On identity: some people are scientists – deal with it!

Prompted by a workshop on social media that I am helping to run tomorrow, in yesterday’s post, I wanted to think about the role of social media in academia. But I went off on a bit of a tangent, remembering my early experiences with the web in the mid-90s. In those days, there was some resistance and scepticism about a technology that we now take for granted and use every day. Will people feel the same way about social media soon? Are worries about social media more justified? If there is a place for social media in academia, what is it? Can they bring benefits comparable to those we gained from email and the web, and if so, what are they?

I promised myself I’d answer all these questions in my next post, but as I began to write I found I had too much to say about the benefits, so I have decided to break it into installments. The first installment deals with an important use of social media in academia that arises from the way the internet has changed things. In the pre-internet world, ordinary people got to know one another by face to face meetings, by talking, by writing letters. Now more often our first encounter with a new person is on the net, either viewing a professional web page or a social media profile or perhaps through a medium like twitter. It seems important to me that I exert some control over these first impressions.

An important facet of this blog and my twitter account @tom_hartley, is that they allow me to be who I am. I am able to express a wider range of opinions and interests than I can through my scientific output, and to a wider and more diverse readership. (Also, I don’t have to worry about what a peer reviewer might say, which is enormously liberating.) In my view, this is important for me to maintain and project a sense of identity that extends beyond my particular area of research and teaching, even beyond my job into (gasp!) everyday life. Social media help me to establish a permanent presence on the internet where I can be somewhat independent of my job, and yet still engage with my work and the things that interest me at work and outside it:

OK, so exposing myself as a rockstar manqué, and shamelessly plugging this on my blog is a personal choice, and other people might feel more comfortable keeping it strictly professional. Either way I think an independent presence is becoming increasingly important for younger researchers who are likely to be employed on a succession of short-term contracts. By carefully maintaining their own area of the web, and their own profile on social media, they can project a good impression without being excessively dependent on their current employers.

This upside to social media comes hand-in-hand with one of their prominent downsides: it’s equally possible to make a bad impression. Step away from the keyboard when tired, drunk or angry. Consider maintaining pseudonymous accounts for the stuff you don’t want your employer or prospective employer to see. Pay close attention to your Facebook privacy settings. Don’t get drawn into hyperbole and personal attacks on others, however provoked. There is always someone who is being gratuitously wrong on the internet, so you can’t win. Hanlon’s Razor has been recommended to me: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

As well as giving me more control over the way others see me, and I suppose there is a bit of vanity in this, I think it’s of more general importance that scientists see themselves and are seen as ordinary people with ordinary interests outside the lab. There should not be a disconnect between science and the rest of our culture, because science ought to influence and be influenced by the rest of society. I’ve always been interested in science and I like to see myself first and foremost as a scientist rather than for example, a psychologist or cognitive neuroscientist or a hippocampal or spatial cognition or memory researcher. The more specialist labels seem a bit more comfortable, perhaps because they come with the sense of security that in my little area I can make a reasonable fist of pretending that I know what I’m talking about. But knowing stuff isn’t what attracts me to science and I think the idea that science is just about existing knowledge is very misleading. For me it’s the stuff I don’t yet know that really excites me, and maybe I can convey that a little more clearly if I am prepared to step out of my comfort zone. So, although I felt a little uncomfortable identifying myself as a scientist at first, I started to feel that not identifying as a scientist was creating a barrier. When I took part in the excellent “I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here”. Finally I could say what I’d always felt. I’m a scientist. Some people are scientists – deal with it!

Science v Philosophy

Any friendly philosophers or scientists fancy getting together for a discussion on G+ Hangouts in the next few days?

UPDATE: The Hangout is planned for 21/2/2013 1730 GMT. Comment here or tweet @tom_hartley for an invitation. You will need to provide your preferred gmail address (but you should do this privately, e.g., by twitter DM or by adding me on G+).

Continue reading “Science v Philosophy”

Dr Who or Professor Who? On Academic Email Etiquette

This post was provoked by a discussion with a UK-based professor (let’s call her Rebecca Smith, not her real name) who mentioned on twitter that she had received an inquiry about a PhD application by email from someone addressing her as “Hey Rebecca!” Was this a faux-pas on the applicant’s part?

Continue reading “Dr Who or Professor Who? On Academic Email Etiquette”

What is the point of twitter?

This week we took the plunge and made our official @YorkPsychology twitter stream public by featuring it on the departmental home page. I can imagine some of my colleagues are wondering what the point of twitter is, or indeed whether it has one. If you are similarly puzzled, you might want to start by reading this gentle introduction by Prof Dorothy Bishop or @deevybee as she is known on twitter. Dorothy’s post explains how twitter works and has lots of great tips if you’re interested in giving it a go. However, I know that many people will think the whole thing sounds pointless. So what is the point? Continue reading “What is the point of twitter?”

Five Minutes of Fame.

It’s the end of a very busy and exciting week in which I helped organize a huge conference on memory at the University of York. The ICOM conference was, we think, the biggest ever specialist conference on the topic, and we had over 800 delegates from around the world, including many of the most famous names in memory research. It was an exhilerating  experience, the culmination of months of planning and very rewarding indeed, although very hard work.

One of the personal highlights was being asked to appear on Newsnight, one of Britain’s top current affairs programmes which regularly attracts an audience of around 600,000 people despite airing at 10.30pm – well past my normal bedtime!

The nice thing about this is that it gave me the chance to talk about some of the fascinating research we’d been hearing about this week. However, there were so many exciting new ideas discussed at ICOM that I can’t say I felt very confident that I would be able to make much sense of it. Luckily I wasn’t alone and on the way to London I got to know Donna Rose Addis who was on the show with me.

Donna Rose is well known for her research on the way that memory provides us with a sense of self – the sense that you are the same person today as yesterday and that even though the world around you changes something inside stays the same; the ‘you’ inside you. She also works on links between remembering the past and imagining the future. It turns out that these are not as different as you might think and rely on similar systems in the brain. So imagination involves a lot of memory and vice versa. These rather fascinating ideas are typical of the sort of thing we heard about during ICOM – in so many ways memory is not the way you think! Donna is a proper memory expert and recently won a major prize in her native New Zealand. She’s spent the year travelling around the world visiting the top labs around the world. Thankfully she is also a really nice person, and we had a good chance to chat about what we might talk about, which made me feel a bit more confident.

Quite apart from the scientific context I was rather starstruck, and I am not sure how successful I was at feigning nonchalance. The most thrilling thing was to be inside TV Centre – after growing up watching so many programmes that were made there, being there feels like meeting an old and revered film star. It was really such an overwhelming experience that I haven’t had time to fully digest it and it might be worth another post or an update later.

I was only on the screen for a few minutes, and it flew by very quickly, so it was difficult to say anything at all subtle or complicated. To be honest I didn’t know what was going to come out of my mouth until I heard it. Fortunately when I watched it back afterwards it seemed to make sense and I managed to make some worthwhile points. I felt as if I’d been dropped straight in at the deep end and had somehow managed to keep my head above the surface and found myself miraculously treading water. I wouldn’t be afraid to do it again, and if Andy Warhol was right, I still have about 10 minutes of fame left.