Some reflections on following the AHA on Twitter

Tweets tagged #AHA2011
Tweets tagged #AHA2011

I wasn’t able to make it to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this past weekend, but my absence gave me my first real opportunity to follow a major historical conference from afar, via Twitter’s #AHA2011 hashtag. (I was also tweeting announcements of sessions and events for the AHA-affiliated Committee on LGBT History.)

Given the ongoing conversations about how new technologies can and should reshape the historical profession in general and conferences in particular—see, for instance, critical takes on the current structure of academic conferences by Michael O’Malley, Dan Cohen, and Larry Cebula—I thought it might be worthwhile to share a few thoughts on the experience.

So, what did I learn?

  • First, not many historians use Twitter. This almost goes without saying, especially in light of Robert Townsend’s recent report on the limited use of new media in the profession. But comparing the announced attendance of over 5,000 with the several dozen intrepid souls who populated the timeline for the #AHA2011 hashtag really threw this fact into relief.
  • Nevertheless, more historians use Twitter than many may realize. Several different historians I follow on Twitter provided updates from the AHA during the weekend… but without the #AHA2011 hashtag. I’d wager that this resulted more from oversight than intention, but regardless, it highlights how even historians tech-savvy enough to be active Twitter users may not necessarily want or know how to use it in the ways the most devoted digital humanists do.
  • These missing hashtags are one example of how best practices for Twitter at conferences are not well-established or widely-embraced. This is particularly so when it comes to reporting on and reacting to sessions in an intelligible way—not an easy task, as I learned in my first conference-tweeting venture, at last April’s OAH annual meeting. Before describing or reacting to a session’s content, it’s of course helpful to somehow indicate the title or topic of the session, the name of the speaker, and the subject of his or her talk. But that’s a lot to do in 140 characters, and it’s tempting to leave this context out. Long session titles and missing name tags don’t help. This weekend, several attendees used shortened links to the online program in useful ways, but I imagine these can be cumbersome to find and insert quickly, especially if there’s no wireless available in the session room. One idea: include on each session page in the online program a “tweet this session” link that automatically generates a shortened URL and creates a new tweet with the URL, the conference hashtag, and maybe even a second, session-specific hashtag. The online program could also include participants’ Twitter handles, where available, to encourage backchannel conversations between presenters and the audience.
  • For now, Twitter is probably more useful to attendees at large academic conferences than to their absent colleagues. Based on my experiences with both the OAH and the AHA, Twitter does a number of things well: it collates and democratizes announcements from attendees and vendors, encourages backchannel conversations and new connections, and cultivates a sense of solidarity among attendees. Indeed, most MLA attendees surveyed last year by George Williams at ProfHacker focused on the ways Twitter encouraged networking and fostered camaraderie there (although, as Chad Black tweeted yesterday in response to the debate about the exclusivity of the digital humanities that spun out this year’s MLA, this blend of the professional and the personal may seem cliquish to some outsiders.) But this past weekend, at least, detailed, substantive accounts of presenters’ ideas and arguments over Twitter were rarer, and tended with a few exceptions to focus on panels on careers and the digital humanities. Although I expect that the breadth and thoroughness of these accounts will grow as it gains wider adoption, right now, Twitter is no substitute for being there. And microblogging may always function best in tandem with “regular” blogging and other forms of online pre- and post-publication (including video) to cover conferences in detail.

Back into the archives

After a stop in Vermont over the weekend, I’m about to embark on two dissertation research trips, first to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and then to Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell.

This will be the first extended archival research I’ve done since I’ve started blogging and tweeting regularly, so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share some first impressions from the archives.

Balancing new and old modes of scholarly communication, I’ll also be doing an informal presentation on my research during each trip. So if you’re in the neighborhood and so inclined, you can find me:

  • talking about “The Women’s Movement and the Struggle for Fair Representation in Mass Entertainment” at a brown bag lunch on October 15 at noon in the first floor conference room at the Schlesinger, and
  • speaking about my research in the HSC’s GLAAD and Gay Media Task Force papers on October 19 at 4:30 pm in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies office in Uris Hall at Cornell.

Whither the academic’s office in the digital age?

Office door and nametag (cc photo by vikasiamoto)
(cc photo by vikasiamoto)

In this video from Book TV, Brown University historian Gordon Wood discusses his research and writing practices while offering a tour of his home office… and his campus office… and his private study in Brown’s Rockefeller Library.

Caleb McDaniel comments that the video makes him “thankful for the post-notecard era.” I concur—for any number of reasons, but in large part because, between my laptop’s hard drive and its external companion, basically all of my dissertation research can accompany me where ever I go. This is handy, since I don’t have an office to work in.

But the Wood video, in addition to making me long for the day I (hopefully) do, also made me wonder what happens to the real estate devoted to those boxes of notecards when they’re replaced by Zotero, and to those shelves of books if/when they’re replaced by e-readers and tablets. What will academics’ offices become if they no longer need to serve as storage areas for lots of printed material?

This post at Inside Higher Ed by Herman Berliner raises some related questions and calls for “a new model of space utilization,” but doesn’t suggest what it would look like. (The commenters, in defense of the status quo, raise compelling points about privacy, student meetings, and FERPA guidelines.) What should this new model look like? And how should it address perhaps the most vital issue of all: enabling professors to impress and inspire their students without the aid of intimidatingly—but tantalizingly—crowded bookcases on every wall?

Update, 9/10: Fixed broken link—sorry about that.

A minor facelift

You’ll notice that I’ve tinkered a bit with the site’s color scheme and typography, and more substantially with the header: I’ve replaced the aerial view of the New Haven Green with a detail from an image of Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies, where I’ve spent many hours in the last four years. (Both the old and new images come from the Boston Public Library’s fantastic Tichnor Brothers Postcard Inc. Postcard Collection, which you can browse on Flickr.)

Substantively, I’ve consolidated information about me, the website, and my approach to this blog on a single, new “About” page. Still to come sometime in the next few months is an expanded, more web-friendly approach to my online CV.

About this blog

It seems worthwhile to begin by outlining my reasons for launching this blog.

First, I hope to make this space an integral part of the research and writing of my dissertation: a place to share interesting finds from the archives, to test out new ideas before an audience (even if it’s largely a hypothetical one), and perhaps, eventually, to get feedback from colleagues and readers.  As I move full-bore into the research process, I’m eager to see how this arguably less-filtered form of writing, can serve these purposes alongside more traditional forums, like conferences, colloquia, and writing groups.  The idea is, as Lynn Hunt recently put it, that “writing leads to thinking.”  At the state-of-the-field panel on digital history at the OAH annual meeting in April, Dan Cohen argued that Hunt’s piece was an endorsement of blogging.  We’ll see if I think he’s right.

Second, I hope to use this space to explore existing interests, and discover new ones, that don’t—or don’t always—find a place in my dissertation project: U.S. politics, twentieth-century New England, gay politics and culture, digital history and humanities, and mass transit, for starters.  Some of these are academic, and some are less so.  Some I know quite a bit about already, but I’m a neophyte regarding others.  For these purposes, my blogging will, I expect, certainly involve collating and curating relevant interesting things I find in my online journeys.  But having a platform for frequent, short-form writing, will also, I hope, produce thought, reflection, and new ideas to expand on down the road.

At least at first, my modest goal is to post at least twice a week—routine, but not so frequent as to be a chore.