#SocialScholars: Professors show power of public engagement


When Liz Kolb created her first Twitter account in 2006, she admits she didn’t know what to do with the platform and left it essentially untouched for a year.

After writing a book about K-12 teachers using cell phones in the classroom, the clinical associate professor of education discovered something surprising: She started receiving tweets from teachers across the globe, recounting their stories of how they used lessons from her book with their students.

Kolb started tweeting back at her new audience, launching conversations that became the foundation of her second book.

“That was kind of my epiphany, or my ‘light bulb’ moment — that this is a tool that can be very powerful,” said Kolb, who now has 5,413 followers on Twitter. “I saw the positive power of it, that I can connect with all these professionals across the globe in one degree of separation rather than six degrees.”

School of Education professor Liz Kolb shows graduate student Conall Walsh how she uses Twitter to network with other teachers. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Social media use is just one example of how faculty members engage with the public to influence federal, state and local policy, and how they share their knowledge about important issues with those outside the academic world. This aligns with a faculty public engagement initiative that President Mark Schlissel unveiled last year.

Whether it’s writing op-eds, serving on advisory boards or spearheading community partnerships, U-M faculty members employ a diverse set of channels to use their knowledge for the greater good.

For some faculty, using social media is another valuable form of public engagement that has allowed them to influence journalists and policymakers, conduct research, connect with others and gain professional opportunities.

Nikki Sunstrum, director of social media, said she’s seen an increased interest in social media from faculty. She said faculty members use the medium for a variety of purposes, from conducting research to building their personal brand and connecting with colleagues.

“Social media is a low-barrier opportunity for anyone to enter a public space, begin a dialogue, and establish themselves as a thought leader on any topic they’re passionate about,” Sunstrum said.

Becoming social

Around 141,000 people follow Justin Wolfers on Twitter, including official profiles for The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Brookings Institution.

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Wolfers, professor of economics in LSA, and public policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, tends to center his tweets on these respective topics, often retweeting news articles or providing commentary.

Despite his social media success, Wolfers originally thought the idea of Twitter sounded like “nonsense” and wouldn’t work.

Back in 2011, Wolfers flipped a coin every day to test how Twitter affected his productivity, influence and learning. If it landed on heads, he would open Twitter to consume the Twitter stream and tweet if he felt the need.

He soon realized that every day he hoped it would come up heads.

“Twitter is a particularly important medium for journalists, and so what was important to me was, even among my first couple hundred followers, a large number of them were journalists,” Wolfers said. “I could talk to 100 journalists at once through Twitter. So it would be not unusual that a week later, I’d learn what I’d written had been featured in The New York Times or The Washington Post.”

Wolfers said his social media presence also allows him to directly reach and provide insight and analysis to policymakers.

“Sometimes the most productive thing I will do in a single day might be a tweet,” he said. “That tweet might cause every journalist to write a deep dive on a particular topic or it might cause a policymaker to rethink an issue. And that’s a tremendous privilege.”

Will Potter, Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism, began using Facebook during the mid-2000s as a freelance journalist. Potter, also a lecturer I in communication studies in LSA, said his readers on social media would take the lead in sharing and publicizing his work.

Over time, Potter’s social media audience has grown to include 13,700 Twitter followers, 35,000 followers on the Facebook page for his news website and book, “Green Is the New Red,” and nearly 6,000 followers on his more recently created professional Facebook page.

Potter said the biggest return he’s seen is connecting with a diverse assortment of high-profile players like journalists, advocacy groups and celebrities.

Because accounts such as TED Talks, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and VICE News follow Potter on social media, and influential journalists like Glenn Greenwald support his work, he said it has amplified his position as an expert.

Social media engagement with bands like Rise Against and Hollywood stars like Matthew Modine have helped inform entirely new audiences about his work as well, he added.

Potter said discussions in academia about how professors can or should use social media are similar to those that took place within journalism several years ago, when career journalists were hesitant to publicize themselves as brands or as individuals.

Nowadays, some of the most prominent voices on social media are journalists.

“I don’t think every faculty member, every professor needs to be on social media, but depending on the work you’re doing it can be incredibly powerful,” Potter said. “I would encourage faculty to view social media as a strategy or a tactic to facilitate a bigger goal.

“It doesn’t matter in and of itself how many followers you have on Twitter but if your objective is to reach outside the walls of the university and to be engaged in public discussion, to appear on television programs talking about your work, a social media presence is absolutely essential.”

New ways of learning

On Twitter, Kolb, the education professor, focuses on pushing high-quality research out to her followers — many of whom are K-12 educators who might not otherwise have access to this information.

“I try to model that for my students — that we want to create our own positive internet footprint but I also want to create a positive footprint for others and bring attention to people doing great work and making sure that that’s really getting out there,” she said.

Her positive digital footprint has led to to keynote speaker invitations and work on committees for the U.S. Department of Education. She’s participated in and hosted several Twitter chats with K-12 teachers — online discussions that center on a particular hashtag or topic — some of which started at the invitation of the U.S. Department of Education.

Along with providing a way for Kolb to keep tabs on the K-12 field, the chats also help her understand how she can assist teachers.

To prepare her students to use social media as a teaching tool in future classrooms, Kolb has guest authors engage in Twitter discussions with students about their readings. Kolb also runs a virtual conference on LinkedIn to provide professional development to educators.

Medical School professor Joyce Lee uses several social media platforms in her career, including Twitter, where she has 11,200 followers, Instagram and a blog.

Using social media allows Lee to step outside the confines of her medical career and discuss and explore her passion for health care design — how health care practitioners use the process of human-centered design to develop better clinical programs and improve interventions.

“What Twitter helps me do is reach out and follow a larger network of individuals in the design, entrepreneurship and innovation communities. This has led to a lot of serendipitous connections, opportunities for in-person meetings, invited talks and additional scholarly writing opportunities,” said Lee, the Robert P. Kelch M.D. Research Professor of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases, professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases, Medical School; and of nutritional sciences, School of Public Health.

Lee said social media also provides a platform for her to explore ideas that may not yet be ready for academic publication. Although she maintains the peer-reviewed enterprise is necessary to continue the process of science and research, she finds a “lot of rigidity” in the academic world about what represents scholarship.

Although social media usage might not yet be as pervasive as academic journal publications among faculty, Wolfers said it’s a “very natural idea” for public intellectuals to speak in the public square to the general populace.

“What we’re doing is interesting; don’t lose sight of that excitement.”


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