Monday, August 11, 2014

Is the Water Hot Enough for You?

The case of Professor Steven Salaita has recently become a cause célèbre among faculty who once felt comfortable airing their political grievances on social media.  What interests me about this story is why a particular set of issues about academic freedom, political expression, and digital communication is getting so much attention precisely now.  I would argue it has a lot to do with a specific alignment of empathy and personal risk on the faculty side and the fact that university administrations have reached a tipping point in their public relations strategies toward social media that involves both emulating and monitoring network-savvy professors.  

Salaita's use of Twitter to object to Israel's policies in Gaza -- often in hyperbolic or crude language -- has been cited as a key factor in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's decision to rescind a job offer for a tenured position that was seemingly only waiting for the last pro forma approval from the Chancellor's office.  According to "Out of a Job," a story that broke in the blog Inside Higher Ed, Salaita had already resigned from his post at Virginia Tech and had made arrangements to relocate when he received the surprising news.

On the Internet there has been considerable outrage vented and analysis unpacked in the days since the revelations about UIUC's backpedaling.  Steven Krause notes Salaita had many more rights to digital expression than assistant profs, adjuncts, alt-acs, and anyone else on campus without tenure.  Ian Bogost contrasts "academic freedom" with the contractual tactics necessary for "academic paydom."  Roopika Risam writes a "love letter to Twitter" as a pre-tenure academic seeking networks and publication opportunities.  David Palumbo-Liu has been one of the most prolific critics of UIUC with blog posts about Salaita at Salon, Huffington Post, and Transformation.  Former MLA President Michael Bérubé weighed in with a castigating letter to the Chancellor warning that her campus would become a "fourth-rate" institution if the decision wasn't reversed.  The Illinois state chapter of the AAUP issued a formal protest.

One thing that's worth noting about Salaita's Twitter feed is the prodigious labor that he invested in maintaining it, apparently right up until just before he received the bad news.  Although he's picked up a few thousand followers since the controversy, the size of Salaita's audience was relatively modest in comparison to other high-profile academics, in spite of the energy and affect he obviously devoted to it.  After all, he composed almost ten thousand Tweets during his five-year period of activity and followed over three thousand other people to connect and stay current.  From all this effort he attracted about four thousand followers.

For scale, Juan Cole of the blog Informed Consent has about thirty thousand more Twitter followers than Salaita.  Certainly Cole has posted a huge volume of tens of thousands of Tweets to attract such a sizable following to his feed, but many of Cole's Tweets are reposted content, and he does not engage in context-specific debate about people's individual claims -- either agreeing or disagreeing -- to the degree that the micromanaging Salaita did.

I bring up Cole's name because he had a similar experience with the hazards of a having a noticeable social media trail for those on the academic job market.  Like Salaita he was also perceived of as an intemperate activist for anti-Israeli positions, and he failed to land a tenured job at a new institution as a result.  In 2006, a story in the Yale Daily News reported that Cole -- then at the University of Michigan -- had been denied tenure at Yale "in one of the final phases of the appointment process."  According to Yale's reporting, Cole had been characterized by fellow professors who had weighed in on his case as a potentially "divisive colleague"  Shortly afterward The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a forum called "Can Blogging Derail Your Career?" and invited seven prominent academic bloggers to expound on the crisis.    

Cole's travails ultimately didn't have the legs to stay a national story, and he didn't galvanize a movement of sympathizers to agitate for greater academic freedom in more digital contexts.  I would argue that there were a number of reasons that the firestorm of controversy around Cole's case was extinguished relatively rapidly.

For one thing, Cole was doing something that only a statistically small fraction of the scholarly population did at the time: academic blogging.  Even though academic blogging was actually in its heyday,  in retrospect, this activity might have made Cole seem like an outlier.  He was pursuing an enthusiasm for a rare form of hybrid writing and propagating an alien genre of self-sponsored op-ed with pretensions both to journalism and to short-form hyperlinked scholarship.  Today, in contrast, Tweeting is an activity that many more academics do than did blogging -- and if academics don't Tweet they are at least aware that the activity happens all around them at conferences.  Moreover, short-form and very-short-form digital postings by scholars circulate to a broader audience via Facebook and other social network sites.

In the eight intervening years faculty have also become much more aware of the contingency of their own appointments.  Fewer faculty members have tenure, legislative support for state-sponsored higher education seems more arbitrary and more dependent on political whims, and institutional governance structures are being eroded by risk averse administrations afraid of unhappy donors, bad press, and lawsuits.

There's also been a sea change in public relations for universities.  Every campus worries about its YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and other conduits of social media presence.  Every institution compares its social media profile to those of its rival institutions.  Social media "experts" (read "idiots") are hired to manage college messaging, and these drones from the public relations hive mind may find themselves directly vying for attention in opposition to faculty, students, and staff who might seem noticeably more human and appealing to the public.  Resentments build about "unofficial" messages getting out from challengers, and online behavior is policed by those who are both digital regulators and digital content-creators.

In The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University I discuss how students' digital rights to expression are often trampled, because faculty assume that their own privileged positions when it comes to the Internet could never come under attack.

Not surprisingly, current definitions of academic freedom already provide more rights for faculty than for students when it comes to free speech, and the leveling practices of digital culture seem to have relatively little effect on challenging divisions created by existing status barriers between teacher and pupil. As both consumers of web-based content and producers of it, students generally have fewer recognized rights and protections than faculty. Administrators loath to meddle with academic freedom often say little about faculty web pages, for example. Faculty content-creation on official institutional pages includes a heterogeneous collection of material that ranges wildly from the confessional to the satirical.  On university Webpages, one can find testimonials about personal trainers with links to their gyrating bodies, narratives about dieting that show shirtless faculty, heartfelt warnings based on personal tragedy about never leaving infants unattended, step-by-step instructions for destroying marshmallow peeps with lab equipment, and obscene mock-scientific acronyms. Ironically, political blogging and electronic civil disobedience may create more serious problems for faculty perceived as radical subversives than would more obviously off-topic or off-identity material. This might seem strange given how academic freedom is often defined in terms of political tolerance and the open marketplace of ideas, but the Internet has also generated cadres of students policing political utterances by professors. Otherwise, administrators generally do little to keep the online conduct of faculty in check.
Administrators didn't police faculty behavior online, because it was largely invisible to them, but now those days of mutually assured obliviousness seem to be over.

Recently I was interviewed by Henry Jenkins, who asked about how the University of Kansas Board of Regents had imposed new restrictions on the use of social media by faculty.
In the book I argue that part of the reason that faculty have been slow to advocate for their students when it comes to their informal learning practices and online knowledge networks is that faculty have been much less coerced than students by administrative efforts to police their computer use. Faculty bloggers might come under pressure for disclosing information that colleges don’t want shared, but they have been such a tiny minority that not many people took notice. Faculty hacktivists might be threatened for acts of electronic civil disobedience, but they are an even smaller contingent.

Twitter users like David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was suspended for an anti-NRA Tweet, are also still relatively rare among academics, but faculty see Twitter being used at conferences, and they know Twitter is part of a continuum that includes Facebook, which they might use to communicate with friends and relatives, so I am hoping that the water is finally getting hot enough that the frog might finally jump out and protest in good faculty fashion.
In the boiling frog anecdote it is supposed that an amphibian might leap out of hot water sensibly --  if dropped in -- but foolishly stay in cold water that is slowly heated to the boiling point because incremental change discourages prompt action.  Let's hope that the temperature doesn't get any hotter in these digital expression cases before faculty collectives finally intervene at the policy level

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