that verges on harassment. which this does.

    academics should not be harassed for opining that their work is primarily that of research. the very fact that this academic found it necessary to remain anonymous should be a clue. you are here engaged in destructive work, masquerading as “democratization.”

  7. “the computer industry’s hostility toward higher education, intellectual work, and non-business-oriented academic inquiry is well-known and palpable, and this post shares them.”

    I’m SO glad you’ve jumped on here to tell me the meaning of what I’ve written. As I mentioned when you jumped into my twitter mentions with this point, you vastly miss the points I was trying to make. If you insist on applying a skewed narrow definition of “democratization” used by “the computer industry” to my post, you are way off base. It’s paranoid and delusional, and you’re flat-out wrong in asserting I’m some pawn of the computer industry looking to “disrupt” people into oblivion. Whatever issues you have in that quarter, don’t bring them here, please.

    Clearly, you disagree with what I wrote and how I interpreted the original Guardian piece. That’s fine, and we’ll have to agree to disagree there. But you can’t make up meanings for words and argue that’s what I mean by them. You don’t get to twist “democratization” into some anti-slow-thinking mandate and then accuse me of being against “those who do the work.” No. You do not get to do that. If you think that’s what I’m saying, you need to work on your reading comprehension. You’re clearly coming from a place of resentment and hostility, and I’m sorry about that. But putting your words in my mouth is not going to solve anything.

  8. Kevin, this was a really good essay. Despite the increasingly desperate and fundamentally dishonest attempts of “another anonymous” to intentionally misrepresent your argument so that he can prop up a straw man for the debate he’s clearly desperate to have with somebody, anybody, whether his tendentiously mischaracterized opponents actually hold such suspect views or not, I think most honest and careful readers understand your point very well.

    One of Corey Robin’s recent queries about how the internet/social media has altered the landscape for public intellectuals sent me digging through my old posts for a Twitter essay I had put together a while back on the challenges of using the tools of neoliberalization to fight the effects of it. That post is here, and might be of interest:


    It seems to me that you’re getting at some of the same structural inequalities here in this post.

    I think your reading of this particular graduate student’s screed is bolstered by your attention to his/her tone, which was consistently contemptuous throughout the piece. That contempt may very well be a “brave” front to cover for deeper anxiety about precarity. But the essayist’s response to and antidote for that anxiety — to characterize his/her colleagues as unworthy competitors and cynical image manipulators rather than as generous connectors, collaborators, and contributors to academic discourse; to paint everyone who is not just like him/her as engaged in frivolous trivialities against which to favorably compare his/her own seriousness of purpose, repping for the brand of the “truly deserving” who can easily be identified by their *lack* of social media presence/engagement; to leverage the anonymity afforded by the Guardian to do a little “product placement” for the image s/he is hoping will grab the attention of search committees (“Here’s one of us; a serious scholar, dedicated to the work, not wasting time on trivialities”) — well, that’s the most market-affirming, market-savvy ploy you’re gonna see in a while.

    What sells better to a certain “market segment” of academics than the myth of a once-pristine meritocracy that has been imperiled by these undeserving Others? There’s a search committee somewhere that will buy that spiel in a heartbeat. Just what the academy needs: more prima donnas who are happy to throw their “inferiors” under the bus to get ahead.

    Neoliberalism indeed.

  9. Ok, you’re right in a great many ways. But this business of spending entire conferences on twitter, facebook and email has gotten out of hand. It isn’t a question of who is ‘serious’ and who isn’t, it is a question of intellectual presence. And simple politeness.

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