Why Your Department Needs Social Media (CHE)

August 31, 2015

By Rachel Herrmann

When I started running my department’s Facebook account I didn’t have a clear reason for doing so; just a vague sense that in the 21st century every department needed one. Having added a Twitter account last summer, and a podcast series most recently, I’ve had some time to think about the rationale behind departmental social media.

My conclusion: Social media is crucial not only because it provides a fast way to share information, but also because it makes faculty workloads more transparent.

The most significant reason social media is important is because it means I can quickly share faculty and student achievements. Especially during a time like this summer, when my university was revamping its website,having access to an alternative outlet was crucial for publicizing information about graduation and first-year orientation — as well as any colleagues’ publications, workshops, or exhibits.

In general, however, Facebook and Twitter remain the fastest options even when everything is running as it’s meant to. At my university if you want to update your faculty web profile, you must fill out a form that gets approved by a colleague in charge of marketing, and then passed on for additional administrative approval. Sometimes the process is quick, but sometimes it can take a week to get something changed. You don’t need to fill out a form before sharing information on Facebook or Twitter, unless you’re posting an interview with a student.

I use Facebook and Twitter in different ways, but for both accounts I’ve tried to create digital spaces where students, staff, alumni, and armchair historians can come together to enjoy history. And on both, I post information about upcoming events, and share photos from things as diverse as lectures to our faculty-student cricket match. Facebook and Twitter both have analytic pages that have been useful in letting me know which types of posts are most appealing to readers.

I use Twitter to interact with current and former students when they tweet about their accomplishments, to share stories about our faculty, and to retweet general-interest pieces about history. It’s been useful for live-tweeting major lectures that not everyone has been able to attend, as well as our recruitment-day information sessions. Here in England students apply to a specific major before entering university, and most departments have their own admissions officer, so we hold various recruitment days throughout the year. Recruitment-day tweets can be archived via Storify, and then republicized to potential students.

On Facebook I post relevant photos, interviews with faculty and students (using Facebook’s notes feature), detailed event announcements, and news about publications and grants. With the help of several colleagues, I was also able to organize a live chat for third-year students (the equivalent of seniors in American higher education) who were writing their final theses. We had several alumni on hand to answer questions that colleagues and I posed about the thesis writing and research process. Although the participation of our current students was not as high as I would have liked, the post was viewed hundreds of times, and I’ll be able to repost the link to that chat in the fall when it comes time for new third-years to think about their writing.

What’s also crucial about Facebook and Twitter is that they make clear the fact that faculty workloads stretch beyond teaching. Announcements of the talks we give, the articles we write, the exhibits we organize, the fellowships we win, and our media appearances emphasize that some of us work on contracts in which about half of our time is supposed to be devoted to research.

This summer I’ve been tweeting about colleagues who are attending conferences, speaking on the radio, or publishing opinion pieces in mainstream publications. In an age when student fees are rising, it’s especially important to underscore the point that teaching is part of being a historian, but not the full story. Students (and the general public) should know that there are a host of other expectations placed on faculty members that sometimes have little to do with the classroom.

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About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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