Me and Social Media:
This post is a write-up of the paper I gave at Kingston University of 29 November 2013. As usual, I ran out of time so I hope that putting it on my blog, those kind people who attended will get a chance to read it properly. I also think it might be of more general use to anyone thinking about using social media in academia.
Image with thanks to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mkhmarketing/8539048913/
I’m very new to social media; I’ve been using it for 7 months since the end of teaching in May 2013. I am an enthusiastic adopter of new modes of teaching, so I joined Twitter to see if it was a good way for students on the modules I teach to communicate with each other and me.
Very quickly, however, this opened my mind to the benefits of social media for academics, which seemed to have passed me by until then! So, this paper is not an expert guide; it a drawing together of some of the opportunities for using social media in teaching, research and public engagement. It is accompanied by a Prezi presentation which you can see here.
I think academics in higher education really need to get to grips with social media as professional tools. After all, social media are part of our digital world. As Jane Finnis observes in her ‘A think piece on digital’,
Digital is not really something separate. No one under the age of 20 even talks about ‘digital’ anything anymore. It is simply a part of everything – communications, transport, retail, manufacturing, entertainment, education, medicine etc.
The same can be said for Social Media – particularly for the many that already use Facebook. But even those of you familiar with that particular medium might not appreciate how a range of social media can be integrated into professional life.
As such, academics need to embrace social media for there will be a platform that suits you and your needs. And you know its time has come when Research Councils advocate its use: the ESRC, for example, informs researchers of the benefits of social media. And it is a vital way to build a strategy for public engagement, the cornerstone of funded research today.
I think social media is fantastic because it breaks down artificial academic barriers. For some time historians have been encouraged and are attempting to work across disciplines, make international links, and engage with the public. Social media helps you do this without strategies that are so expensive they require external funding. What I really appreciate about it too is that it removes walls between postgraduates, early career historians, and senior historians, as well anyone interested in history and the past. To me it puts us on equal footing where we can all learn from each other.
Academic networking and opportunities
What perhaps has surprised me most is that social media are bringing me opportunities I would not have been offered otherwise. I counted this up for this paper.
In the last seven months I have met 16 academics, writers and/or historians face-to-face, with whom my first contact was through Twitter (4 are from Oxford Brookes, even though it is Twitter that got us talking to each other). They range across disciplines and career stages. This might not sound astounding, but for me this kind of networking is totally anomalous. I’m more the introvert with family commitments; the attendee at the conference who stands in the corner fiddling with a phone.
Thanks to Tweeps offering to collaborate with me, I’ve written guest blog posts, will write a chapter for an edited volume, am setting up a symposium. I’ve, and been invited to give four conference papers (two of which are keynotes). Joining in Twitter conversations has also led to me speaking on BBC local radio twice.
So my feeling is I would have lost out in the last 7 months if I hadn’t been on Twitter and I aim to integrate social media into my existing practices to get best out of my professional role.
What types of social media?
I’m using a broad definition when I discuss social media to include any online forum where you can interact by sharing stuff and communicating –
- Conversation-based – Twitter/Blog/Facebook/
- Object-based – Flickr/Instagram/Pinterest/ Academia/
- Sharing-based – Bundlr/Prezi
Thus there are three key reasons for using social media:
Finding and organising – Or as Mark Carrigan says: for collecting, sorting, evaluating and sharing information. His post ‘A researcher’s survival guide to information overload and curation tools’ is very helpful. Curation of web resources is essential because there is so much online that historians need to be aware of and to use in teaching.
Communication – Blogging is a brilliant way to communicate your research: and it doesn’t have to be scholarly/perfect as at publication stage. In a research funding world of public engagement we have to make the Humanities/Social Sciences heard and get people on our side!!
You can blog about your work-in-progress, but also older work – why let past papers and talks sit in a cloud, or on a hard drive or memory stick? Let people read it. If you are worried about maintaining ownership of your work, get a creative commons license: these are public copyright licenses that let you retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make non-commercial use of your work – ensuring you get the credit for your work.
Blogging is also so valuable because you can have a conversation about history or your research. I find that it is one of the few real or online platforms where I can talk through my work with someone else, and this interaction is not only with academics.
Interest Building – With the issue of Open Access dominating Higher Education publishing and – in my view, the increasing need to be accountable for how we spend our time, historians have to show why they get paid for doing research and teaching, so its results need to be open and widely available. Indeed to get large research projects off the ground it is essential to tackle impact, public engagement, and knowledge exchange. You have to demonstrate and measure this for external funders. Social Media are some of the ways to do this by building interest in your research and its findings; a strategy that is increasingly being advocated by a variety of organisations.
The rest of my talk is focused on using social media in the three areas of historians’ professional lives: teaching, research, and public engagement.
Social Media as a teaching and learning Tool
This is why I engaged with social media – but, ironically, it is pretty early days and while many in Higher Education realise we should be engaging with it to teach, the best ways to do so are still not especially clear.
A key factor in using it in teaching is that most social media are designed to be mobile. So let’s get students to use apps on the phones, tablets, laptops that they bring to the classroom for learning.
Again, I see two key uses for teaching. First is to share learning resources; the second to get students to interact.
For sharing learning resources, I think both Bundlr and Pinterest are great. Like most social media they are designed to be simple to use – a couple of clicks on the browser button when you’re on a web page which you want to curate. Crucially, they do not take much time to set up and organise.
Bundlr: An attractive and thematic way to organise and share web resources through descriptive icons which are curated into categories. Public so – again can share – outside of academia. Key for students is that this is not a list of URLs. See my Bundlr link on my blog. Mark Carrigan has a great Bundlr site.
Pinterest: As Deborah Lipton says here, this “draws upon the idea of older techniques of collage or scrapbooking: collecting interesting images, grouping them together under a theme and displaying them to others.”
Essentially, you collect the images you find useful for teaching/research into themed online pinboards. I have also seen Pinterest used to curate links to websites too – rather like Bundlr. Students can follow boards and they can be updated. They can also become an analytical resource when the tutor adds comments, and students can do this as well, so it can become a conversation.
Also these curation tools are a fantastic way for students to collect resources for an assignment – primary source exercise, project, dissertation.
I also find a combination of blogs – and Prezi to be a good way to make lectures and seminars publicly available. This paper’s Prezi presentation is available here.
For example I was invited to give a two hour lecture/seminar to MA History of Design students at V&A/RCA. The module is on Domesticity and Material Culture. Their focus is nineteenth century objects – both archaeological finds at the London Museum and the V&A’s collection. My job was to discuss the concept of the culture of domesticity – as a set of ideas about home and family. Afterwards I converted my lengthy notes into a blog post so that the students could access this when it suited them.
Effectively I made my points about the cult of domesticity in the 19th century a little more discursive. However, I also reflected in the post on the students’ questions and thoughts about material culture and its relationship with the concept and emotions underpinning domesticity. This made me re-think my assumptions. In effect I learnt something too. And, I had a number of other readers and comments because I made it publicly available.
I like being resourceful with my writing and getting several uses out of it – including teaching. I was asked to contribute to a BBC Radio 4 programme on privacy. When the producers chose not to include me, I decided to write a post rather than ‘waste’ the thinking I’d done. I developed my preparatory thoughts about the issue – has the family ever been private? – into a short bit of writing; summarised the publications on this with a couple of key references, chose a nice image, and posted it. That post was used for a seminar at Swansea University, I’ll use it also as a talking point for teaching, and it has been visited by a much wider group of people.
Inter-active communication with students through social media is perhaps a bit trickier and needs some imagination.
If you teach you know that students don’t really communicate by email, so when you try and talk to them as a group, you need to use something other than official emails. Facebook seems ideal as most people use it, and I’ve seen some good reports about using closed Facebook groups for module interaction.
For the few of us not on Facebook (I just signed up in order to know what I’m doing when I use it for teaching next semester) – in Nisha Malhotra’s words: Facebook groups resemble an online café with walls to the rest of the online community, allowing students to (a) chat in real-time, (b) discuss in virtual-time, and © share materials through straightforward file upload.
Basically the groups are not broadly public, which allows students to ask questions without feeling dumb.
The results look encouraging. Nisha Malhotra ‘Experimenting with Facebook in the College Classroom’ – says:
In class, students were interacting like never before and seemed more comfortable with each other as a result of the online interactions.
The participation and discussion rates were higher than ever, and more problem solving, and other requests were made for help with the course.
I also think that Twitter is worth a try. It can be used to discuss the module through a hashtag, or probably more likely to share resources and links. You can see this at #hist671, where students and tutor on ‘Introduction to Public History’, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, discuss the module. Incidentally, they picked up this talk when it was publicised by tweeting. Very exciting to be part of a learning experience in the US, by the way!
Twitter – could be used ‘live’ for brainstorming in seminars, allowing those who are less vocal to contribute. And perhaps a bit more controversially it could have a place in lectures. Jem Bloomfield has written about its potential in ‘Hashtag Symposium: Students Tweeting in Lectures’:
This is where Twitter comes in, as I see it. It can be the margin of the lecture hall, the place where students type quotations, cheer good points, reflect on the argument being developed express bafflement or surprise.
I think there’s a lot of value to be found for students in tweeting as a way of becoming even more engaged with a lecture, in taking it on its own terms as a conversational gambit and responding in the air around the speaker.
Social media as a research tool
Joining Twitter has given me unparalleled access to a historical academic community that actually is interdisciplinary/trans-chronological/global/and non-hierarchical.
I’m simply going to outline some of my most rewarding activities with regard to research and no doubt other people will have different versions.
Finding out about important digitised sources
Archives and Libraries make excellent use of Social Media to publicise their digitised and archival resources. They also have blogs, like Untold Lives at the British Library.
Likewise various funded research projects now have to publicise their activities and often make some of their data available.
Thus on Twitter, thanks to retweets and to following these institutions, blogs and archives, I have come across far more primary sources, some of which are free. What is more, you hear about them very early rather than through searching or having them filtered through to you via your library. I heard about The Spectator Archive this way, which is a fantastic free source. You can use a curating tool, of course, so you don’t forget them and can return to them when required.
Sharing scholarship and information
Twitter is an amazing route to scholarship. Using the #twitterstorians and #twistoriography hashtags among others, you can ask specific historical questions because you know there is someone out there who can answer or direct you. It is also fun to answer others. It surprises me what I know sometimes! Ideally scholarship has always is a reciprocal process and social media simply makes it more feasible. Expect to see tweeps being thanked in acknowledgements.
Social media gives you rapid access to new research through:
- online journals
- project websites
- conference websites and blogs, and conference live tweets
Perhaps what was extremely unexpected for me is that social media encourages me to write steadily, and I also try very hard to use what I write in several ways. My blog posts allow me to make use of my ‘thinking’ writing as they are a maximum of 800-1000 words, a fair bit of which will be quotes, with minimal editing, where it is okay, even appealing, to have a personalised voice in this kind of work and for it to be less than perfect prose! Mind you, I think the regularity of this is going to be shaped by teaching commitments. You are not going to blog much when you are marking 150 assignments.
Anyway, over summer I found that I could use posts as a way to write more frequently. I’ve found that tweets prompted me to write posts, as did reports in the media on research. Starting writing a post has also been a way for me to brave writing conference papers, as I simply start on one issue in them and can then develop these musings into the paper afterwards. I suppose I’m saying social media lets me fool myself into writing. It also lets me step outside my usual style of academic writing, by introducing my own voice, and by writing about broader topics. For example, I and three other #twitterstorians tackled the subject of what makes a good conference question. We found this pretty easy to write and share and it was posted on our respective blogs with a heck of a lot of visits as a result.
Public engagement through social media
Impact or public engagement (which I find an easier term to understand) is not going to go away. I wrote a funding application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council this summer; a process which has made me acutely aware of how central public engagement is now to any chance of success for external funding for research projects. My learning curve was steep, to say the least and showed me that impact is far more than dissemination, since it requires that academics demonstrate how their research has shaped non-academic world – all those policy makers, archives, libraries, heritage organisations, charities, and end users. Now it may be no surprise to those people who have just been involved in the REF writing their impact statements that this is a two-way process. Yet to some extent, this kind of evaluation is done with hindsight. Planning impact is a whole other step into unknown land. What I now know is that social media is one step you can map out.
And there are organisations now like The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement which I only came across through social media (particularly this fantastic blog) which advise on methods of public engagement (I wish I’d known about these organisations while I was writing the AHRC grant L) and more specific, media based organisations like Historyworks, which prides itself on bridging the gap between knowledge and public engagement.
Pertinently, all tend to advocate that one form of public engagement is through Twitter and blogs. They allow you to share knowledge and measure ‘something’ of this process through their statistics. There is no doubt that social media is one way to talk with different people and share knowledge around a specific historical issue outside of academia.
It is also very clear that academics are going to have to take responsibility for publicising their own research. This is going to become a standard expectation, and the method will be through social media. I came across an indication of this with Kudos, a service for amplifying author outreach and increasing research impact, because they have been working with the publisher of a journal in which I’d published two articles. Kudos use the author’s networks to publicise publications. They provide the author with a template to ‘supercharge’ their published work. This easy to use template allows you to apply a plain English abstract, give your publication some context and then spread the word through your social media. You can then trace what happens through Altmetrics which tracks mentions of your work in social media. (The service will be expanded next year to more publishers.)
Kudos offer ‘Top Tips’ to help you increase the impact of your articles and number five is: Use social media and blogs to spread the word:
Tweet when the article has been published and include a link to the full text. Tweet two to three times in the week after publication. Monitor your twitter account for discussion about your tweet and reply to generate engagement. Build your network or followers by finding people working in your field and following them. Also follow people whose work you cite, retweet them and respond to their postings so that over time they will also start following you. Start a blog and reference your article.
As I noted earlier blogs really do communicate your research in different ways. In the five months of my blog’s existence (July-Nov) it has had over 12,000 visitors an overall average of 94 per day. This is an entirely different scale of engagement with my work than I have had before. But it is not all about numbers!
I stress again – more importantly the blog has let me talk to lots of people about my research and writing. I have got insights from historians in different fields and periods, from numerous people outside academia.
As Jonathan Gray says in ‘Recomposing Scholarship: The critical ingredients for a more inclusive scholarly communication system’.
The value of a journal article is not the stated impact factor of the journal, any more than the value of a scholar is the aggregate of his or her publishing record. The value of a piece of scholarly text is in the interaction it has with its readers, in the sparks it generates, the friction and light that it produces – whether tomorrow, or in a hundred years’ time.
There are no hard and fast rules to using social media in teaching, research, and public engagement. The essential thing is to find a combination that suits YOU.
Andy Miah, in ‘Top 5 social media platforms for research development’ comments:
The first thing to realise is that there is no single way of doing this well. We each have to figure out how to use social media in a way that enriches our working life, but in a way that also provides some added value.
It is also another time-commitment. So you have to find a way to do this without resenting using social media as yet another demand on your time. I hop onto Twitter to share History stuff in small batches – my break as it were. Try tools like Pomodoro to check you don’t get distracted. Also, of course, there will be peaks and troughs in your use. You might use social media more outside of semester. Or you might use it largely when at conferences.
Anyway, just try it!