A short vacation post about academics on Twitter, @saragoldrickrab, and what our students don’t know

I’m on a vacation/family trip right now, and even while “away,” I tend to get up early and I’m currently enjoying a bit of peace and quiet. Almost all of the other 17 or so people sharing this giant vacation house are still asleep. So I thought I’d take a little time– just a little– to offer a few more thoughts about the Twitter conversation I had this morning. And let me apologize up front for not having all the details of this particular dust-up, for typing quickly (and thus with typos and bad sentences), etc.:

The latest installment of academics gone wild and/or “getting in trouble” on Twitter comes from CHE, “U. of Wisconsin Professor’s Tweets Draw Criticism From Her Own Colleagues.” Seems fitting since I actually am in Wisconsin right now. Anyway, the “naughty” tweeter in question is Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in Education Policy. Here’s a quote from the article:

To several students who had tweeted their excitement about enrolling at Madison under the hashtag #FutureBadgers, Ms. Goldrick-Rab sent a link to an op-ed essay from the Journal Sentinel criticizing the removal of tenure protection from state statutes. Here are some of the responses she got:

Here CHE includes some response Tweets– here’s a link to that— where basically some not so informed college kids respond “ha ha we don’t care” and other nonsense. This was like a month ago. Then the College Republicans got involved a month later, in part because Goldrick-Rab kept on going and tweeted “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many- it’s terrifying.” This caused more outrage, more attacks on Goldrick-Rab on Twitter, and condemnation of Goldrick-Rab from both the UW Chancellor and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate.

And then, like I said, I stumbled into a spirited and pleasant Twitter conversation about some of this this morning.

So, a few thoughts in not a very precise order:

  • The general public doesn’t understand tenure or the difference between what it means to be a professor, an associate professor, an assistant professor, a non-tenure-track professor/instructor/lecturer, part-timer, or a graduate assistant, all of which is to say that the general public does not understand why all these professors in Wisconsin are in such a tizzy about weakening tenure. So it is not at all surprising to me that some 18 year old young people “stoked” about being admitted to UW think it is uncool for sara to kill their buzz with some sort of newspaper article, man. Because even though Goldrick-Rab is completely right, academics in Wisconsin (really, everywhere) have A LOT more work to do to explain to our students and the public at large how this all works and why this matters. A lot more work.

Most of what academics take as “common knowledge” about how higher ed works is a mystery to the rest of the world. I can recall times where some of these issues have come up informally in class discussions over the years– sometimes during faculty union contract negotiations– and I’ve taken five minutes to explain to a room full of juniors and seniors some of the basics of higher ed hierarchies, not only about faculty but also administrators. For most of my students– juniors and seniors,  mind you!– this is all new information. So again, while Goldrick-Rab is completely right, she made the faulty assumption that her audience of stoked would-be freshmen would actually understand her references to this op-ed.

  • The second mistake I think Goldrick-Rab made is the comparison to Hitler, and actually, as a general rule of thumb, I think any argument that makes a comparison to Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. to a contemporary figure– as in “Scott Walker is like Hitler”– is lazy and it’s going to cause trouble. This “x is like Hitler” trope shows up so much on Twitter because it’s shorthand and you only have 140 characters. The problem is it’s not accurate– I am no fan of Scott Walker, but I don’t think he’s likely to wage an aggressive war of domination in Europe and a systematic extermination of the Jews– and it can be taken way out of context by a group like College Republicans, who are already probably sensitive enough to informally being compared to Nazis. Anyway, my first piece of advice to any would-be academic Twitter-er: no Hitler comparisons.
  • Two other bits of advice to would-be academic Tweeters (and this is a bit of a tangent, but it came up in my Twitter conversation this morning) I’ll mention. First, Twitter is a terrible place to try to discuss anything that is at all complex or controversial, and yet academics try to use it for that purpose all the time. This is why (IMO) online spaces like blogs are still relevant and useful: instead of trying to convey all this on Twitter, I just shared a link to this. Maybe not as many people will read all of my rant here, but I am less likely to be misunderstood and/or taken out of context.

Second, academics (and anyone else, for that matter) who take to Twitter to express strong (and controversial) beliefs can’t get too upset when they are held accountable in some fashion for expressing those beliefs, especially when those beliefs actually take more than 140 characters (sans Hitler references) to convey. Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for academic free speech and I’m not suggesting that Goldrick-Rab or Steven Salaita or any other academic ought to be fired over Tweets. I’m just saying that if an academic (or anyone else) posts provocative stuff on Twitter, they shouldn’t be too surprised if a) it offends people and/or b) the message gets passed around and gets out of the writer’s control in a hurry.

  • Having said all that, I think the executive committee of the University of Wisconsin faculty senate are behaving like a bunch of wimpy knuckleheads. First off, Goldrick-Rab didn’t tell those young people not to come to UW; she referred them to an op-ed piece in Milwaukee’s mainstream newspaper about the impact of Walker’s budget cuts and rollbacks/changes to tenure. These really are things that the faculty ought to be telling would-be students; keeping them in the dark doesn’t do the students any good and it kind of indirectly supports Walker et al’s decisions. Second, what the hell is the point of faculty senate if it isn’t going to defend the faculty’s right to speak? I’m sure there are some details I’m missing here, but as reported in CHE, these people are throwing one of their own ranks under the bus. That’s appalling.
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