Chronicle of Higher Ed: We Are All Public Intellectuals Now

Dealing online with students, administrators, and trolls is now part of the faculty job

It is always gratifying, as an academic, to exchange emails with someone who has read your work, if only because it serves as proof that someone out there actually has. Until last year, most of the emails and Tweets I received about my work were occasional requests for PDFs and, once, a very nice note from a woman who was delighted to discover that there was at least one other person in the world working on the same obscure text.

That changed when my work on harassment in video-game and Internet culture began to be noticed. Now I’m no longer simply excited and grateful for emails and Tweets about my work; I am also a mix of anxious and defensive.

As scholars, we face increasing expectations to publicize our work online and make our research available to people outside of academe. The result: We are all of us dipping our toes into the role of the public intellectual. And there are dangers lurking in those virtual waters — dangers that we all need to keep in mind when we respond to our Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

I see two major challenges for faculty members on this front. The first is pedagogical in nature: Should we respond to angry interlocutors when they are wrong about something?

Not long ago, I exchanged emails with an undergraduate who had a course assignment to reach out and contact the author of a piece of scholarly work. What a fantastic assignment, I thought — a wonderful way to communicate to students that academe is, at heart, a conversation and not a lecture. I was happy to be of service. However, once we got past the preliminary niceties, it became clear that the student had utterly and completely misread my work — as in this student thought that I was arguing a position fundamentally opposite to the one I actually hold. Not only that, but the student thought it appropriate to essentially scold me for reaching this conclusion (that I hadn’t actually reached).

I found myself in a conundrum: Should I push back against the mistaken reading and the inappropriate tone? Did I have a responsibility to take the time to turn this exchange into a “teachable moment”? This wasn’t even my student! I ended up spending 40 minutes crafting a response that gently pointed out the error and suggested that, in the future, the student might want to be a little more polite in approaching strangers for a favor. I never heard back. But the very decision to respond made me worry about what I might be getting myself into.

The second danger — and the one I fear most — is that online communications can so easily be taken out of context and redeployed to do real harm. Steven Salaita discovered that to his detriment when his tweets about Israel’s bombardment of Gaza were discovered by some wealthy donors to a university where he was about to begin teaching. The supposedly “uncivil” nature of these tweets ultimately cost him a job, although he later won an $875,000 settlement from the university.

Salaita’s case is especially troubling to me because my work on the harassment of women and people of color in video-game and Internet culture has made me the occasional target of organized groups of Internet trolls like #GamerGate. Those trolls make a sport of “doxxing” — i.e., collecting information they think can be used to damage their ideological opponents and using it to intimidate them in their own homes or to attempt to get them fired from their jobs.

I worry that some of the angrier anonymous emails I get about my work might actually be fishing expeditions — attempts to get me to make an impolitic statement that could later be used against me.

Such fears are especially pertinent to female and minority faculty who often have to bear the burden of being the poster children for diversity and inclusiveness on their campuses and so find themselves under increased scrutiny, both in real life and online. These professors are expected to perform additional emotional labor, in this case monitoring and regulating their emotional responses on social media lest they be tagged as a “hysterical” or “overly emotional” woman or an “angry” black man or whatever the case may be.

In light of these risks, it feels tempting to default to something like Robert Heinlein’s famous form letter when responding to fanmail. It offered a long list of options for Heinlein to check, including:

  • “Thank you for your kind words. You have made my day brighter.”
  • “You say that you have enjoyed my stories for years. Why did you wait until you disliked one story before writing to me?”
  • “I get 4 or 5 more requests each week for help in class assignments, term papers, theses, or dissertations. I can’t cope with so many & have quit trying.”
  • “Please do not write to me again.”

And yet, social media has also afforded me many connections and opportunities for collaboration that I would never have had if I limited my online interactions to ticking off a box or two on a pre-written list of responses.

And I do think it is valuable to be able to make my work visible to participants in the online subcultures I study. Many academics seemingly agree, taking to public forums like Reddit to conduct AMAs — “Ask Me Anything” (like recent ones on psychology, health sciences, and creativity). Others run Twitter feeds and Tumblr blogs devoted to their areas of study. Those academics are meeting the next generation of students where they live and inviting them into the scholarly conversations that they will soon encounter in the classroom.

So I continue to open emails, respond to Tweets, and read the comments on my blog. But I am careful. I keep my long-term professional goals in the forefront of my mind at all times. I don’t respond when I’m tired, hungry, or otherwise feeling less than 100 percent. And I try my hardest not to feed the trolls.

So tell me, reader. How are you dealing with this seemingly inevitable slide toward becoming a public intellectual? What are the benefits and what are the risks of engaging with people about our work online? Share your stories below in the comments or Tweet @MeganCondis. Let’s talk about it.

Just remember: This discussion is now taking place where everyone can see it — even those who might not have our best interests at heart.

This article was originally published by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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