How a Graduate Student Uses Twitter

I started using Twitter because I was curious about my boss.
Not in a kissing-up sort of way, because after practicing as a surgeon in the country, I think I’m truly incapable of kissing up to anyone for anything anymore.  But my boss is Gardner Campbell, and in my job interview I asked (demanded really) that he hire me because I thought he could teach me something.  I don’t say that to just anyone, and I do believe he knew that and hired me because of it.
Gardner is a prodigious tweeter, so two months ago I decided (without any discussion with him) that I was going to learn from him based on what articles and blogs he tweeted.  Within the first week I realized I had framed my personal learning objectives all wrong – it wasn’t about the content of the tweets, but rather the how, what, and why of the twitter.  Something was going on in Twitter – an entire productive culture of norming and storming through collective practices of word-choice, punctuation, and content curation.
And I was going to figure it out.
Unbeknownst to him, Gardner pushed me along in my quest by tweet-intro’ing me to AnneMarie Cunningham.  AnneMarie is more than a prodigious tweeter – she is interested and generous and will tweet-intro and recommend for anyone at the drop of a hat.  What are you looking for: Inspirational medical blogs? Intro to a learning analytics expert? An obscure white paper on tablet-use in the classroom? AnneMarie’s got all of that and she’ll share it with you in as many 140 char. couplets as it takes.
And with such a mentor, I waded in to learn the only way I know how (thanks to medical school): actively.
Driven by AnneMarie’s example, I found myself tweeting soundbites from webinars and livestreamed interviews.  As a student this served me well in several ways.  First, it forced me to engage in the lecture and interview content.  This is monumental, since I haven’t listened to a word of lecture since I was 18.  I was always the best medical resident in my cohort for finding a medical code or patient crisis which needed my immediate attention …amazing how the crises occurred simultaneously with any scheduled power point, as if triggered by that very presentation.  I’ve only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. So any activity that keeps me in a room in a chair and listening to a talking head for hours is like opium—it should be government-regulated and sold.   

Second, my tweeting captured the attention of conference attendees and organizers.  The very people whose work I was studying were now retweeting and following me.  This translated to unprecedented access for a graduate student.  Suddenly, I’m getting recommendations from the experts on who to read and in what order.  I feel like my education is being crowdsourced by the international academic community.  Graduate students in my program often feel very isolated (I know this because I actually formally studied it last semester).  I have felt distressingly isolated in graduate school.  But now I don’t.  There are people out there who are willing to help me, to share their expertise with me, and they come from exotic places like the Netherlands.  Or Canada.

Engaging with these scholars via twitter has brought me richer engagement with my academic reading and writing.   When you read five or ten articles written by the same people, it’s hard not to create personalities for them.   There were nights in my college career when the only thing that kept me in the library instead of the bar was because I was settling in with another article on African colonialism written by someone I felt like I knew.  By interacting with the authors on Twitter, I don’t have to work so hard to generate the “personalities” I need to stay engaged with the (sometimes dry—but please don’t be offended) content.  And if I’m confused about something written in the article, I know exactly where to go for some seriously solid clarification.

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So what can I do in return, for the scholars who have made themselves available? Who actually care that there’s someone out there trying to engage with their work?

That last question is the key to the answer. 
Obviously, you know I blog.  I’ve blogged about what it means to me when I know someone is reading my work.  Likewise, as a lonely country surgeon, I’ve known what it was like to work in a vacuum.  As I research, I look at the Google Scholar citation counter – and I feel guilty when I gravitate to the articles with the high citation numbers, because I know that the ones with low citation numbers could be just as legitimate.  And I think of the scholar who wrote that “Cited by: 1” article,  who is working hard and sometimes wonders if all that hard work is making any difference at all.

Because of Twitter, I can let people know that there’s a random graduate student in Richmond Virginia reading their work and trying to understand it and use it in her everyday work.  I’m not a citation driver, and some people might find my interest a dubious complement (I am, after all, wearing a t-shirt covered with sequined pears right now—that’s dubious). But some people, particularly on bad days, just need to know that someone values their work.  Because scholars are just people, too.  Twitter provides me with a way to say “Thank you, please keep writing” when it is warranted.

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