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Professors Extend Academia Into the Twittersphere

By Irfan Mahmud, Crimson Staff Writer

Tweeting can be a high-stakes activity for History department chair David R. Armitage. When asked to recount his most memorable Twitter experience, his response is simple: “Competitive live-tweeting a conference last semester.”

Armitage is just one of many professors who have taken to Twitter to join the growing space for academic discourse online. From publicizing their work to exchanging ideas with colleagues, faculty members at Harvard are trying to keep up with the new landscape of social media.

“[Twitter] is like having a private army of people that are collecting information that might be relevant to you,” says sociology professor and Pforzheimer House Master Nicholas A. Christakis, who signed up for a Twitter account after many of his colleagues had already started using the platform.

While most students and younger Twitter users utilize the platform as a way of posting small jokes or lighthearted material, professors generally use Twitter to share and receive knowledge.

When asked about their fondest Twitter moment, most professors recall a new or interesting piece of information they learned through a retweet or tweeting at a conference.

“I originally went on Twitter just as a way to send the word out when I published something,” says Stephen M. Walt, professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School.

Now, as more and more professors sign up for Twitter handles, the exchange of academic information has accelerated to match the rapid-fire pace of online social media. But not all faculty members are as enthusiastic as Armitage, with some cautioning that the informal and open network of the “Twittersphere” may not be the best space for scholarly discourse.

CHANGING SCHOLARLY DISCOURSE

People do not often think of Twitter as a venue for mature academic discourse. On a social platform that hosts young people broadcasting events in their everyday lives and sharing everything from personal photos to funny memes, it seems unlikely that a professor would fit in.

But the growing popularity of Twitter among faculty members shows how the new medium may actually change the way that scholars of today define their academic network.

Indeed, bringing Twitter to the academic sphere could revolutionize how information is broadcast. The platforms offers a way for scholars to share 140 characters worth of information, link to other online resources, and engage in rapid-fire discussion with other users.

“I think absolutely scholarship is changing,” said Christakis. “Twitter is a mechanism to disseminate information of scholarly interest and also to acquire information.”

But not all professors agree that Twitter is the best forum for such exchange.

“People are people. We still need time to think about things. We still benefit from talking things through with another person,” says economics professor Jeffrey A. Miron. “But it won’t change the nature of the discourse.”

Whether or not Twitter will change the academic landscape, it has already changed how many scholars access and distribute knowledge or news from a variety of sources.

“Occasionally people say to me, ‘You’re department chair, you must be incredibly busy. How do you have time to do Twitter?’ and I say how do I have time not to do it?” says Armitage. “It’s such a wonderful way to bring information to yourself. I find it absolutely indispensable.”

DOWNSIDES AND DANGERS

Professor Walt’s Twitter account is peppered with links to articles, commentary on contemporary issues, and also the colloquial “u”—shorthand for the second person.

The abbreviated language is just one of the restrictions imposed by the 140 character limit.

“A downside, an obvious one, is having to shrink everything to very brief, pithy 140 characters,” says Armitage. “Sometimes, it can be very constraining. You can’t lay out complex arguments in such a short space.”

The character limit can also prompt users to post speedy, but unfiltered, content.

“One downside is it encourages sort of snap reactions to things. We see that in response to big events like the Marathon bombings,” says Walt. “It facilitates a lot of uninformed speculation in ways that couldn’t really happen 30 years ago.”

Professors also note that posting on Twitter raises privacy concerns.

“My motto for everything I say and do is: before you say it, you should assume it’s going to be on the front page of the paper,” Miron says.

Christakis agrees. “If you really wanted private communication I think you would use email, and even that’s not private,” he says.

Additionally, Twitter provides an alternative to face-to-face interaction that could lead users to assume an entirely different—and potentially harmful—cyber-persona.

“When people think that they are talking to a machine rather than to another human, I think a lot of misery can come from that,” says Christakis. “A lot of feelings can get hurt.”

“WHERE STUPIDITY REIGNS”

Like their professors, some students think faculty forays into social media have significant academic benefits.

“I really like the idea of professors being on Twitter because I think it will allow research and thinking to be more accessible outside of the classroom,” says Cary A. Williams ’16. “It’s a really good vehicle for making what was once very private knowledge more immediately accessible.”

But not every student can relate to a faculty member’s use of the medium. While some students keep their Twitter accounts private in order to express themselves without being seen by parents or potential employers, most professors have public accounts because their main objective is to disseminate their work to as many people as possible.

“I don’t want my professors on Twitter,” says Hanna Evensen ’16, who is taking a class with a professor with a Twitter account.

Evensen explained that a professorial presence thwarts the carefree and expressive discussion that many Twitter users prefer.

“It is the one place where stupidity reigns,” she adds. “Let stupidity have its place.”

—Staff writer Irfan Mahmud can be reached irfanmahmud@college.harvard.edu.

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