We’ve Moved!

Big News!

Dear readers,

Conditionally Accepted is now a biweekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Our new blog posts will appear on our IHE column, located here: http://www.insidehighered.com/users/conditionally-accepted.  In our first blog post, I remind readers what it means to be “conditionally accepted” in academia — the marginalization, bias, discrimination, and accusations of conducting “me-search” that oppressed scholars face regularly in the academia.

Be sure to tune in to our IHE column every other Friday for new posts from me (@grollman), and regular contributors Dr. Jeana Jorgensen (@foxyfolklorist), Dr. J. Sumerau (@jsumerau), and — introducing — Dr. Manya Whitaker (@ivyleaguelady).  We continue to accept guest blog posts, which can be pitched or emailed to us at conditionally.accepted@insidehighered.com.  (See our suggested guidelines for guest blog posts here.)

Also, you can continue to keep up with us on Facebook and Twitter (@conditionaccept), as well.

Finally, a note of thanks.  Thank you to our thousands (tens of thousands?) of readers for your time and interest, for sharing our blog posts with your friends and colleagues, for returning multiple times to see our latest content.  Thank you to the few dozen guest bloggers who have given away a piece of themselves on this blog.  Thank you to my department and university colleagues who repeatedly reminded me that it was silly to fear that my secret-public blog would cost me my job and, instead, that this work is important and actually valued.  Thank you to friends and family who have encouraged me to fight with my passion, not against it.  And, special thanks to my partner Eric (yes, with the same first name), who has never grown tired of hearing about blog posts, intellectual activism, trolls, the traumatizing experience of grad school, R&Rs, IHE, and everything else related to being “conditionally accepted.”  And, now thanks to Inside Higher Ed for taking a chance on us, taking this little project prime time.

In Solidarity,
Eric Anthony Grollman

Tweets For Liberation: The Promise Of Digital Popular Education

ShayShay Akil McLean is a Sociology PhD student and activist.  He studies the philosophy of biology, medical ethics, bio ethics, and the impact of intersectional inequality on human biology and health inequities.  He works to provide free popular education resources on his website (decolonizeallthethings.com) and tweets at @Pundit_AcadEMIC and @DATTFreedomSch.  In this post, he discusses the urgency of making contextually- and historically-accurate academic scholarship available for the advancement of oppressed groups. He highlights the powerful potential of digital popular education — for example, teaching through Twitter — to liberate us.

The Promise of Digital Popular Education

#BlackLivesMatter as a hashtag, organization, and series of movements has managed to do a lot. BLM is seen as a movement that gives voice to many Black people, not just in the US but across the diaspora. Living in a settler colonial police state that is organized around what Cedric J. Robinson calls “racial capitalism” has very much shaped the experiences of people of color worldwide. The death of Mike Brown was not the first nor will it be the last life claimed by police brutality. The uprising in Ferguson was one of the many boiling points we’ve seen Black communities arrive at after enduring endless violence from police vigilante acts. But now that race is being seen as a hot topic in the media, people from everywhere are weighing in.

What appears to be lacking from the center of the national conversation about racist violence is a strong connection between the public and those who research the social issues impacting their daily lives. One promising way to strengthen such a connection is through popular education, also known as education for liberation. Discussions on #BlackLivesMatter, police brutality, and race relations need to move beyond just hot topics.  While discourse for the sake of discourse seems a lot like improvement, it’s not. We can’t begin to move forward in any way if we aren’t having informed conversations about the impacts of white supremacy, cishetpatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, and settler colonialism on the lives of Black people, as well as Indigenous peoples, killed by police.

The call for informed discussions about inequality can only be met by empowering people through education. One thing that #BlackLivesMatter has managed to do as a collective movement is highlight the need for the people outside of academe to know what is being said about their lives versus the popular notions that we’ve all been told to believe. Contextually accurate historical information enables communities to more effectively organize themselves, produce platforms that move beyond reform, as well as join in solidarity with other communities.

The contextually accurate scholarship being produced in academe doesn’t always reach the very communities impacted by the research topic. As a graduate student and activist, I can see where the disruptions lie. There are issues blocking the public from having access to information from academic gatekeeping, language barriers, paywalls on scientific research, to the defunding of public libraries and the dismantling and defunding of predominately Black schools across the US. Knowledge being made public via social media is an important and crucial means through which people are working to forge that connection between academe and disempowered communities to promote popular education. Popular Education is education for liberation. It was theorized by Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire. Popular education is a process that fosters the empowerment of dominated people to take control of their learning process and contribute to building social change, justice, and equity from the bottom up.

Black Twitter (as a complex number of interactive communities and not a single entity) has changed a lot of the ways in which people create community and share knowledge. There are a number of communities within Black Twitter acting as informed voices of dissent. We’ve seen academics like Dorothy Roberts (@DorothyERoberts), Kimberlé Crenshaw (@sandylocks), Crystal Fleming (@FlemingPhD), Jessie Daniels (@jessienyc), Eric Anthony Grollman (@grollman), Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd), Christopher Emdin (@chrisemdin), Matthew W. Hughey (@ProfHughey) and many others have contribute to discussions about social issues based on their expertise.

You can also find a wide range of reading lists, syllabi, topic discussions, and hashtags around important issues (e.g. #BlackTwitterstorians, #HipHopEdChat, #DATT, #BlackAugustReadingList, #BlackResistanceReadingList, #SaturdaySchool, etc.). These hashtags, storified discussions, Tumblr posts, and other blog pieces are finding ways to realize popular education. Hashtags are not only a means to having discussions but also a useful teaching tool that people organize around to distribute popular education. Making scholarship public through social media is one of the many tools that we see people employing as a means to not only push back against popular narratives in media, but also to amplify the voices of those silenced by intersectional inequities.

And, academics aren’t the only ones chiming in. People across demographics are finding ways to analyze the social issues impacting their lives. There has been a range of digital non-academic and academic knowledge communities formed in attempts to making popular education accessible through digital teach-ins. As a graduate student and activist, I (as well as other students and community members) have worked to make the knowledge we come across accessible to the public. That was the goal of the “Decolonize All The Things Freedom School” (@DATTFreedomSch) that I ran this summer. There was a syllabus, access to all of free reading materials, Twitter chats for discussion, and summaries of the readings written by me and another intellectual activist, Arash Daneshzadeh. I later redesigned the program for online use.   We did our best to avoid difficult language in scholarly text for the program to increase its utility across populations. I, and many others, have used our Twitter accounts to do some of that same work of undoing gatekeeping surrounding academic knowledge.

This year, I attended a couple of academic conferences and noticed a disturbing trend: there is a lot of research about inequality, but most of it is limited to expensive conferences that exclude the public. Researching inequality for the sake of just researching inequality turns social issues into spectacle and inequity into a sort of fetish. It is time for academe to move its research from being “inequality porn” to knowledge in service of the public, knowledge in service of a vision of transformative and restorative justice.

However, relying on an entire institution to provide the education people need to liberate themselves isn’t realistic. The voices of these scholars should not be on the margins of public conversations about the very phenomena influencing the lives of those most affected by it. There are academic intellectuals and community/organic intellectuals who are finding ways to connect and disseminate information crucial to social movements. Making knowledge public through social media is a means through which we can find ways to empower our communities through an informed awareness.

Popular education is what is needed in oppressed communities to foster justice, progressive social change, and equity led by the very communities affected by domination. As stated by Assata Shakur, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.” And, with that understanding, we can see the need for organizing around education through digital platforms to provide the tools that we very rarely receive from the formal institutions that limit or lock us out of participation. Popular education enables oppressed communities to ground their individual troubles in the larger context of the social issues causing them. The promise and potential of digital popular education is to formulate a means of empowering those on the margins with a means to fight back and organize to build equitable communities.

How To Support A Scholar Who Has Come Under Attack

Thank A Public Scholar

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.)

Make her a thing

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.

Hasson2

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.)

Memphis Tweet

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.

And:

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.

Source: Dahlberg, L.L., & Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence – a global public health problem. In: E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, & R. Lozano (Eds.), World Report on Violence and Health (pp. 3-21). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Source: Dahlberg, Linda, and Etienne Krug. 2002. ” Violence – A Global Public Health Problem.”  Pp. 3-21 in World Report on Violence and Health, edited by E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, and R. Lozano. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

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.

Individual-Level Strategies

  • 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 valueDo 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 about sanction 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.”

Adjuncting And Academic Freedom

Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

In another post here at Conditionally Accepted, Eric asserts: “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.”

Eric writes from the perspective of a tenure-track scholar, though he acknowledges that tenure won’t protect scholars if the institutions backing them withdraw support in the face of public ire. The question of institutional backing is even more hazy for scholars in adjunct positions, like myself.

Adjuncting In The Context Of Academic Labor

As Kelly J. Baker points out, “The reality of academic labor is the separation of those who can gain access to tenure from those who cannot.”  In order to give some historical context, Baker traces the origins of tenure as a protection primarily for teaching activities, not necessarily research ones: “The AAUP describes teaching as the main work of the university, and tenure became the mechanism to protect teachers from the whims of political leaders, the larger public, and their own institutions. Education was a common good that must be safeguarded.” She advocates for creating a system wherein contingent laborers, like us adjuncts, have both academic freedom and economic security. I would love to have both of these things, but I’m not holding my breath.

Generalizing about adjuncting is tough because we have very diverse experiences. I know that I am not the only one with academic freedom concerns; adjuncts who are also activists have been fired. And as Kate Weber points out, we’re hindered by having a repetitive, overly simplistic conversation about whether adjuncts are “good” or “bad” teachers, when a more apt assessment of the situation would be: “If #highered has to rely so much on underpaid labor, then its foundation is cracked — but not because #adjuncts are bad at their jobs.”

I am in the fortunate position of not letting myself be defined by my adjunct role (neither financially nor in terms of my overall identity).  In fact, it may be better for me to take chances with my public persona because that is the very expertise that I bring to the classroom as an adjunct. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t agonize over academic freedom, or whether blogging about a certain topic in my sex educator persona will be too much.

Controversy And Precarity

I teach controversial topics in my classes, employing what I hope are common sense and empathetic strategies to support students as they confront topics like STIs, sex education, sexual assault, and alternative sexualities. I also blog and tweet (@foxyfolklorist) about these topics in my capacity as a freelance writer and sex educator. My department chairs know that I do this work; my students know, too.  And, if anyone else’s opinion on it matters, it’s news to me.

Despite being a woman on the internet with opinions, I have yet to receive any death threats or rape threats. Maybe I haven’t written anything controversial enough yet, or maybe my writing simply hasn’t come to the attention of the right hatemongers. If and when it happens, though, I’ll face similar problems as the professors whom Eric discusses in his blog post – though without the safety net of tenure. There’s always the chance that my institution decides that the “all press is good press” axiom is not, in fact, their preferred policy when it comes to media attention for their scholars.

In one sense, I’m not in too precarious of a position because I have decided to pursue adjuncting the way it “should” be done (in my opinion): not as a stepping-stone to something better that will probably never materialize, but rather as a way to stay engaged in teaching and maintain institutional affiliation to help me continue to do research. I also don’t do it as a primary source of income. I bring real-world experience and expertise as a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator to the classroom, which, again, is how adjuncting should work in my mind. The poor wages and job security aren’t quite so bad when adjuncting is viewed as something that a real-world professional does on the side in order to bring their experience into the classroom to benefit students. The sheer amount of work it takes to teach a class means that the pay scale remains on the degrading side no matter how you slice it, but since I shifted my view from wanting to eventually get a tenure-track full-time position to stepping back from full-time academia, my experience of adjuncting has been healthier and more realistic.

So from this perspective, it’s hardly a bad thing that I have strong opinions about the miserable state of sex education in the U.S., or that I reblog essays about polyamory at popular sites like YourTango.com, or that I’m interviewed as an expert in articles on how to incorporate BDSM in your love life. I maintain pretty clear professional boundaries by not talking much about my own sex life on the web or in the classroom, even though someday I’d like to see a world where no one is judged for doing or speaking of any (consensual) sex act.

On the flip side, though, the lack of job security that most adjuncts face makes it a bit scary to think and tweet outside the box. If tenured professors are facing more push-back when they exercise their academic freedom, what will happen to adjuncts when we do the same?

Scrutiny And Censorship

As an example, Laura Kipnis published an essay on sexual paranoia in academe. I didn’t care for the essay – but whatever, it’s free speech. Then I read about what she termed her “Title IX Inquisition” [paywall], which included mysterious phone calls, having to meet with people who wouldn’t tell her exactly what the charges brought against her were, not being allowed to have an attorney during these meetings, being taken to task for a single tweet, and so on. That was a terrifying read, and if it can happen to a full professor, what about the rest of us?

The censorship Alice Dreger has experienced (albeit as a part-timer) is also frightening (and relevant for me, since she became internet-famous in part for critiquing the terrible abstinence-only sex ed happening in her son’s classroom).  She astutely observes: “in my world, the fear of offending someone is reason enough to forget about academic freedom.” She asserts that if her contract is not renewed at the end of the next term, it won’t be because of the quality of her work; it’ll “be because what I’m saying is off-brand and might offend somebody.” Is this really how we want our country’s professional intellectuals to be operating? Worrying about losing a job due to their public-facing statements and research not fitting an institutional brand?

Further, it’s infuriating to see the amount of scrutiny that’s happening to professors who write and tweet in attempts to exercise academic freedom in contrast to the extreme oversights happening in Institutional Review Board cases. This NYT op-ede about the medical research mishaps at the University of Minnesota details multiple “ethical breaches, [which] university officials have seemed more interested in covering up wrongdoing with a variety of underhanded tactics.” This is uncomfortably reminiscent of how many universities handle sexual assault, which is to say, rarely, sneakily, not well, and sometimes not at all.

As the author points out, “In what other potentially dangerous industry do we rely on an honor code to keep people safe? Imagine if inspectors never actually set foot in meatpacking plants or coal mines, but gave approvals based entirely on paperwork filled out by the owners.” It’s bizarre to me that university review boards trust (usually tenured) researchers to carry out ethical research based on this honor code, but don’t seem to trust professors to be ethical in the classroom and in the public eye.

Perhaps what’s at stake is less a scholar’s ethics, and more the potential for unwanted attention based on not only lack of ethics but also anything controversial. After all, how many complaints from an unethical study will have to add up before it comes to the public’s notice, vs. how many student complaints, or tweets from the greater public, can make a scholar sound like a bad person or an unworthy teacher?

Staying An Active Scholar (At What Cost?)

I wish I had some suggestions for how to continue to be active as a scholar in the public eye when one is also an adjunct, but all I’m coming up with is trite advice to be so awesome that they’ll want to hang onto you regardless. At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor pushing that process along. One thing that’s been helpful for me is affirming that my identity remains that of a scholar regardless of my institutional affiliation. I was recently invited to participate in a symposium on digital approaches to fairy tales, “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder,” which was a huge honor. To be deemed worthy of inclusion in a small working group of scholars doing cutting-edge research was great for my self-esteem. However, I haven’t told my institution about my participation in it yet because I don’t know whether they care about my activities outside the classroom.

In closing, I’m curious about whether other adjuncts have thoughts to share here. I know I’m not the only one who makes an effort to stay active in scholarship and the public arena while simultaneously trying to make sure I do the right things to keep my adjunct position for as long as it benefits me.

Introducing: Write Where It Hurts

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On June 2nd, three sociologists — Xan Nowakowski, J. Sumerau, and Lain Mathers (see their biographies on their site) — launched a new blog, Write Where It Hurts, that will feature blog posts for and by “scholars doing deeply personal research, teaching, and service.”  In this guest blog post, Xan, J, and Lain describe their findings from an informal study of scholars’ sense of personal connection with (i.e., subjectivity) or detachment from (i.e., “objectivity”) their scholarship.  These findings led them to create Write Where It Hurts (WWIH), which they describe in more detail below.  Readers are encourage to submit their own guest blog posts to WWIH (wewritewhereithurts [at] gmail [dot] com).

Write Where It Hurts

Like every scholar we have ever encountered, the three of us were initially drawn to teaching and research in hopes of understanding experiences within our own lives. While we have met people focused on lab treatments of biological material, evaluations of organizations, social inequalities and patterns, and survey design, in each case we came upon people who sought to make sense of things that were relevant to their personal lives. Through casual conversations with our colleagues, we noticed a discrepancy among their stories. Some of these people admitted this aspect of their life course by telling others and us directly how aspects of their life led to their work. Others, however, often claimed the opposite; for example, some people we met claimed to be “objective” despite making claims about elements – like race, class, gender, or other social issues – that influenced their social lives. As a result, we decided to explore this discrepancy further.

The Sources Of Scholars’ Research And Teaching Interests

To further our casual observations, we began directly asking fellow scholars how their personal experiences influenced their teaching and research at conferences, in departments, and on online forums. After learning in graduate programs that we were expected to attempt to be “objective” and pursue science from a “professional distance,” we sought to find out whether people actually thought such a position was actually realistic. We learned very quickly that the same discrepancy we saw in personal relationships and official training programs existed in the response of academics in various fields. Some of them quickly noted how, for example, a fascination with animals as a kid, a search for truth as a church member during childhood, or an experience of marginalization shaped their interest in academic work. Others, however, found many ways to argue that their own focus on this or that subject had nothing to do with their personal life, and was rather simply a “creditable” and “important” area of work. Not surprisingly, these informal conference talks revealed some interesting patterns in who said what about “objectivity.”

Digging deeper, we found three patterns in our informal study. First, most of the people who claimed “objectivity” or a “lack of emotional investment” occupied privileged social locations (e.g., white, male, middle-to-upper class, heterosexual, cisgender, religious, or normatively-bodied). Yet, most of the people who admitted the “subjective” nature of academic work and disclosed the “personal” experiences that fed into their research and teaching interests occupied at least one marginalized social location. Second, the people who claimed “objectivity” tended to be doing work in mainstream areas of scholarship long defined as politically and academically legitimate, whereas the people who were most often open about the “emotional” aspects of their work typically worked in newly emerging, controversial, and/or emotionally charged areas that conflict with established political and academic traditions. Finally, we noticed that academics in mainstream fields and privileged social locations often made claims about personal aspects of their lives without ever being accused of doing “me-search” (i.e., heterosexuals using lab samples to make claims about sexual norms, or religious people using surveys to talk about religion), while these same people used “me-search” as a type of slur targeted at anyone doing innovative work or occupying marginalized social locations.

Along the way, it became increasingly clear to us that academic programs, departments, and traditions encouraged people to pretend they were “objective” or “rational” despite the “subjective” and “emotional” aspects of all teaching and research. In fact, we listened as countless people in varied academic fields explained the ways that talking about emotions or personal experiences were devalued, marginalized, and attacked within their training programs, tenure-track positions, and academic organizations. Familiar with long traditions of critical pedagogy and scholarship, we began to recognize this culture of silence as a way to maintain academic hierarchies concerning who could speak, what could be said, and what “counted” as legitimate teaching and research. As many activist and academic communities have done throughout ourstory – including Conditionally Accepted in relation to marginalization within the academy – we sought to find a way to pull the emotional and personal elements of teaching and research out of the shadows and into the light of day.

To this end, we began hosting panels at conference meetings wherein people were encouraged to share the personal and emotional side of their research and teaching experiences. In so doing, we realized very quickly that many people longed to have space for sharing these stories, building community around these issues, and gaining resources and support for doing emotional and personally relevant work within and beyond the academy. As a result, we decided to create such a space in hopes of providing an opportunity to discuss the emotional and personal aspects of our work and in so doing, begin dismantling the myth of “objectivity” promoted in our disciplines and used to marginalize many academics and fields of study. Last week, we launched such a space in the form of a blog community entitled Write Where It Hurts, and we invite all interested parties to become involved in this conversation.

WWIH Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Write Where It Hurts Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Creating A Space To Write Where It Hurts

Write Where It Hurts serves as a public forum for discussions about the personal and emotional aspects of teaching and research. Specifically, we offer and collect contributions from scholars in different fields teaching and doing research in areas that are personally relevant to them, emotionally charged in relation to academic and broader social norms, and/or marginalized or defined as “me-search” by people attempting to enforce notions of “objectivity” predicated upon privileged social status and approved areas of study. Further, our site offers resources, tips, and strategies for navigating emotional and personal tensions, traumas, and concerns we face as teachers and scholars facing systemic inequalities within and beyond the academy, and critiques of “objectivity” claims made by members of privileged groups to justify hierarchical notions of what “counts” as legitimate teaching and research. Finally, our site displays both open and anonymous examples of these dynamics and the ways people manage them in hopes of providing a supportive community and public dialogue about these issues, which may be used when scholars attempt to disrupt the culture of emotional and personal silence promoted throughout academic operations.

We chose to call the community Write Where It Hurts for three specific reasons. First, it is noteworthy that people are only accused of doing “me-search” or “subjectivity” when they study things that are controversial or innovative, and thus these people are subjected to painful experiences with other academics simply for daring to be different types of teachers and researchers. While white males (or members of other privileged groups) who use surveys to measure gender or race are also doing personally relevant research based on their own emotional and social experiences, for example, they are freed from such critique due to their privileged social positions in ways that minority scholars are not. Minority scholars and those utilizing non-standard methods must therefore subject themselves to pain (or write where it hurts) to build careers within inequitable academic traditions. We thus focus on Writing Where It Hurts to draw attention to this imbalance, and begin the process of dismantling these inequitable patterns of academic interpretation and practice.

Second, we recognize long standing traditions wherein revealing marginalized narratives, experiences, and ways of knowing disrupt the silence necessary for maintaining inequitable systems.  Following Feminist, Critical Race, Queer, Interactionist, Nonreligious, Indigenous, and other Critical traditions, we thus recognize the power of expression to disrupt existing norms and patterns that serve to marginalize and silence some preferences and peoples for the sake of the elevation of others. In such traditions, there is a long tradition of writing about the pain, sharing the hurt, and expressing the struggle to build community, facilitating recognition of unconventional practices and beliefs, and finding support in the face of dominant ideologies and structures. We thus encourage others – both within and beyond the context of our blog, Conditionally Accepted, and other forums seeking to better our current academic structures – to Write Where It Hurts to both allow others to recognize the existence of such pain, provide support for those who have been convinced they suffer alone, and establish narratives and resources for challenging the inequalities at the heart of such pain.

Finally, our experiences (both informally and formally) offering panels on the emotional aspects of teaching and research have shown us that there are many people wrestling with these issues on a daily basis. In many cases, people are facing and navigating personal trauma, experiences with harassment and discrimination in varied forms, and other difficult life experiences in an attempt to further understanding of understudied aspects of this social experience that effect multitudes of people. In so doing, these people are drawing on their own pain to teach the world about sensitive and controversial realities, but in so doing, they face their own pain and trauma in every aspect of their professional lives. As such, we call our project Write Where It Hurts to celebrate their efforts, and create a community where these efforts are validated, recognized, and given voice in ways that are often to hard to find in existing academic programs, departments, and traditions.

In closing, we invite all readers to check out our blog community, and contribute in any way they see fit. Write Where It Hurts is committed to inclusive and supportive dialogue where all people are recognized and respected regardless of perceived difference in social location, and where the only requirement for membership is supporting the equitable treatment and affirmation of all people seeking a more just and egalitarian world. As fans and supporters of Conditionally Accepted, we are delighted to have the opportunity to share our project on this platform and with its readers and contributors, and we see our own project as an emerging complement to the work done by this site. To this end, we encourage all readers to consider Writing Where It Hurts on this site, our own, and others while doing your part to affirm others who openly engage in emotionally and personally relevant teaching and research geared toward the betterment of our shared social world.

Please, #ThankAPublicScholar

PublicScholar

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

Academic Freedom Won’t Protect Us

Tenure

“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.)

2nd Annual Congressman Parren Mitchell Symposium; Panel on Intellectual Activism in 21st Century America

2nd Annual Congressman Parren Mitchell Symposium — Panel on Intellectual Activism in 21st Century America: Ethics, Technology, and Constraints

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.)

Concluding Thoughts

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.