postmedieval Reactions: Brantley Bryant’s Seven Theses

As promised, I’m working through the fascinating postmedieval forum about the public Middle Ages, starting with Brantley Bryant’s Seven Theses for “A Social Media Strategy.”

Bryant is a successful user of social media through, as he puts it, “playful experimentation with medieval personae on social media.” In this piece, he offers seven different strategies or principles related to medieval use of social media. It’s a warm, geeky, funny, smart piece of writing, and I can’t comment on everything. Instead, I’ll focus on two points: [My emphasis]

IV. SOCIAL MEDIEVALISTS DWELL AT THE SLINGSHOT POINT: Sci-fi ships gain speed by shooting themselves along the curve of a big planet’s gravity. Social medievalists too can slingshot off news events and pop-cultural planets to enhance their visibility and reach. There are obvious slingshot events (Richard III, carpark), as well as not-so-obvious ones. To take best advantage, social medievalists will need to move at the rapid pace of the news cycle, and scholarly organizations will need to plan for this kind of speed alongside the slower timeline of journals and conferences. Importantly, this point applies only to news items that have relatively neutral political valence. The issue of the ethics, methods, and time scale of providing a medievalist perspective on tragedies and conflicts is a much more complicated one. As an academic enterprise, social medievalist outreach must always keep ethical concerns central as we strive for visibility and reach.7

On the morning that Pope Benedict retired, I started a Facebook thread griping about all the things people were getting wrong about the papacy and its history of retiring popes. Urged by my friends, I sent a pitch – before breakfast was over – to a CNN editor for whom I had written once before (I had published a grand total of 3 pieces on 7 years at that point), and had a piece to her by about 2:00 in the afternoon, which now seems painfully slow. The next day, my CNN piece ran, an Atlantic editor emailed me asking questions about the papacy and race (early North African popes), and I responded with an answer and a new pitch. When Francis was announced, I had filed a new piece on “the importance of being Francis” within two hours of hearing his name selection.

Speed matters, and that can be the hardest thing for academics to learn. Speed leads to mistakes (some of which can be corrected). Speed-writing is not something we are trained to cherish.

But in graduate school, my experience was PACKED with speed writing, trying to meet the demands of my professors. We learn how to do it, and many of us continue to apply those skills to conference papers, classroom lectures, blogs, and other kinds of writing.

That said, not all takes have to be instant-hot-takes. When a news event happens, there’s a window in which every editor is looking for experts right away, and a first cycle of news will emerge from that. I almost never catch that cycle, unless it’s to give a comment, unless it’s a predictable event (papal election, anniversary or holiday, etc.). But there’s a second cycle, in which editors want essays that add to or (better yet) disagree with the common approach in the first cycle. Academics, with their expertise, can do very well by working in this second cycle of newsworthiness. And if it’s a big enough event, there could be third or even fourth cycles of takes, each one valuing a new thought, an expert addendum, a connection between the event and other things, etc.

So don’t feel you have to get your essay written within a few hours of the slingshot event. You have a day. Or two. Or maybe even four. That’s probably it, though.

Here’s the good/bad news: Things repeat. While we might not find another Richard III in a carpark to write about, if you’re more interested in trends like the mis-application of medieval to terrorist groups, or bad history being used by politicians, or medieval ideas on public safety laws, or something slightly more abstract – don’t stress missing your media hook. There will be another hook.

I. THE SOCIAL MEDIEVAL IS A CLASSROOM: When it comes to public social media, a pedagogical impulse is the best guiding principle for our choices about method and message. Social medievalists can apply Paulo Freire’s “problem posing” education on the widest level possible.5 Think about our readers as an audience of potential learners. Marketing language serves us poorly if unadapted to our goals. “Promotion” (of self, institution, or product) goes with the grain of social media, but “pedagogy” serves us best.

This is true, social media can be a wonderful educative space, but don’t overdo it. When a person on the internet starts demanding hours of lecture, of answering spurious accusations, or starts trolling you, hit mute. I’ve noticed that academics, trained as we are to engage our students and our peers, feel like they have failed when they just turn off annoying/abusive people on line.

Block/mute. Do it early. Do it often. These people are not your students and you owe them nothing.

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