Is this the End of PALS?

From time to time we get questions via social media about teaching certain texts. A while ago, for example, John Hay tagged PALS on Twitter with a question about teaching Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World or Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons.

I passed Hay’s question along to the rest of our PALS Twitter following without any comment.

I’ve thought a lot about Hay’s question since his initial inquiry. I don’t have an answer to the question (based on my firsthand knowledge of teaching these texts), but I have thoughts on the nature of the question as it relates to PALS, its mission, and the authors creating content on our platform.

I should, in theory, be able to answer Hay’s question, but I can’t answer based on any real world experience. Permit me the indulgence to talk about my academic and scholarly background. The bulk of my coursework in graduate school focused on early American literature. My PhD comps list ranged from the American Revolution to the eve of World War I. My primary and secondary comps readings centered on sentimental literature. I wrote a dissertation on Harriet Beecher Stowe. I have “read” The Wide, Wide World and I have read The Morgesons.

This December I’ll be 5 years out from completing my PhD. I should, in theory, have the knowledge and experience to address the merits of teaching The Wide, Wide World or The Moregsons. Five years out from completing a PhD means I should have taught either a senior seminar or a graduate seminar on sentimental literature that included The Wide, Wide World and The Morgesons. Five years out from completing my PhD means I should have worked extensively with English majors. Five years out from completing a PhD means I should be finishing my first book.

Of course, the idealized pathway I describe above is based on comparing my career trajectory to my undergraduate and graduate teachers and mentors.   

My experience is a symptom of the problems facing higher education and our disciplines; all exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008. Again, I don’t share my experiences as an indulgent form of woe-is-me-ism that I can toss on the internet for everyone to read. I’m no different than the legions of other PhDs in our field. I share my background & experience because it is common to our field, and especially so for the PALS readership. My experience isn’t different from the majority of our full-time PALS contributors or many of our guest contributors. When I began drafting this post (and now a few months later), none of the PALS’ founding-editors will have non-precarious, full-time employment dedicated exactly to what we were trained to do, let alone devote extensive time to supported scholarship.

What do my experiences and the experiences of my co-contributors to PALS mean? It means that the work of PALS is limited by the nature of our profession and the lack of opportunities for teaching within our discipline, let alone our specialties. Our teaching experiences, the very heart of our source material for PALS, come from, for the most part, teaching general education courses, specifically first-year writing. I’ve had several conversations with contributors and editors that run along the lines of this: “I’m running out of ideas to write about for PALS; I just don’t have the classroom opportunities.” I’m not making a lament, but an observation that seeks to highlight the limitations of PALS in fostering certain questions about the teaching of American literature.

Maybe the real observation isn’t that we’re collectively running out of ideas, but many of us are collectively running out of opportunities.

What I am saying is not new. Erin Bartram addressed these issues in her essay about leaving academia. Bartram, in a latter tweet thread, hit the essence of what many of us face in the humanities. I should really pull a quotation, but it’s hard to do so because I want to quote all of Bartram’s thoughts; just read her essay and this related Twitter thread.

I find myself thinking about topics for future posts. I have a few I’d like to write which draw from the classroom. However, many of the posts I want to write—right now—are reflective and not about teaching American literature, but the ideas are adjacent to the field and the reality I and my co-contributors face.

Helpful Advice for Starting Out on The Twitter Dot Com

bau pals
Reading Your Tweets Like…

I suspect that much of PALS’s new growth on Twitter (aka #OnHere) in the past year comes via follows by new accounts. I don’t have hard data to support my observation, but I suspect PALS shows up more as a suggested follow, especially for new folks. Regardless, our growth reflects how Twitter’s algorithm works coupled with the way content moves #OnHere.

We have a small Twitter following compared to other academic blogs. We don’t have the large audience appeal working in the favor of many other collaborative academic blogs with a social media presence. The practical part of teaching American literature is neat, but niche. In the big picture, we’re small on Twitter. Our small size, regardless of our content, also reflects how Twitter works.

PALS has been #OnHere since August of 2015. It took a long time to grow our following. It took a long time to figure out how running an account for a blog/entity/thing versus a personal account differed. Many of us behind the PALS scenes have been #OnHere well before 2015. Still, we’re learning and figuring things out when it comes to tending to PALS and providing the content that #PalsNation wants.

I thought it might be useful to share a little bit of Twitter advice, especially since we have many new followers, including many graduate students. Graduate students are frequently told to get on Twitter or other forms of social media…

a mentoring.jpgHowever… Let’s be honest: in many cases graduate students are told to get on Twitter by 2 types of people: 1) Folks that aren’t on the Twitter Dot Com or 2) folks that are not good at the Twitter Dot Com. We are on the Twitter Dot Com. We’re decent at it. We’d like to share a few pieces of advice. Before we get into technical advice for starting up with Twitter, we’ll begin with philosophical advice.

A lot of Twitter advice focuses on being your own person on Twitter; it’s a recommendation steeped in a lot of privilege. You’ll find the “be yourself” advice in a myriad of advice columns; you’ll find such advice below. However, recognize that such advice often comes from experiences centered within positions of great privilege. It is important to take any advice with a grain of salt.

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BJ Blazkowicz gets it; Jack not so much.

Twitter has problems. There are rat bastards, trolls, and Nazis out there. There are people out there that will throw folks under the bus. Twitter can exacerbate systemic inequalities and can hang people out to dry. Twitter, the company, does little to stop this. All of the above doesn’t even account for the systemic inequalities within academia. Unfortunately, the work of supporting individuals attacked by sustained trolling campaigns falls on a larger community. You don’t have to engage with people. Mute and block are your friends.

Twitter is a weird platform and much of it has nothing to do with you. So, be cool with understanding that the workings of Twitter (platform and company) are weird (and often just bad). It doesn’t have all that much to do with you or the people you follow. We try to use Twitter to have a little bit of fun with PALS. We smash the retweet button. We post memes and gifs. We have a decent amount of engagement. However, Twitter isn’t what drives traffic to our site. On the flipside, Twitter is huge for making connections with folks interested in pitching a guest post. It has taken a while for us to get used to this facet of Twitter. For instance the recent meme-ification of PALS really didn’t happen until the coming of #WaltGrittman.

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Don’t worry about running with big accounts or big people. Be your own dog. Find fellow travelers in terms of personality and your personal and professional interests. For example, it has taken me a great deal of time to find a handful of folks that appreciate my humor. Find folks that share the same personal and research interests. Pay attention to your research interests, but if you like museums or zoos or whatever, then follow accounts related to those interests, too. You will find fellow travelers. It can take time. Finding new folks is a cool thing about Twitter. Finding your Twitter voice is a process. Again, be your own dog as best as you can. It’s hard not to worry about being yourself when there is so much self-fashioning and promotion on Twitter. There is a lot of self-fashioning in academia. Twitter turns self-fashioning up to 11.

Try to be kind. Don’t be a bad person. The thing about assholes on Twitter is that we tell them to be kind and nice, but they don’t listen. Don’t placate abusive or condescending people. It’s actually harder than it sounds because Twitter rewards bad behaviors with likes and retweets. Twitter often foments a feed frenzy. Twitter seems big, but it can be a small world, especially in how it functions like a little public square in the world of academic fields and subfields and subfields of subfields.

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Not a lie.

Try to interact with other people, which is a hard thing to do for many of us. Wade into the discussions about your research interests. Get fizzy with the recurring debates about soda. Remember, Twitter is just weird. You don’t need to be on all the time, which is a hard thing to remember. Try to reply to people. Interact with them. Actually respond directly; don’t overuse the quote-tweet function. It takes a long time to figure out how to get a read on how some conversations work. Some conversations are a free-for-all. Some conversations are A-B conversations in public, so C your way out.

Some content resonates. Some tweets are duds. A lot of times the profound sinks to the bottom, but the mundane rises to the top. Just do you. It took me nearly 10 years to have a moderately viral tweet. I can’t explain it.

Twitter affords an opportunity to retool one’s scholarly interests outside of how the traditional academic world works. Running in certain circles means that I’ve been able to refocus my scholarly interests. Many of us at PALS have used Twitter to become early Americanists, for example.

Below you’ll find advice folks starting out with a new Twitter account. Again, keep in mind your own personal situation and account for your own internet safety.

  1. Use your own name, if you can, in the Twitter handle and in the name field for your account.
  2. Don’t be an egg. Make sure to include some kind of profile picture. Use a headshot, a picture of your research, an animal. Just don’t go with the default.
  3. Come up with a pithy bio for your account. Identify your affiliations and your research interests. It took me a long time to come up with a pithy bio. It took me writing a fellowship application to come up with my bio.
  4. Don’t go following crazy right away, especially with Twitter’s suggested follows that appear when creating a new account. Start building your Twitter network with people you know in real-life. By starting with people you know, you’ll build a network that will function as a way validating your account as one that is genuine.
  5. Tweet and reply to people in your initial network. You’re building up a sample set of tweets that demonstrate who you are as an individual #OnHere. Aim to build a record of consistent tweeting, maybe of 30 to 50 tweets.
  6. Start building the second level of your network. Start with your subfield; don’t jump right into the larger discipline. You’ll likely find it more rewarding to build a network of folks related to your subfield. Start by following academic blogs, professional organizations, & libraries/archives in your subfield. Then, check out their followers for further suggestions. You can build this network over time; no need to do it all at once. This manner of finding accounts is a much more fruitful approach than relying on Twitter’s suggestions.

Again, remember just to do you. It is okay to lurk and watch conversations unfold. Adapt anyone’s advice for your own circumstances. Welcome to the Twitter Dot Com. Hopefully this advice helps you with entering the fruitful and maddening world of Twitter.