The young woman is a brilliant researcher. We’ve bonded before over dinner and art. She introduced me to Japanese toilets. That changed my life. She wanted advice and perhaps too a little comfort. Like many of us, she had heeded the call from universities for scholars to demonstrate their value to society through engaged “public scholarship.” It’s not an altogether altruistic call. Money is tight, tensions are running high, and higher education is making a case for its continued legitimacy to an increasingly disenchanted public. A little “show and tell” is one of many ways that we’re trying to shore up our defenses. An ambitious, curious sort, my colleague acted in good faith with disastrous consequences. A rather innocuous Op-Ed had unleashed a negative response from colleagues and friends that caught her off guard. This young woman learned that doing academia in public is risky. It’s something I could have told her. I could have also told her that the risk is not the same for everyone.
She sought me out, in particular, because I may be a bit of a lightening rod for such things. I was well enmeshed in social media and online publishing before I started graduate school. I saw no need once I embarked upon the journey of the latter to discontinue the former. It was also a survival mechanism. Social media was a lifeline for me when, as a first year graduate student, I found myself without an adviser or a clue. I have built professional relationships in virtual spaces that have been invaluable for my career and personal well-being. Many of my closest mentors and advocates started as twitter follows or blog commenters. I have also used public discourse to engage powerful actors in media and academe, sometimes to contribute and other times to agitate. That I have done this as a graduate student strikes some as brave and others as foolish. I’m inclined to agree with the latter even while I encourage more of us to do this work. However, in encouraging scholars, particularly women and minority scholars, to jump into the public discourse we must add a note of caution about the potential consequences. The irony of good public scholarship is that when it is done well it will inspire strong reactions. You’ve not lived until your first Internet hate message. That vitriol is one thing when it is confined to comments on a blog post but when it is coming from colleagues or senior members of your field engagement can have serious consequences. Making public scholarship less dangerous requires institutional commitment, allies, and advocates.
Doing academia in public view is both a powerful tool and a potentially powerful weapon. Traditional academic work is cloaked in layers of organizational process, bureaucracy and professionalism that insulates researchers from precisely the kind of critique public scholarship invites. If someone attacks your published manuscript as trite or ill-conceived, there is comfort in being able to say that your peers judged it noteworthy and a publisher validated it as a valuable contribution. There is no buffer in public writing. As such, your words become you. And for many readers the allure of attacking the writer instead of the work is too seductive to deny. That can be a shock when you are accustomed to the civil discourse, no matter how thin or banal, that governs academic critique.
But, what happens when it is not just the general public that confuses the public nature of your writing with you, the writer, being a public property to be maligned? What happens when academics behave badly in public?
Currently, not much. In part, that is because of the same processes discussed above. Tenured professors and senior researchers with institutional cover and prestige risk very little by tearing down an offending Op-Ed or blog post. While universities are quick to promote public scholarship they are loath to extend their responsibility to include refereeing the behavior of academics in the public sphere. That becomes particularly salient if you are woman or an ethnic minority in academe. There is no shortage of research on the challenges with which minorities and women contend in higher education. A recent forum at The Feminist Wire showcased essays about the health of black women in academe. A theme common to those stories should not sound unfamiliar to UVenus readers: isolation, fragile support networks, low prestige, and micro-aggressions.
I have argued that social media and online spaces provide a means for women and minority scholars to build networks as protective factors against institutional forces that marginalize them. But, I offer that argument with a caveat: doing so is not without risk.
As my friend discovered, there is no ethic guiding public scholarship. And, if you are a member of marginalized group you cannot appeal to your personal networks when you are attacked for your public writing. If you do not have a relationship with a supportive dean in the “real world” at your university then you also don’t have a dean to call when a senior scholar calls you an overly emotional woman because he did not like your Op-Ed. The inequalities women and minorities face in traditional academic models only exacerbates the potential risks of contributing to public scholarship. That is potentially devastating to those who would benefit most from the kind of visibility, credibility, and network building that public scholarship can provide.
I am clear about these risks. I am also clear that, for me, the risk of not speaking in these spaces is far greater. I am deliberate in how I engage conversations that matter to me. That I make that choice is not a reason for accolades and neither should it be a reason to shame those who make a different risk analysis. However, when women and minorities shy away from public scholarship from fear of retribution I am reminded of Audre Lorde who said, “Your silence will not save you.”
It need not be this way. We can minimize that risk. A recent event dubbed “twittergate” offers a model for public scholarship allies. I was, once again, involved in a public debate. This time it was about the ethics of live-tweeting conferences. The debate quickly spun into articles and blog posts, some constructive and others derisive. Some undercut the agency of the scholars involved entirely. All of us involved in the original debate are women and most of us are junior scholars and visible minorities. One news article on the debate credited a comment from one of us to a more senior white male academic. That scholar immediately called out the mistake, even though he was not central to the original discussion. He did it unequivocally and publicly. His comment immediately changed the tone of the debate in that post from dismissive to productive.
Similarly, administrators and academic leadership imploring scholars to engage in public scholarship must extend professional cover to those scholars who take them up on the charge. If universities are sincere about their commitments to being diverse, hospitable workplaces (and I concede that many are not) they must pay particular care to protecting minority scholars and women scholars and junior scholars who do this work. Much of the challenge institutions claim they face in recruiting and retaining minority talent is that being an “only” anything is a stressful event. Public engagement promises a way for scholars to build virtual communities to augment what their home institution may not be able to offer them. Universities that care about retention could go a long way by encouraging that kind of networking and minimizing the risk for those who need it.
The benefits of public engagement far outweigh the risks for me but I am an n of 1. I respect that my colleagues have competing concerns. Public scholarship benefits our institutions and contributes to the public discourse. It’s the content engine that keeps publishers in business and makes social media tools so valuable. Demanding a bit more of our institutions and of ourselves can reconfigure the risk scholars take each time they go public.
Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Emory University. She has worked in the for-profit college sector and now researches structural inequality, schooling, and labor outcomes. Her blog has been cited by Ms. Magazine's Bloghersphere, The Nation, Ebony.com, and Racialicous. She speaks frequently on issues of race, gender, inequality, and education.