Manuscript depicting an elephant

Elephants, self-promotion, and academic self-presentation

For today, I had originally planned to post some thoughts on Teaching English to Very Young learners, drawing on a small scale inquiry I ran online over the last 10 days. However, that post has been de-prioritised, and in its place I’d like to engage in some rather shameless self-promotion, which I will then use as a springboard in order to share some thoughts on academic self-presentation.

First things first, though: I am very happy to say that I am featured in WizIQ, where I answer questions about academic blogging and my research. Have a look: it’s not too bad, though I say so myself.

The Power of Social Academia

When I was asked if I would object to having my views posted in WizIQ, my initial reaction was one of moderate apprehension. Being credible is at the core of our professional identity as academics, and being credible really means appearing credible. And as Simon-Wren Luis reminds us, in the UK at least, we have to contend with the perception that “writing for non-academics is a bit vulgar”. Was there a risk of undermining my professional standing if I were to associate my name with a creative, exciting mainstream medium? The fact that the editor used one of my profile pictures where I was actually smiling (!) and added a thought-bubble on it didn’t really help…

All this brought to my mind a scene from the 1976 BBC adaptation of I, Claudius by Robert Graves. In Episode 7, Claudius, who is portrayed as a pedantic author of exceedingly boring historical treatises, is visiting his publisher’s scriptorium, to enquire about the progress of his latest book. The following dialogue ensues:

Claudius: I don’t like this decoration. It’s too ornate.
Atticus: This decoration is fashionable. And for a History of Carthage, what could be more apt than elephants?
Claudius: I didn’t ask for elephants!
Atticus: Yes, I know you didn’t ask for elephants, but knowing your good taste, I thought you’d agree…
Claudius: Well, I don’t! This is a serious work! Just because I mention elephants, why do we have to see them? I also mention Hannibal’s mistresses; I suppose you’ve drawn concubines all over it too!

Claudius eventually gets his own way: the scrolls are re-written without elephants, and his academic gravitas remains intact. The fictional Claudius was acting in line with an academic tradition of looking down on levity and lightheartedness, traces of which seem to survive to this date. In fact, there is research proving that articles with amusing titles receive fewer citations than serious ones, since “traditionally, scientific publication is considered a serious matter, and humor seems antithetical to it”.

There are good reasons to problematise such a mentality when it comes to scholarly communication, but this is not an area into which I want to venture in this post. What I would like to do, instead, is question whether it is desirable to maintain a single, coherent ‘voice’ in all the discourse domains in which we participate, or -conversely- whether the ability to flexibly adjust to a variety of media in order to communicate one’s ideas is a quality that academics should nurture. I don’t wish to propose answers to either of these questions, just to raise awareness of the questions and of their implications. Your thoughts, however, are very welcome…


Featured Image: By Matthew Paris († 1259), [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

11 thoughts on “Elephants, self-promotion, and academic self-presentation”

  1. A very interesting topic. To write about science in Europe it was once necessary to do so in a dead language, Latin. With the Enlightenment there was a move to ground science in the experience of the individual. Science became empirical and it was to be written about in the vernacular. But since then science has ossified, and its discourse has become as deathly as the deadest of languages insofar as it no longer has any connection with experience. We all agree that science has a privileged access to the truth, but that truth no longer has anything to say to our experience of the world in which we live.

    The ossification of science goes very, very deep, and it is unclear that having scientists write witty blog posts in their spare time really changes anything.

    1. Hi Torn,

      You’ll have to admit that Achilleas has a very interesting academic focus – I can imagine that it would interest you in particular:))

      I believe that personalisation helps knowledge to reach people beyond artificial intellectual divides & I think that this blog does so in very generous ways.

      May I add that I believe comics are very deep and intellectual – my next interview guest who is also a PhD graduate will surprise you..he wrote his whole PhD dissertation in comic format – and I’ve been reading about the intellectual significance of comics for quite some time!!

      You also have an excellent educational site Torn – if you ever want to be intellectually captured in comic form, let me know;)

  2. I suppose those involved in research would get it right. I am not so sure about ‘non-academics’ though. Associating your name with something ‘exciting and creative’ (the words that are surely out of ‘academia’ lexicon) is more than scandalous. The elephant-sized stereotype that you, being a scholar, should keep up portrays an academic as an unapproachable homo superius with a bad hair day working behind closed doors, sporting spectacles, experiencing problems expressing himself (rarely herself) in a common language and feeling uneasy in the real world to say nothing of online communities. I am afraid that your appearance on the platform far from being called a proper academic social network together with your wit has seriously affected both the image and gravitas of scholars as perceived by the general public. That being said, I take my hat off to you:)

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