Peer Interviews aims to be a series of interviews with fellow researchers embracing social media and online publishing. Our first interview is with Lee Skallerup Bessette. You can follow her on Twitter @readywriting. If you read this interview and find it interesting or useful, please take a moment to share it on your networks. Thank you.
Ernesto Priego: Can you describe who you are and what you do?
Lee Skallerup Bessette: I am a full time, non-tenure-track instructor at Morehead State University in Kentucky, USA. I teach primarily courses in Freshman Writing. My PhD is in Comparative Literature from the University of Alberta, Canada. I work on translation (French-English) as well as postcolonial literatures in French and English (primarily from Canada and the Caribbean region). I’ve started to get very involved in the digital humanities (DH), and I am interested in how DH can be used in comparative situations.
Typically SH groups or projects have limited themselves to one language (which is understandable given how academic training and departments are typically set up). But I think it’s important to start using these tools to compare “big data” across linguistic lines for a more global perspective. Used to be that the world was too big to really understand or look at; now, we just need the right metadata and tools to get it done.
In particular, I am interested in looking at how postcolonial authors or literary movements evolve (or not) into the global canon or culture. How and why are they translated? What impact does that have? How are they received in various cultures or countries? How are they understood by the academic community? By the diasporic community? By their “home” cultures? I want to map this process both geographically and over time.
To be able to visualize this process and look beyond one or two linguistic traditions, we can better understand the process of what some may call globalization, but I like to think of it more as the journey a piece, an author, or a movement takes. I am also a prolific blogger and social media user (@readywriting).
EP: Can you tell us about your College Ready Writing blog?
LSB: The first iteration of the blog was born out of a mix of frustration, boredom, and the desire to start my own business. We had just relocated for my husband’s job and I found myself without work. I was miserable. One night, my husband asked, if you could do anything right now, what would it be? I had been teaching Freshman Writing for a number of year prior, and I was frustrated by how under-prepared students were for college, both in terms of their reading and writing, but also in terms of their study and time-management skills. I said that I wanted to offer a service online for incoming freshmen, a bootcamp of sorts, to help them be better prepared when they started college. I also offered editing and tutoring services (as that is where a lot of demand lies). The blog was part of an attempt to establish my professional credentials and ethos, but also to have an output again for my writing and thoughts, as I no longer had a community (professional or otherwise) with which to share and discuss with.
This was also the impetus for my Twitter presence – free marketing branding opportunities. But of course, both the blog and Twitter became so much more. I found my community, and I also found my voice. I talked about the challenges facing higher education, facing PhD students in a terrible job market, about teaching, about learning, and about starting a business. I was taking risks, putting myself out there, and I was loving it.
Around this time, I came across a call for contributors to the University of Venus blogging collective. I took a chance and submitted a post; it was accepted. Thus began my friendship and collaboration with Mary Churchill, one of the founding editors. When UVenus moved to Inside Higher Ed, Mary began pushing me to move my personal blog, too. At this point, I had gone back into the classroom out of economic necessity, and the focus of my blog shifted to include teaching and learning. I also began writing more openly about my struggles to maintain a work-life balance, juggling my roles as mother, wife, teacher, researcher, and writer. Finally, I took Mary’s advice and I got in contact with Inside Higher Ed who were thrilled to house my blog.
A social media acquaintance once used my blog as an example in his post, How To Create A Blog The People Actually Read, for rule #7 – Be the Voice of Group:
“Represent what other people wish they could express in writing. If it is embarrassing, says one writer, it probably makes for a good story. Be the center of a little tribe. Be their voice. Be like this. Say what others are afraid to say. Reveal.”
Readers and friends are continually telling me how brave I am when I write. I am just thrilled that I am finally profiting from not having a filter, a trait that I have been told repeatedly will amount to no good and has gotten me in trouble in the past. But what I write has resonated with people. If there is one thing I am most proud of, it is that. I started my blog when I had literally nothing to lose. What I have gained from being brave or stupid enough to take that chance has brought me more than I ever imagined (even if the business never succeeded!).
It still seems a little surreal to me that all of this happened to me in about two years. I had an advantage to a certain extent when I was starting out because I was unemployed and at home with a one-year-old who napped a lot, and thus could spent A LOT of time on Twitter building a following through meaningful interactions. All the free time also meant that not only was I able to create a lot of meaningful content, but I broadcast a lot of meaningful content I found browsing the Internet. I very quickly started participating in some of the various academic twitter chats, learned how to use the hashtags effective to promote my writing, and how to take advantage of what was “trending” to drive readers to my posts. For the first six months, my “job” was basically to promote myself in the hopes of getting business. Instead, I built an audience and community of academics, writers, bloggers, graduate students, and alt-academics (among other things; I am continually amazed at the variety of people who follow me). Now, I just can’t stop. It is as much a part of who I am as all of the other parts I described in the first question.
EP: Have you faced any kind of opposition to your vision of academic work and life? If so, of which kind and how have you dealt with it?
LSB: Haters gonna hate, ya know?
Seriously, I have been accused of being naive, of not “understanding” how the university really works, of being entitled, or being a bad teacher who should never be allowed to teach again. And a terrible mother and friend. Part of it, I think, is being young(ish) and female; senior scholars feel the need to “mansplain” how things really work to me. And it’s not just men, but senior female academics as well. But my most controversial posts (like the entire Bad Female Academic series) that elicited the most criticism in the comments also privately received the most praise and gratitude from people. They reached out on Twitter, through Facebook, even email, to express words of encouragement and appreciation.
I did call out a “troll” once. I often receive a lot of negative criticism on my posts dealing with teaching writing. I do not have a PhD (or MA) in Rhetoric and Composition, and has historically been a point of contention within the larger discipline of English. There were a few regulars who seemed to wait with anticipation for my next post on teaching writing to eviscerate me. I usually tweeted out any negative comments I received and my twitter family almost invariably rose to me defence. But on that particular day, I had had enough. An educator, someone who criticized me for not taking the discipline or pedagogy seriously, was berating and belittling me, for what? To get me to learn? I wrote that I hoped that this person didn’t treat their students the way they were treating me right now and while they may criticize my practice, I would never aspire to educate the way they were trying to “educate” me.
It worked. The person replied to that, and while not apologizing, the tone certainly changed, with helpful readings and suggestions that specifically addressed the issue I had raised in my post.
EP: Can you tell us about a positive consequence (apart from the ones you have already mentioned) of your engagement with blogging and social media in an academic context?
LSB: Do I have to choose just one positive consequence? As I just mentioned, when the trolls come out, I have a community who will rise to my defence (or politely tell me that the troll, while rude, may have a point!). This positive, supportive online environment has been tremendously beneficial to me personally, especially this last semester when I have been on the job market, but also through personal and professional crises. This past month alone, I have been uplifted to the point of tears because of the kindness, generosity, and support they have offered me and others in our community. I have written about this elsewhere, but so much about higher education today works to dehumanize us and treat us like cogs in a machine. My social media community has enabled me to reassert my humanity and to remind me what it is to be treated (and treat others) humanely.
Professionally, it’s been amazing. I’ve been invited to do talks, found publishing opportunities, connected virtually to conferences, and generally become a smarter, better writer and researcher. None of my work that I have done in Digital Humanities (what little of it there is) could have happened without Twitter. People know who I am and have read my work, rather than have it sit on a dusty shelf (or orphaned somewhere online). And I have discovered so much research and so many resources that have enriched my work immensely. It has also changed my pedagogical approach in the classroom to being more active and connective. I have seen how it changed my life, and I am hoping that by applying the same principles (although not always with the same tools) I can help change my students’ lives, too.
EP: Excellent. Finally, any plans for the immediate and near future? How do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
LSB: That’s an excellent question that I’m really not sure how to answer at the moment. I am currently on the tradition academic job market, looking for a tenure-track job. But I’m open to alt-academic and other kinds of employment. One of the challenges is that I am married to an academic who is in a tenure-track position, and we live in a relatively geographically isolated area. I have just started working for Academic Coaching and Writing, helping them with social media and blogging for them. There is a possibility of transitioning into the role of a coach. Many of my friends have also transitioned into positions that support teaching and learning, which is an area that I am interested in as well.
All I really know for sure at the moment is that I can’t stay in my current position for much longer, at least the way it is. I have a very heavy teaching load off the tenure-track, teaching courses outside of my area of specialization. In one way, I know that I am fortunate to have a full-time position (with benefits!), but on the other, I’ve hit a ceiling in terms of my professional growth, which is very frustrating this early in my career. So I’m in a transition phase at the moment, trying to figure out exactly where I want to be in five years. Given the way the market is at the moment, it most likely won’t be in a tenure-track position. At the same time, I am starting to get really excited by other opportunities and options that are available to me; I have a really diverse skill-set, and I am open to any opportunity that allows me to put it to good use!
EP: Thank you very much for talking to us, Lee! All the best.