Hashtags and Rabbit Holes: Confessions of an Academic Writer

To kick off the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 12-17), our Social Media Specialist, Tanya Rohrmoser, reflects on the many ways in which social media can be used as a vehicle for communicating research in the arts and humanities.

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” – Alexander Pope

“I want you to take a Post-It and write, ‘Don’t write like an academic.’” said my new Digital Communications professor. “Stick it on your desk, your wall, your computer. Anywhere you’re working. And don’t forget it.”

I blinked. But, ever the conscientious student, I slowly wrote it out in my notebook. (Yes, in ink, on paper.) I underlined it twice.

As a mature student, I had enrolled in Humber College’s Professional Writing & Communications post-graduate program. I came armed with 6 years’ experience as a teaching assistant in Brock University’s English department, and a Master’s degree which had focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and gender studies. I loved studying that period, where manicured sentences wound long and lush as a garden path, heroic couplets were the chosen form of intellectuals, and you could stand on a Richardson novel to change a light bulb. Sadly, no one ever did beat down my door after graduation to discuss Judith Butler or Mr. Darcy’s masculine performance in Pride and Prejudice. So here I sat in this classroom, fluorescent lights buzzing, debt accruing, determined to bridge the distance between the ivory tower and the landscape beyond.

And, over the next eight months, my writing changed. Write for screens! Know your audience! Drop those adjectives! Bullet points! I ducked red pens and track changes, as my clauses fell away like petticoats. Watched as my murdered darlings dropped breathless to the floor, certain I’d never recover from the sacrifice. In time, I learned to step over them.

But if I bristled at changing my writing, I positively shut down when I was told to sign up for Twitter. As part of a generation that has recently been dubbed the “Xennials,” I grew up with the luxury of picking and choosing the parts of digital life in which I participated – and Twitter wasn’t one of them. I dutifully claimed my handle, but certainly didn’t see how I would ever need it in the workplace.

Is a tweet different than a heroic couplet? Yes, that’s a silly question. And no, it’s not silly at all. Alexander Pope may not have constrained himself to 280 characters, but he did know how to pack a nice, salty punch into two short lines. I made my peace with the fact that a tweet is a similar burst of information, deliberately chosen to display its author’s worldview. As with any writing, both form and content are debated. Some are written poorly. Some are politically charged. Some will send you careening down a bot-peppered rabbit hole into chaos. Some are profound, impactful, and memorable.

When finally, happily, I was hired by the Journals Division of the University of Toronto Press, it was as their Digital Marketing Coordinator, where one of the largest parts of my job was to run their social media accounts. And I was pleased to learn along the way that Alexander Pope and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu both have hashtags, and that a “Swiftie” not only refers to songstress Taylor, but satirist Jonathan.

I slid back into the academic world like a hand finds its glove. I knew this world. I loved this world. What was different now was that I knew how to promote this world. And I also knew that, in some ways, it would be a challenge. Part of each day was spent finding contributors on social media in order to market their articles and gain a wider reach. I searched for the handles of their university departments. I tracked down and promoted the work of grad students. Though they are often quite sparing with their words, I tried to get scholars talking on Twitter, and I discovered an active, robust academic community that was happily leaning in to it, and using social media to their advantage.

And, in perhaps an even odder twist, wrung from the student who once turned her nose up at the prospect of having a Twitter account, I’m now the Social Media Specialist for UTP’s Book Publishing Division.

As humanities majors, we’re told we have a wide variety of skills; we just need to market them. But we’re rarely taught how, and many of us are more comfortable curled up with a good book than we are singing our own praises. One week into my job at UTP, I went home to my own academic, a quiet historian who’s writing his dissertation, and told him to make sure he uses social media to promote his research. That when the time comes to apply for one of those coveted academic positions, to show not only that he can write, teach, and produce, but that he can help promote the department on its digital platforms. Useful advice? Academics on hiring committees would know more than I.

Is the debate about writing for social media similar to the heated debates about the potential dangers of the novel when it first appeared? Poetic license with the sonnet? The modern, post-Victorian aesthetic?

Today, I saw a man reach out to another we follow on Twitter: “It grieves me that I’ve had to degrade myself to contact you over Twitter. Is there really no other way to reach you?” I trust that by this point you know I understand the sentiment, but here is the truth, the raw truth for those of us who, as author Tim Bowling puts it, are “dragging the bloodied pelt of the twentieth century” behind us: social media is simply an exchange. A hand reaching out across a shrinking globe to create and participate in community. How does Alice not fall down the rabbit hole? If I ever find out, I’ll let you know. Sometimes I feel like I’m leasing space down there.

But here is what I also know to be true, as the academic world shifts shape into something new: there is a way to marry the two, and still retain the integrity and traditions of the former.

Last year, I was in Washington at the American Historical Association meeting, and my colleague was attending the Modern Language Association convention in New York. As I followed the conference hashtags, what struck me was just how many academics were reaching out to each other in kind and positive ways. During the worst of the January storms, there were offers of child-minding services for presenters if daycares were closed, promises to post grad student papers online if they couldn’t attend their sessions, and gentle reminders to tenured professors that a drink and a chat with a vulnerable adjunct can go a long way.

Can you fall down the rabbit hole, Alice? God help you, yes.

But you can also find support in an online community that will help you find and market your research, provide career advice, and offer opportunities to form new collaborations – often with a little humour thrown in for good measure. You just need to make sure you’re opening the Twitter handle to the right door.

To continue on Day One of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

MIT Press
Blog: https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog
Twitter: @MITPress

Athabasca University Press
Blog: http://www.aupressblog.ca/
Twitter: @au_press

Rutgers University Press
Blog: https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/category/news/
Twitter: @RutgersUPress

Yale University Press
Blog: http://blog.yalebooks.com/
Twitter: @yalepress

Duke University Press
Blog: https://dukeupress.wordpress.com/2018/11/09/how-partnerships-with-museums-help-build-a-strong-art-list
Twitter: @DukePress

University of Minnesota Press
Blog: uminnpressblog.com
Twitter: @UMinnPress

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