Why I Tweeted (Parts of) My #dayofhighered

April 2, Monday of this week, was the first online #dayofhighered. Inspired by the #dayofdh that those in the digital humanities have conducted since 2009, Inside Higher Ed blogger Lee Bessette proposed the #dayofhighered as a way of describing to the public what, exactly, academics do all day. Lots of people participated by tweeting their movements as they went about their daily activities; others blogged their schedules. Bessette has a summary of the day, as well as links to a full wrap-up of tweets and blog posts, here.

Though I had seen Bessette’s blog post and tweets proposing the #dayofhighered, I didn’t really plan to participate (or decide that I wouldn’t participate); mass Twitter exercises like this usually aren’t my thing. But early Monday morning, I settled into a seat on the train from Princeton to New York, pulled out the latest issue of the Journal of Asian Studies, and started to read an article. And right then, I realized that this was exactly the kind of activity that Bessette suggested we tweet about: in the 50 minutes I’d spend on the train, I wasn’t sleeping, staring out the window, or digging into a murder mystery—I was catching up on the newest research and publications in Asian studies. I pulled out my phone and tweeted.

I only contributed three more tweets to the hashtag over the course of the day, primarily because I spent most of the workday meeting with and talking to colleagues, not sitting in front of my computer, so there wasn’t much time for Twitter. Also, I do generally avoid chronicling my entire life on the Internet, as I don’t think even my closest friends care to hear about every move I make. I viewed my four tweets more as a contribution, a suggestion of the types of tasks that occupy my time on a typical in-the-office workday. (I work at home three days a week, and that time looks very different from when I’m in New York—at home, my focus is on my dissertation and other writing/editing projects.)

On Bessette’s original blog post and in a few tweets I saw over the course of the day, some commented that the #dayofhighered was just about whining—a chance to collectively complain about how overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated academics are. And, I will admit, quite a number of us (myself included) tweeted about eating lunch at our desks and spending more time on administrative minutiae than interacting with students or working on research.

But I didn’t see the message in such tweets as “You don’t know how hard I work.” Rather, I interpreted them as saying “You don’t know what I do.” I think there’s a huge misunderstanding regarding how academics spend their time, and an even greater one concerning the lives of graduate students. I’ve frequently had conversations with undergrads who want to apply to graduate school and simply imagine that it’s like another few years of college: classes, reading assignments, exams and/or papers. They don’t realize the extent to which they would be responsible for constructing their own research projects, or that in addition to the course readings, they’d need to familiarize themselves with the publications of an entire field. Most of the “civilians” (non-academics) I meet express surprise that I’ve not only been to China, I even speak Chinese—because they don’t know that it’s virtually impossible now to get admitted to a PhD program in Chinese history without in-country experience and language skills. And when I tell people that I’m in my fourth year of a doctoral program, I frequently hear from them that I must be “almost done” … when in fact, most Chinese historians take six or seven (or more) years to finish.

So I didn’t approach the #dayofhighered as a way to vent about how much work I have and how little sleep I get. I wanted to participate, even in a limited fashion, as a way to increase public understanding of the things that I do as a PhD candidate, writer, and editor.

As I was returning home that evening, I was waiting at Princeton Junction for the “Dinky” train that heads into Princeton town when a college-age guy lugging a suitcase approached me and asked when the Dinky would be arriving. We talked for a few minutes and it turned out that he was coming to the university for a grad school interview, hoping to be admitted into a science program. When I said that I was in grad school, studying history, he was quiet for a moment, then said, “I don’t even know what a historian does.” So I told him a little bit about my work. Tag that conversation #dayofhighered.

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