An Environmental Historian and Twitter

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I’ve been active on twitter since April 2011. While somewhat skeptical when I joined, I’ve come to see twitter as a useful professional resource. In the past, Adam Crymble and Jim Clifford have written helpful NiCHE posts explaining the benefits of twitter and providing some basic instruction on getting started. This post is intended to supplement their contributions by discussing my personal experience with twitter. The aim is to use myself as an example in order to help interested but unconvinced environmental historians to imagine what they might gain through joining twitter.

I was motived to join twitter by the potential of following the tweets of conference-goers at events I was unable to attend. Since last April, I have followed multiple conferences through twitter. While the experience is not comparable to attending in person, it does allow for a sense of some of the issues discussed, at least as perceived by those participants actively tweeting. The experience would be improved were there a higher number of twitter users at any given event. (I do wonder, however, if this improvement would come at the expense of the experience of those conference-goers actually in attendance. What happens to the in-room dialogue if many people are focused on reporting via twitter?)

With the possible exception of friendly tweets to colleagues who are also friends, my twitter presence is entirely professional. My bio, the short blurb displayed beneath a twitter user name, reads: “Environmental historian and historical geographer focusing on Canada, with a special interest in the Canadian prairies,” and I have made the decision to post or distribute only material consistent with this description. Other historians, I should note, take a different approach to the matter, either in their bio or their postings or both, and their contributions to twitter are more eclectic (and probably far more interesting for that).

The main way I use twitter is as a compass pointing me toward good reads in the field of environmental or Canadian history. Many of the people I follow post links to popular or scholarly articles (whether authored by themselves or other authorities) on topics of mutual interest. Through twitter, I can quickly scan some of what my colleagues are reading, and make decisions about what pieces I want to take the time to read. When, in the course of my daily work, I find material that I think might interest others, I do my part by contributing a recommendation through a tweet.

Another way I have used twitter is to ask questions, many of which are related to whatever scholarly work I am doing at the moment. For instance, a few months ago, in the midst of some reading about agricultural science, I posted the following: “Is anybody working on an environmental history of nitrogen?” I received a number of replies, some saying such a study would be very interesting and some pointing me in the direction of relevant material. Obviously, such replies are not a definitive answer to my question, but they did form part of my information-gathering on the topic.

Twitter has figured in professional opportunities that have come my way. For example, a friend (who is also a professional colleague) drew the attention of a newspaper reporter to my work on the history of flooding in southern Manitoba. The friend, the reporter, and I were all following each other on twitter, so the connection was easily made. The result was a fairly extensive interview, published just a few weeks ago in the Winnipeg Free Press. Such a connection could have been made via email or through other means, of course, but the fact remains that it wasn’t. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure the opportunity would have presented itself without my presence on twitter.

Twitter is also useful as a means of providing frequently updated content to a infrequently updated webpage. I maintain a professional web presence on wordpress, but changes in the form of blog posts or new publications do not happen with any great regularity. Through my twitter feed, displayed on my webpage through the use of what wordpress calls a widget, I am able to display to any visitor that I am still active in a scholarly manner.

Following other scholars, I am considering using twitter as an instructional tool in a course I will be teaching in May and June. My hope is that twitter might provide another means through which students could engage with each other and participate in class (though not necessarily by tweeting during class). By providing a course hashtag, an identifying phrase through which it is possible to search for all tweets on a particular topic, it should be possible for me to track students’ comments and to include these in my assessment of course participation. Given my interest in diversifying the ways students can take part in my classes, I’m looking forward to seeing how this works.

So what, in my 10 months on twitter, have I gained? A new way to connect with colleagues, to find good stuff to read, and to access professional opportunities. And perhaps by the summer I’ll add to this list a new way to engage with students. Has twitter been worth it for this environmental historian? Unequivocably: yes.

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