A new and ongoing crowd-sourced experiment in social media and academic professionalization
Graduate students preparing for the job market in the humanities will often be advised to prepare an ‘elevator speech,’ a carefully rehearsed but seemingly spontaneous schtick on the dissertation that can be pulled out at the drop of a hat for interviews, cocktail party conversations, cab rides at the MLA or AHA, and so on.
There are sound reasons for going through this exercise, particularly for those heading toward interview season. A helpful piece by Claire B. Potter published a while ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education gives some helpful tips on preparing for this portion of the interview, and there’s skads of advice on other sites that speak to this move in the professionalizing game. The consensus seems to be that your elevator speech should be anywhere from two to five minutes long, suitable for the first part of your answer to that inevitable interview-opening question: “Tell us about your dissertation.” I’ve been teaching our department’s dissertation seminar over the last two semesters (intended for students crafting the prospectus), and one of the early assignments was to write, practice, and deliver the elevator speech to classmates. Even when we’re very early on in a project we should be able to talk in some detail about what we’ve been doing with our minds and our words. Like epic, tragedy, and romance, the elevator speech is a timeworn genre that isn’t going away.
But there’s a shinier coin to have in our pockets. Let’s call it the Escalator Pitch, despite the corporate resonances of the term (“The client is not interested in an investment relationship,” as one recent post on the escalator pitch puts it, “but might be interested in a simple services relationship”). The 2-to-5-minute Elevator Speech is well suited for interview situations, when attention is focused on you and your work for a sustained period of time. The Escalator Pitch, by contrast, is for those much more frequent occasions when you have only an awkward moment or two to tell someone new about your work.
And it isn’t just for graduate students. All academics with any kind of research agenda should be able to answer that one question so many of us actually kind of dread:
“So what are you working on?”
It’s surprising how often even safely tenured scholars with a lot of writing and publication behind them can be flummoxed by this simple question. We gasp for air, stumble about, or make some lame, self-deprecating attempts at humor, and eventually mumble something vague or incoherent, thinking as we do that the project is simply too complicated to describe in a couple of sound bites–and then walking away wishing we’d been able to do just that.
One of the reasons we can often find it so difficult to answer the “So what are you working on?” question simply, directly, and–above all–briefly has to do with context, and here we need to step out of the immediacy of the interview situation for a moment. For we’re asked this question most often, I suspect, at those times when a two-to-five-minute answer wouldn’t be appropriate, or polite, or even logistically possible. Even if your interlocutor is genuinely interested in what you’re working on rather than simply being courteous, chances are the two of you are standing at a crowded reception, or sitting around a loud dinner table. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a colleague or a graduate student (or yours truly) act taken aback or put off by “So what are you working on?”–as if it’s a surprise that a visiting scholar would use the question to spark dinner conversation following a guest lecture. One of the greatest favors we can do ourselves as academics, then, is to have at the ready an articulate, intelligent, and briefly conversational answer to the question we’ll all be asked on a regular basis in the course of our academic careers.
In this spirit, I started an experiment with my dissertation seminar that would use an inherently short-form medium to generate responses to this question. I asked the students to send me a conversational summary of their dissertations in the form of three or fewer Tweets. Not the dissertation title, not a list of chapters, but a succinct, informal answer to the question “So what are you working on?” in 420 or fewer characters (i.e. the total character count of three Tweets). Not all the students have Twitter accounts, and I didn’t require them to open one–an e-mail containing the text of potential Tweets would do just fine. (I also forgot about hashtags and handles, meaning the tweets would have an even more constrained character count.)
While waiting for the first responses, I tweeted (of course) about the experiment and got a quick reply from Elliott Visconsi (@EVisconsi, currently DGS in English at Notre Dame), who suggested that I create a hashtag and share the query more broadly. I then wrote and sent the following Tweet (note that all Tweets in this post are ‘live’, meaning you can click on usernames, hashtags, or the Follow button to see, follow, or join the conversation and any of its participants):
Offering myself up as the first guinea pig, I 3TweetMaxed about my book in progress:
It’s a book called “Archive of the Animal,” on the parchment inheritance and the ecology of writing, both then and now. #3TweetsMax— Bruce Holsinger (@burnablebooks) October 26, 2012
A series of thought experiments: codicology as zooarchaeology, membrane and ‘digital ecology’, parchment DNA and theology, etc.#3TweetsMax— Bruce Holsinger (@burnablebooks) October 26, 2012
Thinking about parchment as a living record of human-animal relations, and about the ethics of sacrifice inherent to the medium. #3TweetsMax— Bruce Holsinger (@burnablebooks) October 26, 2012
The next to post was Mai-Linh Hong, a Ph.D. student in the seminar who’s
#3TweetsMax Currently writing diss chapter on revolutionary autobiography, Black Power & the 2nd Amendment. I examine life writing by +— mai-linh hong (@FleursduMai) October 26, 2012
#3TweetsMax + Black Panthers & other militant activists to show how race shapes American notions of revolution, self-defense, +— mai-linh hong (@FleursduMai) October 26, 2012
#3TweetsMax + the right to bear arms. The larger project explores race and militarism in contemporary US literature & culture.— mai-linh hong (@FleursduMai) October 26, 2012
She was joined by Lauren Hauser (@laurenhauser), a modern Americanist also in the dissertation seminar and writing on what she calls the
#3tweetsmax Seeming contradiction in terms that is documentary poetry. Focusing on 20th century American from Rukeyser to the present. Frag-— Lauren Hauser (@laurenehauser) October 27, 2012
#3tweetsmax -mented lyric voice, performance, Realism, archive desire, alternative histories, film & other genres, co-construction w/reader.— Lauren Hauser (@laurenehauser) October 27, 2012
Mai-Linh then tweeted a version of the original message to her Twitter followers, using the same #3TweetsMax hashtag, and things have cascaded from there. A third-year Stanford law student (@alesta) tweeted her article-in-progress on cyberconflict law and social science. Alex Gil (@elotroalex), Coordinator of Digital Scholarship at Columbia, tweeted his work on textual remix and repetition. Elliott himself sent in a contribution that brings together his three major ongoing projects in one 140-character Tweet:
Timothy Morton (@the_eco_thought) three-tweeted on Dark Ecology…
#3tweetsmax Like a noir detective, humans now have the computational power to realize they are the culprit who ended the world.— Tim Morton (@the_eco_thought) October 27, 2012
#3tweetsmax The philosophy that thinks this Oedipal loop is called Dark Ecology.— Tim Morton (@the_eco_thought) October 27, 2012
#3tweetsmax This is not the third and final tweet about Dark Ecology.— Tim Morton (@the_eco_thought) October 27, 2012
…while Jeffrey Cohen (@jeffreycohen, English at GWU, founder of the blog In the Middle) unitweeted on the lithic…
ROCKS ARE ALIVE. But in a way that compels us to rethink vivacity. #3TweetsMax— Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (@jeffreyjcohen) October 27, 2012
…and Jonathan Hsy (@JonathanHsy, also English at GWU and blogging at ITM) sent a Tweet on interspecies bilingualism:
#3tweetsmax Medieval animal-sound wordlists don't record human mimicry of animals - they enact literary forms of inter-species bilingualism.— JonathanHsy (@JonathanHsy) October 27, 2012
I’m not sure what will come of this experiment, though a number of contributors have already commented on the usefulness of this highly economical form in crystallizing complex ideas for informal situations. I’ll be eager to learn where this goes as the situation on the ground develops. Would/did/do you, as a dissertator preparing for the market, find it a helpful exercise? If you’re a more established scholar, am I right in thinking we can have a surprisingly hard time answering the question above–and if so, is such an exercise in short-formalizing our current work at all valuable? Are there other roles for Twitter (the social medium in question here) in the realm of professional development in the humanities and humanistic social sciences?
In any case, you can see these and other real-time examples as they arrive by discover-searching the #3TweetsMax hashtag. Please circulate this post, and do add your own contribution to the #3TweetsMax string. Feel free as well to comment below on your assessment of the usefulness of this experiment in social media and academic professionalization.