Friday, 27 November 2015

The hyperconnected super busy academic overkill

I am sure you have seen them: the posts in the news feeds of various social media from colleagues telling you that they have three articles to write this week, two papers to finish on the plane to the conference venue, and six time zones to cross twice this fortnight. In between tons of mails, service, teaching, and grading. You may even have received such a message from me.
On the one hand, the contents of these posts may probably refer to real situations. Many of the posts are intentionally witty, others may reflect a desperate need to share the craziness of the situation. Either way, we should take these signs of academic overload seriously on the systemic and institutional level. On the other hand, these posts also make up a new sharing practice in social media. They constitute a genre of academic hyperconnected, super busy overkill. It is this genre of interaction I am addressing in this post. I think we should reflect, just briefly, on what this particular form of online sharing culture may create and reinforce.
First, and, importantly, the job of those of us who are working at academic institutions is to acquire, create, reshape, and share knowledge of various sorts. Think about it. When we present this process of “knowledge production” (yes, I hate that metaphor too) in terms of rush, jet set, and fast food, what are we really doing? I fear that we are systematically reducing the value and trustworthiness of our own work. We sanction a practice of publishing articles that would have benefitted from another round of revision and we applaud the unfortunate fact that most large conferences have their fair share of crappy papers crafted on board an Easyjet carrier the night before. I am also afraid that we are affecting our own image as academics – what are we if we are so intensely jetlagged and stressed all the time that we are unable to think long thoughts?
Second, when we share how busy we are, how much we travel, and how much we can accomplish in a very short time we create a certain type of online academic persona. This form of sharing has become a way of marketing and branding ourselves as sought after, successful scholars. However, it also means that we enter a kind of contest with winners and losers. Seemingly, the losers are those who cannot keep up, the winners are those who continue to run until they drop (paraphrasing Tyra Banks, “Congratulations, you are still in the running to become America’s next top scholar”). This practice, and the instant gratification created by likes and affirmations may easily become a stress spiral both for ourselves and our colleagues. And remember, the game is no longer restricted to conferences and other traditional offline meeting places, it is constant and at your fingertips.
Third, this online practice may also – unintentionally – serve as a legitimation for academic institutions to continue filling up our schedules. After all, we sanction that hyper-stress and über-performance is part of the game. We end up reinforcing the system.
Dear hardworking and hyperconnected colleagues in the academy. I have a suggestion for you, for me (!), and for all of us: let us stop tweeting, posting, and sharing how extremely busy we are. Not because it is not true - I suspect we are busier than ever.  Not that I do not see the intense need to share – it means survival to many. However, I think we should pause and reflect, in between all those other things we have to do today, on what this particular genre of online sharing is doing for us.

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