Institutionalising Civic engagement: what we can learn from the mistake of pressuring academics to use Twitter

I attended an interesting webinar earlier today organised by European University Association analysing the relationship between universities and democracy, through the lens of civic engagement. It’s one of a series they’ll be running over the coming weeks. It was immensely useful as someone who is currently thinking about how to embed civic engagement into the MA Digital Technologies, Communication and Education (for which I took over as programme director a couple of weeks ago) as well as the research cluster we’re in the process of establishing with a relationship to the masters programme. It’s left me preoccupied by the question of who acts when universities try and build the capacity for and inclination towards civic engagement.

I have reservations about how the impact agenda has led to a growing encouragement of social media within universities, as I’ve written about most recently here with Katy Jordan. This is something I became interested in during a period of time when I was regularly going into universities in order to run introductory sessions with academic staff about how to use social media. There was a tendency to frame social media engagement as something which would contribute to build a culture of engagement within the institution, tacitly positioning social media followers as a proxy for impact capacity and social media engagement as a proxy for impact willingness. The problem is that the relationship between online popularity and research impact is profoundly non-linear, in the sense being highly visible can bring opportunities but it can also get in the way of them as well. Furthermore, it positions engagement as an open-ended activity which staff ought to engage in rather a range of activities which can be used strategically towards certain ends. The tendency towards what Pat Thomson describes as ‘heroic narratives of impact‘ individualises this further by encouraging us to tell stories about individual excellent with regards to external engagement.

Obviously the use of social media is just one part of civic engagement. But my immersion in this field has left me sensitised towards the individualisation of engagement i.e. creating expectations that this is something which individual staff should do as part of their wider portfolio of activities. The manner in which UK universities encourage their academic staff to use social media is the example of this which I know best but it’s nonetheless only one example. It means engagement immediately becomes a workload issue by ratcheting up the expectations on already over burdened people, leaving them with more to do in the same amount of time. This problem can be mitigated by ensuring that engagement activity is properly recognised and resourced, though to the best of my knowledge the only time digital engagement is workloaded (and rarely at that) is when it’s a matter of external comms on behalf of a department. Even if you individualise engagement in an enlightened way, it’s still a shift in the nature of academic labour with a whole range of issues generated by this.

There are approaches to digital engagement which aren’t individualised. For example LSE’s long term investment in blogging infrastructure which has produced 60 live blogs with over 100,000 articles over more than a decade. Likewise The Conversation which for all the criticism it has attracted from academics in recent years still in my view represents a noble attempt to help academic knowledge circulate more widely and effectively. Obviously these still involve individual academics undertaking engagement activity but it’s worth dwelling on the difference to simply tacitly or explicitly encouraging your staff to create Twitter accounts to demonstrate an engaged orientation.

Firstly, in these examples the individual academic works with a specialist who will co-create the output with them (usually finessing in the case of the blog editor, more radical co-production in the case of the journalists at the Conversation). Secondly, there is a promotional infrastructure which means the academic isn’t responsible for ensuring that the output finds its way to potential audiences. If you have a social media following then you might not notice the affordance this grants you any more but without a personal platform (or the time/energy/capital to generate one) it’s increasingly difficult to draw attention to anything you’ve written. Thirdly, the role of the aforementioned specialists shields the academic to at least some extent from the pathologies of the public sphere by moderating comments, anticipating negative reactions and offering support.

The cumulative effect of these factors is to support engagement by unburdening the academic of some of the demands which might otherwise be associated with engagement, as well supporting them through some of the after effects which might otherwise create difficulties. This is the dynamic which has been at the heart of my work in digital public engagement for over a decade i.e. how do we institutionalise this in ways which support scholars rather than individualise it ways which stress them out? Today’s webinar was the first time it had seriously occurred to me that these questions have significance across the full range of civic engagement activities, rather than the relatively narrow field of digital public engagement which has been my main focus heretofore.

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