Pannapacker at the MLA, 4: Twitter Is Scholarship

By William Pannapacker


The MLA convention is a huge, four-day event with hundreds of sessions and dozens of social gatherings.  Like a big city, it’s impossible to comprehend the whole of it; you can sample it, randomly, focus on new developments, or deepen your engagement with the fields you already know.  Or you can try to do all of those things at once.  For that, Twitter is a great help.

In fact, there may be more people engaging in academic conferences over Twitter than physically attending them.

I used to run from one concurrent session after another, trying to sample as much of the conference as I could.  Lots of other people did that, I remember: we’d lurk near the doors, and bolt—as inconspicuously as possible—during the applause after the most interesting talk.

I don’t do that so much anymore.  It seemed rude at the time.  But now I find myself sitting at the tables designated for “bloggers and tweeters” at the back of many conference rooms.  I’ve been a Brainstorm blogger for four years now, and this year I finally became a tweeter as well.

Working on an open laptop, dividing my attention between the speakers and Tweetdeck, seemed shockingly rude, at first.  It felt less so when so many other people were doing it.  (Yes, I know—this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a tweet.)

Halfway through this year’s conference, Mark Sample noted on Twitter that there had been 5,700 tweets posted by 657 Twitterers.  Following the MLA Twitter feed has been aptly described as like “drinking out of a fire hose.”  (By mid-conference, I noticed that individual sessions had developed separate discussion threads with their own identifying tags.)

Twitter came into my consciousness at the MLA back in 2009, and I remember reading some of the posts on my laptop.  By 2011 I was watching the Tweetstream on my iPhone, but I did not participate in it.  It seemed like there was an established community that was daunting to enter: a “cool-kids table.”

This year, I began to engage in the #MLA12 conversation by asking for ideas, and then, once I got comfortable with that, I started reporting on sessions and interacting with the other Twitterers, some of whom are well-known figures in the profession.  In a few days, “@pannapacker” (my Twitter account) attracted almost a couple hundred followers, including a lot of people whose work I also follow.  I also made several professional acquaintances through the medium—we met on Twitter before we met in the sessions or the book exhibition.  Who can say what collaborations will emerge from that?  On the whole, Twitter has been a boon to my experience of a major academic conference, and I expect it can help me in many ways that I have not yet anticipated.

How long will it be before Twitter affects academic standing and advancement?  I am sure it is already the case.  I’ve heard that publishers are watching Twitter now, and that Twitterers are being tapped for opportunities—just as bloggers were, famously, in the last decade—because they are highly visible and at the nexus of a community of conversation on a particular topic.

Scholarship is a social, collaborative activity, and that’s no longer limited to the conference circuit and conversations in print, spread out painstakingly over many years.  Depending on your field (some are more engaged than others)—if you’re not tweeting, or watching Twitter, you could be marginalizing yourself and accepting latecomer status in many professional conversations.  The academic media cycle is now around-the-clock, and Twitter has become an essential element of academic conferences.

But, as always, these gains come with some trade-offs.  Many times, while trying to listen to talks, I became involved in a Twitter exchange that distracted me from the talk so much that I tuned it out, and lost the thread of the presentation.  What’s more important: the talk itself, or the audience’s immediate reaction to it?  Is one separable from the other?  Should we develop some rules of behavior?

I’ve heard professors complain about Twitter generating a “hive mentality” that sometimes leads to mobbing.  A tweeter can attack a speaker, the speaker won’t know it at the time, and the tweeters will be laughing at their own private jokes at the speaker’s expense.   That possibility has led some speakers to monitor their laptops during presentations.  At the HASTAC convention last month, an audience member mentioned a critical tweet to a panelist who said, “Yes, I know, I’ve already responded to it.”

We’ll adapt to these changes, as we always have, and, on the whole, I think Twitter is an advance that most of us will come to appreciate.  As one Tweeter said, She “loves the sound of keys clicking like soft rain pitter patter at presentations.”


William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is a Chronicle columnist, and this has been his fourth year live-blogging the MLA convention.

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