Tara Brabazon: A community of scholars

Social media allow academics to support students and colleagues, network and explore new intellectual connections, argues Tara Brabazon

September 8, 2010

I am fascinated by the adjective in the phrase “social media”. While Web 2.0 and the read-write web have been squeezed of every possible pound and dollar by management consultants, I am interested in how the pastoral care and collegiality of university education is enhanced through social media.

I joined Facebook three years ago. There was a reason. I was concerned about a female student who was cutting herself, disconnecting from her mother and constantly threatening suicide. We organised emergency counselling and supported her decisions about medication, but she was still profoundly unstable. Almost daily, she would walk into my office wrapped in a blanket of despair. Her fellow students created a community of care that continued on Facebook. She needed support and received it. She still does.

I made a rule to never approach a student to be my “Facebook friend”. The request must always come from them. This tenet has been successful. Over the years, I have taught tens of thousands of students. Gladiator-pit amphitheatres were stacked with first-year students. Many have maintained contact. Moving countries makes it more difficult to sustain the links created through learning. Facebook, however, has facilitated a reconnection with students I taught in my first tutorial in the early 1990s. Former PhD students ask advice when needed, knowing that I am minutes away from a live chat.

Many academics worry about such relationships. Quite rightly, students are not our friends, even on Facebook. They require more of us than friendship permits. The teacher and student relationship is special. It is based and built on integrity and respect. Student goals are subordinated to only one higher purpose in our professional lives: ensuring a rigorous local application of international standards in assessment and examination.

Building a relationship of trust is difficult. Any time a rogue academic behaves badly socially or sexually, plays favourites or marks inconsistently, students lose faith. One way to build and enhance trust is to ensure that students see us as more than a paid brain or a mobile mouth rolled into seminars and lectures. The historian and activist Howard Zinn wanted teaching to spring from life: “When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students and for the world.”

Respect does not flow from neutrality. Compassion is not summoned from emotional disconnection. The challenge for teachers is to create a safe space for a diversity of views and values. We must respect the right of students to be different and to think differently.

The first rule of my teaching and learning philosophy is to talk to students where they are, rather than where I want them to be. They are on Facebook. I want them to be reading, writing and thinking. Therefore, I use Facebook to move them from social media to academic media.

But social media are profoundly useful for distance learning. My MA students connect with each other on Facebook and whether they are located in Napa Valley, Luanda or East Croydon, they are able to laugh and whinge, but most importantly share their experiences. Education has a context. Geographically dispersed students connect and communicate.

Certainly, Facebook has its limitations. For two years, I have used it to conduct a weekly synchronous supervisory session with a PhD student based in Cyprus. Her progress has been tremendous. But there is a cost. Others have observed the timing and pattern of our online meeting, and at least 40 people snap into synchronous chat the moment I am listed as present on the site. A former student, who has since discovered religion and misplaced a wife in the process, spent time trying to convert me to his particular deity while demanding that I needed to meet him in a bar. Both requests were politely yet categorically refused. Facebook is incredibly convenient to conduct supervisory meetings between touch-typing supervisors and students. The capacity to slice away the social component of social media while conducting academic work is more difficult to achieve.

In recognition of such problems, social media – quite appropriately – are disaggregating. Different activities are conducted on different sites. Facebook is fine for socialising. LinkedIn enables professional and corporate relationships to be forged as students leave university and build a profile for employment. Academia.edu is beneficial for postgraduates, early-career researchers and scholars who believe, perhaps nostalgically, that there is more to research than “impact”.

Academia.edu was launched in September 2008. It has grown slowly but steadily: in 2010, TechCrunch (so it must be true) claimed it to be the largest social-networking site for scholars. It has faced controversies. First, the “.edu” domain name created concern for Educause, the body that guarantees its appropriate use by institutions on the US Department of Education’s list of accrediting agencies. Second, as Times Higher Education reported in November 2008, imaginary scholars, departments and universities had been invented by users. Without a mechanism for verification, there is no guarantee of qualifications or employment designation on the site. At one time, even the University of Poppleton maintained a presence. Although this institution was removed, a certain Mr Ted Odgers still has a working profile.

Competitors for Academia.edu include Mendeley, ResearchGate and JournalFire, all with distinct functions. However the past few months have seen a growth in Academia.edu’s users and usefulness. The site’s chief executive officer, Richard Price, reported that by April 2010, the service had 137,000 registered users and was adding 15,000 new members a month. As I write, 211,000 profiles are posted. The site receives 600,000 unique visitors each month.

So much for the statistics: what value does it hold for scholars? For me, the site’s worth has increased over the past month or so. Critical mass is a cliché until seen in operation. Academia.edu allows me to construct a profile, list and (if I choose) upload books, articles, conference papers and websites. But the value is not in self-promotion. It is in connection. Most of us work in departments where we are the only specialist in our field. Our relationships are trans-institutional, trans-local and transnational. Beyond Google Scholar Alerts and checking the new journals and articles in the Directory of Open Access Journals and Open J-Gate, the context, trends and developments of the field are difficult to track. With Academia.edu, I have found a series of scholars whose work I did not know or had read only in fragments.

One attraction of the site is that it activates Zinn’s goal of placing learning in context. Academia.edu returns a scholar’s identity to scholarship. E. H. Carr in the early 1960s published the oft-cited statement that one should “study the historian before you begin to study the facts”. Academia.edu – free of the constraints of institutional websites – allows researchers to be researchers, with a life, experience and interests, rather than agents of a brand.

Certainly, the site has teething problems. It is tedious to organise papers. There is no provision to upload sound or vision, except a profile photograph. There is no synchronous chat function, so I will have to continue “meeting” my postgraduate on Facebook while dodging religious conversion and unwanted suitors. Academia.edu also has an odd service where users discover the keywords deployed when searchers have looked for them via Google. Yawn.

One of its strength is its capacity to upload out-of-print articles, books and chapters: I formed new connections with scholars from refereed articles I wrote on Tilda Swinton and Derek Jarman in the mid-1990s. Most significantly, the site provides a chance for MA and PhD students to construct a profile while being supported by their (former) supervisors. We also have an opportunity to assist scholars from around the world, which was the reason many of us chose to work in universities in the first place.

These international connections are important. The environmental cost of flying to conferences for presentations is increasingly untenable. There are too many (not funny) jokes about academics writing a paper (or constructing PowerPoint slides) at the breakfast table on the day of their session. Can conference participation be justified economically, socially or environmentally? When does an opportunity for scholarly engagement become a jaunt?

There are other ways to build relationships – even the dreaded networking – beyond sharing a weak coffee and a stale biscuit at the morning tea of a conference. What matters most is our commitment to international education. The question is how to create such links without flying to conferences selected more for their exotic location than the topic. Academia.edu may provide a proxy for such networks.

Part of the reason I became an academic is that I believe in teaching and learning. Neither finishes at the conclusion of a semester or a degree. Academia.edu enables senior scholars to support early-career researchers wherever they are around the world. We continue to learn, read papers and reference new voices and scholarly contributions.

Howard Zinn is no longer with us. Before his death earlier this year, he reminded us that “a good education was a synthesis of book learning and involvement in social action”. We have his books, articles, essays, podcasts and vodcasts to remind us of the value of both. His old friend Noam Chomsky is still very much alive and on Academia.edu. Perhaps this scholarly version of social media continues Zinn’s goal of scaffolding not only learning through books, but also community.

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