In recent years, we have seen an explosion of social-media activity within academia. In some ways, that isn’t a surprise. Given that students led the way in social media becoming a ubiquitous part of everyday life, colleges and universities would naturally see Facebook, Twitter, and the like as an important part of recruitment and engagement, resulting in their widespread use in student affairs and communications. More surprising, perhaps, is how faculty have taken to social media — both to talk among themselves and to engage with wider publics beyond the academy.
What does all of that activity mean for “the university”? In effect we have moved from the ivory tower to the glass tower.
The privilege and seclusion are still in place in the glass tower, at least relatively speaking. However the daily life of scholarship, as well as the institution itself, stands newly visible to wider society. That could prove a toxic combination as we enter a new era of political polarization and social upheaval. We’ve already begun to see a new inclination and capacity to scrutinise academia, without adequate preparation by those of us working within it to deal with the possible consequences.
Some of the recent developments are deeply sinister. For instance, the Professor Watchlist created by Turning Point USA invites readers to offer “tips” in order to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Turning Point asks for video or photographic evidence and many of the existing entries mention blog posts or tweets. There is still room to suspect that the site has primarily been a self-promotional exercise, undertaken by a donation-hungry organisation keen to win media coverage. Nonetheless, the watchlist highlights the possibility for low-cost and crowd-sourced surveillance of academic speech, and we may see more of the same in the future.
The glass tower can be much more prosaic than that. With the growth of websites like RateMyProfessor.com, crowd-sourced surveillance of academia can build upon what already takes place and can be something students willingly participate in.
Furthermore, social media is a tempting source for time-pressed journalists who — continually asked to do more with less within struggling newsrooms — are looking for a quick story. The opportunities to seize upon controversial tweets or blog posts, so easily taken out of context, only seem likely to grow with time.
How should we adapt to cope with the glass tower?
Part of the solution must be institutional. As the philosopher Steve Fuller has suggested, universities that want their faculty to be “socially relevant” ought to set aside a fund for paying damages. That would certainly be worthwhile, but we need to go much further than simply dealing with extremes cases. What seems crucial is that institutions begin to take responsibility for the public engagement that they increasingly expect of faculty.
The sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued that faculty engagement is part of the reputational currency of universities: Having “their” academics “out there” is an increasingly crucial part of the institutional brand. As Cottom has noted on Twitter, if they want the reputational currency, then they had “better have institutional processes & courage to go with it.” On her blog, she offered a list of policies that universities should have in place, such as protocols for threats against faculty and a policy for representing faculty against online attacks.
At present, we are moving dangerously close to a situation where academics are pushed out into the public sphere, with their institutions claiming the credit when things go right and disowning them when things go wrong. In such cases, we see what Eric Grollman describes as “academic tolerance” rather than academic freedom. The former looks like the latter until the scholar in question upsets an external audience — which in a society rife with discrimination can be as simple a matter as being in the public sphere in the first place.
While institutional reform is important, it does not address the practical dilemmas faced by scholars engaging online in the here and now. Underlying those issues is the well-studied concept of “context collapse” — the elimination of barriers that usually separate the different audiences we interact with, meaning a message we intend for one audience might be received by a vast array of others. Context collapse is effectively being forced, when the social-media posts of academics are taken out of context and presented elsewhere by media sites or political groups.
The possibility that people might be sifting through our communications in a politically motivated way raises the stakes but did not create the original problem. What we are seeing here is a transformation in how technology operates in the life of the university and how it bridges the gap between the academy and the wider society.
Furthermore, the political context within which academics speak is undergoing a radical change, at precisely the moment when it is easier than ever for academics to make public pronouncements within it. This environment could generate a new conformism, as the fear of having your words seized upon and taken out of context leads us to forego the creative opportunities that social-media sites afford. But it’s also an opportunity to dispense with old orthodoxies and think more deeply about our public role.
It would be an overstatement to claim that public scholarship is becoming the norm, simply by virtue of academics increasingly using social media. Nevertheless, we can no longer assume that our work will only be received by other scholars. We urgently need to adapt our professional expectations to the emerging realities of the glass tower.
Doing so would require social media and the online issues academics face to be incorporated into our professional training. That can no longer be seen as an optional extra but must be understood as something integral to the shaping of modern scholars. Professional organizations are best placed to frame and advocate that curriculum in terms of the specific conditions likely to be faced by practitioners of different disciplines.
But it would also be crucial for universities to remain open-minded, seeing social media as something with “internal” as well as “external” uses — with the regulatory challenge being to sustain the former (digital scholarship) in the face of the challenges posed by the latter (digital engagement).