Martha S. Jones, an Arthur F. Thurnau professor of history and Afroamerican and African Studies, had a problem. She and her students had spent a semester painstakingly documenting the life of Arabella Chapman, the first African American to graduate from the Albany School for Educating People of Color. Chapman’s rare photo albums from the late 19th and early 20th centuries depicting black American life can be found in the William L. Clements Library at U-M. The class turned their meticulous research into a new Wikipedia entry for this little-known—but historically significant—figure in U.S. history.
There was only one snag: Wikipedia’s notoriously selective (and arbitrary) editors. Time and again, they rejected the new submission, often without explanation. Jones was stymied—until Adeline Koh, a digital humanities scholar and editor and advocate for diversity on Wikipedia, came to campus for the Global Women Wikipedia Write-in. Jones used the meeting as an opportunity to tweet about her frustrations with the website: “Excited to take part in #GWWI with @adelinekoh I hope to learn why my @Wikipedia entry was dinged.”
And then something interesting happened.
“Within minutes someone—I call them my Wikipedia angel—had accepted our article, and it was live. Just like that,” says Jones. She was stunned: Someone had heard her.
The power of that single tweet convinced Jones (@marthasjonesUM) that Twitter had a lot more potential for her work as an educator and academic than she initially thought. Today, she uses the medium strategically, conducting class discussions and conference dialogues, keeping up with former students, contributing to conversations about the issues that matter to her—and listening.
No Laughing Matter
Listening is a big part of Twitter for other faculty members, too. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Meghan Duffy (@duffy_ma) has used her account to not only follow along at conferences she can’t attend, but to actively participate in discussing them. Twitter also helps her find emerging literature in her field, which ensures that she’s always plugged into the latest research.
“I think part of what is interesting about Twitter for me is hearing about the process of science,” says Duffy. “The tweets that say ‘look at this neat thing I found in my research sample’ are at least as interesting as the ones that link to full articles.”
For some, like Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History Juan Cole (@jricole), Twitter can be a vehicle to expand the audience for his work and to interact with collaborators. Cole had been publishing his already popular blog, Informed Comment, about the Middle East, history, and religion for years before he opened his Twitter account.
“I joined Twitter at some point in 2007, after I read a recommendation on a website about blogging,” says Cole. “I had my account set to automatically tweet when I added new blog entries, but otherwise I didn’t pay much attention to it.”
That is, until Cole was at a comedy club where some of the comedians were simulcasting their act on Twitter. As a joke, they looked up accounts of audience members and were stunned when they saw the number of followers on Cole’s account. So was he—he’d gained over 10,000 followers without lifting a finger.
“Until that point, I hadn’t paid that much attention to Twitter,” says Cole, “but after that, I figured I should look into it more.”
Since then, he’s expanded the way he uses the medium to interact with his followers and even to use his social media clout to connect with important newsmakers around the world. In 2011, his reputation in the academic world coupled with his Twitter following gave him access to the young activists of the Arab Spring. He turned what he learned from them into a book called The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East.
Being Social Means Being Genuine
At U-M, even deans get in on the action. Andrew D. Martin, the dean of LSA and a professor of political science and statistics, has a unique Twitter presence. His tweets range from lighthearted selfies with his daughter to serious issues on campus and tidbits about events and happenings in the College. Martin (@ProfADM) tries to connect to a broad range of people, including current LSA students, alumni, and his faculty peers.
“My goal is to highlight all of the good work happening in the College,” he says. “It’s a quick way to connect informally with lots of people in the community.”
Angela Dillard, the associate dean of undergraduate education, the Earl Lewis Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, and a professor in the Residential College, also uses Twitter to reach out about her work or about issues and events in her departments.
“I try to ‘tweet funny’ or ‘tweet clever’ whenever I can,” says Dillard (@adillard4), “though sometimes I tweet because I’m concerned, or frustrated, or even angry. Because Twitter is a social media that can foster social connections, I think it’s important to have a range of emotions and voices.”
Despite their academic leanings, faculty aren’t above having a little fun with Twitter, either. Professor Jones live-tweets while watching the show Scandal with her friends. Professor Duffy tweets about her personal life in the hopes of humanizing scientists and their work.
“I include tweets that relate to non-work things, including mentioning my children on Twitter,” she says. “Part of why I do that is that I think it's important to show that it's possible to be a scientist and have a life outside of science.”
Regardless of how and why they use it, Twitter and other social-media tools are a way for faculty members to stay connected—to students, to other faculty, and even to collaborators and friends across the globe.
“To riff on the great C.S. Lewis quote,” says Dillard, “We tweet to know we are not alone.”