Four (and a half?) thoughts on “social media” and academics– about Kansas and generally

Happy New Year! And I’m going to start off blogging in 2014 with something I meant to blog about a few weeks ago, a little bit about the “social media” and the Kansas Board of Regents’ policy against it.

I’m assuming most people who are reading this are familiar with what I’m talking about, but just in case: as reported here in the Lawrence (Kansas) World Journal, the state’s Board of Regents passed a policy where employees of the state’s universities can be fired for inappropriate use of social media. This apparently is the result of some tweets a journalism professor named David Guth had back in September about the shootings at the Navy Yard facility in DC.  The tweet that sent the Kansas board over the edge (apparently) was “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

I’ve got four (or so) thoughts/points I thought I’d share, but before I do, it seems to me like I ought to bracket all of this with a simple rhetorical question: What the hell is wrong with Kansas?  I mean, it isn’t just the board of regents that is a bunch of right-wingers, as this Rolling Stone piece from last June points out.

Anyway, more or less in this order:

First, for more and ongoing information on this, go read Phillip Nel’s blog, “Nine Kinds of Pie.” Specifically, you might want to check out this collection of links, which he says he’s going to keep updating. Nel is a professor at Kansas State who has been blogging about lots of stuff for a long time.  Good stuff.  And because he’s a Children’s Lit professor/scholar, Annette knows him.  Small world.

Second, this policy is so stupid it’s irrelevant. Probably. What I’m getting at is this is just so ridiculous and ill-conceived by a board who obviously doesn’t know how these things work that I just have a hard time believing that anyone working at a university in Kansas is actually going to get fired for a tweet. How exactly does this get enforced? Who’s going to be screening the tweets and facebook updates and blog posts of thousands of different employees? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would hold up in court, and it also seems to me like it would be pretty easy to circumvent in a variety of different ways– posting to social media anonymously, for example.

In a way, this all reminds me a bit of a rule/policy that was (supposedly) in place in Oregon when I was teaching at Southern Oregon University. As I understood it, faculty were not allowed to express a political viewpoint, meaning (basically?) it was against the rules for a faculty person to campaign for one political candidate or another. But the details about what this really meant were never clear to me. I suppose it would be against the rules to spend time in my classes explaining to students why they had to vote for so-and-so (which I wouldn’t do anyway), but it wasn’t clear to me if I was going to be violating this policy if I hung a campaign poster in my office or if I wore a campaign button while teaching or if I parked my car with a campaign bumper sticker on it in the faculty lot. When I asked people about this policy, they inevitably just rolled their eyes. And while I was only there for a couple of years, it seemed like a largely ignored policy to me.

Probably though. I think this “policy” will go away and this article from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education implies that the board is rethinking things a bit. But like I said, Kansas is a pretty nutty state, and I for one wouldn’t want to be the professor in the Kansas system who is the “test case” for this rule.

Third, social media can be a good thing for universities, too. EMUTalk.org is a good example of that. This is more or less my “hobby” blog about EMU, though I always make it clear that this has nothing to do with my day job and it has no official connection with EMU.  I’ve been running the site for about seven years now, and while the number of hits varies quite a bit and it isn’t as high as it once was, I’m still getting on average about 10,000 hits there a month. A lot of it is critical/negative about EMU of course, but a lot of it is also positive and I think the site serves as a good source for unofficial news and campus gossip.

I also know that official folks at EMU feel the same way. I’ve met lots of them and I even get fairly regular “press release” kinds of information to post on the site from the PR folks.  And interestingly enough, no administrator-type at EMU has ever a) said anything negative to me about the site and/or b) suggested I ought to shut the site down/not publish something “or else.” I mean, I was never worried about my job because I’m a tenured full professor at a place with a strong faculty union that is not in Kansas, but I have to say that I am surprised that I haven’t received any blowback from the site.  Which brings me to my next point:

Fourth, there are consequences to all kinds of speech, and everyone– perhaps especially academics– ought to think before they tweet/post/otherwise share online.  I’m specifically not going to refer to a certain writer/blogger I reference in different ways in my two previous posts, though that’s an example of what I’m getting at. No speech is ever completely “free” and in normal face-to-face settings or in scholarship, and I think everyone understands that. If I say the wrong thing in a meeting with my department head or my colleagues, there are going to be some bad feelings and other repercussions. If I present/publish something in an academic setting that lots of other academics think is wrong, then these people will think less of me and my ideas.

But while we understand this in face to face/conventional settings, it seems like a lot of academics forget that these same rules apply online as well. There’s a false sense of intimacy created by social media: we feel like we are only posting on Facebook to our friends or to our Twitter followers, and it can feel like no one is really reading what we write. In many cases, that’s true– a lot of social media/the blogosphere goes unread or unnoticed– but anything posted online can also turn out to be awfully difficult to take back. Many years ago, educators worried about students posting things on social media that would come back to haunt them later. Now it seems like the educators are forgetting that the same is true with them.

So I’m not saying that a certain not to be named in this post rage-filled blogger/tweeter doesn’t have the right to write/post whatever she wants, and I’m not saying that David Guth didn’t have the right to post that tweet. I’m just saying that every speech act has consequences both wanted and unwanted, intended and not.

Oh, and I’m not saying I’m in favor of all of these consequences. Guth probably went too far in wishing ill upon the children of the NRA and “damning” them, but I understand his emotion and anger and his academic right to speech. I certainly don’t think this means he should get fired and I don’t think it justifies the Kansas policy.

The other example of Twitter and its consequences in the news right now is the Justine Sacco incident and this tweet:

And this post by someone who “was a communications executive for IAC, the parent company of a range of tech products such as Vimeo, CollegeHumor, and Dictionary.com.” You’d figure she wouldn’t forget the reach of social media!

Sacco was fired before her flight to Africa landed, and given who she worked for and what she did, that’s not that surprising. Though the online mob that wanted to kill and/or rape her was obviously out of line, that too is an example of unintended consequences. As I wrote about in my dissertation what seems like a million years ago now, the “immediacy” of rhetoric mediated in electronic environments can simultaneously be intimate and explosive.

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