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Dear Kerry Ann,

This year has been full of stories about engaged scholars being targeted for their social media activity. I’m active on Twitter, but as a tenure-track faculty member (I’m just finishing my first year), a scholar of color and a researcher who studies racial inequalities, the cumulative impact of these stories is scaring me and I’m not sure what the takeaway is for me as an individual faculty member. One of my mentors suggested I delete my Twitter account until my tenure decision, but that seems a bit extreme. I want to do research that matters, I want to win tenure at my current university and I can’t imagine not being engaged with a broader audience on social media. But right now I just feel deeply unsettled.


Confused on the Tenure Track

Dear Confused,

I understand why recent events might have you thinking seriously about your social media presence. And I agree that there has been lots of analysis of free speech issues, but little that’s helpful to individual faculty members who are reflecting on how and when they use social media. I imagine that your mentor has the best of intentions, but let’s not rush straight into black-and-white thinking (i.e., people have been targeted for their tweets, therefore no tweeting until you have tenure).

Telling millennial scholars not to engage in social media is like telling fish not to swim. So the question is not “Should you use social media as a tenure-track faculty member?” but “How can you intentionally and effectively utilize social media as an engaged scholar?” As always, there are no hard-and-fast rules, but let me suggest a few questions you can use for reflection.

Do You Have Sponsors?

If you are on the tenure track, underrepresented and do research that puts you on the front lines of political issues, please know that your vulnerability is multiplied by a factor of three. First and foremost, you are on probation at your institution, which means that you will face the inevitable reality that a group of humans will gather in a room at the end of that probationary period, discuss your work and collegiality, and vote on whether you’ve earned tenure and promotion (or not).

That decision will be based on a theoretically objective assessment of your teaching, scholarship and service. And that decision inevitably occurs through a subjective filter of how your colleagues feel about you. When people like and respect you, they tend to emphasize your assets and minimize your deficits. When people neither like nor respect you, they focus largely on your deficits and may seek evidence of your lack of collegiality or rigor and/or negatively characterize social media activity.

That’s a difficult situation to navigate for every tenure-track faculty member, but if you are also underrepresented, you may experience challenges to developing the kinds of relationships that result in your colleagues acting as sponsors. By sponsors, I mean people who use their power and influence on your behalf when your tenured colleagues are talking about you and you’re not present. Sponsorship is tricky because it requires influential people to expend their political capital for you, and it’s something that you can’t directly ask for (someone must be inspired to offer it). Because of the nebulous nature of sponsorship, you will need to invest energy into cultivating positive professional relationships over time, because they may not occur without proactive effort on your part.

And if you also do any type of research that challenges the status quo (in your discipline or in society generally), you are likely to receive an extra level of scrutiny, social media trolls targeting you and maybe even organized waves of public criticism. In our current moment of polarized race relations, aggressive political action and external pressure on universities, you need to be prepared for blowback. And this is where your relationships really matter. When something happens, sponsors frame the story on the ground -- rather than, “somebody needs to tell her to stop tweeting,” sponsors can say, “What policies does our university have in place to protect free speech in social media?” And more importantly, sponsors shape whether your social media engagement is perceived as an asset or deficit when it comes time to evaluate you.

If you’re an engaged scholar, active in social media and a person of color, there is an ugly reality that you may become the target of intense external scrutiny and organized political action. I’m not saying that you should delete your Twitter account, change your research agenda or stop producing rigorous scholarship on controversial topics. What I am saying is that you need to be conscious and intentional about when, where and how you engage, and you must cultivate internal sponsors who can provide you with protection when things get ugly.

What Are Your Filters?

If your goal is to win tenure and be an engaged scholar, you must not only have sponsors in your department, but you also need to develop some quick and easy filtering questions for how to use social media. For example, here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself before you tweet:

  • Is this the best medium for my argument?
  • Can the 140 characters I’ve produced stand alone (without lengthy explanation of context) as a defensible statement?
  • Would I say this tweet out loud to my colleagues or to students in a classroom?
  • Am I sober?
  • Am I in a nonreactive emotional state?
  • Have I spent at least 30 minutes today on my academic writing?

If the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes, tweet on! But if the medium is a bad fit for the argument, the tweet can easily be taken out of context, you’re using language that you wouldn’t use in a classroom, you’ve already consumed one or more alcoholic beverages, you’re tweeting from a triggered emotional state and/or you haven’t touched your academic writing today, then consider taking a deep breath instead of tweeting.

What Do You Really Want?

My final question for your consideration is: What exactly are you seeking from Twitter? The first response I hear from many early career scholars is, “I want to be a public intellectual, and this is how I’m doing it.” But I always like to dig a little deeper, because I acknowledge that there was no Twitter when I was on the tenure track and I don’t experience the same gravitational pull toward it that I genuinely hear being expressed. I truly want to learn (especially from my millennial colleagues): What does something like Twitter represent to you? As I’ve been discussing this issue with lots of new faculty this week, I’ve heard the following:

  • It’s a space to connect with a community of like-minded others (who are absent on my campus).
  • It's a space where I feel valued (in contrast to the daily devaluation and disrespect I experience on campus).
  • It’s a space where I receive immediate feedback and engagement, and that’s stimulating to my thinking (as opposed to the agonizingly slow process of academic publishing).
  • It’s a space where I feel like I can be myself (instead of putting on a professional mask or having to code-switch in order to be heard).
  • It’s a space where I feel important (even a sense of celebrity), because having lots of Twitter followers and retweets makes me feel like I’m having a larger impact than my citation index.
  • It is a welcome escape (because my real life is on a remote campus where I have limited social relationships and feel deeply isolated).

These comments are from scholars who describe feeling “pressured” to maintain a constant social media presence. Once we scratch the surface of where that pressure is coming from, it quickly becomes clear that social media is filling an unmet need. And if we can identify what that need is, we can also brainstorm alternative ways to create meaningful community, support and safe spaces. And of course, there are also many ways to work as a public intellectual (writing op-eds, publishing essays for a general audience, participating in community spaces, giving an expert interview, etc.…).

This summer may be a great time to experiment with some alternative mechanisms of engagement and then analyze the difference between how you feel after publishing an essay in The Huffington Post versus fighting with a Twitter troll.

And such experiments may have tremendous value for an even more important reason: they may reveal that life on the tenure track is not the best place for you to do the kind of work you really want to do. If generating research and classroom teaching aren’t at the center of what you want to do, then it may be time to seriously explore a shift out of academic life to become a professional writer, activist, consultant, change agent, speaker or commentator. The academic path can be deeply fulfilling if it’s what you truly want for your career. But if you find yourself feeling miserable on a daily basis because you’re yearning to do something else with your life, why not also give yourself the opportunity to explore other possibilities this summer?

I hope I’ve been able to address this topic in a way that makes it clear that my agenda is to support you in succeeding in whatever your goals are. If you’ve chosen the academic path and your goal is to win tenure, then it’s important to know that decision will be made based on an evaluation of your scholarship, teaching, service and collegiality (not the number of Twitter followers you have). Because of that you have to be proactive in cultivating sponsors, be extraordinarily productive in the areas where you will be evaluated and manage your social media activity so that it enhances (as opposed to undermines) what you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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