academia

I tweet 10-20 times per week on average. But I’m far more active on Twitter when I attend conferences. At conferences, I write as many as 300 tweets over two days. I use conference hashtags to share my thoughts, generate discussion, and disseminate others’ work. Conference tweeting is a way to electronically meet other attendees and have an online conversation with them. I try to use live-tweeting etiquette as much as possible.

Along with tweeting, I normally take notes on my laptop during conference presentations. Lately, along with my usual conference tweets, I have been writing what I call tweetnotes. These are tweet threads I write by tweeting my notes and threading together replies. The tweets become my notes, hence the term tweetnotes.

Before creating tweetnotes, I used to write a dozen or more discrete tweets during presentations. But I can thread tweetnotes together, meaning they can be saved as a narrative instead of a basketful of discrete tweets. In the past, I would scan through old tweets to find tweets from a specific presentation. Now, I just save or embed the tweetnote links and I can easily access the entire thread. Here are a few examples from the annual Qualitative Health Research conference I just attended.

Tweetnotes are useful for me and for others. For example, when I finish a tweetnote I will often retweet it with a summary of the presentation I attended. The presenter, conference organizers, and other audience members can now interact with either individual tweets or to the entire tweetnote. For example, CADTH retweeted my tweetnote on some presenters form their organization.

So far, I think the uptake of using tweetnotes has been well received by my network. What do you think of tweetnotes or other ways of using Twitter threads? Share your thoughts as a comment.

This is my second post about Academic PR, the practice of PR by academic professionals seeking to network, disseminate research, and discover funding opportunities. Today’s post is about Academia.edu, a social networking website for academics. I love the site because it leverages powerful techniques from the social networking web in a way that is easy and accessible for academics. But I hate the site because it overlooks some the most fundamental social networking techniques as well. Before I get into the details, first let me begin with the caveat that I’ve been in touch with the developers of Academia.edu about my concerns, and I was told that they are working them out. So by the time you’re reading this, things might be all better, in which case I’ll edit this post or write a new one. But for now, it’s a love-hate relationship.

Why I love Academia.edu

The reasons I love this website far outnumber the reasons I hate it. Most importantly, Academia.edu has an obvious understanding of their audience: academics. When you want to communicate with academics, you really need to cut the flack. Academics want simplicity and efficiency, not flash and complexity. So I love academia.edu because they’ve succeeded in appealing to their audience. And they’ve done so in three primary ways: the functionality, the database, and the interface.

Functionality

Academia.edu is a free and easy way for academics to publish their bios, publications, contact information, and Twitter-like status updates for the entire world to see. Further to that, users can use specialized search terms like research interests and departmental affiliations to find like-minded individuals and forge potential connections. I briefly mentioned that users can post publications, but I want to emphasize what an easy way this is for academics to highlight the work they feel best represents what they’re currently interested in. Furthermore, the Academia.edu site allows users to easily write blog posts that become part of their online profile.

Database

The information about thousands of post-secondary institutions has been populated into the Academia.edu database. So when a new academic user first registers, the site intuitively auto-populates the information about their academic institution and department. A simple example of this is the fact a PhD candidate from, say, the University of Waterloo’s English department (my alma mater), can choose the appropriate departmental title, the “Department of English Language and Literature,” instead of simply a generic title like the “Department of English.” Academia.edu achieves this by allowing users to populate the database as they register. So the first registrant of a given department paves the way for subsequent registrants to easily select their department from a list of options.

Interface

In terms of user interface, Academia.edu has done everything right. The layout is clean and clear with solid web architecture. And one of the most noticeable aspects of the site is the visual layout of academic departments. Once a user has chosen their institution and department, they can see the other faculty members, graduate students, and staff who are also Academia.edu users (see my screen shot).

Academia.edu screen shot

I think this is a neat way to visualize the hierarchy of a given academic department, although I have to admit it’s rather unremarkable if a department only has four Academia.edu users. The site uses a similar visual approach for laying out users according to their research interests.

The is also comprised of four primary feeds: News, Papers, People, and Status Updates. Which leads me to the next part of my post . . .

What I hate about Academia.edu

In its current iteration, I despise Academia.edu because users can’t filter the site’s feeds. The feeds are scrolling updates about users posting papers, status updates, profile changes, etc. You’ll be most familiar with this user interface from Facebook (and I can only assume you’re familiar with Facebook if you’ve read this far.) Academia.edu claims . . . CLAIMS that the site uses your reported research interests to populate your feed with information you’ll find relevant. Well this is just not true.

Like many others, I’m an interdisciplinary researcher with interests reaching from Linguistics to Medical Education. Perhaps this diversity is the reason my feed is constantly clogged with information about academics who I am not interested in and papers that I don’t want to read. Although the site allows you to “Follow” the work of some academics, this doesn’t occlude the work of academics you’ve never heard of from appearing in your newsfeed.

Everytime I log into Academia.edu I find myself having to sort through a wealth of unnecessary information. While I can perhaps see the logic insofar as the site’s organizers hoped to foster previously unknown research connections, it’s completely unacceptable that I my Papers feed contains a graduate student research paper about Islamic poetry when the closest Research Interest that may link me to this topic is “Illness in Literature.” This site desperately needs filters for their feeds and right now they don’t.

So maybe I was a little off when I said the site’s designers fully understood their audience. After all, while academics are particularly good at cutting the chaff from the wheat, we need to be in control of WHO’S work we want to follow, and WHICH papers we want to read. Anyone who understands academics knows that while we appreciate recommendations, we don’t want them forced on us.

This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing on Academic Public Relations (PR). The thrust of these posts is to talk about Academic PR as a set of strategies for academics, young (graduate student, PhD candidates, etc.) and old (ABDs, post-docs, sessionals, etc.), who are looking to get their work noticed. All major post-secondary institutions will have PR departments, but this isn’t Academic PR. A university’s PR team governs their institution’s image in order to recruit students and increase public awareness, but Academic PR is the practice of PR by academic professionals seeking to network, disseminate research, and discover funding opportunities.

A teachable topicAcademia

The job placement rate of a given graduate program directly relates to that program’s prestige. And more prestige leads to more funding, more industry partnerships, and more growth in the form of course offerings, faculty specializations, and scholarships. So it behooves academic institutions to teach career strategies, doesn’t it?

You’ll recall an earlier post where I interviewed Carleton University’s Dr. Lara Varpio and she outlined the importance of networking for PhD students nearing the end of their studies. Dr Varpio told me that effective networking helped her land her a job, and that effective networking leads PhD students and post-docs to the coveted markers of academic success: publications, fellowships, scholarships, and, most importantly, jobs.

Graduate students are told to disseminate their work at conferences and to network; but they aren’t taught to put themselves on the radar of potential venues for their work. And while Dr Varpio had in mind the more traditional form of networking (face to face at academic conferences), it is my contention that graduate programs and graduate students fail to teach the networking possibilities afforded by the internet, i.e., Academic PR.

Hidden curriculum

So in this sense, Academic PR remains the hidden curriculum of graduate studies: there aren’t any courses taught on this subject, but you need to understand it if you hope to get a job. Why is this?

It could be that the practice of Academic PR is distinctly unacademic. The academy is about pure objectivity while PR is about overt and covert persuasion; the academy is about meritorious knowledge dissemination while PR is about strategic knowledge dissemination; the academy is about research and reporting while PR is about pragmatic, human connections. But the fact remains that many successful academics are practicing Academic PR, and the next generation of academics should learn to do the same.

What do you think? I can see this post generating a lot of disagreement, and that’s great! I’d love to hear your feedback in the form of a comment below.

Picture Varpio

This is the second post in my Great Minds series, a set of interviews with writers and thinkers who have inspired me. My academic work has introduced me to numerous professors doing fascinating work on literature, cognition, and social action. Lara Varpio is my second great mind.

Assistant Professor in a Faculty of Medicine is not the first place one would expect to find an English PhD graduate, but that is just where University of Waterloo Department of English Language and Literature PhD alumnus Dr. Lara Varpio finds herself at the University of Ottawa. Lara is a recent PhD graduate with a job, and that should be an inspiration for current and potential PhD students alike. I hope this interview with Lara provides as many valuable insights for my peers as it did for me.

A: How did you end up in the English PhD program at UW?

L: I should start by saying that the work I do now is fairly removed from standard department of English training. I am originally from Sudbury. I did my BA in English at MacMaster. I soon realized that I wouldn’t get too far with a Bachelor of Arts. The Master of Arts professional writing stream at UW interested me. But my work was not related to medicine at all.

A: Could you discuss your experiences as a grad student?

L: After completing my MA, I moved to Sweden for 3 years. I was a professor and I taught Business Communication. After one year, I was bored intellectually. So I contacted Catherine Schryer to find out about doing my PHD from abroad. I talked to the department chair at the time, Neil Randall, and, despite the fact that nobody had ever done a PhD from abroad, the department let me in. So I started my PhD while living in Sweden . . . I remember for a course with Professor Michael MacDonald, I submitted my class presentation on a CD-ROM. I found a video camera and one of my students in Sweden videotape my presentation. I completed two terms of coursework abroad. For the third term I came back to Canada for the residency requirement and then I realized how homesick I was. I completed my work in Canada.

I didn’t want to waste time on a dissertation that didn’t engage me. I approached Catherine Schryer and told her that I probably would not complete a PhD if I didn’t find something intellectually engaging. She introduced me to Lorelei Lingard, who introduced me to the medical education community at the Wilson Centre [for Research in Education] at the University of Toronto. We joke that I went there for a 3 day visit and stayed for 3 years. I brought my experience with Actor Network Theory and Rhetoric to the table, and I was the first PhD student that the Wilson Centre co-sponsored.

A: What advice do you have for current graduate students?

L: It’s so important to find a project that engages you. Aside from that, think outside the box when it comes to funding. So often English graduate students think about OGS and SSHRC. I was the first Arts student at Waterloo to get CIHR funding. So I got medicine to fund me and OGS as well. But I couldn’t get my SSHRC application past the department . . . Also, your supervisors are key. The importance of your supervisor to your later success cannot be underestimated. I am also a big believer in mentorship. You need people to offer guidance. I was lucky to find mentors in Catherine Schryer, Lorelei Lingard, and at the Wilson Centre. Academia is changing and you need mentors and you need people to help you walk down the new academic corridors. Also, complete your PhD studies with the end in mind. Decide on your dream job. It doesn’t have to be tenure-track in a department of English. There are different kinds of PhDs, some are theoretical, some are practical. You can make your PhD the tool you want it to be for where you want to go. You can teach or you can be a researcher.

There will be a dark night of the soul. If you’re doing graduate work, there will be a night where you feel like you can’t do it anymore. It’s important to take those experiences seriously, but it’s also important to look at those moments in the overall picture. Think of those moments in context. Sometimes you will want to give up, and maybe you should; but don’t be too hasty.

A: Do you have any career advice for current PhD candidates?

L: I have found my dream job. I can take all the theories and skills from my graduate work and apply them in a different context. Medical Education is my sandbox and my training in the Humanities is my shovel and pail. Every day I am excited to go to work. I have total control over what I do and how I do it . . . When it comes to finding a job, I can’t stress the importance of networking enough. A lot of jobs will never get posted, and you will never find them if you’re waiting for postings to appear online. I recommend PhD students go to conferences, especially if there is someone giving a talk who they admire. Prepare for the talk by thinking of one good question. One intelligent question—and you can underline intelligent. If you can ask that question, you can start a conversation. If you do it right, you should end up with their business card in you hand. I always did that and I still do. I find the people by attending their presentation, I ask an intelligent question, I ask about a recent article. Build connections with people you want to work with.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of networking and the importance of being a good networker. You don’t want to be sucking up; you have to look like someone who is interesting and who is doing exciting work.