A Social Media Strategy for Medievalists (Seven Theses)

 

Brantley L. Bryant, Department of English, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA, USA

For Eileen Joy

Even a few years ago, “social media strategy” plus “medievalists” might have sounded like the windup for a joke. It still might raise eyebrows, but not for long. As the online presence of academic medievalists grows, we can and should develop shared strategies for connecting with nonspecialist publics on social media.1 Medievalists have been using electronic communication and resources for decades, and today’s social media can allow us to build on our previous work.2 Connection-makers, call them “social medievalists,” can seek out wider, broader, and more varied audiences.3 While keeping in mind that much has been done — and is being done right now — on this topic, I’d like to offer a few suggestions based on my own very particular experience online, experience mostly involving playful experimentation with medieval personae on social media. I gather these points to add to the important developing conversation about medievalist outreach. How can we continue to use public social media to highlight the joys of scholarship, and to affirm the broader social good of deep academic engagement with the premodern past?

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s generative 1996 essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” frames its big-thinking claims as “a set of breakable postulates in search of specific cultural moments” (Cohen, 1996). In that spirit, I offer seven theses in search of your links, references, and rejoinders, as we collaborate together on the massively crowdsourced project of securing a future for scholarship.4

I. THE SOCIAL MEDIEVAL IS A CLASSROOM: When it comes to public social media, a pedagogical impulse is the best guiding principle for our choices about method and message. Social medievalists can apply Paulo Freire’s “problem posing” education on the widest level possible.5 Think about our readers as an audience of potential learners. Marketing language serves us poorly if unadapted to our goals. “Promotion” (of self, institution, or product) goes with the grain of social media, but “pedagogy” serves us best.

II. SOCIAL MEDIEVALISTS SHARE SPELLS: Scholarship is an open-world video game — our tools and techniques are the spells we use to manipulate that world: concordances, archive searches, indices, and other grimoires. Social medievalists can share these tools with as ambitiously wide a public as possible. Hook readers with jokes and mysteries, define terms and teach basic use, then offer challenges or sample exercises. Peter Buchanan’s “Middle English Dictionaries Scavenger Hunt” is just the kind of classroom exercise that could be presented to an online audience (Buchanan, 2015). Unlike stage magicians, we have everything to gain from giving our tricks away.

III. SOCIAL MEDIEVALISTS ARE THE HARBINGERS OF THE LIBRARIES: Social medievalists can also invite readers of all kinds to wander through medieval texts. In recent years, scholars have been leading nonspecialist audiences to manuscript images, bringing new eyes to medieval parchment.6 Edited texts are out there, too. In Middle English alone, the TEAMS archive makes available enough material for years of local reading group meetings (http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams). Connecting to multiple audiences is the key: by including introductions, context, selections, and reading keys specifically intended for nonspecialists, we can encourage communities of enthusiasts, support the efforts of teachers, and cultivate as-yet-undiscovered affinities. Twitter, with its culture of competitive hashtagging and retweeting, can be used to spread the word widely about sites, archives, texts, and translations.

IV. SOCIAL MEDIEVALISTS DWELL AT THE SLINGSHOT POINT: Sci-fi ships gain speed by shooting themselves along the curve of a big planet’s gravity. Social medievalists too can slingshot off news events and pop-cultural planets to enhance their visibility and reach. There are obvious slingshot events (Richard III, carpark), as well as not-so-obvious ones. To take best advantage, social medievalists will need to move at the rapid pace of the news cycle, and scholarly organizations will need to plan for this kind of speed alongside the slower timeline of journals and conferences. Importantly, this point applies only to news items that have relatively neutral political valence. The issue of the ethics, methods, and time scale of providing a medievalist perspective on tragedies and conflicts is a much more complicated one. As an academic enterprise, social medievalist outreach must always keep ethical concerns central as we strive for visibility and reach.7

V. SOCIAL MEDIEVALISTS MESS WITH THE BORDERS OF THE POSSIBLE: Anachronism is a social medievalist’s sonic screwdriver — never leave home without it. Humor plays well in the current social media environment, and social medievalists can use jokey anachronisms, mash-ups of past and present cultures, and adaptations of internet memes to introduce medieval texts and to play on important overlaps.8 Anachronism instantly conveys the complicated inextricability of post- and premodern. Punning the present against the past spreads enthusiasm not just for the past itself but for the passions involved in studying it and the tricks of the mind that we play on ourselves as we negotiate a present that is not simple but rather “a field in which varying kinds of temporalities get lived out” (Dinshaw, 2012, 137). The time of audiences is also productively anachronistic. Traditional scholarly publications present themselves to the eternal academy of professional readers, but our public postings would do better to engage multiple audiences simultaneously or sequentially, including readers who will instantaneously click through as they follow geeky or distracted paths.9

VI. SOCIAL MEDIEVALISM IS REALLY A KIND OF FANDOM: Internet scholarly culture has both ideological and actual affinities with fan culture, the embodied and electronic communities of enthusiastic responders to fictional worlds and historical recreations.10 Current fan culture is not without its many flaws and problems, but it can provide medievalists with new ideas about community building and knowledge production — especially since the old social rituals of academia are starting to show their aristocratically elitist roots. Social medievalists should continue to join forces with groups of fans.11 When applicable, we should also show our fandom for each other. The BABEL Working Group is sometimes labeled a kind of scholarly lovefest, but its ambitions for generosity, inclusiveness, and support provide an inspiring counter-example to zero-sum visions of competition appearing in other professional fields and increasingly being foisted on the scholarly community.12

VII. KEEP BECOMING: “All things change,” although, on social media, things can in fact get destroyed.13 Social medievalists should not see ourselves as business partners or get too attached to the platforms themselves. Instead, we must keep our scholarly home bases outside — formal or informal, institutional or notional — and adapt social media to our own purposes, purposes for which the media themselves were never intended.14 We shouldn’t think it’s cheap to put our medievalist passions out there in big neon letters. Such promotion, far from being slick or cynical, can be affirming to our teaching and research, nourishing for the future academy, and quite possibly transformative in a way we cannot yet imagine.


Notes

  1. This statement makes an artificial distinction between “academic/scholarly medievalists,” on one side, meaning those whose professional livelihood is tied to conventional academia, and “broader publics,” on the other. This distinction, of course, does not hold when applied to most real-life situations, and medievalist social media outreach is one way to encourage the most equitable and productive exploration of that distinction’s collapse. The fragility of the academic/popular medievalist divide has been explored by many scholars; to name just a few: Gail Ashton, Daniel T. Kline, Thomas Prendergast, Stephanie Trigg, and Richard Utz. For a notable recent work that questions the boundaries of “professional” scholarship, see Dinshaw (2012).
  2. For medievalist uses of electronic communication, publication, and blogs from roughly 1980 to 2010, see Cohen (2010).
  3. Ramsby (2012) makes this point in relation to contemporary poetry, discussing the prolific poetry-tweeter Don Share (@Don_Share). Rambsy’s point directly inspires my approach here. My work in this piece is of course speculative. In contrast, several medievalists, most notably Jonathan Hsy, Dorothy Kim, and Kristen Mapes, have already been doing the difficult work of figuring out the logistics and ethics of academic social media use. A foundational text for medieval social media is Kim (2014).
  4. I discovered Steven Lubar’s blog post “Seven Rules for Public Humanists” relatively late in the writing process for this piece. Its numbering had no influence on my work here: https://stevenlubar.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/seven-rules-for-public-humanists/.
  5. See the chapter “The Banking Concept of Education” from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, available in a variety of editions and formats.
  6. For example, work of Erik Kwakkel (http://erikkwakkel.tumblr.com) and Sjoerd Levelt (@SLevelt on Twitter), as well as the Medieval POC tumblr (medievalpoc.tumblr.com). See also Moore (2015). For a vital reminder that “social medievalist” work should not uncritically embrace the “viral” ethic of internet marketing, see Werner (2014).
  7. On the ethical questions of Twitter, see Kim (2014a).
  8. For thoughts on anachronism and humor see Bryant (2010), D’Arcens (2014), and Dinshaw (2013).
  9. On time and scholarly social media, see especially Godden (2011).
  10. I owe this idea to Regina Lee, who kindly shared it with me after a Chaucer Blog lecture. As Lee puts it, “how [can we] get the enthusiastic creative response of fandom into the same conversation as the analytic critical stances of more modern academe?” (http://www.hastac.org/blogs/rylee001/2011/10/23/meeting-chaucer-blogger-or-academics-fans-tale).
  11. As Dinshaw notes, “Students and younger scholars can teach the teachers about the overlapping populations and passions of gamers, fan fiction writers, and scholarly medievalists” (Dinshaw, 2013, 23).
  12. On generosity and affirmation in academia, see for example the conclusion to Godden (2011), and see Joy (2011).
  13. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book XV, Line 165): “omnia mutantur, nihil interit[“All things change, nothing is destroyed”]. (http://la.wikisource.org/wiki/Metamorphoses_(Ovidius)/Liber_XV).
  14. See Kim (2014a) for observations about Twitter as a “hacked public space.”

 

References


Bryant, B. L. 2010. Playing Chaucer. In B. L. Bryant, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog: Medieval Studies and New Media, 15–28. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Buchanan, P. 2015. Middle English Dictionaries Scavenger Hunt. Phenomenal Anglo-Saxons, March 2. https://phenomenalanglosaxons.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/middle-english-dictionaries-scavenger-hunt/.


Cohen, J. J. 1996. Monster Culture (Seven Theses). In Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. J. J. Cohen, 3–25. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.


Cohen, J. J. 2010. Blogging the Middle Ages. In B. L. Bryant, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog: Medieval Studies and New Media, 29–42. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


D’Arcens, L. 2014. You Had to Be There: Anachronism and the Limits of Laughing at the Middle Ages. postmedieval 5: 140–153.


Dinshaw, C. 2012. How Soon Is Now? Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Dinshaw, C. 2013. All Kinds of Time. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 25: 3–25.


Godden, R. H. 2011. Getting Medieval in Real Time. postmedieval 2: 267–277.


Joy, E. 2011. I’ll Stop the World and Melt with You: A Plea for Inextricability, Staying Awake, and for an Insomniac Humanities. In the Middle, October 12. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2011/10/ill-stop-world-and-melt-with-you-plea.html.


Kim, D. 2014. #medievaltwitter. In the Middle, January 7. http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2014/01/medievaltwitter.html.


Kim, D. 2014a. The Rules of Twitter. Hybrid Pedagogy, December 4. http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/rules-twitter/.


Moore, P. 2015. Was Yoda a Medieval Monk? It Takes a Museum Curator to Tell You. The Guardian, April 16. http://www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/2015/apr/16/was-yoda-medieval-monk-museum-curator.


Ramsby II, H. 2015. Poetry Magazine and Outreach on Social Media; or the Don Share Model. Cultural Front, March 21. http://www.culturalfront.org/2015/03/poetry-magazine-and-outreach-on-social.html.


Werner, S. 2014. It’s History, Not a Viral Feed. Wynken de Worde (sarahwerner.net/blog), January 26. http://sarahwerner.net/blog/2014/01/its-history-not-a-viral-feed/.

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