By Tom Stoelker
From Russian politics, to basketball, to philosophy, to a murder mystery or two, a sampling of Fordham professors demonstrate that their Twitter approaches are as varied as their interests.
The University’s more active Twitter users spring from the communication and media studies department, though faculty in other disciplines are delving in as well.
All regular faculty users interviewed have one thing in common: they warily tested the waters before finding their comfort zone.
To a non-digital native, Twitter can seem like an unwieldy, hungry beast, or worse, a massive party where you can’t find your friends. Interviews with six professors demonstrate how they manage to both find friends and feed the beast.
Paul Levinson, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies
With more than 6,300 followers, Levinson tops the heap in terms of audience. It’s not surprising, considering that Levinson wrote New, New Media (Pierson, 2009, 2013). The Chronicle of Higher Education has named him one of “Twitter’s Top Ten High Fliers.” As a direct disciple of the late media ecology theorist Neil Postman, who taught at NYU, Levinson approaches the medium with an anthropologist’s eye.
“As John Dewey said, you learn by doing. You get to know things best when you’re inside them, and that’s a crucial point. The best way to learn Twitter is to take time to learn it and not take advice from someone else. Twitter makes it easy for any voice to be heard, and a university has a lot of voices. In the past, the only way that things got out to the public was if some gatekeeper passed approval, like an editor or producer. This was a system intended to keep out low-quality work, but often it kept out high-quality. Twitter is a very good corrective to that. It makes me think of the line from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.’ I’m concerned about these flowers wasting their time in the desert. Twitter allows them to be seen.”
Lance Strate, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies
Strate got onto Twitter in the very early days. Another disciple of Postman, Strate’s Twitter circle includes scholars and practitioners of media ecology. Though he uses the medium proficiently for specific interests, he remains acutely aware of Twitter’s pitfalls.
“From a critical point of view, Twitter raises a lot of questions. What is the point of this medium? What is it doing? What is it undoing? I see it as abbreviated telegraphic discourse. Electronic media in general undermines the concept and practice of literacy as we’ve known it. It discourages engagement in long, measured discourse and deep reading, and it’s not about following a train of coherent thought. It often trivializes what you’re dealing with. And while it’s common to hear complaints about the ‘What-I-had-for-lunch’ tweets, more importantly, Twitter turns political discourse into slogans, quips, and sound bites. We lose the capacity for careful reasoning and clear thought. That naturally leads to more conflict-oriented communication. So, how do you evaluate that? We evaluate a tweet by how clever and economical it is, how many people it goes out to, and how often it gets re-tweeted. None of that speaks to how well it informs us, educates us, or uplifts us. You know something’s wrong when every television show has a ‘like us on Facebook’ and a ‘follow us on Twitter.’
Beth Knobel, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication and media studies
Knobel spent nearly 14 years as a journalist reporting on Russia, nine of those years with CBS News (@cbsnews). She still comments as an expert in Russian affairs and tweets about it frequently, as well as on the ever-shifting media landscape. Her Twitter followers are influential experts in their fields.
“As a professor of communications it’s important to practice what I preach. Rather than mouthing off I try to use Twitter to add something to the debate going on in the profession. People appreciate it the most when it’s used to spread valuable information and not just self-promotion. I have specialized interests, but I try to tweet things that are interesting to a general public. I tweet what I know so that I’m comfortable as to my decision to add to a discussion or start one, rather than just to say what’son my mind. For news,Twitter is a double-edged sword. On one hand it encourages people to learn more if they desire by linking to articles, but I have students who follow the New York Times (@nytimes) and they think they’re informed. Unless you take that extra step you don’t get more than 140 characters. While it’s great for spreading headlines, Twitter takes action to get real knowledge.”
Christiana Peppard, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology
Peppard uses Twitter as a way to expand on her niche area of research: environmental ethics with a specialization in water. She is a relative newcomer to the medium and sees it as another facet of being a public intellectual.
“I was encouraged to join Twitter about a year ago. It’s been a process of discernment, because initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted my voice out there. Recently, I realized that it’s a way for me to connect with other folks who are analyzing or aggregating information about water ethics and science. I find the 140 characters facilitate an economy of language, even like a form of poetry. I like to have a baseline of scheduled tweets (from TweetDeck). Sometimes I send out nice, interesting quotes that aren’t necessarily linked to any particular news hook. For example, when I was reading the Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man, I set up a series of ‘Daily Darwin’ quotes that were funny, suggestive, and sometimes absurd. People seem to like that. One of the things I continue to explore is how to render my Twitter voice both personal (reflective of how I proceed in the world) and professional. And that’s where the humor comes in. It humanizes my professional work.”
Robert Blechman, Ph.D., adjunct professor of communication and media studies
@rkblechman @rkbs_twitstery @twistery
Blechman stands out among tweeters beyond Fordham’s gates in that he has done the seemingly impossible: he wrote an entire novel on Twitter. As a media ecology theorist, he believes that the establishment often reacts to a new medium with trepidation. His response was to explore the Twitter medium through a familiar form, the mystery novel.
“I started writing [my novel] in Twitter as a literary experiment, which I believe was the first real-time attempt at Twitter fiction. There were some efforts to publish pre-written pieces in 140 character chunks and, of course, many Japanese cellphone novels. Though I usually posted the novel tweets in real time at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., seven days a week, I sometimes scheduled my tweets via a Twitter automation service, SocialOomph, to update the story when I couldn’t be at a computer. At times I’d reach out to [my followers] through my main character. For example, if my detective faced a difficult puzzle or was trapped by an adversary, he’d use his Twitter feed to solicit suggestions, asking ‘How do I get out of this?’ I’m now tweeting a sequel three times daily at @Twitsery.”
Mike Plugh, GSAS ’08, lecturer in communication and media studies
Plugh teaches digital media and cyberculture. He tweets about the media, culture, and sports—especially his frustration with the Knicks.
“I came to Fordham because it is the unofficial home of media ecology. I only say that because we probably have the largest collection of former Neil Postman (@postmanquote) students under one roof. Then of course there’s the affiliation of the late [communication theorist] Marshall McLuhan (@marshallmcluhan). The way we try to think about any emerging tech like Twitter is how it fits into the existing culture and how does it change democracy and institutions? This is something very special about Fordham (@fordhamnotes).”