English profs want to control the internet

Oct 02 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

ZOMG, here's your dose of hilarity for the morning. Don't say I never gave you anything. h/t to @skmorgane of Weecology for the link

Inside Higher Ed has chronicled a kerfuffle in the English Professoriate with regard to live blogging or tweeting conferences. The debate began when @eetempleton tweeted "It's presumptive to assume that we should share other people's work w/o asking"

Did I mention this was at a conference?

This touched off a conversation (lamely called "twittergate". Can we stop adding "gate" to stupid shit please? Seriously, these are ENGLISH profs and that's what they came up with? FFS.) that had me holding my sides.

Maybe conferences in English are different from science ones, but when I present something I want as MUCH EXPOSURE AS I CAN GET. Is there anyone out there presenting lab secrets at conferences, hoping for a small audience? WTF?

To double down on the hilarity, Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Planned Obsolescence wrote a blog post about the ethics of conference social media.

But here's the problem: You can't control what people write on the internet. Did they regulate phones and personal conversations in this field prior to Twitter? Sorry English profs, but welcome to the 21st century. It turns out that there is still the freedom to write what you want on the internet.

Instead of fearing that someone outside of your direct "in room" audience is going to hear what you have to say, embrace it. I consider it both fun and a bit flattering when someone bothers to post something about a talk I gave. It means that people are actually interested in what you have to say. If you're worried about the Scooping Boogeyman, then tailor your talk accordingly. But unless your goal is to have the smallest impact possible, you would have to have you head up your posterior to fear people actually discussing your work with as wide an audience as possible.

46 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Some science meetings are closed and would take a dim view of Twitting you know

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Sure, a handful of meetings are considered "closed" but that was not the case here.

  • I loved the "Is there anyone out there presenting lab secrets at conferences, hoping for a small audience? WTF? " so I posted it on twitter. I like that quote because a) it's funny because b) it's true. I suspect some of the talk tweet-fear comes from a belief that there is an unwritten contract between the audience and the speaker not to 'scoop' the speaker. This 'contract' doesn't exist for people on the internet. Maybe it reflects my relative youth, but I feel that if you're far enough along in a project that you have results to put a talk together on it and someone still is able to scoop you, there's a problem with your workflow! Afterall, you've already formed the idea, thought through it, put data together, and analyzed it, that should put you well ahead of anyone else. Am I missing something?

  • Yes, the Gordon Research Conferences are closed. Though we had some tweet rebels at ours who made a point of saying at the beginning of their talk that they granted permission to tweet. Don't know if GRC policy is blanket or whether a speaker can exempt themselves from the privacy clause, but there was no blow back at the meeting. Of course, don't know if anyone tweeted about those particular talks either. I do know that the GRC is trying to figure out whether to/how to interface with social media given their strict privacy rules.

  • I guess only English professors bother to read what they're critiquing? You really ought to go and read Fitzpatrick's post rather than just linking to it in a way that implies you read it. Fitzpatrick argues that conference presenters should embrace tweeting etc., that openness is good, and don't let anyone else control you. Her only point is that if you're tweeting a conference and one of the speakers says, "Please do not live-tweet my remarks", you should probably respect the speaker's wishes even if you think the speaker is incorrect. That's not "controlling what you put on the Internet", it's just a bit of advice about ethics, courtesy and pragmatism.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    TB, I agree with you, but the fact that someone felt compelled to write that is astounding to me.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    ME, I will be curious to see how the GRC machine reacts to the spread of conference related social media. It's not going away.

  • I think at science conferences, depending on what one studies there is a fear of scoopage. I remember there being a discussion on SciBlogs about it, back in the old days.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    SM, Come on. How is it different whether the Scooping Boogeyman is in the audience or on twitter? Is the fear of getting scooped on your OMG I AM TEH AWESOMEST idea worth the limited exposure from just the in-room audience?

    I have seen some pretty ridiculous stuff proposed in fear of the Scooping Boogeyman, but this takes the cake.

  • ecologist says:

    We shouldn't laugh toooooo hard at the English profs until we put your "Is there anyone out there presenting lab secrets at conferences" rhetorical question up against the very frequent prohibitions on photographing or videoing presentations or posters at our science-y meetings. To me, those restrictions are just as stupid. If you don't want people to see it, hear it, write it down, write it down by taking a photo, tell others about it, tell others about it on the intertubes, etc., then don't talk about it at the conference.

  • Bashir says:

    Maybe conferences in English are different from science ones

    Yes. This seems like a good example of the odd differences between science and humanities in academia. I think the idea of "stealing ideas" plays very differently in the humanities.

    Though it was my impression that a lot of their "talks" are literally reading a paper that they wrote, word for word. So maybe that conference was different. More of a workshop type deal?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Ecologist, agreed. I WANT people spreading the word.

  • What frustrated me about the Inside Higher Ed article is that is seems clear that we actually do really need a real conversation about the role of tweeting and blogging at conferences and that article doesn't really address that issue. It expresses the unhappiness that occurred at that conference, but not really the core issue. For example, if I said, "Please don't talk about my talk with anyone outside this room" (I hope) the probability is high that we'd all (pro and anti tweet) find that ridiculous*. So is the new media really fundamentally different in some way from talking with a lot of colleagues or is just fear of no longer controlling the official presentation of ones ideas?

    *Leaving the GRC aside for the moment which has a stringent privacy policy that people may or may not agree with.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, the whole "look what happened" aspect of the article left a lot on the table. But I'm not sure there is too much to talk about. I mean, you either want to disseminate your results or you don't. If you're talking about it at a conference I think it is safe to say you do. So why does it matter whether the audience is sitting in front of you or not?

    I can almost understand that some people wouldn't want to be video streamed, but not wanting people to tweet or blog about your results seems to completely oppose the point of conferences.

  • I agree with you. I don't see anything fundamentally different between 1) presenting your results and having those people tell other people about it and 2) presenting your results and having those same people tweet/blog about it, except for the number of people who then learn about the work. But I am curious about the rationale for people who do see those as different. Maybe it's just a knee jerk reaction to something different and a serious conversation about it will help with misconceptions about the role digital media is playing in modern scientific culture, but maybe there is an actual logistical reason behind the stance for why this is bad for scientific progress, etc that I just don't get (and I have to admit, I really don't get it).

  • becca says:

    Remember, in English, all these people HAVE are ideas. There's really no data to generate. So stealing an idea is stealing the paper.
    Also keep in mind that to a great degree in all fields, but perhaps to an even greater degree in fields that are less empirical, one's professional peers are generally socialized similarly to you. So even though we think of "peer review" as a more rigorous standard than "internet review", it is also more likely to be preaching to the choir.
    Even for scientific fields, I can think of a lot of cases where one's academic peers are likely to be a much more sympathetic audience. There are a lot of cases of animal researchers studying perfectly interesting topics that nonetheless get quite a bit of ridicule from animal-rights activists and/or "concerned citizens" that are just stingy with the tax dollar funded stuff.
    So I think it is a lot more complicated than "the POINT is maximal dissemination of ideas". Maybe it "oughtn't" to be, in some cosmic moral sense, but it's naive to say that people would only object to tweeting because they don't get the point of a conference.

  • Chris Rowan says:

    The thing that puzzles me about the 'scoopage' angle is this: surely those with the motivation and ability to scoop you are already in the room, rather than listening on Twitter? That being the nature of conferences, and themed conference sessions, after all. That being the case, the key is to make sure that you've submitted, or are on the verge of submitting, your paper before you give your talk.

    A bigger concern is that, social media being what it is, it might be that a catchy 140-character snippet of part of one of your conclusions, that might not be particularly accurate, might suddenly turn into a big, widely covered misunderstanding. I think that is a legitimate concern, or at least worthy of a discussion: although I suspect there may be is a significant overlap between the anti-Twitter forces in this conversation and those who feel that they should have total control on how their research is discussed in the public sphere, and are therefore not particularly fond of blogs and other channels of communication outside of the press release and a direct interview with them.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The thing that puzzles me about the 'scoopage' angle is this: surely those with the motivation and ability to scoop you are already in the room, rather than listening on Twitter? That being the nature of conferences, and themed conference sessions, after all.


  • proflikesubstance says:

    Becca's point on animal rights activists is, so far, the only valid reason I can see for being concerned about conference social media.

  • DJMH says:

    Right, but the thing everyone loves about GRCs is that at GRCs people present unpublished data that's often a bit "raw" and new. I am not sure this would still occur to the same degree if it were ok to tweet every last detail of a poster.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I disagree, since it happens in my field all the time. May be a field specific issue.

  • pyrope says:

    How much time would I have to spend on twitter before finding a sciencey idea that I could potentially scoop? Maybe if I string enough twitter feeds together it will also write my next grant for me?
    Kind of like the randomly typing monkeys eventually creating the full works of Shakespeare given infinite time...

  • Pascale says:

    I believe we may find that the objections to photography and video are more financial than ethical. Many societies now market presentations one way or another (sponsor buys right to distribute posters on a CD; direct sales of symposia; etc) and allowing folks to image stuff for free cuts into the value of these products.
    Live tweeting may allow misinterpretation of statements or data (and if you do so, you are guilty of drawing conclusions from a tweet, dumb fuck). I can rarely communicate something that could alter life as we know it in 140 characters or less, especially when it comes to sophisticated scientific ideas.
    I would appreciate it if no flash were used during presentations. That sucks for those on the podium.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, I see twitter being useful for generating interest in looking into something, but it's not like it will be useful to appreciate what the full story is. And how the hell do you scoop someone from twitter?

  • Twitter scoopage and in-person voter fraud - two boogey men that just. don't. happen. Seriously, are there any examples out there? Any at all?

  • Tressie says:

    Just a bit of history here. When Roopsi Risam, an English PhD candidate, proposed #twittergate as the hashtag for our very serious discussion about access and privilege and publics it was tongue-in-cheek. So, while we're sorry that we violated the stupid shit rule, we knew it was stupid and that was part of the appeal.

  • I find this genre ("humanists say the darndest things") about as tiring as the debate about tweeting conferences. It is pretty easy to make fun of ongoing conversations in any discipline you don't normally follow, especially if, as others have pointed out, you don't actually read the things you are linking to, let alone the broad context in which they are being written. Yesterday the Chronicle was reporting on scientists who peer review their own articles by creating fake email addresses and even entire identities. Yet I can resist the temptation to suggest that this must mean that all natural and medical sciences are one large circle jerk.

    What's really going on in this discussion, as Kathleen was actually pointing out, is a debate about manners in a field where digital technology is just beginning to be mature enough to have real disciplinary impact. This is bringing with it all sorts of questions that are simply new to the way researchers in those fields work. And it is happening at a time in which what appear to be fundamental methodological changes are coming much faster than generational attrition. Questions like how to handle authorship attribution on collaborative teams, for example, are completely new in most of the Humanities; we can hardly expect them to be handled with the skill and transparency they have been in disciplines like, say, medicine, where they have longer experience and, as a result, do it absolutely flawlessly.

    So how collaborative and social media technologies, like tweeting, are supposed to work professionally is a major issue to many humanists--both for generational and disciplinary reasons. Yes, English conferences are different from "science conferences" (and I have attended enough of various kinds to be quite sure of what I am saying here), because the work is very different. (Same is true of colloquia vs. conferences vs. public lectures, and so on in any discipline; anybody who doesn't know that scholarly and scientific gatherings vary depending on their purpose both within and across disciplines is either pretty inexperienced or, worse, willing to sacrifice accuracy for the pleasure of creating stark, but wrong, binary comparisons).

    One way in which English profs work differently than many scientists is, as somebody suggested above, that they deal primarily with arguments rather than data. A lot of the discussion at English conferences (and those in History, and Philosophy, and most other humanities disciplines) involves debating subtly different, often non-exclusive, understandings of cultural phenomena, motives, or understandings. There is often important data under discussion--for example, the precise words used by a subject you are studying--but generally that data is relatively well-known and pretty stable: the question is less often what somebody wrote than how we are to understand the significance of what they wrote.

    This is why many literature researchers and historians read their papers from a prepared script: what is crucial is not the data but the /precise/ argument the researcher is using to explain it. And in such cases the exact connotations of the words used can be very important (This is also why, in many humanities disciplines, citations need pages or other canonical sign posts in addition to author-date or other basic information: you are citing specific language, not the general point of the paper, as you might say in Psychology or Physics). That this is a methodological thing rather than evidence that English professors are just dumber than scientists can be shown by the fact that these same researchers often speak to slides rather than read from prepared texts at conferences when they are doing work that is more focussed on data or procedure: in a lecture on palaeography or textual criticism, for example, or linguistics, or the Digital Humanities. Significantly, you will also often find that bibliographic practices change in these contexts as well: when I write about techniques in the Digital Humanities or work on paleographic or editorial questions, I often find it sufficient to refer to entire articles or even books in a way I would never consider in a literary paper.

    This difference is also why some people might be nervous about having their lectures tweeted: not that they might be scooped but because the point of their paper is the precise wording they are using to explain their interpretation of a largely already-known dataset (it is actually pretty hard for this reason to "scoop" a literary paper: you can beat somebody to publication about data; it is harder to beat somebody to print with a complex argument about already-known data without plagiarising them at length). It is as easy to grossly trivialise a complex literary argument in 140 characters as it is to misrepresent the importance of some apparently trivial or "immoral" data and research questions in the natural and medical sciences. If evolutionists, those conducting animal experiments, or those working with genetically modified foods are entitled to fear being misrepresented by journalists or "common sense" politicians, then I think we might allow humanists similar scope to fear having their carefully constructed arguments made ridiculous in a similar forum. I don't fear this myself, particularly, but then a lot of my work is data- and procedure-focussed and I'm easily ridiculed anyway. But I'm not completely dismissive of the fears of others on this regard no matter how much easier life would be if I decided that everyone but me was stupid every time they said something I hadn't thought of given my training and interests.

    A second reason, as others have pointed out, can involve the context of the lecture. If you have never been to a presentation in which a researcher is trying out draft ideas or reporting on draft data that are still too provisional for widespread circulation, then the problem is not that you are not a humanist... it is that you are clearly not getting invited to the important meetings. I have attended scientific meetings at which data and interpretations are being presented to others under embargo. And I have been at humanities lectures, colloquia, and project meetings where people have been trying out ideas among invited or limited company while they are still too raw and undeveloped for public disclosure. It doesn't seem at all bizarre to me that some people may be uncomfortable about live tweeting preliminary ideas in certain contexts.

    And finally there is simply a generational issue at stake and, as somebody pointed out, a lot of the discussion involved questions of manners: a number of mid- to late-career humanists are truly out of their element with this new technology. This is, for example, my sense of what's going on at the MLA: a relatively large gathering where, except for some business meetings, it is harder to argue that it is an appropriate form for the discussion of preliminary arguments. The social approach to sharing arguments in the humanities (including the use of Twitter) is so new that many well established people in the field have no innate feel for how it works or what is and is not appropriate. Even if there were no danger of having a complex argument misrepresented, these people might fear or ridicule twitter because they don't know much about it and are not part of the broader conversation among those who do.

    Kind of like this posting.

  • [...] Methodology, rhetoric, Twitter |Leave a comment » This is a response to “English Profs want to control the Internet”, by somebody who apparently doesn’t want their name front-and-centre. It is slightly modified [...]

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Apparently English prof blog comments are as boring and spittle-ridden as their conferences. The points remain: 1) if you are presenting at a conference and don't want exposure, you are a dumbass, 2) if anyone is scooping someone based on twitter, they are a giant dumbass.

    Otherwise Daniel makes some awesome pointzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • drugmonkey says:

    I think you are being unfair PlS an should open your mind to the points being raised. They probably think it ridiculous when some Eco type picks up and describes some dinky whodunny lying about and pretends that's important absent some grand theory. And they'd be right....

  • dan says:

    Wow! Pretty cool come-back!

    Guess that shows me. You can't take on people who misrepresent things to get a laff and expect to get away with it if you treat their arguments seriously. 'cause, holy shit that's more than 100 words.

    Sorry for taking you seriously.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    DM, which points are you talking about? The one where people are worried that their exact wording won't come across in a tweet and therefore their message will be misinterpreted by the millions looking to read a tweet and make it fact, or the one where we again rehash the scooping boogeyman argument?

    Whether the conference is one of Daniel's "important" meetings or not, we return to the fact that twitter is unlikely to matter. The people in the room (or those they email about your talk) are the ones most likely to be this scary boogeyman, not those who are checking twitter feeds. And if you are comfortable sharing what you are saying to those in the room, how is twitter the issue?

  • Bashir says:

    that this is a methodological thing rather than evidence that English professors are just dumber than scientists

    Maybe I missed something, but I don't think anyone said English professors are dumb. Tedious in a tl;dr kind of way, but not dumb. What's striking in this case is that what is mostly a non-issue in the sciences is apparently a big issue in other areas. Also, and this is from my reading, a lot of tedious round-about discussion for what seems like a pretty cut and dry situation.

  • becca says:

    First, anyone who thinks only animal researchers, and not historians, have something to fear by the public at large knowing what they work on and misconstruing it, has never listened to Glenn Beck. Washington, and most of the historians who have ever written about him, are rolling in their graves. All fields have their 'political' areas.

    Second, while I disagree with Daniel Paul O'Donnell that it is possible to encode precise meaning in precise language, I'll grant that it's easier to get comparatively precise for complex ideas with something longer than 140 characters. The obvious truth is, much nuance will be lost when someone tweets about almost anything. However, despite their ability to use more words, much can also be lost by university PR offices, or in wider media coverage of any kind. That in itself is a reason for tweeters to take at least as much care as journalists. Fortunately, taking six times as much care as some journalists can easily be accomplished before breakfast.

    Third, it occurs to me that the implications of the term "manners" (related to: "civility") round these here parts may indeed trigger all sorts of connotations (e.g. "pissing on carpets"). For readers unfamiliar with the historical context of the field of science blogs, they are apt to simply contribute to the tiring genre of "blog commenters say the darnest things" without any real idea of why, precisely, they appear so hilarious. If they are truly well-intentioned and stick around long enough to learn what #FWDAOTI means, they will gain a much deeper understanding of why "these youngsters need to keep a civil tone in their tweets" is, rightly, held up for ridicule.

  • Namnezia says:

    All of this assumes that anyone even cares about reading live-tweeted conferences. Reading live tweets from a conference is about the most boring, uninformative, useless and biggest waste of time thing on the internet. If someone wants to report on a presentation or whatnot it's much better to write a fucking blog post or whatever where you can use full sentences and organize the damn thing coherently, even if it isn't 'live'. It isn't as if I'm going to run out of my office after seeing the live tweet and fucking start doing experiments IMMEDIATELY to ensure prime scoopage. This whole thing is just a stupid non-issue and now I'm upset that I wasted about 90 seconds writing this rant when I could be writing my motherfucking grant which has about a 97% chance of not getting funded anyway.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    In some way, Nam kinda hits the other absurdity here. If you're getting your experimental insight from twitter, you're probably doin it rong.

    Whereas I do find conference live tweeting interesting on some level, usually to watch out for something coming out soon, it doesn't change my science at all.

  • Pascale says:

    I live tweet to take notes. I can them assemble my note-tweets into a coherent blog post or storify them with those of others to bring in a bunch of viewpoints.
    And if you think live tweeting a session is boring, I refer you to the session on taint length and androgen effects that Scicurious and I live tweeted at EB last April. That may be a special case, though...

  • [...] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, offers sensible advice on tweeting or not at meetings. Meanwhile Prof-like Substance is quizzical about the request to keep private what a scholar is presenting in t... (while recognizing, of course, that there are venues like Gordon Research Conference that have [...]

  • What I've learned from this entire discussion is that there are more academics willing to be assholes to other academics on minimal provocation than I suspected, and I would have already said there were quite a few people in that category.

    Seriously, there are ways to say, "Gee, tweeting is not for me" or "Tweeting is modestly useful" or "Oh, I don't really think it's worth making a big deal out of this" than flinging words like "absurd", "spittle-ridden", "boring" etcetera. Takes all kinds and all that jazz: I would have thought this was a basic principle of the academic life.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    WHERE IS THE CIVILITY?!?!?! Get a grip, dude.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I have to say I am really enjoying how "being taken seriously" directly translates to "conforming to my expectations about how this discussion should take place"

  • [...] thinks the tongue-in-cheek hashtag  is, like, soooo stupid. So stupid, in fact, that one need not engage the ideas being discussed in the conversation. Why bother when mocking is easier and when he offers such non-stupid shit to discuss on his blog [...]

  • [...] thing about blogging is that you never know what each day is going to bring. A few days ago I wrote a post about a discussion among English profs highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Apparently my [...]

  • How about actually paying motherfucken attention to a presentation you are attending instead of twittering like a pack of gibbering baboons?

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