twitter, academics, and the public

Kathleen Fitzpatrick as a good blog post offering advice to junior faculty about using blogs, twitter, and related social media. I think the advice is very sound. And yet it also raises some questions I'd like to address. In particular she writes:

5. If somebody says they’d prefer not to be tweeted or blogged, respect that. Whatever your feelings about the value of openness — and openness ranks very high among my academic values — not everyone shares them. While I have a hard time imagining giving a talk that I didn’t wish more people could hear, I know there are other scholars who are less comfortable with the broadcast of in-process material. And while I might like to nudge them toward more openness, it’s neither my place nor is it worth the potential bad feeling to do so.

Now let me say that I think this is fine advice to recommend to junior faculty. It's like advice that says don't piss off people who might impact your future tenure. So take that advice as you will. Furthermore, there are limits about things I would blog or tweet: things that are said in confidence or in private, for example. However, here I believe Fitzpatrick is talking about tweeting/blogging about a conference presentation or a public presentation of an invited speaker on campus. Finally, I think Fitzpatrick largely agrees with me here, so this isn't about my disagreeing or taking any issue with her post. 

In my view, if you have accepted an invitation to present at a conference or to a department then you have agreed to present your work in a public forum. I have seen reporters for Insider Higher Ed and the Chronicle at conferences like CCCC and MLA. Do those journalists need to ask permission to report on the events of a conference? I don't think so. Does the MLA and CCCC want to hear about the "private" meetings it holds? I don't think so. Likewise, if a student journalist from my university and you show up at an open-to-the-public presentation, you don't need to ask permission to report about it. In short, as a presenter you do not have the right to prevent someone from having a public discussion of your public presentation. As a presenter you do have the right to the copyright of your material, so the complete recording and dissemination of your presentation should only be done with your permission. Excepting that, everything else is fair game. 

The argument we commonly hear is this one about "in-process" material. It comes from this narrative we tell that scholars give conference presentations that later turn into journal articles. If this is the case, I wonder how such folks ever make tenure. Just imagine the timeline. The gap between proposing and presenting at a major conference is around 10 months. So if that point you have an "in-process" presentation that is so weak that you are worried about it being made public, how much longer are you going to spend getting that text to a place where it could be submitted to a journal? I think that's ridiculous. If your work isn't ready to be discussed publicly then why are you wasting my time with it? Why are you taking up space at this conference when there are plenty of other people whose proposals were denied but actually have something to say? Because, in my view, that's what one is implying when one says one's work is "in-process." It's a way of hedging one's bets against possible objections. 

On the other hand, of course one's work is in process. I would hope that any possible discussion of one's work would have the possibility of shaping one's future work. The ethos of this work being semi-private is hopelessly outdated. In fact I wouldn't even call it an ethos. It was more of a default position that resulted from the fact that publicizing one's work wasn't possible. Let's face it. "Publishing" one's work in a print journal that languishes on a dusty shelf in an academic library is a fairly minimal definition of making something public. So the real issue here is that we are simply not accustomed to our work being discussed in public. Ever. Period. The "in process" thing really has nothing to do with it. 


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