“Je Tweet…!”

“My name is legion: for we are many.” Maybe that’s the faculty on Twitter these days. Including many who get themselves into ticklish situations—with no savior casting their devilish tweets into swine and herding them into oblivion in the sea. Yet they have sent themselves to Decapolis to publish, going home on their own.

Maybe it is Twitter itself that is legion: “Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him.” And maybe it is possessed by devils.

As Joan W. Scott writes, “Twitter disrupts… careful separation of the hidden and the acceptable, blurring the boundaries by offering a public forum for venting private feelings. In so doing, it makes the hidden visible and seems to reveal the ‘true’ nature of the tweeter—the reality ordinarily concealed by the rules of decorum and politesse.”

And no one is guiding us to the best way to deal with this.

More and more faculty members, like more and more people everywhere, are letting the lure of the simplicity of 140 characters lower their reserve. Guth, Salaita, Grundy, and now Goldrick-Rab (John Wilson wrote on her on the Academe blog earlier today). There are many more, before, between and forthcoming. They are, once more, legion.

The question has arisen: Should people (not just faculty) be more responsible for 140-character comments than they are for, say, the statements they make in a bar? Spoken words, when there are no recording devices, slip into the ether, gone forever. But there are recording devices (just ask Mitt Romney); many of our words live with us long after we thought them gone. They are not run into the sea.

We have yet to created effective protocols for a world where all words matter—and follow us as though they are inside us, no exorcism available.

Because of our unique position as faculty members, sheltered in our public statements by “academic freedom” protections beyond simple freedom of speech, we rally to protect our peers in part to protect the position of the faculty itself. It’s not (or it should not be) a matter of agreement or disagreement or even of propriety: If a faculty member finds her or his job compromised in any way because of any comments, even extramural comments on Twitter, we do everything we can to make sure that person’s position is not compromised.

We need to continue to do this. At the same time, though, we need to start figuring out ways of protecting ourselves even before things blow up on social media, but ways that do not themselves constitute any sort of even personal ‘prior restraint.’ We should not have to tweet on eggshells any more than we should have to limit our classroom speech because of that new campus bludgeon, “civility.”

Toward the end of her essay for The Nation, Scott writes:

In 2008, the literary scholar and academic administrator Stanley Fish cautioned college and university professors to “save the world on your own time,” urging us to teach the facts or the texts in our chosen fields without taking a position on them. Fish thinks politics and scholarship are entirely distinct entities. But the separation between them is not so easy to maintain, because taking positions—on the quality of evidence used to support interpretations, on the reliability of certain methods of investigation, on the premises of the writers of texts and textbooks, on the ethical issues—is part of a scholar’s job. Moreover, these positions are not neutrally arrived at by, say, balancing all sides until an objective view emerges; rather, they are based in deeply held political, intellectual, and ethical commitments on the part of the professor. Political advocacy, then, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is an aspect of academic pedagogy, not its subversion.

So true. The question remains, though: How do we continue our advocacy without getting sidetracked into what are, as Scott points out, attempts by other forces to control the faculty? How do we make sure that our tweets (and other public utterings, on social media or otherwise) do not become the ammunition for others?

We should never be telling each other (or ourselves) to “tone it down.” A heartfelt belief sometimes calls for a strident “J’accuse…!” But what should we be telling each other—and ourselves?

I don’t know. But we need to talk about it.

7 thoughts on ““Je Tweet…!”

  1. The issue is not tweets, but a general climate that says that the “comfort” and “safety” of students is of highest concern. So whether you tweet that white men are “the problem” for racism and sexism, or say it in your classroom, you’re still going to violate someone’s “comfort level.” I think talking only about tweets confuses the issue. There’s a climate now (aggravated by Title IX’s mandates since 2010) that makes causing students any form of discomfort actionable–hence the demand for trigger warnings, the accusations that teachers who use an occasional curse word or utter an opinion that disagrees with what a student believes, are “sexually harassing” their students, or the attention to microaggressions that are only loosely interpretable as sexist or racist (criticism of Affirmative Action for example). there’s a much bigger picture we need to think about than social media. What’s happening in relation to tweets is symptomatic, not causal.
    Joan W. Scott

    • Thanks, Professor Scott. You are absolutely right. Twitter is only one aspect of a much larger problem and, as you say, the Twitter blow-ups are simply symptoms. We really do need to be addressing the causes, which are much more fundamental (as you say) than their manifestations on social media.

      Sometimes it seems impossible to put out all the fires, especially since we know that someone is deliberately setting them, making sure that we cannot pay attention to them (the cause) through the necessity of attending to the results. The misuse of Title IX seems, at times, particularly pernicious, as Laura Kipnes has been discovering, twisted into an attack mechanism instead of a protection and means of promotion of equality.

      I hope this post, and others on the blog, can drive more readers to your article, where the underlying issues are laid out.

  2. “Political advocacy, then, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is an aspect of academic pedagogy, not its subversion.”

    Maybe,maybe not, Ms. Scott – but arguing that tweeting qualifies as pedagogy is silly.

    • chhanks, if you look at the breadth necessary for adequate teaching in the humanities and social sciences, almost any public activity can count as an aspect of academic pedagogy. Engagement with the world is critical to any effective pedagogy and tweeting is most certainly a form of engagement.

      • Please explain the “breadth” (you claim) is “necessary” for “adequate teaching”?

        Sounds to me like you’re asserting what you’re trying to prove…i.e., begging the question.

        How about this:

        “Adequate teaching” of any subject (humanities and social sciences included) requires:

        – decent texts;
        – teachers who understand their subjects and can explain them to students in lectures, quiz sections and seminar discussions;
        -relevant homework assignments and reviews;
        – being perceptive to what students are ‘getting’ and what they aren’t.

        I’m sorry, but public activities outside that – including tweeting (or, equivalently, shooting one’s mouth off at a cocktail party, or in a bar, or in the faculty lounge, or in a TV interview, or in a blog, etc.) – has nothing to do with “adequate teaching.”

        • You are trying to reduce teaching to training. It is not. You are trying to reduce teaching to regurgitation of the known. It is more than that.

          Teaching concerns much more than any particular subject matter. It is an attempt to impart an attitude of engagement and exploration. To be able to do that, one has to be engaged oneself… and one has to take risks with the unknown.

  3. Pingback: Expansive Teaching Versus the Assembly Line | The Academe Blog

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