I’ve been running the Twitter feed for the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic since March, and now that the conference is about to kick off—and is including a Saturday session on SHEAR and Social Media, which I am sadly unable to attend—I thought I’d write up some brief thoughts about managing an institution’s Twitter feed.
In my mind, the point of getting SHEAR on Twitter was to establish a preliminary social media presence, and to provide a way of disseminating information about the organization, the conference, and the interests of its members as those interests related to the early American Republic.
The first thing to consider was who to follow. In the interest of reaching a wide audience, I followed many of the historians and lit scholars that I follow from my personal Twitter feed, @Raherrmann. I also followed almost everyone who started following @SHEARites, with a few notable exceptions. @SHEARites does not follow you if 1) You have a private account, and 2) Your tweets, at a glance, have nothing to do with the early American Republic. I rationalized the first omission by arguing that the point of having an account was to create an online community of scholars. Although they may not realize it, people whose feeds are private, or “locked,” have made it so that no one can retweet their tweets. As far as I was concerned, that made it impossible for @SHEARites to forward along anything interesting that they tweeted about. The second exclusion is related to the first; if you’re not tweeting about the early American Republic, you’re not producing reproducible content for SHEAR and its followers. I’m thrilled that you’re following the account, but I don’t feel obligated to follow you.
I really hope that people at the social media session come prepared to talk about ideas for expanding on the things that I’ve done with Twitter, and what Mark Cheathen (@markcheathem) has done with the SHEAR Facebook page, as well as what the working group (which also includes Caleb McDaniel [@wcaleb] and Beth Salerno) proposed to SHEAR in the fall of 2011. In brief, here’s how I think @SHEARites has been and will be useful:
1. It’s fostered a pre-conference discussion so that people are informed and excited about upcoming events. I created a conference hashtag (#SHEAR12) to announce when the conference program went live, when pre-registration was closing, and when attendee @Sarahschuetze located a good last-minute conference rate.
2. During the conference, people can follow along with what’s going on, even if they’re stuck at home—or better yet, attending another panel. You can search Twitter for the hashtag in order to see what people are saying about the conference. As of today I’ve also created an archive of conference-related tweets. Attendees will have to worry less about overlapping panels, and although some people have argued that having a conference hashtag on Twitter decreases attendance, non-attendees from last year’s SHEAR conference said they were planning on coming to the Baltimore meeting after reading the tweets.
3. Other users have used the hashtag to ask who’s going to the conference, make airport-to-hotel transportation plans, and to set up meetings. Need a cab buddy from the airport? Check Twitter to see who’s recently landed. Also: network! So far, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and Pickering & Chatto have announced which editors will be available, and which books will be on sale at discounted rates. If that’s too much seriousness for you, @Mann_Horace has announced the location of the annual meeting of the SHEAR Anti-Temperance Society.
So these are just a few ruminations on how I think Twitter has been helpful—I hope others will contribute to the discussion in the comments, but especially at the special Saturday session. I’d say I’m sorry that I can’t attend, but I don’t really have to be sorry; I’m on Twitter, after all.
A couple weeks ago I turned in the first full draft of my dissertation, and promptly fell off the map. I didn’t disappear the way that the Rachel Herrmann of, say, 2007 might have vanished. I was not completely sleep-deprived, crazed, or suffering from the over-consumption of 1:30 a.m. grilled cheeses eaten each night after the library closed. No, the completion of the draft was sort of anticlimactic in the sense that I knew it wasn’t as polished or cogent as I wanted it to be; that I’d pick it up again in the near future; and that I’d done a good enough job for the present. The vacation I took was one away from the physical draft, from the dissertation chapters on my computer, and from the detritus of my office and the insides of my brain.
Still, I wouldn’t be a grad student if I wasn’t finding some way to do work. I drove to DC to pick up Marc, where we spent time researching at the Library of Congress. Obviously, delicious, delicious DC food made side appearances in the form of falafel, mussels, mini-raviolis baked with cheese, Thai, and Ethiopian, along with a whole lot of rhubarb snacking cake. Next we went to Richmond, where he went to the Policy History Conference, while I pretended to go to the Policy History Conference, but actually ended up fleeing to the Virginia Historical Society seeking the solace of eighteenth-century history. I managed to make it back to a pho place I liked, and we tried some of the newer, hipper Richmond restaurants. Finally, we made it out to the beach, where I commenced panicking about the job market between rainy jogs on the sand. Cover letters were drafted. Answers to the “So What?” question were condensed into pithy paragraphs of awesomeness. Passive voice was employed to emphasize ambivalence about the coming year of chaos.
So. The coming year. I suppose that now is as good a time as any to share the fact that I will be in New Haven come September, as a Smith Richardson fellow at Yale’s International Security Studies. Apparently I have convinced those fine policy-minded folks that eighteenth-century food diplomacy has enough to say to their ideas about diplomacy. I think it will be challenging and a bit scary, and really good, in a way, to have to explain my work to people who don’t automatically assume that early American studies is important (see “Answers to the ‘So What?’ question,” above).
Between now and September I’m finishing up in Philly, going to NYC for the ASFS conference, and going to SHAFR in Hartford. And then, because I missed cross-country driving (?!), I am headed to Austin for the summer before I drive back to the East Coast for the year. As a side note, if anyone knows of any New Haven sublets, do be kind and get in touch. It’d give me one less thing to panic about. And we all know that I could handle striking a few items off of the list.
Every time that I write a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I read the comments pretty closely. Perhaps because most of my previous columns have been on light, funny stuff, the comments have never climbed higher than the low teens, and most of them have been neutral to positive. Writing about writing, it turns out, seems to provoke a lot more people.
Now, I know that the commenters on the Chronicle site can be a cantankerous bunch, and for the most part I wasn’t bothered by the snark. What shocked me, though, was how many people thought that they knew my writing style, simply because I’d written about some of the writer’s block that comes with writing a dissertation. One comment in particular proclaimed that fiction writers “divide themselves into two camps—‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers.’ Plotters come up with the plot first, equivalent to writing from an outline; pantsers ‘fly by the seat of their pants.’” “Rachel Herrmann is obviously a ‘pantser,’” this commenter concluded (as an aside, she gets a million and a half points for spelling my name right).
Although I do sometimes feel as if I’m wandering through a dense fog while writing my chapters, I write from an outline nearly all of the time. Each chapter gets its own set of 400-500 index cards, which then get organized into a chronological, and then a chronological-thematic outline of 3-6 pages. It was interesting to see how many people weighed in on whether or not they thought I wrote from an outline, and then to read about what people do for their own work.
And that got me thinking about how historians write dissertations. We probably are divided into two camps, though I’d never call us plotters and pantsers. There are those of us who feel that they must know all of the secondary literature before they begin researching. They wade into the archives with an idea of an argument in mind, and stand ankle-deep in sources, skimming the ones they need from the top. Then, there are those of us who dive head first into the primary sources, open our arms wide, and sort through it all once we resurface. Oh dear. It seems I have inadvertently come up with a swimming metaphor. Let’s run with it for a moment.
I am a diver, and I think this has to do with the fact that I study food and the Revolution at a time when most historians are moving back toward the Seven Years’ War or ahead to the War of 1812, and most food studies people are interested in present-day issues of food security and regulation. Which is to say that there were very few books on Native American and African foodways during and after the American Revolution at the time I was reading for comps. To clarify: there were plenty of books, but food studies was at a point where many of these books were descriptive rather than argument-driven. I could have read as many monographs as I wanted on tomatoes or beans or fish or salt, and still been ill-prepared to tackle the archives with an argument in mind. I ran into the opposite problem with history books from my time period: far too many with no one book focusing on food in a way that was going to help me form an archival plan of attack.
So I dove in. And that part of the research process was indeed messy and disorganized. Maybe if I hadn’t been lucky enough to get the McNeil Center fellowship this year, I would have been more familiar with the secondary literature before I started writing. Although I will have my first full draft written by May, I’m still working out my argument for each of my chapters, and that feels worrisome. On the other hand, I think I've already shown that food is important and has been neglected. I know that in my revisions I need to pay more mind to why it's more important than X, Y, and Z, and to think about how it speaks to all the historiography I am still trying to juggle.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m looking forward to taking a breath or two in May, but am also excited about the chance to take another gulp of air, put my head down, and keep on swimming.