Reflections on Twitter by a Public Scholar: An Interview with Dr. Akel Kahera

May 6, 2014

Dr. Akel I. Kahera

This week’s contributor to the Clemson Online Blog is Dr. Akel I. Kahera. Dr. Kahera currently serves as Professor of Architecture and Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Architecture, Art, and Humanities at Clemson University. He has authored over three dozen essays as well as three books: Deconstructing the American Mosque: Space, Gender, and Aesthetics, 2002; Design Criteria for Mosques and Islamic Centers, 2009; Reading the Islamic City: Discursive Practices and Legal Judgement, 2011.

Dr. Kahera is a frequent user of the social media tool Twitter. He was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding his strategies and perspective on professional and personal uses of this powerful tool. Follow Dr. Kahera: @DrAkelKahera.

When did you start using Twitter and why?

My daughter Amirah (17), a first-year student at Wellesley College, felt that I needed to have an account on Twitter for my academic work. Her suggestion just happened to coincide with the publication of my book Reading the Islamic City, published in Fall 2011. She set me up and got me started exchanging ideas with other academics in my area of research.

Do you use Twitter personally, professionally, or both?

I use Twitter both professionally and personally. Professionally, it’s a good venue to exchange ideas with others who work in my field of architecture and urbanism—specifically history, theory, and criticism. It further allows me to keep up to date with symposia, research, and publications, not withstanding the ongoing debates about architecture and urbanism and its role in the area of sustainability (an overrated term).

Personally, I often weigh in on current affairs and political, social, and economic discourse. I am, after all, a public scholar and do have an opinion to share with others. I believe that, through debate, we can arrive at a better understanding of the subject (in Foucauldian terms).

Do you use Twitter for professional development (i.e., follow individuals, organizations, and publications in your field)?

On Twitter, I follow scholars (many colleagues from Clemson) and many scholars from all around the world within my field and, of course, many others from whom I can benefit from their knowledge. After all, I am still a student of knowledge. I believe that, if we stop learning, we experience intellectual atrophy, and then we die. I also follow research organizations and a host of publications, so the end result is indeed professional development.

Do you use Twitter for other interests?

First, I have always subscribed to Mark Twain’s notion that “travel is the enemy of ignorance,” so by the time I hit age 40, I had traveled to 25 countries, spending extensive lengths of time working and living in Saudi Arabia and East Africa, where I worked as an architect and designer for almost two decades. I love the desert—it’s where I can think, meditate, and just relax. My interests are very diverse: history; theory; popular culture; philosophy, especially Foucault; current affairs in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East; travel; food; global politics; economic development of disenfranchised communities; poetry; jazz; and art.

Do you use Twitter for class as a backchannel, for announcements, or for feedback from students?

I use Twitter for my graduate seminar (a survey of Islamic art and architecture), but Google Scholar is a much better resource. More importantly, not too many students like Twitter; they prefer Facebook. I like it because of the 140-character restriction; people tend to ramble on Facebook pointlessly, with useless hyperbole.

How has your use of Twitter evolved?

I now have almost 500 followers, and I follow about 250 people. I don’t really care about numbers. Less is more! The folks I follow and the people who follow me are carefully selected. If I am going to read what they say, it had better be worth my time; otherwise, I will lose interest and hit the delete button.

About how much time do you spend on Twitter?

I am on Twitter early in the morning before I leave for work reading The New York Times—my local paper. (I am from Brooklyn.) I am on at night before bedtime, except on the weekends, when I am on throughout the day, while sipping a latte.

What Twitter strategy has worked best for you?

The #hashtag is great; it helps to see what’s trending now. The analytics are great for research. Above all, the ability to search on Twitter is awesome to find who’s who and what they have to say and to discover topics of interest and research information from PBS, NEH, NEA, PEW, Brookings, and other academic entities like Oxford University Press.

The College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities (CAAH) has a Twitter account for research to support my area of concern. I also use it to follow foundations, RFPs, and calls for grants that I can then share with faculty and graduate students in my college.

I have plans to pursue some research analytics in our Department of Communication Studies’ Social Media Listening Center located in Daniel Hall. The project is under development.

Given your positive remarks about the hashtag tool, have you used the list tool in Twitter? If so, how and why?

I have subscribed to a few lists on Twitter and recently established my own List under Non-Western Architecture. As noted in the MIT Sloan Management Review Why Twitter Lists Matter, lists are a great tool.

What Twitter strategy did not work?

Followers who don’t know the difference between Twitter and Facebook—they get deleted real fast—or people trying to sell you something. And, of course, there are those who use it to win friends and influence people. I have no time for that, either.

Some thoughts about Twitter to my academic colleagues:

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (McLuhan 7).

If Marshall McLuhan is correct, Twitter is  not only a medium; it is also a “writing system” that implicitly controls the message. In the “writing system,” we find  the rules of  “language” and perhaps, some would say, “a rhetorical game.”   I often wonder how Jacques Derrida would critique  Twitter’s “writing system.”  Would it usurp his work on “Grammatology”? Common sense tells us that the “writing system” is also made up of individual units commonly called  “social media.”

From this starting point, Twitter’s rules permit a large number of voices to be heard and recognized—with 140 characters at a time. Such rules deconstruct, extend, and control our thoughts about current affairs, history, science, art, architecture, philosophy, etc. Simply put, the rules affect how we communicate in phrases, poems, sentences, notes, images and so on. Perhaps Twitter’s writing system could be a way to teach students to think critically, to write well, to be coherent and persuasive.

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