Public engagement, social media and university boundaries

In her wonderful Lower Ed, Tressie Cottom describes how her public profile led to her being in contact with someone who was enormously relevant to her ongoing research. From pg 103:

Aaron found me through my public writing and blogging and social media and decided that speaking to me might be interesting. He emailed me and kept emailing me over the course of a year. Eventually, I was giving a lecture in the same state where he lived, and he invited me to have coffee.

One of the most fascinating conversations I ever had while doing asexuality research was with a woman in her 80s who found out about me through an interview in a newspaper. She was unwillingly to be formally interviewed but an extensive phone conversation was enormously useful to my attempts to understand the changing social conditions in which being asexual is rendered problematic or otherwise. In both cases, we can see visibility facilitating people coming to us, creating opportunities if we are open to them but also complicating habitual expectations about how we manage relationships with groups external to the academy.

I’d love to hear other people’s experiences of such encounters. It strikes me that this is an advantage to public engagement which is rarely recognised. I suspect it’s a relatively common experience amongst people who engage in a lot of this activity and it’s one we should recognise and explore in a systematic way. The focus of a lot of what I’m doing over the next few months will be university boundaries and how they’re being changed by new technology. The role of public engagement in narrowing the gap between researchers and the researched is an important aspect of this. But there’s a theoretical complexity to how we conceptualise these boundaries which engaging with the work of Jana Bacevic has left me newly aware of.

Recognising such a benefit is interesting if we frame public engagement in terms of academic labour. It’s often cast as another thing to do, adding additional items to already over long to do lists. This implicitly conceives of it as something extrinsic to the research process, as if everything else about the professional practice of those involved remains fixed, only to be supplemented by these additional activities. But in reality public engagement is something relational, both in terms of the working patterns of the engaged and their relationship to the wider community of their research and ‘wider society’. It changes both in a way which complicates the initial comparison one made in which a working life without public engagement is compared to one which includes such activity.

My discussion so far has been about public engagement in general rather than social media in particular. However the opportunities and problems of the former are increasingly being forced as an issue by the widespread adoption of the latter. The boundary between the researcher and wider society is being changed by the uptake of new communications technology, making it more likely that the people we research and write about will talk back to us about what we say. Embracing this relationality can bring great benefits to the research process, with the the potential for important new connections being just one example of this. But there are liable to problems created if we ignore it. My suggestion is that what at present seem like outliers (people who are extremely visible through public engagement activity) represent the future normal, one which researchers will urgently need to adapt themselves too.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education

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