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Not defending Twitter & the Academic Purity Cult

I have had an awesome week on Twitter.

Research Ryan Gosling (@ResearchGosling) sent me a really useful reading list to help me give my invited seminar on Tuesday on ‘Hyper-Anxiety about Research Integrity in RHD Students and Librarians’. Research Ryan Gosling is not only a pretty face, he has a real live information service friends, who sent me further reading on Friday. Absolute GOLD.

I had some  deep conversations with some other post-academic, alt-academic tweeps about identity and academic jobs. (The posts that started our conversations? Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) ‘Thesis Hatement‘ and Ethan O Perlstein (@eperlste) ‘The Tenure Games‘). There were voices from Australia, from the US, from tenured faculty, from doctoral students, from people about to become doctoral students.  It was really engaging.

And then last night I had a rant about a trashy book that I thought was going to be a post-apocalyptic comedy with a smart heroine doing a hard job… and about two-thirds in turned into a racist homophobic were-dragon nightmare. So I ranted on Twitter, and introduced some really smart academic women to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books–one of the increasing number, of the still too few, places on the internet you can rant about heteronormativity in romance novels without people rolling their eyes. (Most of those introductions were unnecessary–smart women find each other on their own.)

***

If you are now scratching your head and saying, ‘This sounds awfully like a defense of Twitter to me’… well, no, it’s me telling you about the awesome time I had, and you may infer from that what you like.

Some of you will think: ‘yes, that’s what I love about Twitter too.’ Some of you will think: ‘That sounds like fun, how do I get started?’ And some of you will think: ‘That’s what I have a television / book group / bowling club for’.

Cool.

I’m not saying, ‘You need to be on Twitter.’ Just

Twitter is a great, blurry, social place where I talk to people like me about the things I do for fun and work.

***

But there are many people who criticise academics for being on social media. I’m thinking particularly of a searing post from Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) on ‘You make me want to throw up‘ about responses to bloggers; but also every dinner party I’ve ever been at where I talk about Twitter.

As Julie Platt (@aristotlejulep) said earlier this year at Inside Higher Education:

Social media is often stereotyped as a frivoulous, navel gazing enterprise, and completely antithetical to the deep thinking and thoughtful questioning of academia.

Twitter is often described as ‘reducing deep thought to 140 characters’.

It is certainly possible to link to deep though in 140 characters, which most people miss about Twitter. It’s not the whole message, just like a library catalogue entry isn’t the whole book. Twitter works like a great bibliography, or a reading list, or a catalogue… as well as a discussion board, a notice board, a spambot and a series of Woody-Allen-esque one liners. And people sharing pictures of their lunch.

***

What this comes down to, and how my three starting anecdotes relate, is that Twitter is the opposite of the academic purity cult.

The Academic Purity Cult says: you can’t be a real academic and have any other attachments.  Kind of like a nunnery.

Academics with babies (or ‘a litter’); having a party-political affiliation; knowing too much about computers or money; going to the gym too much; academics who read ‘trashy novels’…

Mewburn comments on her post on lighter reading at The Thesis Whisperer Blog:

For me ‘trash’ is a term of endearment. Whenever someone hassles me for reading romance I ask: why is it ok to read about death, crime and tragedy and not ok to read about love, relationships and happy endings? God knows we need some escape from all that post structuralism!

But I think Mewburn has put her finger on exactly the problems.

Firstly: you’re not supposed to escape from all that post structuralism. 

I read Ezra Pound and Theodor Adorno and listen to Arnold Schoenberg in my work. I understand Pound, Adorno and Schoenberg. For me, that means I can curl up in the evening with Never Deal with Dragons (She’s a post WWWIII dragon arbitrator… He’s the reason she got demoted. Together they save the World) and not worry about my intellectual capability. And when I find myself reading it through a feminist lens, informed by other post-Marxist cultural studies positions… I realise I haven’t really left the building.

But to a Purity Cult, this is as anathemic as being a nun during the day and having a lover at night. It’s all wrong.

Secondly, being a Cult, it doesn’t matter that there is little rhyme or reason to what counts as “pure”.

Reading romance novels is impure. Reading detective fiction is pure.

As  Schuman writes, sewing, watching television and being teetotal are impure. Gardening, watching films and drinking are pure.

Choosing  clothes made out of bright colours is impure. Choosing  clothes made out of tweed and corduroy is pure.

***

Every social group has its own culture, with its own taboos. That’s okay. I’m not criticising someone in the academic culture for having leather-elbow patches, any more than I’d criticise someone from a culture for wearing the salwar kameez, or ao dai, or djellaba.

But for a culture that prides itself on logic and inclusiveness, academia doesn’t do very well at difference. You can be a great thinker, researcher, teacher, scholar and student without joining the purity cult. But expect some resistance.

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