As many faculty handbooks across the country likely state, faculty members walk an interesting line between private citizens and institutional representatives. Things get even more complicated when faculty become public intellectuals, advocating for particular causes. These divisions used to be relatively easy to maintain – what one said in private would not preclude one from being employed. Thanks to technological advances, though, even those who are not typically seen as institutional representatives are regularly fired for things that there is now a digital record of (as I’ve noted several times in the past, there is no backstage on the internet). Although I completely understand the reasons that one might want to have a social media presence as an academic, I have to admit that it seems like a good time to be pseudonymous. (Edit: Fabio also connects these cases to internet shaming.)
In the past year we’ve seen John McAdams get fired at Marquette and Steven Salaita get un-hired by the University of Illinois for social media activity. Twitter seems to be particularly problematic because of the lack of room for context in 140 characters. Twitter isn’t the only problematic outlet for our thoughts, though, and those of us who say that these things are easily avoided may be overstating things. As Tenured Radical stated earlier this year:
Most of us don’t go to the trouble of writing a whole blog post about a graduate assistant to throw our careers into a death spin, but most of us in academia *do* put up thoughtless, reactive things about colleagues, students and political events on Twitter and Facebook. Some of us do it all the time. Might be time to check that at the door, until we figure out this new American thing of wanting to smash people for saying and thinking the wrong thing? It might also be time to check what we tweet, re-tweet, Facebook and share to make sure it is true. The law of Internet truthiness means that social media utterances tend to acquire facticity as they trend, and they also become more “about” one thing — racism, free speech, misogyny, the One True God — as they multiply across platforms. In addition, when are the stakes high enough that we are willing to take a risk? And when could we just shut it and everything would be fine?
Most recently, another almost-hired faculty member has come under fire for tweets. This time, it is sociologist Saida Grundy, scheduled to start at Boston University in the fall. It currently appears that she will be allowed to keep her job, but starting a career with a stern rebuke from your new boss seems less than ideal. Grundy’s case highlights the danger of posting things on the internet that don’t seem problematic to friends or fellow academics but that are taken very differently by the public (or Fox News). Many of her tweets would have been right at home on the Facebook pages of my friends from grad school, yet her career has been threatened before it even starts.
This unpredictability is why I am happy to remain pseudonymous and I extend this offer of pseudonymity to you. If you would like to write something about academia without fear of reprisal from colleagues, lawmakers, or TV pundits, send me an e-mail.
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