Tuesday, February 9, 2016

I write a blog post. Students reply with a Facebook post. What is going on?

I guess I just don't understand the new world of social media. My previous blog post was a critique of Rosemary Joyce's lecture at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Then I see on Twitter that some anthropology graduate students have responded to my post, not by commenting directly on this blog, but in a Facebook post from the CUB Anthropology Department's Facebook page. Their post is mildly critical. I posted a brief comment on Facebook inviting them to reply directly on the blog (as a comment) to continue discussion. I say that I try to avoid using Facebook for professional purposes, and I am not anxious to start posting there about abstruse issues of social theory. But I haven't heard any more from the group of students.

(( SLIGHT UPDATE, same day, 9:30 am: Here is a link to the facebook post: 
https://www.facebook.com/CuBoulderAnthropology/?target_post=1247802748570251&ref=story_permalink.  And the likes are up to 34! ))

((Now, at noon, the likes are up to 39! I am really taking a killing here in Facebookland))

Perhaps in the world of social media and academia, all venues are equivalent. A response on Facebook might be no different than a reply to a blog, or some other kind of internet posting. So maybe I should just go ahead and reply to their comments here in my blog. Maybe I should switch to my other blog, Wide Urban World, to spread things around even further.

Or maybe I should just shut up. As a long-time blogger and senior scholar, I have a number of advantages over graduate students in terms of experience, power, and access. I am not anxious to play the heavy here. But then perhaps the students have an advantage over me. They are obviously more comfortable with Facebook, and they probably have other social media skills and experiences that I lack. So maybe I should shut up and admit defeat. After all, as of 8:00 AM today, there are NO comments on the blog post in question. The initial tweet from UCBoulder-Anthropology has 2 likes and 2 forwards, and my reply tweet has none. And the original Facebook post has 32 likes, including some prominent archaeologists and anthropologists. Wow, everyone is lining up against me.

In the court of Facebook opinion, I seem to be the clear loser in this affair. Obviously the "new materialism theory" (which is NOT materialist!) is popular and I am just a cranky positivist who can't see the light. But is this a productive direction for scholarship? I have complained in this blog about the "facebookization of online scholarship." You can "like" something buy you can't "dislike" anything. Popularity and superficiality are what count. What are the quality control mechanisms in the court of social media opinion? Are there any?

Well, this post is long enough. It doesn't really say anything about the substantive issues, mainly because I can't decide whether it is appropriate or useful to try to engage my critics in a dialogue, given the situation as described above. I guess I am still trying to figure out social media and its role in scholarship.


malanlewis said...

I hear you, Michael. I struggled with this trend when I was teaching. Though I'm retired now, I still see it's further development spreading from academe throughout all interpersonal relationships.

I've vacillated between saying "The Hell with it!" and giving in to the Facebook race. I have to use Facebook to keep in touch with family, because their chosen mode of communications, but I refuse to embrace it for academic communications. "Resist much, obey little."

Hang in there. Don't allow your standards to succumb to popular trends. This too shall pass.

Michael A. Lewis

Michael E. Smith said...

@Thanks, Michael, for the pep talk. It just seems hard to see where things are moving. I see social media as a way to promote scholarly work, but there are also advantages to embracing it as a way to reach non-specialists.

ianwjones said...

"But is this a productive direction for scholarship?"

Is this scholarship? I thought it was "shooting from the hip". . . ;) Which is actually one of the things that surprises me here. I'm not sure I've ever considered drafting an open letter in response to a blog post I disagreed with. Jeez, commenting on them takes enough time. I've said it before, but I've always thought that one of the nicer things about venues like blogs is the fact that you can comment directly on something and engage the author without having to publish a rebuttal somewhere.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Ian - I can suggest a benign interpretation, but this is speculative. Perhaps the students were hesitant to confront me directly in comments, since I have been known to get very cranky in arguments in the comments. But if they don't have a regular venue of their own (e.g., a blog), the departmental Facebook account was a logical way to post a reply. I do find it slightly bizarre, but I don't hold it against the students.

ianwjones said...

@Michael - I can buy that, actually. I still think you're right about Facebook as a scholarly venue, though.

Anonymous said...

I'm a junior scholar, so I feel I must comment anonymously because of the power dynamics in critiquing a senior scholar. I'm a huge fan of your blog and agree with many of your viewpoints on the role of archaeology and where it should be headed. I've read much of your work and look forward with continuing to engage with your ideas. But I think you're in the wrong on this one in many ways. The first thing I thought of after reading this post can be summed up by this meme: http://i1.kym-cdn.com/entries/icons/original/000/019/304/old.jpg

Facebook is now embraced and used by many academic departments and even journals, and like twitter, can be used for academic communication. I see very little difference between a blog, twitter, and facebook, so your hangups about it seem arbitrary. I think your supposition that the students didn't have their own venue on which to comment is likely correct. The power dynamics between your position and theirs is obvious, as you state. You wrote a scathing blog post, some grad students called you out, and then you tried to redirect the "dialogue" back to your turf where you have all the power (you control the platform, how comments get posted, if they get posted or marked as spam, and have regular readers/eyeballs who are likely on "your side"). I don't blame the underdog grad students for wanting to keep their home field advantage.

Secondly, these comments from you have done nothing to further dialogue. Instead, you seem to be whinging that you got called out. I saw Rosemary Joyce give a similar talk at my institution and left feeling the same feelings of confusion and frustration that you felt. A few grad students and I vented about it over beers and then got over it. Rosemary Joyce has made great contributions to the field and at the talk I saw she was still thinking through this work. I initially felt vindicated about my position after reading your initial post. (I'm not crazy! Michael Smith doesn't get her either!). But later I felt uneasy. Your blog post read like a person who wanted to complain, not engage in dialogue. The RJ talk I saw was incomprehensible to me, but saying it was vacuous is just name-calling.

IMHO, your blog post is probably something that should have been written, saved as a draft, and then deleted after a good night's sleep. The CU FB post read to me as a chastising your "hot take" as being inappropriate, and I happen to agree. I haven't "liked" the FB post in question, but would do so - not because I think New Materialism is great or correct or even because understand it ( I do not!) - but because I agree with them that your blog post was problematic and inappropriate.

Both you and Rosemary Joyce are interested in engaging with thinkers and ideas outside of Anthropology. As a junior scholar, I find these perspectives exciting. A more useful response to your confusion would be to engage with RJ directly - she is an excellent tweeter and blogger. Why not pick on someone your own size (a tenured senior scholar) like RJ- who can more than handle herself in a dialogue with you I am sure.

Michael E. Smith said...

Maybe I do have little interest in a dialogue. The gulf - both epistemological and ontological - between the lecture I heard any my own views of archaeology is so great that I doubt much could be accomplished by "dialogue." I have long given up the idea that the field of anthropology is a useful context for archaeology, and I have more recently given up the idea that archaeology is a coherent discipline where we can all just get along. I am engaged in a research trajectory that has little need for abstract philosophical theory, and I believe strongly that the obsession with abstract theory has caused serious harm to archaeology. I make this point often in my blog, and in some publications.

My "hangups" about Facebook derive from my attempt to keep my personal and professional lives largely distinct. I don't live my personal life on facebook, but I do live some of my professional life on my blogs. I refuse to do more than some minimal professional activities on facebook. If that is a hangup, so be it.

Could you help me by explaining just what about my original blog post was "problematic and inappropriate"? I guess using the term "vacuous" in the title might be seen as inappropriate. But I am careful to say in the text that I am quoting a colleague who also heard the lecture. My reaction was "incomprehensible" and I don't directly call the talk vacuous.

The facebook post complained similarly that "the tone of the discussion we witnessed online was disheartening," and the authors imply indirectly that I was not "respectful and productive." Again, I am confused. Was this blog post radically different in tone from my previous blog posts? I did not intend it that way. Perhaps some people think that the whole operation, and all my complaining and "whining" on the blog over the years is in bad taste and inappropriate. Others think it is great. If it really problematic and objectionable, then please don't read it. I have never called myself a nuanced thinker, and I'm not sure exactly what was problematic about my post. I would be sincerely appreciative if someone would clue me in. I was hoping the authors of the facebook post might elaborate, but perhaps not.

Anonymous said...

The primary problem with your blog post was the use of the term vacuous.

"I guess using the term "vacuous" in the title might be seen as inappropriate." --> Yes, I agree Also the generic images you threw into illustrate your dislike of this theoretical idea. Why?

"But I am careful to say in the text that I am quoting a colleague who also heard the lecture. My reaction was "incomprehensible" and I don't directly call the talk vacuous." --> Careful? Maybe in the same way that Trump was careful about how he called (but didn't call- he was just quoting that lady!) Cruz a bad name recently. It was not clear to me when reading that this was solely the opinion of your colleague (did you get his permission to name-drop him, btw?) and that you disagreed with his assessment. The last sentence even states that you equate incomprehensibility with vacuousness.

having or showing a lack of thought or intelligence; mindless.
"a vacuous smile"
synonyms: silly, inane, unintelligent, insipid, foolish, stupid, fatuous, idiotic, brainless, witless, vapid, vacant, empty-headed;

So basically, you're equating Rosemary Joyce with being stupid, vacant, brainless etc. Do you see now why people are offended?

Michael E. Smith said...

OK, I see the point. Sensibilities were offended by a word I used. I apologize. Thank you, @Anonymous, for pointing this out.

I am not thrilled by an intellectual climate where sensitivity over a term gets in the way of intellectual discussion, or where the use of a term in a post title evidently invalidates the content of the post, but so be it. I should not have used the phrase "vacuous" in the title of the post, and perhaps I should have avoided it in the final sentence. Furthermore, maybe I should have also avoided quoting my colleague, who used an insensitive term in private conversation with me. These usages were clearly inflammatory actions on my part. My intent was not to insult Rosemary Joyce or to offend people who attended her lecture, and I apologize.

If anything useful has come out of this affair, it has helped me organize my own thoughts on strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to archaeology, and I will blog about those larger issues, hopefully in a way that will not offend the sensibilities of too many people.

Anonymous said...

I don't like intellectual climates where senior scholars think name-calling is an appropriate part of intellectual discussion. Your last line says that you basically agree with the term vacuous! "The implication [between incomprehensible and vacuous] is the same."

The words you use matter. Especially as you hold a lot of power in the field as a senior, tenured, and widely-published scholar.

Using such terms in private conversation is one thing. Public reflections and intellectual discussions in online forums should be more thoughtful because your comments are open to the world, and potentially preserved for many years. You didn't anticipate that "vacuous" would be inflammatory, but it's quite a personal insult. I've read other critiques of yours where you are firm, but seem more clear to attack an idea or theoretical approach than the person. The lines became blurred in this situation.

I at least appreciate your apology, and look forward to your more thoughtful reflections.

Michael E. Smith said...

Tact and subtlety are rarely among the virtues attributed to me. Sometimes this gets me into trouble.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Smith,

Thank you (and many others!) for having this discussion with us. It is my belief that the multiplicity of theoretical viewpoints in archaeology is a strength. We use theoretical concepts we feel best allow us to answer our research questions, and collectively, through our varied approaches, we learn more about the past than we could by espousing one monolithic theory.

That being the case, theoretical differences are inevitable. We can (and should) engage critically with approaches we don’t agree with. By doing this in ways that are both substantive and respectful of the work our colleagues have put in, we can encourage further discussion, foster collegiality, and continue evolving as a discipline.

Thank you again to all for your responses,

-Pascale Meehan (Graduate Student, CU Boulder Anthropology Department)

Michael E. Smith said...

@Pascale - I may have gone a bit overboard with all this. I have a bunch of unpleasant tasks this week, and some of this was displacement activity to avoid boring things I have to do. But I am preparing a more measured post or posts to highlight differences between social science and humanities approaches in archaeology.

Michael E. Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael E. Smith said...

Feb 11, 2016. There is some kind of glitch with Blogger, and comments are not being posted. I am getting the blogger-generated emails that are sent to me whenever a new comment is posted, but those comments do not seem to be showing up. I've tried different browsers and users. So, at the rise of making a mess later, here are the comments I received this morning:

FIRST COMMENT ********************************
Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "I write a blog post. Students reply with a Faceboo...":

While I think it is gracious of the CU graduate students to accept your apology, I find your response problematic. You've had "a bunch of unpleasant tasks this week"?? Are you kidding me? Is that really an excuse for poor behavior and insulting not only Rosemary Joyce, but also a group of grad students who had the guts to point out your poor behavior? Like another anonymous poster stated above, you have responsibilities as a senior scholar. A group of grad students shouldn't have had to point out what is and is not acceptable behavior for an academic. Having a week filled with unpleasant tasks might be an excuse for snapping at someone or being terse in person, but it isn't one for continuing to write rude and condescending comments in multiple situations here on your blog.

On Twitter, as part of the narrative about this topic you and Scott Van Keuren exchanged posts about how critiquing senior scholars (such as yourself) could have negative impacts to the career of a grad student. It's ironic that you think that by advocating for cordial academic discourse, these students should have a more difficult time finding a job when, from my point of view as an outsider, their responses have been very respectful in comparison to yours and they're likely handling just as many "unpleasant tasks" this week.

While I appreciate the apology and think it is a step in the right direction, you need to do more than try to explain away the source of the problem or say that in the future you will try to talk in a "way that will not offend the sensibilities of too many people." I see it not as an issue of sensibilities, but of what is acceptable behavior. Instead of offering up these platitudes, you should recognize what these students do: that as an academic, you need to be respectful in your responses both in person and in writing. Also, that if critiquing a senior scholar should affect a grad student's career (as you and Van Keuren seem to think), by the same token writing insulting posts and belittling another academic should affect the career of a senior scholar.

Michael E. Smith said...

SECOND COMMENT: ********************************
Simon has left a new comment on your post

Angels no doubt fear to tread here, but I've just read the original post and the comments above and I want to say something as an outsider to both archaeology and the the university system in general.

Scholars construct, discuss, and criticize ideas. Those ideas can be good, or they can be bad. If the latter, it is the duty of other scholars to point that out. A bad idea may be clever, but wrong; but it may simply be empty of substantial content, which is to say, vacuous.

From an external perspective, the complaints above read like demands for censorship. Academics are invariably associated with their ideas, and criticism of ideas is inextricably linked to criticism of people. There are better and worse ways to handle this. But the original post did not strike me as overly personal, merely honest. And the responses above seem to demand a sort of academic safe space, where criticism cannot reach.

I find this exchange disturbing. The original post pointed to a general issue that speaks to me as a member of the public, namely, that much of the theoretical jargon used in modern academic disciplines renders much of the content of those disciplines unintelligible to outsiders. Issues of censorship aside, what I read between the lines in the complaints about the post are apprentices who for some reason embrace the construction of this intellectual Berlin wall and resist (intensely) the suggestion that they should be learning to speak with outsiders, not to insulate themselves from them.

Michael E. Smith said...

********* _________________________________________________________

I posted a brief message earlier about this software glitch, but without including the 2 new comments. I said that one of them accused me of bad behavior and the other pointed out some troubling implications of this whole exchange. Then I managed to delete that post by accident. And then, the first commenter this morning sent another comment:

THIRD COMMENT: **********************************
Haylie J. Belogue has left a new comment on your post "I write a blog post. Students reply with a Faceboo...":

I'm assuming that you're referring to my comment as the one that categorizes you as having bad behavior. Which it certainly does, but it is more than an expletive laced, gin induced rant that can be explained away. It also points out that you hold a respected position as a senior scholar in our field and need to treat your position as such when you decide to talk about the work of others. That is an important part of this dialogue, if not THE single most important point. Additionally, if you didn't want an exchange, you should have avoided re-posting and retweeting this interaction with snarky comments aimed at shaming a group of grad students, or better yet, avoided publishing your original post.

REMARK FROM MES: ***********************
Perhaps we should shut this down, if only because of the software problems. I do not feel the need to reply to these comments, but I do appreciate them. I do worry, however, that if I decline to reply to my critic I might be accused of further bad behavior, but if I do reply I would probably set this person off even more.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Smith, don't backpedal too much. The thing that you will learn watching the internet is this --- if you apologize to the twitter mob, they will come after you harder. They cannot be satisfied. If you ignore them and move on, their short attention spans are distracted by whatever new outrage flitters across their Facebook page.

I am glad you wrote your post. Dr. Joyce is more than capable to standing up for herself, she did not need grad students white knighting for her. If they are hoping that will help them get jobs in a couple of years, I hate to disappoint them. A major issue in the archaeology is the lack of real criticism or debate ... or, to be more accurate, we have a culture in which criticism is considered bad form ... too many forums like the SAAs and many regional conferences even lack adequate question periods for talks, etc. Please continue speaking up!

Michael E. Smith said...

Thanks for the feedback. And now it looks like comments are working again. If this affair has accomplished anything, it has spurred me to organize my thoughts on scientific approaches in archaeology, and I just posted the first of three planned posts on this topic.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been following this exchange, it seems to me that the graduate students weren't saying you CANT critique others, they were just stating that, as academics and experts, you should be capable of doing it in a way that isn't demeaning. The question isnt about whether Rosemary Joyce can defend herself or not (Im sure she can), but whether this kind of language ("vaucuous" in the original post - and then in the comment section "silly" and "infantile") is an appropriate, professional way to discuss your colleague's ideas, no matter how much of a senoir scholar you are. You can voice the same critique, "[RJ describes physics] in silly, almost infantile terms" without equating her to a child. Show some respect. Invest in a thesaurus if more eloquent words dont come to mind. It will make people much more willing to listen to your ideas and engage with what you have to say.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonymnous. I don't recall that the facebook post by the students said anything at all about specific scholarly ideas, or whether I should or should not criticize them. It was all about style, not substance. So, now that I have offered a public apology (on on the UCB Anthro facebook page), can we please get over the complaints about style, wording, respect and maturity? This whole exchange has done an excellent job of diverting attention away from the very real intellectual issues that were the focus of my initial post.

Leslie Lim said...

I read your blog.I thought it was great.. Hope you have a great day. God bless.