This peer interview is with Melonie Fullick. You can follow her on Twitter
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Ernesto Priego: Can you describe who you are and what you do?
Melonie Fullick: Generally I’m a researcher and a writer, and I do some teaching and communications work (mostly in universities, though I’ve done some political communication as well). At the moment those things are happening in the context of me working on my Ph.D. in Education, so I’m also a full-time graduate student. My undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies (with a focus on mass media), after which I did an MA in Linguistics.
My area of research is post-secondary education (PSE) policy and governance, specifically the ways that changes are implemented in universities in “response” to larger socio-economic trends such as loss of government funding and the introduction of market mechanisms. I’m looking at Canadian universities, because I’ve been in Canada since the age of 14 (I was born and grew up in New Zealand). I attended high school and university here in Canada, so I’ve had the chance to observe the education systems first-hand and get a sense of which issues seem most relevant and pressing. Ultimately (eventually!) I’d like to go back to New Zealand and do some work looking at the education systems and their context there.
A couple of years ago I started my research blog, Speculative Diction, as a personal blog where I was commenting on issues relating to my field. Because higher education is in the news a lot, I found there was a lot to talk about. After about a year, I got an invitation to move the blog to the University Affairs web site. UA is a Canadian magazine targeted at audiences such as faculty and administrators, and they have a lively website with an expanding group of blogs. Since then I’ve also been doing fairly regular guest posts and articles for various other publications.
EP: How do you insert blogging in your academic workflow?
MF: I don’t know if I have a “workflow”–I might get more work done if I did. The way blogging fits in with all the other things I’m working on has changed since the blog moved to University Affairs. Before, I just wrote posts whenever the spirit moved me, as it were. So there are months where I did 2 posts, and other months where there were 10 posts. Now I do about three or four posts a month, it’s supposed to be one per week but I had some trouble making the posts shorter and more frequent.
Blogging ends up being fitted in around other things I’m working on. I try to set aside time, but I’m not good at working to deadlines; sometimes I just don’t have a good idea until the last minute (or, I get “blocked” somehow). And that might be a Friday morning, so sometimes the post gets pushed forward to Monday. So I think the biggest challenge has been trying to take my “usual” way of writing, which is not very efficient, and fit it in with this kind of schedule of posting regularly. I’ve taken on more writing commitments in the past year as well, so the challenge has only increased, but at the same time I’m learning how to write differently (in terms of the process) and it’s helping with my dissertation and academic work.
Reading this post by Pat Thomson, I realise I do have a definite set of practices that I engage in, which are designed to facilitate blogging. For example, I don’t tend to randomly surf the web; I use Google Reader to funnel relevant news to one “place” where I can scan it and comment on it (or tweet it). I have a good Twitter network and a lot of excellent news and articles come to me in that way as well. Each time I see something interesting, especially if it relates to a “theme” I’ve noted previously or something I’m following, I bookmark it with Diigo or tag it in Reader; if I have a blog idea immediately, I start a new Google Doc and come back to it later. If I see other articles also relevant to the post, I put them into the Google Doc as well (I tend to have a lot of little scraps of drafts sitting around). I think all those things make it a lot easier to keep good ideas going.
EP: Your work interrogates some deeply-rooted cultural and institutional types of behaviour that have allowed privilege to be one of the main modus operandi of Higher Education. Please tell us a bit about this; in your experience, are blogging and tweeting good strategies to promote transformations not being more widely discussed elsewhere?
MF: I think they are, but I also feel–often–as if I’m operating in two very different worlds. One where there is all this discussion about things that are very much at the edge of what’s possible in the current system; and one wherein there are very few changes and/or, if change happens, it’s viewed as a degradation. Now in the first case, there is this maelstrom of opinion and commentary and critique and I definitely don’t agree with all of it. But in the second case, there are familiar tracks of critique or none at all, and that isn’t necessarily going to help us either.
Somewhere in the middle of those two spaces (as if there are clear boundaries!) are the people trying to find their way in this system, “the university” and the institutional formations that frame it. It’s a system that’s clearly making some kinds of changes much more quickly than others. That’s part of my interest in graduate education; it’s a process of socialization, so how are grad students learning about the future of the university and their role in it?
A lot of the “messy” (and interesting) debate about this seems to be happening online, rather than in the hallways. Again, this is quite possibly just a very skewed perspective–I can’t speak from beyond my own viewpoint there. On Twitter and in blogs, people are discussing a broader range of issues than in the academic settings I’ve experienced. So in that way it feels like a different space, and I would like to be able to bridge the gap in some meaningful way, particularly given that it’s the everyday academic life where changes are unfolding in ways that are not necessarily visible because of their incremental nature, the limited period that students spend in each institution, and so on.
That’s why, in my research, I’m also speaking to tenured faculty who have spent long periods in a single institution. They’re keepers of institutional memory, or in some cases (as I’m discovering), memories the institution might prefer to forget. Most of them aren’t using social media, which is a shame because they have so much to contribute to the discussions going on there. This is one of the limitations we encounter with social media.
Not by coincidence, one of those “worlds” I described is primarily oriented to the current academic system, and one of them isn’t; the participants are different in each case as well, as are the relations between them. That’s part of what newly available technologies enable, and the university is having trouble dealing with those effects.
I know we hear an awful lot of punditry on the “disruptions” immanent, and though it’s tempting to dismiss the whole idea as rhetorical excess, I think that as usual, the extremes (and their proponents) are taking up a lot of room in the debate and making it harder for us to have a nuanced discussion about possibilities and limitations.
Too often faculty, for example, are reactionary because technology is brought to them as “yet another thing” that must be attended to, another box to check off, the latest fad that will keep the students (and governments, and administrators) happy. It’s also something they’ve never needed to get their work done in the past, so why should they start now? In other words it is a burden, a distraction. This has been pretty far from my experience with technology, and in researching how organizational communication works in the university, I’d say faculty need more space for a deeper and more inclusive discussion, and that discussion actually can’t happen only in online spaces.
EP: Those who haven’t been in scholarly social media for long or who have not joined yet might feel excluded from it all, and even base their opinions on a lack of direct experience with the platforms and their participants. How can we scholars who also use social media to interrogate structural privilege converse with them? Can we?
MF: I think your question is very kind–I’ve heard some extreme opinions from professors who have no idea what social media use looks like, but who were perfectly happy to pronounce it “useless”! But once again, they’re the extremes. Journeys are made from a thousand footsteps. With Twitter in particular, I’ve found it’s actually a challenge to convey its usefulness to anyone who’s never used it, including undergrads. What’s most interesting about it is that one hears the same complaints and dismissals from old and young alike: “I don’t care what you had for lunch”, “nothing of substance could be shared in that way”, and so on.
The emphasis on triviality and superficiality is no accident. Academic work is valued for rigour and depth, and I think most people associate those things at least to some extent with the amount of time spent on something, and of course–in academe–whether it has been vetted by peers. So often, texts produced outside these circuits of recognition are seen as less trustworthy. Short statements such as tweets are treated with suspicion because brevity, like rapidity, is seen as “leaving out” the complexity that we strive to work with as academics; and it forces us to rely on the credibility of the speaker rather than on the text. Worse, what if this new territory should begin to generate value of its own? What if these inferior texts should gain credibility and be recognised as part of academic discourse? I think this is part of the reaction we see from some academics; I think any kind of expansion of the sphere of (what’s perceived as) legitimate discussion is going to cause discomfort, and it’s going to be dismissed first, then contested.
So given that context, I think your question is very important because it gets at the heart of the issue: can we have this debate, if it’s happening in two different communicative “worlds”? Right now, the flow of debate is (I think) from traditional academic spaces to online ones; we bring to Twitter and blogs our commentary about what’s happening around us in higher education institutions, but I don’t think this goes much in the other direction at this stage (even Brian Leiter can only diss Twitter online because he has a blog). It’s still the case that academics can avoid having to “deal with” social media, because it hasn’t been a necessary part of the traditional scholarly career. This is how the avoidance of the discussion is directly linked to the ways that capital is attached to some forms and not others: some kinds of professional engagement are clearly and directly linked to advancement, and right now, this one is not. So there is not much professional incentive to join in.
I think this could change, which is something I was hinting at towards the end of my blog post about the debate on academic tweeting. Already, social media use has shifted from being an eccentricity, to being considered at least a “frill” that can set one apart from the crowd; and in a growing number of cases now, it’s seen as something integral to doing certain kinds of academic work, or disseminating that work to non-traditional publics. As this shifts over time, I think it will become easier to have the discussion that we want to have, both offline and online.
EP: Finally, what kind of changes would you like to see in Higher Education or in academic culture in general, and do you think social media could play or is playing a role (if so, which one?) towards achieving those changes?
MF: When I think about the university I would like to see, it’s basically very selfish thinking because I tend tend up asking, “what kind of university would I, personally, would want to work in?”. Bearing that in mind, what I would like to see would be the loosening of the strictures that currently define who gets to teach, who gets to research, who gets to be a part of the university in an ongoing way, and who gets compensated for their work in sustaining the institution and fulfilling its purpose. I’d like to see the necessary broadening of the idea of an “academic” that comes from this. And I think this is also going to mean changes to the way the university builds relationships beyond its walls.
There are more Ph.D. graduates, for example, who are having to leave the system or take up the least-compensated positions within it, because there is no room for them and because the “traditional” positions were so resource-dependent that few can be supported in the way they were in the past. This is an issue not only with the academic career but also with academic knowledge itself, which is intimately linked to the system of professionalization that produces tenured faculty. At the moment there is a hierarchy of prestige in this system that places tenured (research) professors at the top, and everyone else below, in service to, and/or in orbit around them. There is also a rigid structure of “production” that legitimises research work, a structure with which academic careers are tightly–but not inextricably–intertwined. This is accompanied by, for example, the belief that research produced outside this system cannot be credible or “objective” (since its authors didn’t have academic freedom, or were not subject to the right kind of peer review).
But within the current climate of (policy) discussion, it’s tricky to make suggestions about change and “openness” because others with louder voices have already made plenty of them, while espousing solutions I personally wouldn’t agree with. To me that looks like the biggest challenge: to have a debate where we have real choice about what options are on the table, not just “here are the three ideas we’ve decided are worth consideration”.
This is where the nature of our communication about these issues is of vital importance. Will it be monologic or dialogic? Will we have our “options” imposed on us by those with the most political and financial resources? Will we really be considering the university as a knowledge institution, as an historical institution, rather than as primarily an economic and technocratic one? I don’t know if social media can have a role in this, but I hope so; I think we can already see the beginnings of it in people’s activism around various issues like adjunct labour in the U.S., and open access to academic research. It’s going to require broad participation, but I don’t think such efforts are unheard of, and they are enabled by many of the same technologies described as “disruptive”.