The Education Twitterati

At an American Educational Research Association panel, academics discuss the rewards -- and risks -- of using social media to advance public scholarship.

April 12, 2016
 
Academics discuss how social media informs their scholarship.

Over the summer, in the midst of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to cut higher education funding and remove tenure protections, Sara Goldrick-Rab composed a tweet:

“My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many -- it's terrifying.”

And then, the next day, when Wisconsin lawmakers approved restrictions to public records, she tweeted:

“No doubt about it -- Walker and many Wisconsin legislators are fascists. Period. They proved it today. #SHAME.”

A few weeks later, Goldrick-Rab was publicly criticized by Faculty Senate leaders at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she works as a professor. (She is in the process of leaving Madison for Temple University.) In addition to tweeting about Walker, she also told prospective students not to waste their money, warning them that the university was changing. The Faculty Senate's steering committee wrote that it valued free speech but said Goldrick-Rab had crossed a line.

Now, nine months later, speaking from an auditorium stage, Goldrick-Rab thinks the fallout was an overreaction.

“What nonsense to be talking about a little tweet,” she said. “I love the word for it, because it’s so small and tiny.”

She told the story Monday at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting. As part of a panel about the role of social media in public scholarship, academics with prominent online presences spoke about the risks and rewards of using social media to advance academic work.

While Goldrick-Rab was perhaps the most outspoken of the group, the discussion focused extensively on how institutions react to public intellectuals -- in particular, public intellectuals who are not tenured.

“I believe that the words that were used to try to dissuade me from continuing my work was that what I was doing was ‘bad for the Badger brand,’” Goldrick-Rab told the audience, referring to the university's nickname. “I didn’t know it was my job to work on behalf of a brand.”

When Nolan L. Cabrera, a panelist and professor at the University of Arizona, spoke publicly about a controversy over Mexican-American studies in Arizona, he said he met with the university’s media relations team. They weren’t sure, they told him, how his work would make the university look.

“This is -- to me, a nontenured faculty member -- basically having the voice of the institution saying, ‘Not only do we not value what you’re doing, but we’re afraid of what it will look like,’” Cabrera told the panel.

While universities are stereotyped as bastions of liberalism, he added, they are actually quite conservative: they care deeply about their reputations, their sense of prestige, their ability to find donors.

“I know the office of the general counsel very well,” he said, “and they don’t like me very much.”

“The office of the general counsel -- that's good, but they’re not there for you,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’re there for the institution.”

Most public intellectuals also have to navigate the hazards of the comments section. Cabrera and historian Diane Ravitch are both learning to ignore Internet trolls, while Goldrick-Rab is learning to block the worst of the harassers.

"It is the cost of doing this work," Goldrick-Rab said. "I'm certainly willing to bear it. Otherwise I would have gotten off of Twitter and stopped blogging."

Despite the perils, the panelists agreed that public scholarship is worthwhile. For those who want to talk about their expertise, becoming a public intellectual on the Internet can pay dividends. Even in an uncontroversial subject area, obscure scholarship can reach vast audiences when a well-spoken professor learns how to set up a Twitter account.

“The average education peer-reviewed paper is read by 10 people,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University at Sacramento, “but Diane Ravitch has 27 million hits.”

It’s a number that Ravitch, an education historian, is proud of. She sees her blog as a place to connect with people in her field, and a platform where others can speak -- sometimes anonymously, as long as she’s vetted them properly.

Over the years, Ravitch’s work has become immensely popular. She has over 100,000 followers on Twitter. She’s been on The Daily Show twice. She’s written 10 books.

But at the same time, she blogs constantly. “I’m no longer addicted to Twitter,” she told the panel. “I’m addicted to blogging.”

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, echoed Ravitch. He knows he doesn’t have the same reach via Twitter -- he has a mere 8,500 followers -- but he spends extensive time on his Education Week blog, “Rick Hess Straight Up.”

“I think I blog 50,000 words a year, give or take,” he said.

None of those words, of course, are peer reviewed, and all the panelists said they make a clear distinction between scholarly work and public writing.

Hess never cites blogs in his scholarly work, though his own blogs sometime turn into rough drafts of papers. Cabrera cites blogs to set the stage for a paper, usually in the introduction, but never beyond that. Goldrick-Rab doesn’t think social media should be considered scholarship -- it’s probably best to consider it part of teaching, she said -- but in her new book, she cites tweets in the footnotes.

Goldrick-Rab was also the least reluctant to mix her personal life with her public scholarship. She wants to encourage women in academe, and she’s blogged about what it’s like to have two babies while on the tenure track.

She added that she wants her children involved in her work life -- even when her work life is very public. She wants her children to know why she’s working, to know what she does every day when she’s not with them. “They know a lot about the Pell Grant,” she said. “We named the cat Pell.”

Hess takes the opposite approach, never sharing pictures of his children online. “This is a way to engage with people professionally in the conversation,” he said. “My private life is for my family and my friends.”

Hess also publishes a ranking of the top 200 public scholars in education, designed to measure scholars with the most influence over education policy and practice. Goldrick-Rab noted that institutions like to brag about how many scholars are on the list while rarely praising individual scholars for their work. “It helps to reveal something about the academy,” she said.

Ravitch, on the other hand, found that her presence on social media may have helped her career. She’s never been tenured, and she asked her dean about staying on the faculty next year.

“I said, ‘Look at my standing on Rick Hess’s edu-scholar list,’ and he kept me on for this year,” she said. “I don't know about next year. I’ll have to see how I do on Rick’s list.”

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