Thursday, March 24, 2016

Twitter, University Politics, and Critical Engagement

"Hey Menzies don't you have some boring lectures about fishing villages to get back too?" 
 (A Twitter Admirer)

It's not the first time my twitter path crossed threads with student advocates who take umbrage with my commentary.  On the eve of the Paris Terror Attacks last fall UBC's  AMS was engaged in a massive tweet out of Drake Tribute videos. Long before any of us knew what was taking place in Paris my stray comment on the sorry state of student politics had started a mini twitter storm that ended up with a satirical take down of me in the venerable Ubyssey.  World events overtook the AMS video, but not before my twitter feed had been spammed by hundreds of tweets explaining how wrong I was, or a massive nasty facebook dissection of my academic work (mostly ill-informed and ad hominem), or someone in a reditt page (ironically more supportive of my views) found the space to call me a d**k-h**d.

More recently my tweets supporting Nassif Goussoub's and Professor Jennifer Berhdal's perspectives on the sorry state of UBC governance generated some pushback from the author of the "boring lectures" tweet and from several other student luminaries.   

In the old days political critics and opponents may have stood facing each other at a debate, over a picket line, or may have exchanged barbs in the letters page of a local newspaper. Twitter is both a more immediate and intensely public forum of short (easily misunderstood) comment, dialogue, and snark.  The delight of twitter as a forum is it's immediacy.  But that's also it's downside.  In the moment of squinting at small type on a phone, trying clever abbreviations to fit more into the 144 char limit, or just getting in a timely response, a lot of sideways slippage in comprehension can occur. 

We shouldn't overlook the ephemeral aspect of twitter (even as it lasts apparently for ever in a databank somewhere).  The form is ephemeral, the comment's effects ideally fleeting, and the response proportionally ephemeral. This is part of the charm of twitter as a social space. 

The various twitter threads that have led me to this reflection all involve aspects of university politics. My interventions arise from my own history and experience of activism, though history is not well transmitted in the twittersphere. 

A while ago I reflected upon the possibilities for activism and the conditions of work within the contemporary university of excellence. I drew upon my experience as a student, and then as a faculty member, in North American universities of excellence (a la Bill Reading: The University in Ruins). Unlike the earlier university of 'culture' in which what one might say had a potential impact, the measure of success in the contemporary university of 'excellence' is more focused upon how much one might say (in print, in the 'right' journal). My paper, "Reflections on Work and Activism," presents three linked, but autonomous stories that offer counsel to an interested audience on the ways in which engaged progressive political action might intersect with the realities of everyday work and life in the contemporary university of excellence.  It is from (and against) these personal experiences of activism that I measure and consider the actions of other actors in our common political world.

I have always taken a dim view of the career resume padding set of politicos who find power in currying favour with the even more powerful.  One of my own early student political campaigns featured the campaign slogan, "Not another smiling bureaucrat" in the place of my own 'smiling' face. I didn't win, but that wasn't surprising given my campaign was a critique of careerists, fun-advocates, and service oriented peers who saw student government merely as a place to pad resumes, meet business/government/university leaders and generally have a great time doing it. Of the many things that may have changed about me over the past 35 plus years, that sense of intense disdain for the careerist is not one of them. 

So when it comes to twitter I will occasional express a critical opinion of political leaders and actors of all stripes and stations. So don't feel singled out. I am very equitable in who I critique. 

I also complement and endorse activists, like participants of Idle No More and the Occupy Movement, or the activists of the Quebec Student's Movement.  These young people are visionaries who are willing to take real risks to make a difference in our world; the kind of difference that does more than pave the way for personal advancement. 

At UBC we have also had generations of hard working, committed activists who have strived to make real differences.  Since I have been on faculty at UBC we have seen students organize the No to APEC protests (1997), an occupation of the president's office (2002), the 2003 TA Strike, support actions for public school teachers (2002, 2005, 2012), and a host of related political engagements focussed on transforming our world into a more socially just place.

Ultimately, what matters more than any 144 char tweet are the actions of many acting in solidarity to create a better world for all.

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