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Academics, can we talk seriously about social media for a moment? Like much of the rest of the world, we use various social media platforms. Some of us use it strictly for personal reasons, some exclusively to share our scholarly work and perspective, and others for a mixture of these reasons. I have witnessed enough attacks on scholars by conservatives, bigots, trolls, and even other academics to conclude that no one is shielded from backlash. While our academic freedom is generally protected (though, that statement is debatable), we can no longer expect our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations to stand up for us when we come under attack.
The Times (And Attacks) Have Changed
The rules of engagement have changed. We now live in a time when a 20-year-old college sophomore, who writes for a student newspaper to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges” (see bio at end), can spark a national conservative assault on a tenure-track professor at a different university over a few tweets critiquing racism. (They believe, however, that they are somehow protecting innocent, uneducated laypeople from the evils of brainy, radical professors in the liberal ivory tower.)
Indeed, this conservative student reporter did make Dr. Zandria F. Robinson “a thing” — both in the sense of a trend of attacking her, her appearance, her politics, her identity, and her research, and by making her an object of a larger, calculated conservative attack on critical and public scholars. With a mere tweet to the president of University of Memphis, this student reporter influenced an internal investigation on Dr. Robinson. Though unsuccessful with the first assault, the site along with another conservative college student site launched a second attack that caught the attention of national conservative media.
In essence, conservatives found success in launching a national assault on the scholarship and character of Dr. Saida Grundy, and were using the formula a second time on Dr. Robinson. They got their first taste of blood in not only dragging Dr. Grundy’s name and reputation through the mud, but also in influencing her university’s president to issue a statement essentially calling her a racist for critiquing racism. U Memphis never formally sanctioned or criticized Dr. Robinson, but their vague tweet disclosing her departure from the university is suspect — perhaps a passive way of quieting the conservatives who demanded her termination. (Fortunately, Dr. Robison had the last word.)
I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Robinson’s new academic home, Rhodes College, issued a statement to the press that not only sung her praises but affirmed her expertise and scholarship.
Dr. Robinson was hired for a faculty position in the Rhodes Anthropology & Sociology Department that calls for expertise in particular areas, specifically gender studies and social movements. Her expertise in these areas, her extensive understanding of the complex problems of race in American society, her deep roots in the Memphis area, and many years of successful teaching experience, made her an attractive candidate for the position…Dr. Robinson has an extensive and impressive body of scholarship that provides clarity and context to the sound bite world of social media. This situation ultimately shines a light on Rhodes as a place where intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas are among our highest priorities.
For once, this wasn’t a passive commitment to tolerate a controversial scholar’s academic freedom; this was a proactive statement to say, “she knows what she’s talking about, so please take several seats.”
But, I worry Rhodes may be an outlier here. And, I am not entirely optimistic Rhodes would defend every scholar who comes under attack. Though I have been informally supported at my own institution, I’m not confident that I would be defended if donors threatened to withhold their financial support if I weren’t fired. Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an expert on academic institutions, penned an excellent essay that substantiates my doubt:
What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement. In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action. In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters… Basically, the scale of current media is so beyond anything academia can grasp that those with agendas get a leg up on pulling the levers of universities’ inherent conservativism.
Simply put, academia is behind the times. And, there’s far too much academic cowardice, rather than academic bravery, to entrust our protection to our universities. Controversy — the very thing that academic freedom is designed to protect us against (professionally) — is feared rather than embraced. What’s worse is that these attacks coincide with, or have even been made possible by, the decline of labor rights and protections for academics. Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield argued this in an insightful essay, “Canaries in the Coal Mine? Saida Grundy, Zandria F. Robinson, and Why Calls for their Firing are a Problem for Everyone”:
As more institutions adopt a market-based model where students are consumers, teaching is pushed off onto poorly paid adjunct professors, and administrative bloat runs rampant, the conditions that tenure track faculty have enjoyed—and that have allowed us to do our best work—are becoming increasingly weaker. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to weaken tenure at state colleges and universities (with predictably bad results as noted faculty leave the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for less hostile climates). In this type of environment, it’s not really a wonder that faculty are at risk not for their scholarship, or their teaching, but because they made public statements that generated outcry and controversy.
Like other employees in an increasingly neoliberal environment, academics are facing growing job insecurity and precariousness that stands to weaken and minimize the ways our jobs should allow us to contribute to understanding a changing society. If, as I suspect, Grundy and Robinson are just early indicators of what’s to come for all of us, then we should all be very concerned.
In this context, besides the real professional risks, we are also largely on our own to weather trolls, harassment, rape threats, death threats, and hate mail. And, that goes for those who are relatively uncensored and those who think they maintain their public presence the “right” way. Indeed, you don’t even have to engage the public outside of your classroom to find yourself under attack.
But, let’s be clear: the pattern of attacks on scholars appears to suggest that people of color, women, and other scholars of marginalized backgrounds are most vulnerable to these attacks. Women of color who publicly write about racism and white privilege seem to be overrepresented among the targets of these witch hunts for critical and public scholars. Academia continues to change around us. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand, telling ourselves our only goal is to “publish or perish.” There may not be a decent job left within which we can publish on the topics of our own interests and passions.
Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack
I have come across a fair amount of advice for targets of online (and off-line) harassment, and even offered my own. See Dr. Rebecca Schuman’s reflections on dealing with trolls, “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story” and “The Thickness of My Skin.” And, Joshunda Sanders’s, “Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama.” Also, see the science about online trolls [video], and a cute musical response to trolls [video].
But, I have not seen any advice for others to support scholars who come under attack. So, with what little experience I have, I’m proposing my own approach. In my proposed strategy, I draw from bystander intervention work, primarily used to prevent sexual violence and support victims of such violence. In the recent past, I created a report for a local rape crisis center/domestic violence shelter on existing bystander intervention curricula [PDF]. I wrote about bystander intervention for sexual violence when I blogged for the Kinsey Institute. And, I have written about using bystander intervention to fight racism and support victims of racism — a blog post that has been used as a major theme for an anti-racist group in Tennessee. I hesitate to claim expertise here, but I have referenced or heavily used the bystander intervention model enough to feel comfortable using it here.
Briefly, the bystander intervention model calls for others who are present for some problem or emergency situation to intervene in some way. The language of “bystanders” comes from the concept of the bystander effect, wherein witnesses to some crisis are less and less likely to intervene with more and more witnesses present. If you are the only bystander present, you are quite likely to help if possible; if you are one of one hundred people, the odds are extremely slim that you’ll do anything besides mind your business. Bystander intervention explicitly counters this tendency, instead demanding that bystanders intervene in whatever way possible. And, for social problems like sexual violence and racism, this approach conceptualizes of the problem as a community’s responsibility. To eliminate sexual violence, we are all responsible for fighting rape culture: challenging sexist jokes and comments; challenging victim-blaming; teaching and practicing sexual consent; intervening when we see sexual violence occurring; demanding justice for victims of sexual violence; and, so forth.
I want to apply bystander intervention, then, to supporting scholars who are targeted by bigots, trolls, conservatives, and hostile colleagues. First, we must conceptualize such attacks as a larger problem, one which affects all of us in some way, and which we are all responsible for addressing. A culmination of factors — the absence of academic freedom policies that reflect the existence and scholars’ use of social media, the decline of labor rights and protections in academia, ongoing conservative attacks on higher education (even tenure) — have produced an increasingly easy route to target and then take down public and critical scholars. And, these forces exist within the larger intersections of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression, thus making marginalized scholars the most vulnerable to attack and the subsequent inaction of academic institutions and organizations.
As a social problem (at least among academics), it is thus our responsibility as a broad academic community to counter these attacks and support the victims of these attacks. This community responsibility exists at multiple levels, ranging from small acts to large policy changes.
A Bystander Intervention Approach To Support Attacked Scholars
We could adapt the above social-ecological model to fit academia, which should include the following levels: individual; department; university; discipline; and, the profession. Below, I offer specific ways to support scholars who are attacked, drawing from my own experiences and suggestions offered by colleagues on Twitter and Facebook (including those who have been subjected to attacks themselves). Please, offer additional suggestions in the comments section.
- Assume that the targeted scholar is already aware of the attack against them. While well-intentioned, “hey did you see this awful thing about you!” can do more harm than good, potentially re-triggering their negative response to the attack. I also recommend not tagging the targeted scholar on social media if and when you share links from the attack or stories about the attack. Unlike social media platforms such as Twitter, we have a choice over who we connect with on Facebook; don’t threaten one’s safe space/chosen community by bringing in the external attacks.
- Offer to take over keeping up with what is written about the targeted scholar so that they do not have to. Only inform them of positive responses and anything else that seems important; don’t let them know about the negative responses.
- Make an informed decision about whether to point out the attack to others. On the one hand, raising awareness and calling others to arms is useful to prevent a situation in which the attacked scholars is on her own to defend and support herself. We certainly can stand to be more aware of these attacks, to whom they are happening, and why they occur. But, on the other hand, you might empower the attackers more by giving their attack more attention and readership. In some cases, simply not feeding a troll could be effective in containing the situation.
- If you decide to raise awareness about an attack, be mindful that some colleagues (especially department colleagues and administrators at the targeted scholar’s institution) may be prompted to act in a way that harms the targeted scholar. You don’t want to be responsible for initiating professional consequences against the targeted scholar in your effort to support them.
- If you see that a colleague has come under attack, simply ask what they need and extend an offer of support. At a minimum, this is a reminder to the attacked scholar that they are not alone. I can say, from personal experience, sitting alone with only nasty and bigoted comments from strangers can feel very isolating; if the attacks are persistent, one might even begin to question whether their attackers’ claims are true.
- Say something more helpful or useful than “you must be doing something right!” Weathering an attack is already psychologically taxing enough; asking the targeted scholar to trick their mind into seeing the attacks and threats as a compliment isn’t helpful in the moment. It’s hard to appreciate the supposed badge of honor that is digging deep into your skin and drawing blood.
- Don’t say “just ignore it” or “just turn off the computer.” We live in an age where our online interactions are a real part of our lives. It’s not as simple as pretending the attack doesn’t exist when you turn the computer off. And, the professional consequences are real.
- Counter the attack with supportive notes and messages. Express your appreciation of the scholars’ efforts and their bravery for being a public voice. Start a campaign to encourage other friends and colleagues to send the targeted scholar kind notes and thanks. Or, take a moment to thank them using the #ThankAPublicScholar hashtag on Twitter.
- If you have been subjected to an attack in the past, reach out to an attacked scholar to let them know you have gone through it and that they are not alone. Offer advice for the best ways to weather the attack.
- Defend the attacked scholar. This can be as small as reporting offensive content from their attackers on social media or as big as writing your own blog post or op-ed to affirm the targeted scholar. Take screen shots of offensive comments as evidence. Fight the attackers’ ignorance with research if they get the targeted scholars’ words/scholarship twisted. If you can stomach it, contribute to the comments section to say you agree with, or at least appreciate, the scholars’ writing. (Note: These efforts may open you up to being attacked, too. I’m still blocking trolls who are giving me grief on Twitter for defending Dr. Zandria F. Robinson. And, there’s foolishness.)
- If an attacked scholar is harmed professionally — whether as minor as public sanctioning or as severe as termination — hold the institution accountable for protecting academic freedom. Start a petition. Employ the advice and services of AAUP and other professional organizations. Perhaps suggest that the targeted scholar seek legal counsel, and help them raise money if they cannot afford to.
- Challenge colleagues’ comments that blame attacked scholars for their own attacks. I have seen and heard scholars rationalize recent attacks, attributing blame to the targets because they used social media in a certain way, spoke/wrote in a certain tone, failed to give broader context and offer citations within the limits of a 140-character tweet, and so on. “They knew the risks!” I’ve even seen discussions that offer no sympathy for targets because they weren’t really engaging in public scholarship — just “popping off.” These sentiments suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to engage the public. Even scholars who write more extensive op-eds, explicitly backed by research, have come under attack. As I argued in the previous section, these attacks reflect calculated assaults on higher education, liberalism, people of color, and women; and, we are all increasingly vulnerable as higher education becomes more corporatized and relies heavily on a poorly paid pool of adjunct laborers. If we conclude that the only safe way to avoid being targeted is to stop engaging the public and delete our social media accounts, we are deluding ourselves into thinking that silence will protect us. We do too little to make academia accessible, anyhow; we would only be making matters worse if we self-silence.
Department and University Level Strategies
- If the targeted scholar is receiving death threats, threats of sexual violence, and/or hate mail, contact campus (and perhaps local) police to investigate and offer a police escort. You or the police should take over checking your colleagues’ mail and answering their phone. Even if you don’t agree with their actions or comments, there is no excuse for leaving them vulnerable to physical, mental, or sexual violence.
- When a colleague has come under attack, fight fire with fire — pressure your department and/or university to issue a public statement defending your colleague and affirming their expertise and value. Do not take Boston University’s approach, which suggested they tolerate Dr. Saida Grundy’s academic freedom, and also called her a racist and a bigot — in a statement that “denounces” her “racially charged tweets.” It would have been better for BU to say nothing at all because it only fueled her attackers’ taste for blood. DO take Rhodes College’s approach, which clarified Dr. Zandria F. Robinson’s expertise, affirmed that her tweets and blog posts are backed by her expertise, and explicitly stated her value to the institution.
- When people from outside of the university target a professor and demand their termination (or worse), do not readily accept their claims at face value. Use your critical skills as a scholar to assess the significance, source, and validity of these claims. I recommend being particularly suspicious of claims that a (minority) professor has somehow harmed a privileged group (e.g., whites, men, heterosexuals, middle-class and wealthy people). Stand firm in the distinction between public statements backed by research, especially that are critical of the status quo and inequality, and proclamations based solely on personal opinion. Remember that the public isn’t necessarily ready to hear what scholars have to say — and that’s no reason to panic. (How often do we encounter our own students’ [and even colleagues’] discomfort when we challenge their worldviews?)
- Demand that your university and, if relevant, your department, establish guidelines for academic freedom that reflect today’s forms of public scholarship and means of communicating with the public. Drawn on existing AAUP materials on academic freedom and social media. To be clear, I am suggesting that academic freedom policies include explicit protections for scholars’ use of social media, among other forms of engaging the public — not setting limits on what is considered “responsible” social media use like University of Kansas’s controversial policy. The major problem with KU’s policy is a stipulation that social media use that “is contrary to the best interests of the employer” may be grounds for termination. As universities have come more corporatized, it seems the quickest way to have a professor sanctioned or fired is to threaten the university’s bank account (i.e., donors’ financial contributions). In this vein, think about who has the most means to donate to a university; people of color (among other marginalized groups) will never have the same level of power to pressure a university to sanction/fire a controversial white professor. So, the power of the purse in academia will always loom larger for marginalized scholars.
- Related to the point above, demand that the university institute a formal means of lodging complains of inappropriate or offensive use of social media or other engagements with the public. (There is no reason why a university president should be taking requests from students, with a known agenda to target presumably liberal professors, to investigate one of their faculty — especially via Twitter.) Just as any internal offense (such as sexual harassment, academic dishonesty) must be officially reported before any action is taken, external charges, if investigated and acted upon, should first be formally reported with proper evidence.
- Pressure your university to employ lawyers who will aggressively fight on behalf of scholars’ academic freedom. (Several academics have speculated that BU’s public
statement aboutsanction of Dr. Grundy was written by cowardly lawyers who looked to protect the university, not her.)
- Demand that your department and/or university value community service (not just academic service) and public scholarship. Here, I explicitly mean that these efforts count in hiring, tenure, promotion, and pay raises. When university administrators praise or even demand public service, hold them accountable for actually counting and rewarding these efforts — and matching these rewards with professional protections against any backlash.
- Challenge the academic culture that demands that you “keep your head down” and “keep your mouth shut.” Question the implicit assumption underlying this advice that scholars, particularly at the junior level, will be reckless and irresponsible with regard to department and university politics, and engaging with the public. In light of the few rewards and great risks entailed in serving the community and engaging the public, these efforts should be rewarded, not punished or kept quiet.
- If you work in a graduate department, advocate for explicitly discussing academic freedom and public scholarship with graduate students — perhaps make these discussions a regular part of a professional seminar, preparing future faculty programs, or some other form of mandatory professional socialization. Also, discuss the changing nature of higher education: the decline of tenure-track positions, the increase in student debt, the decline in state funding, and the corporatization of universities.
- Train your graduate students how to effectively and safely use social media and work with the media.
- Rather than attempt to “beat the activist” out of your graduate students, recognize that activism or, at least a desire to make a difference, is what drives many people into graduate school and academia (especially those from marginalized backgrounds). Find ways to harness this passion in your graduate students’ careers.
Discipline And Profession Level Strategies
- Demand that your professional organizations, especially those to which you pay dues, actively defend scholars who come under attack. This can entail issuing public statements and press releases in their defense, offering financial support and help finding new employment for those who are unexpectedly fired, and offering access to legal counsel if necessary. (Sociologists, as far as I know, ASA only intervenes when scholars have been fired by their universities — and, even then, it may not be to defend them. The rest of us are on our own.)
- Create resources to support and build community among public scholars.
- Host conferences on academic freedom, public scholarship, and intellectual activism, with at least some focus on the inherent risks of engaging the public.
- Host conference workshops on using social media and working with the media.
- Work to reverse the adjunctification of higher education.
- Demand that your local and state politicians stop making efforts to undermine academic freedom (including tenure), and start making more efforts to protect it.
UPDATE [7-9-2015, 4:27pm EST]: I have been informed of two additional resources that are relevant to this post. One is a map of threats to academic freedom and other barriers in academia in the US: “Scholars Under Attack.” Another is a well-written essay by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, “‘Who Do You Think You Are?’: When Marginality Meets Academic Microcelebrity.”
In this morning’s post on academic freedom, I discussed the real dangers inherent in being a public scholar (especially for critical scholars of marginalized backgrounds). Let me be clear: job security in the face of external threats is not a trivial matter. Indeed, the lifetime job security afforded by tenure, and the general academic freedom afforded to most scholars is one of the major perks of this profession over others. But, attacks on scholars like Saida Grundy, Steven Salaita, Anthea Butler, Brittney Cooper, Tony Brown, and Sarak Kenzdoir highlight that tenure and academic freedom are not enough to protect public scholars from libel and slander, hostility, hate mail, and threats of violence.
It’s time to be real. Being a public scholar is dangerous. And, it’s generally a thankless job that many of us volunteer to do. Rarely does it count toward tenure and promotion, so we truly are doing it because we believe in justice and want to make a difference in the world beyond the ivory tower. In line with my call for the creation of supportive communities for public scholars (and in general), I propose a call to action to start supporting and thanking our colleagues who write and speak in public, who critique injustice and oppression, and those who work for and/or with community groups.
- Share a public scholar’s work with your networks. Share blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, listservs. Forward their work to those who might find it useful for their work, well-being, or understanding of the world. Include their work in your classes, perhaps as assigned reading or for extra credit. Help your colleagues broaden their reach.
- Engage a public scholar’s work. If you like a blog post you read, comment or write a response on your own blog. Tweet a response rather than just reteweeting. Or, send them a email if you prefer to communicate privately. Be careful not to convey disagreement as hostility or a character assault.
- Say “thank you” and “I appreciate you.” I recommend this particularly when you see a colleague coming under fire, but this should be a regular habit, too. Send a short email to let them know you appreciate their work and the time they put into it. Send a tweet using the hashtag, #ThankAPublicScholar, to note why you appreciate them, and to encourage others to follow them, as well. If you’re like me, sometimes you get starstruck when you meet very popular/visible public scholars; try to avoid this to simply engage them as a human and colleague (they’ll appreciate it).
- Push your department/university to recognize and value public scholarship toward tenure and promotion. This should also entail offering greater protection to public scholars who may, at any time, become the target of hostility and threats.
I don’t say this because I want to be showered with praise and appreciation. But, I can tell you that becoming a target with little explicit support from colleagues can feel very isolating. I would be lying if I said I simply ignored the haters; I have, indeed, been emotionally affected, and spend a lot less time on social media than before. I relish the ever-growing traffic that this blog sees, but the numbers pale in comparison to a simple note that says “thank you for writing this.” We, as scholars, are inundated with critique, from peer review to student evaluations to tenure and promotion. But, those critiques can feel like a pinprick compared to the ugly backlash some public scholars have faced.
So, will you heed my call? Will you thank a public scholar or two for me? Thank you.
“One day,” the tenure-obsessed mindset suggests, “I’ll be able to speak freely, pursue controversial projects, and teach on controversial subjects.” Successful completion of the seven-year-long probationary period will offer me the ultimate goal for any scholar: academic freedom. As I finish my second year in a tenure-track position at University of Richmond, I already feel underwhelmed with what tenure supposedly offers to my life.
I say that I am underwhelmed with my future tenured life for two reasons. The first, which I have written about before, is that I am tired of waiting for the day when I can finally be the academic I want to be. I don’t know that I’ll come out of the other end of the tenure-track in one piece if I keep prioritizing success by mainstream standards over authenticity, my values and identities, my health and well-being, and my happiness.
The second reason tenure underwhelms me is that I am no longer under the illusion that academic freedom will truly protect me. Maybe I was naive to ever believe that any institution could truly protect me. The attacks several colleagues have faced over the past year have made this abundantly clear to me.
Academic Freedom As Academic Tolerance
Scholars receive conflicting messages from universities about the value of public scholarship and the extent to which we are protected should the public not like what we have to say. Some leaders in the academy go as far as to say that it is our obligation as scholars to engage the public. On the other hand, few junior scholars are under the illusion that service — here, I am including community service, advocacy, and intellectual activism — counts much toward tenure. I would argue that speaking to (but not with) the public as an expert about one’s research is likely the most valued service; service that falls into the realm of advocacy, activism, and community service is the least valued, perhaps even devalued. Still, there is a limit to what public engagement universities value, as indicated by the slow movement to count open access publishing toward promotion and to facilitate and support this form of scholarship. Perhaps the academy simply has not caught up with technological advancements, new forms of social media, and political, social, and generational shifts among academics.
Boston University’s recent handling of the conservative outcry over sociologist Dr. Saida Grundy’s tweets about race and racism highlight that universities will only protect a scholar’s academic freedom to a point. SoCawlege.com, a conservative site that caters to US college students, featured an article that took issue with several of Dr. Grundy’s tweets about race, racism, slavery, colonization, and Bruce Jenner from the past few months. It is unclear why the site or the article’s author took issue with Dr. Grundy and her tweets, as she was not already highly visible as a public scholar; she recently finished her PhD at University of Michigan, and will begin as an Assistant Professor at Boston U in July. That article set off a firestorm among conservative media outlets, including Fox News, all which painted her as a racist (and sexist) bigot who could not be trusted to treat her white male BU students fairly; many called for her termination from a position she has not yet even begun.
Initially, BU’s media liaison noted the university’s respect for Dr. Grundy’s freedom of speech. However, as the backlash grew, the university’s president issued a statement denouncing Dr. Grundy’s comments:
Boston University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from bias, fully inclusive, and open to wide-ranging discussions. We are disappointed and concerned by statements that reduce individuals to stereotypes on the basis of a broad category such as sex, race, or ethnicity. I believe Dr. Grundy’s remarks fit this characterization.
Although the university defends Dr. Grundy’s “right to pursue her research, formulate her views, and challenge the rest of us to think differently about race relations,” the president argued that:
[W]e also must recognize that words have power and the words in her Twitter feed were powerful in the way they stereotyped and condemned other people. As a university president, I am accustomed to living in a world where faculty do—and should—have great latitude to express their opinions and provoke discussion. But I also have an obligation to speak up when words become hurtful to one group or another in the way they typecast and label its members. That is why I weigh in on this issue today.
Why did the university initially respect her freedom of speech, but then cease to protect her academic freedom? Why didn’t the university stand up to a site called “SoCawledge” and notoriously biased conservative media outlets like Fox News? Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom offered a compelling explanation on her blog:
Institutions are inherently conservative. They are built to last. One way that institutions last is by diffusing threats to the status quo across org charts, rules, forms, email chains and meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. That is why it is ridiculous to expect college institutions to be radical.
It seemed Dr. Grundy’s critical perspective on racism was acceptable — even protected — until she pissed white people off. Or, as others have speculated, perhaps Dr. Grundy’s views and public engagement were protected so long as it didn’t hurt the university financially. Her work, public engagement, and perspective are all protected so long as it does not negatively affect the university. If this assertion is true, that’s not academic freedom — or it’s conditional academic freedom, or maybe academic freedom with a price tag. What academic freedom entails is much more limited that many scholars realize.
What’s most insulting is that BU’s public reprimand of Dr. Grundy’s critique of slavery, racism, and hegemonic white masculinity essentially placed her comments in the same category as the racist comments by Duke political scientist Jerry Hough: as hurtful racial stereotypes. Other scholars and activists didn’t bat an eye at her Tweets because they are supported by a great deal of theoretical and empirical work on racism; her own department at BU was unwavering in its defense of her perspective and scholarship. Friends, colleagues, and future students stepped forward to express their support for Dr. Grundy, as well. However, the university distanced itself from Dr. Grundy because of gross mischaracterizations of her comments. It seemed as though the university responded more to the perversion that became her words rather than her perspective itself. (I’m sure Dr. Grundy’s apology and publicly expressed regret over her words fueled this.)
What I am getting at here is that the university didn’t stand up for Dr. Saida Grundy because her perspective is grounded in prior research. BU’s president didn’t say, “Dr. Grundy’s critique is important and accurate, though poorly received and misunderstood by the public.” The university didn’t engage with her perspective at all; it only responded to it from a distance — that she was free to say whatever she wanted, that her academic freedom is protected (unless it pisses white people off). This, to me, highlights that academic freedom may actually constitute a form of tolerance for scholars’ ideas, research, and perspective with no real engagement from universities. Our academic freedom is protected so long as it doesn’t upset anyone — an obvious contradiction that misses that much of what we do makes the public (and our students) uncomfortable because it challenges bias and conventional wisdom.
What universities actually offer is academic tolerance. That tolerance appears to be quite low for scholars of color who dare to critique racism and white privilege. The message to all scholars of color is clear: watch what you say. There is a white way, and a wrong way, to talk about race. Choose wisely.
Beyond Protecting Our Ideas And Words
In theory, a college or university’s assurance that it will protect you from external threats to your career is critical and a major perk of an academic career. Unfortunately, this conceptualization of academic freedom does not match the reality that many scholars face as they brave the risky task of public scholarship. Countless scholars, particularly women and people of color, have been harassed, been subject to hate mail, or, worse, have received death threats in response to op-eds, blog posts, tweets, and other media appearances. Too many examples:
- Earlier this month, (tenured) sociologist Dr. Tony N. Brown was attacked by Fox News and other conservative media outlets and blogs, and continues to receive threats of violence and hate mail — a backlash to an honest op-ed about racism and white privilege in the The Tennessean.
- Dr. Anthea Butler, a (tenured) religious studies professor at U Penn, is regularly attacked by conservatives and bigots for her critical views on race and racism (e.g., the verdict for George Zimmerman, who murdered Trayvon Martin), and religion. It occurs so regularly, she decided to create a Tumblr, The Things People Say, devoted to hateful and hostile comments she receives from trolls and bigots.
- Dr. Brittney Cooper (featured, along with Dr. Anthea Butler in this article about backlash), is an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, and is also regularly subject to trolling, hate mail, and threats of violence. On a panel we did together at University of Maryland on intellectual activism (around 01:02:00), she shared more details about her appearance being made fun of, and calculated efforts to have her and her colleagues fired from Rutgers.
- Anthropologist Dr. Sarah Kendzior (writer, independent researcher, and reporter) was subject to threats of sexual violence after being cited in an article at Jacobin magazine on modern sexism. Many were shocked that these rape threats came from self-identified liberals and radicals.
- University of Illinois rescinded an offer for an associate professor position to Dr. Steven Salaita, a Native American studies scholar, because of his commentary about Israel on Twitter. UIUC argued that his behavior failed to meet the university’s standards of civility — a justification that was not supported by the university’s Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
With the exception of Dr. Salaita, the aforementioned scholars were professionally protected. That is, despite external threats, even calls for their dismissals from their respective positions, they weren’t fired. But, what have their colleagues, departments, universities, and professional organizations done to protect them from the intangible harm to their reputations? From the online trolling and hostility? From the hate mail and threats of violence?
I suspect the answers to my questions are nothing — they should just be grateful they didn’t get fired. Or, they should have anticipated these risks as public scholars. Said another way, they are to be blamed for the hostility and threats they face by sharing their scholarship and scholarly opinion with the public. (Victim-blaming.)
Academic Freedom In The 21st Century
In light of universities’ apparent mere tolerance for controversial perspectives in the academy, and the obvious risks entailed in engaging the public, I wonder — what role do public scholars play in society? Or, considering the trickiness of public scholarship in the 21st century, Dr. Anthea Butler more aptly asks, “[w]hat is the role of a public intellectual in the age of Twitter and soundbites? Is it to share your thoughts for the public good, or is it to curate the heaps of hate emails, tweets and right-wing articles that trash your intellectual and social work?”
Inevitably, every panel I have served on and attended about intellectual activism and public scholarship engages the crucial use of social media today. But, the very technological tools that have made it easy for any scholar to become a public scholar overnight has also made it easier for public scholars to become targets of conservatives, trolls, and bigots. Ideally, the academy will eventually catch up with the technological advancements in order to adequately conceptualize and protect academic freedom in an increasingly digital age. But, that’s not enough. Public scholars, particularly those of marginalized backgrounds, will only be adequately protected from public backlash when institutions embody greater academic bravery. In the mean time, we must forge our own supportive networks and communities to buffer the painful attacks we face when speaking and writing in public.
These two points, academic bravery and supportive communities for public scholars, were raised during the panel on intellectual activism on which I served at U Maryland in April (especially around 00:55:45). Dr. Brittney Cooper noted that there is a great deal of “academic cowardice” — that, too often, scholars avoid speaking up and speaking out, particularly against injustice and oppression, for fear of professional consequences. This tendency is likely greatest among pre-tenure faculty. But, many of us of marginalized backgrounds know that the good (Audre) Lorde said, “[y]our silence will not protect you.” We cannot prioritize our livelihood as individuals at the expense of our communities; conversely, we cannot engage in our communities too much, for we may risk our jobs in institutions that devalue such work. This burden weighs heavy on oppressed scholars.
But, this does not have to be our reality. Our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and the academy in general could be braver in supporting us as we take on the risky work of public scholarship. Ideally, universities will have more integrity in standing with critical scholars, balking at inappropriate threats to cease donating to and funding them because of controversial scholarship. Universities that proclaim to promote diversity should be brave in refusing to cater to the demands of bigots and conservatives who are hostile to diversity. Professional organizations, like my own (American Sociological Association), will actually advocate on behalf of professors who come under attack, rather than staying silent or even adding to the attacks. If “professors have a right and perhaps a duty to be ‘radical’ in its purest sense,” we can only effectively do our job if we are shielded from hostility and threats from the public when our views are misunderstood or rejected.
That’s a nice dream that I’ll likely never experience in my career in academia. The reality remains: once I get tenure, I can bank on academic tolerance. But, all of my public engagement and intellectual activism is at my own risk. I can (mostly) count on not losing my job if certain groups dislike my perspective and research. But, I’ll need to turn elsewhere for support when I endure hostility, hate mail, and threats of violence.
This is where the need for supportive communities comes in — another point that Dr. Britney Cooper made on our panel. She noted that her fellow bloggers at the Crunk Feminist Collective serve as her support system to weather the regular hostility and threats she receives. And, our friends, family, and colleagues with whom we don’t blog also can serve as our support network. This support system can serve many functions: checking in on us; reading responses to our writing so that we don’t; reminding us to disengage from social media when negativity is heightened, but also to take breaks in general; to counter the negative messages with messages of love, support, and validation. Let’s be clear about it: being a public scholar comes with risks, and academic freedom isn’t enough to protect us. We are responsible for building and utilizing our own supportive networks to buffer the risks that arise. And, this frankly goes for anyone, from part-time tweeter to daily blogger to regular guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, because any public writing can be picked up and taken to task by the media. (Even scholars who aren’t necessarily engaging the public can come under attack.)
In general, dismantling white supremacy and other systems of oppression is dangerous work. Attempting to do so through, or at least within, academia is dangerous, for academic institutions are hardly separate from the rest of our racist nation. In the long-term, ideally we can hold academic institutions and organizations accountable for protecting scholars’ academic freedom, period. In the short term, we are responsible for protecting our selves, and relying on our own supportive communities to weather the storms that may come as we do critical and, sometimes, controversial work.
At a minimum, let’s get real about academia. Academic freedom won’t protect us. Tenure won’t protect us. Our silence in the academy won’t protect us.
Halfway through my second-year on the tenure-track, I see that I am faced with another important moment in shaping my career. Though I effectively proved that I am an independent scholar through the grueling process of completing a dissertation, I still face the challenge of defining my career for myself. The training wheels are off. It seems, however, that the task of professional self-definition is a more salient and intense process for me because I intend to carve out my own path — one that prioritizes difference-making, health, happiness, and authenticity.
Just after one year in my job, I have stumbled across lessons I learned in graduate school that were exaggerated, completely false, or overly-simplistic. It appears one necessary step of my journey toward a self-defined career as a teacher-scholar-advocate is to unlearn, or at least contexualize, such lessons. Here are 25 lessons that I have identified as problematic or untrue.
- The only fulfilling career path in academia is a tenure-track (and eventually tenured) faculty position at a research I university.
- One goes where the job is. Period.
- All new (qualified) PhDs get (and want) tenure-track jobs.
- People who do not complete graduate school are weak, stupid, or uncommitted.
- You must attend the big, national, and/or mainstream conference in your discipline in order to succeed.
- Academia and activism do not mix.
- Service should be avoided, and never includes community service.
- One only becomes relevant through publishing a lot in the top journal of one’s field.
- Teaching is not as important as research. Really, we do it just to get paid.
- Academia is an equal opportunity institution.
- Higher education is filled with liberal-minded, social justice-oriented people.
- Objectivity exists and is the ideal approach for research and teaching.
- The rankings of universities are an ideal indicator for quality of training.
- Quantitative methods are better than qualitative methods. Can the latter even be trusted?
- One should wait until they are an “expert” to blog or advance other forms of public scholarship.
- Homophobia no longer exists in academia.
- Black people are more likely than white people to get tenure-track jobs — because they’re Black.
- Graduate programs are concerned with the health and well-being of their students.
- If you do not love graduate school, you will hate being a professor.
- Race, gender, and sexuality are narrow areas of research.
- Peer-review is 100% anonymous.
- No one will get mad at you for blogging.
- Breaks during the academic year are just opportunities to get ahead on research.
- Grad students’ opinions matter in the major functions of the department.
- Sexual harassment does not occur in academia.
If you follow me on Twitter — @grollman 🙂 — you may have seen me complain about online trolls and other criticism every once in a while. But, I usually give the caveat that what I have faced from nay-sayers online is a mild irritation compared to the hate mail and threats that other academic bloggers (especially women) have received. Sadly, even the most seasoned among us do not know how to deal with the criticism and hostility we receive online. How do we stop it? Or, how do we at least ignore it? I have zero expertise to offer on the subject, but I do offer a few tips from things that have (and have not) worked for me.
A few tips, which, in places, will seem contradictory — but, choose what works best for you!
- Pursue legal action… but, don’t bother. To be safe, I consulted with the legal counsel at my university. Free speech, which seems so much freer online, eliminates any real options. Apparently libel is almost impossible to demonstrate because the (huge) burden of proving you were harmed in some way by it falls on you. Legal dead-ends aside, I found relief in notifying my university and being reassured that what a few cowardly anonymous colleagues say about me online has no baring on my status or job.
- Also, notify trusted (senior) colleagues. Initially, I let my chair and dean know just to be on the safe side. I would rather be ahead of the criticisms to avoid surprises in formal evaluations. One expected benefit of these conversations was their appreciation of the risks involved on the work that I do (i.e., blogging). I suppose this links back to the “you’ve arrived” sentiment; if you are pissing off white supremacists and closed-minded colleagues, you must be pushing the right buttons as a scholar. I do want to express some caution about letting others know because it could backfire, particularly if you must “out” yourself as an activist or blogger or whatever else you might do that is not valued in your department and institution.
- To extend the point above — do not suffer in silence. Talk to someone about what you are going through. When dealing with online criticism and hostility, the anonymity and amorphousness of the internet can make you feel like you are alone in a hostile world.
- Don’t seek it out! Fortunately, the criticism I face is almost exclusively contained in one relatively unknown site. When I stopped visiting that site, I generally stopped being exposed to online criticism. I realized I was giving power to cowardly, closed-minded colleagues by welcoming the stupid things they say about me into my life. At the moment, I feel that the opinions that are really worth my attention are those that put as much time and energy into responding to me as I put into my writing. Negative tweets and comments on your blog/website are quick and easy, often reflecting an unfiltered, grammatically incorrect rant that one would never say to your face. (Really, why not extend a healthy dialogue by writing a response on your OWN blog?) Certainly on others’ blogs/sites, do not read the comments! The downside of this tip is that it will not work for writers and bloggers who have really eager critics and trolls that take the time to email you or contact you in other ways.
- Ask someone else to keep up with what is written about you on the internet — and only let you know about the most important things, and maybe anything positive. Really, if someone really wants you to read what they have written, good or bad, they should be sending it directly to you.
- Related to the previous point — if others let you know about new criticism online, probably out of concern, you do not have to look at it! Maybe ask them to give a summary if you want to know anything about it. Or, let them know that, for future reference, you prefer not to know. Good friends should appreciate that this approach is best for self-care.
- Don’t take it personally. Yeah, even I struggle with this one. But, once some time has passed and there is some distance between me and some bit of criticism, I begin to see that others’ criticism is often a reflection of something other than me. When I began blogging occasionally for Inside Higher Ed, I received a few comments that essentially say “I am angry about the adjunctification/corporatization of academia,” albeit in the form of a snarky remark toward me. You may also find that the hostility reflects implicit rules about who is allowed to speak, especially when critiquing academia, or the status quo, etc. At this stage in my career, some believe I have no right to criticize the discipline or profession. Besides age/seniority/experience, it seems closed-minded academics are very intolerant of marginalized scholars (and I include here contingent faculty and graduate students) daring to speak up. These identities and statuses are personal, but criticism outside of real effort engage in dialogue really says more about your critics and their values.
Some of the above I have borrowed from friends’ advice and the following sites:
- Rebecca Schuman’s reflections on dealing with trolls, “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story” and “The Thickness of My Skin“
- “Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama” by Joshunda Sanders
- “How to Stop Caring About Trolls and Get On With Your Life” from Lifehacker
- “Thank You, Hater!” – a musical response to trolls by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay [video]
- “Don’t Read The Comments: The Psychology of Online Trolls” by BrainCraft [video]