Social Media for Scholars

For about a year now, Nic Terry and I have been hosting “The Week in Health Law” podcast. (We did miss a few weeks–so we’re actually more like “This 8.3 Days in Health Law”–but we’re pretty reliable!) We interview law professors, social scientists, and other experts, mainly from the US, though with some international presence. We recently convened a “meta-podcast” with 3 past show guests (and the editor of Pharmalot, an influential pharma industry blog) on the importance of social media presence for engaged academics. Our show notes also link to some good guides from other scholars. Like the “No Jargon” podcast of the Scholars Strategy Network, we try to bring informed commentary on complex ideas (like agency guidance on wellness programs) to a broad audience. We’ve received positive feedback from around the world, and I’m often surprised by the range of people who are tuning in (from hospital administrators to bar leaders to general counsel).

I just wanted to add one cautionary note to the emerging commentary on engaged scholarship and social media. I often see participation in blogs, podcasts, or Twitter framed in corporate or neoliberal discourse–the need to “build a brand,” “increase citations,” “leverage a network,” and so on. Even I engage in that in the podcast when I discuss altmetrics. But at its core, the scholarly identity is a very different one than the metricized self of performance optimization. Our best conversations feature a critical distance from the topics at hand and even from the ever more voluminous research apparatus around them. They highlight, rather than gloss over, inevitable conflicts of values that emerge once once tries to apply banalities like the “triple aim” in specific settings. There is a deep interest in an empirical research, and a sober awareness of its limits. (Our discussion with Scott Burris on policies like bike helmet laws is one very good example of this.)

The best moments of the podcast (contrasted with the impoverished neoliberal discourse often used to justify participation in engaged scholarship) highlight two very different meanings of “professionalism” now at work in our culture. The professionalized scholar is often a cite-generator and grant-grubber, more concerned with the external indicia of achievement than the intrinsic value of research they are meant to merely validate or support. But if we consider the academy as a profession, we realize the extraordinary importance of its partial autonomy from both market and state. It exists to create a space for research and conversations that are impossible to monetize immediately (or maybe ever), and which have not been specifically approved by political institutions.

As the state increasingly becomes a cat’s paw of market forces, and market forces themselves are engineered by a shrinking and short-sighted financial elite, preserving the residual autonomy of professions is more important than ever. I hope that future discussions of engaged scholarship focus more on its potential to advance solidarity among those committed to an independent academy–not one keen on ever-preciser rankings of its members, or defensive about proving its value in economic terms that are themselves of questionable utility.

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