“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.