Casey Schmitt, PhD candidate in History at the College of William and Mary, provides this reflection on live-tweeting the OIEAHC-SEA conference. Casey was one of two students who were brought to the conference by the OIEAHC as a way of encouraging a lively exchange on Twitter. Both students wore blue ribbons that designated them as Tweeters.
Traveling back from the joint annual meeting of the OIEAHC and SEA this past weekend seems like a perfect time to reflect on my experiences as an official conference tweeter. Before I do, however, it’s only fair to admit that before this weekend I had little experience using Twitter as a means of academic discourse and exchange. Sure, I use my Twitter account to share relevant news and blog posts, but I went into the conference intrigued and intimidated by the idea of trying to communicate complex papers in 140 characters or less.
As a junior scholar, a principle reason why advisors encourage us to attend conferences is to hear historians present their newest work. It is in this way that we meet fellow graduate students to be on future panels with and more established scholars with whom we can correspond about research questions or professional development. But, for many graduate students, the cost of attending a conference – especially in a major city like Chicago – can be prohibitive. To my mind, this is where live Twitter at conferences becomes especially meaningful. For graduate students unable to attend, Twitter allows coverage of the panels, hopefully providing enough information to connect scholars with similar research interests across the country (dare I say world) – regardless of their travel budgets. Although short, those 140 characters do allow tweeters to explain the focus of a paper that might not be clear from the title.
That said, I did wonder throughout the conference – as I furtively tweeted on my phone hidden under the table – about the audience for those tweets. I came to the conclusion that 140 characters is enough to exchange information with fellow academics, especially people steeped in many of the same historiographic debates and with a shared lexicon. For example, a tweet about a panelist’s take on the Black Atlantic means more to someone who has read and followed the discussion of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. Unlike Michael D. Hattem’s astute point about secondary school teachers and the general public using hour-long podcasts to engage in the field, I never felt like my tweets could have wider relevance than among fellow early Americanists. In this sense, I’m not sure where I stand on the claim that Twitter can “democratize” large conferences – at least not beyond a highly-trained group that shares an extensive vocabulary. Or, perhaps, I’m just not that good at distilling complex ideas yet.
There was, however, one problem with being an official tweeter and also a very junior scholar (aside from the sidelong glances tossed my way by individuals who no doubt assumed I was watching YouTube videos or checking my Facebook page). In a way, I felt as though my tweets could not wade into the realm of critiques and debates – not because I don’t think of myself as capable of engaging critically with the ideas of more established colleagues – but more because career uncertainty is a strong motivator for reticence. In the end, my tweets served more as a mirror for what was actually said than as a critical appraisal of those points. And, as a means to encourage historians to engage in productive dialogue, I think the #OISEA2015 was an overall success.
But here’s where I’m sold on the use of live tweeting at conferences – it wasn’t just my lone graduate student voice providing 140 character snippets about the proceedings. There were other official tweeters as well as non-official voices in the mix, many who did a much better job than I. Among those tweeting were individuals at all stages of their careers, some more than willing to directly challenge the conclusions of panelists. In this sense, the thousands of tweets at #OISEA2015 reflect the collective mind of conference participants – not a bad source of information for those unable to attend. And, as we all get more comfortable with the medium, that collective Twitter voice will only increase in size and sophistication.
Casey Sylvia Schmitt
The College of William and Mary