Michael Smith’s blog, Publishing Archaeology, is usually pretty good. He can be a bit curmudgeonly and particular in his views, but that’s largely what makes Publishing Archaeology a worthwhile read.
Over the past few days, he got himself in a bit of hot water by offering a frank and honest critique of a lecture he attended by Rosemary Joyce at the University of Colorado. The arguments that he advanced in his critique don’t interest me much, and, for the record, I don’t particularly agree with them. It is clear that the way in which he offered his critiques upset people and prompted a response. And this response led to a conversation, of sorts, an apology and some kind of resolution. What really interested me in this exchange is not really what they were saying to each other, but how it was said.
1. Facebook and New Media. One of the things that surprised Smith was that a group of graduate students at Colorado took issue with his blog post on the Joyce lecture and issues a response, of sorts, on Facebook. Smith states, in his typical honesty: “I guess I just don’t understand the world of social media,” and he then invited the students to post their comment to his blog to initiate a conversation there.
What excited me is this exactly the kind of de-centered debate that Andrew Reinhard and I noted in a recent article for Internet Archaeology where we note that Twitter and Facebook have started to replace the comment section on blogs as the key space for academic social interaction. In fact, many professional bloggers have disabled the comment feed all together in their blogs pushing conversation to social media. Interestingly, Michael Smith offered a thoughtful open, peer review of our article, and stated that he did feel much sense of community with other bloggers for technical reasons (the lack of trackbacks in Bloggers) as well as personal ones. Fair enough. We may have overstated the significance of the blogging community, but he clearly became aware that his blog post was creating a buzz through comments on Twitter. He may not regard his Twitter followers as a community in any real sense, but this is the kind of interaction through social media constituted the kind of digitally mediated relationships that we noted as significant to academic bloggers.
2. The Personal and the Professional. Smith noted that he preferred not to engage in these conversations on Facebook because “he tried to avoid using Facebook for professional purposes.” The idea is that some digital venues function best for professional conversations – say email or letters – while others are better reserved for personal life. Again, I’m not really interested in critiquing Michael Smith’s personal preferences here, but it is interesting to note that questions of the personal and professional resound throughout academia.
Hardly a year goes by without someone posting on work/life balance or offering some sage advice for carving out personal time amid the growing number of academic and professional obligations. I tend to relate these conversations to the extended professionalization process in academia in which vocational craft has gradually given way to salaried work. The latter has offered democratized access to academic positions, but also to the ever expanding structure of audit culture, the assessocracy, contractual work, and compliance. In other words, the division of professional and personal space on the web requires us to recognize that professional space (activities, attitudes, conversations) exist outside of our personal identities. While a more articulated division between the personal and the professional has had certain advantages for academics, it is clear that in the digital and social media realm such divisions remained blurry. The case of Steven Salaita who saw a job offer from the University of Illinois rescinded after anti-semitic tweets is a useful reminder that the boundary between our professional life and personal life in social media is not entirely ours to determine. Smith’s reluctance in using Facebook for professional conversations might reflect a separation between the personal and professional that no longer exists.
3. Speed, Media, and Openness. As readers of this blog know, I’m fascinated by the impact of speed on scholarly production and communication. Smith’s blog post appeared the day after the talk which it described and the response from Colorado graduate students appeared only two days later. The entire conversation has seemingly resolved itself less than a week after it began.
The willingness of Smith to engage in the conversation, the punctuality of his replies, and the general openness of the conversation is a remarkable feature of social and new media world. One might want, of course, for Smith to expand his challenge to Joyce’s views, and one might want the graduate students to engage Smith’s ideas in a more developed way, but this would take time, rob the conversation of some of its immediate context, and almost certainly obscure the visceral character of both Smith’s and the graduate student’s response behind an impersonal shield of academic prose.
The informality of this conversation can cause hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and confusion, but it reflects a part of the intellectual and academic process that we often hide. Traditional publishing – for all its strengths and value – tends to depersonalize academic conversations and adhere to professional standards that have little room for confessions that a theory seems “incomprehensible” much less “vacuous.” We may quibble with Smith’s interpretation of Joyce’s materiality, but not with his honesty.