Blog: Academic Grandparent on Twitter

by | Oct 9, 2017 | Academic Grandparent, DNA, Uncategorised | 0 comments

Last week I found an interesting site where Mathematicians were listed according to their doctoral supervisor. The Mathematics Genealogy project was designed to record information about the way that knowledge is transmitted and provokes an interesting conversation about questions of intellectual inheritance. I liked this idea a lot and decided to tweet about it, adding the question ‘Who is your academic grandparent?’ This is something of a intellectual parlour-game, essentially a way of asking someone who supervised their own doctoral supervisor.

I went to bed and turned my phone off – and when I woke up found that the question had gone around the world and provoked a lot of debate, response, and conversation from musicians, scientists, an MP, and many humanities scholars.

The initial conversation was responding to my question on my timeline, but there were numerous spin-off chats amongst other networks and linked sets of followers as people retweeted and responded. In the end I had some 250 responses and related conversations with scholars from all types of discipline, from around the world. Some pretty famous names appeared in the answers (Hegel! Wittgenstein! Stuart Hall! CS Lewis! Michel Foucault! Hélène Cixous! Henri Lefebvre!) and some influential academics (Raphael Samuel, John Morrill, Catherine Belsey, Marilyn Butler, and of course many from disciplines I don’t know about).

It was largely men rather depressingly. ‘Lines’ – those which people followed – tended to end in the early twentieth century as the ‘PhD’ rather than general scholarship became the learning benchmark at that point. So the exercise taught us something about the landscape of scholarship over the past century or so, and ways that we might engage with or represent it (a network of ‘learning and taught influence’ might be an interesting model to make, and is why the ‘Mathematics Genealogy Project’ exists to begin with).

There is a storify of some of the responses here but I could not get everyone in to this – the entire set of responses to me are here. The hashtag #academicgrandparents also collects together many of the responses.

The conversation provoked much discussion about the value of ‘genealogy’, the way that knowledge might be structured and communicated. Different types of practice are more or less comfortable with this way of thinking about knowledge and learning. The interchanges also showed how thinking idly about inheritance and lineage is really quite pleasing and provokes interesting questions about self-hood, intellectual development, and scholarly identity.

Scholars took up the family history language at times, using phrases such as ‘lineage’, ‘line’, ‘orphan’, and trying to work out further connections like aunts, cousins and great-grandparents. Some made a distinction between those who had taught them directly and those who had influenced them intellectually. Many people didn’t know, or had to ask, or had to look up the information (there is a handy website: academictree). Some of them were pleased and slightly proud of what they found, some confused, some denying any connection. Some thought it helped (‘Explains a lot!’; ‘not that suprising’; ‘I don’t seem to have inherited many of the family traits…’). Some found the exercise useful, some thought it irrelevant. Many found it pleasurable, and this was expressed as revelatory or pleasing due to the perceived connection (or, often, claimed disconnection).

The discussion threw up questions of professionalism (some people had had what one reply called ‘epically disengaged’ supervision), the gender biases of the academy, learning networks, and the historical specificity of particular types of teaching and learning. Scholars challenged the family model altogether (though in Germany ‘Doktorvater’ is the word for a doctoral supervisor). Some people had worked out the answer to quite a large degree, having various images, connections, or line-ups.

In particular the discussion circled around issues that I have been considering for some time in relation to family history and to genealogy. These issues include models of knowledge, inheritance, authority and legitimacy; how to disabuse ourselves of a sense of ‘linearity’ and narrative; issues of public identity and ‘inheritance’; and the ways in which – particularly in the West – we still tend to think and arrange knowledge in hierarchical and linear ways. Indeed this latter seems to follow from the way that the academy arranges things, or perceives itself. As @prof_gabrielle said, ‘we need to be aware of how this thinking reifies hierarchies’, and in the same discussion @nyashajunior pointed out how ‘my academic heritage includes a community of people inside & outside of the academy’.

What was pleasing was to see this played out amongst some highly intelligent, thoughtful people, to see connections made and interesting relationships formed, to see – in real time, quickly, as a globally networked event (albeit a small one).

It seems to me that the supervisor-supervisee relationship is very strong particularly in the humanities subjects. In the UK this is being diluted as a team of supervisors is increasingly common. The ‘team’ repositions the PhD as something more collaborative and the model of learning as something less didactic. Similarly this networked model might be more common in other disciplines and subjects. Tracing some kind of ‘lineage’ becomes a way of thinking about academic legitimacy and inheritance, of the ‘descent of knowledge’, of dissemination and development. Some of these issues are fraught with problems and controversies, and some connections reveal highly problematic areas that the academy might not wish to look at too closely.

What are the ethics of supervision and teaching at doctoral level? Do we have a familial sense of learning and of pedagogy, and is this too cosy and problematic? How do different disciplines conceive of the relationship between academic ‘generations’? How does the academy hoard knowledge? Could we use this modelling to see ‘biases’ in the way that scholarship might work and develop, or to map a network somehow that might be of some use? Lastly, does the fact that this touched a chord with academics mean that we are used to, comfortable with, proud of a sense of inheritance?

The viral-ish (!) response I had also has something to tell us about academics, their use of Twitter, and how we communicate with one another. The question went through various key network-gates, notably #twitterstorians, but also reached users around the world in different universities through various key people. The responses showed that scholars were keen to join a discussion but also possibly happy to self-construct online using ‘family’ connections, drawing some kind of public identity and a model of intellectual influence. Even those who ‘rejected’ their supervisors were involved in producing a kind of model of influence. Family confers status, of a kind, or connection, even if it is ignored or rejected.

Here is what I posted on Twitter to try and quickly sum it up:

Further thoughts on #academicgrandparent: 1/ ideas of inheritance might suit particular disciplines but be more about self-definition 2/ family model problematic for learning 3/ pleasure of the process for some 4/ ‘standing on shoulder of giants’ abides 5/ difference in US-UK (+Europe?) as advisor not as close relationship? [unsure about this] 6/ impact of Twitter 7/ exposes academy to debates about ethics, legitimacy, inheritance, makes us think about pedagogy, learning, networks 8/ enabled me to explain social media to my mum 9/ travelled fast, internationally, across disciplines and areas 10/ despite Foucault, Latour, queer, post-struct, Bhabha, Cixous (who appeared in thread), academy still happy to indulge in genealogy


Other news

Personalised DNA is becoming so high profile that it is worthy of satire. A few weeks ago Marmite shared their mock-advert (I wrote about it in my first blog). In late September the series South Park previewed an episode with a long joke about ethnicity, TV and family history. Watch the clip here: South Park DNA.




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