A guiding set of principles for the professional use of social media

cowgirl2After the flamewar over rage at the current academic job market, in which the rage was redirected onto Tenured Radical for daring to question the long-term effectiveness of complaining about the behavior of one search committee, TR wrote a post suggesting that it’s time to have a conversation about the professional use of social media:

My question is this: given that social media is ubiquitous among academics, and given that our colleagues and students are sometimes justifiably angry about important things, ought we not to have some more serious discussions about what kind of speech we do — and do not — find acceptable? Should we not begin to identify what kinds of virtual conversations lead to real change and community building; and which are destructive, vengeful or personal hubris masquerading as charismatic leadership?

There are clear signs that if we do not begin to have these conversations among ourselves, others will seize the initiative and faculty will find ourselves perpetually in the position of responding to university attorneys, trustees, politicians and administrators.

Great idea, right?  So far the flamewar at Tenured Radical has 190 comments (and counting!), whereas after three days the post suggesting that we all come together to figure out how to use social media productively for professional purposes has 34 comments.  That’s a little clue as to how easy and fun it is to tear someone down, make assumptions about their motives and professional experiences, and generally act like a jerk in social media, whereas it’s relatively difficult to build something together.

Please note:  this is not a blog post calling for civility, which I agree can be cover for preserving the power relations of the status quo.  This is a blog post proposing some guiding rules for the professional use of social media for those of us in academia (but they may apply in other professions, too).  As we’ve all been reminded endlessly over the past decade, The World Is Flat, and graduate students can email, Tweet, and comment on the blogs of full professors, and vice-versa.  This familiarity with one another over social media has been for the most part a good thing for everyone involved, but TR is right that we need to think about formulating some community standards before they’re formulated for us by our educators and/or employers.

This blog has always been about community-building, so friends, let’s rent a barn and put on a show!  At the risk of being torn to shreds myself, I’ll propose a set of guiding principles just to get the conversation going.  You tell me what you think I’ve missed and where I’m wrong, and together we’ll propose a set of guiding principles for the professional use of social media.  After a few days, I’ll publish our collectively revised or rewritten list of guiding principles.

cowgirlgunsign1Who cares if you tear me or my ideas to shreds–I’m just a pretend cowgirl!  What do I care?  It doesn’t upset me if you think I’m too much of a Miss Suzy Sunshine.  Others have said worse!  Blogs and social media should be used for community building, support, and honest conversations, not to rip apart complete strangers, but I understand that’s not how everyone uses social media.   (Apparently, some people use Twitter to talk behind other people’s backs without understanding that we can overhear them.  Duh!  They also do this, and say much worse, under their own names!  Kudos for their honesty, but maybe they should be thinking about who else is reading and coming to conclusions about their worthiness as prospective colleagues.)

Guiding principles for the professional use of social media:

  1. The Golden Rule:  don’t publish anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.
  2. Don’t make assumptions about the motives or personal experience that may inform the social media commentary of others.
  3. If you are the proprietor of a blog, Instagram, or Twitter account, think before you write and edit before you publish.  Think again:  is my post or comment useful, necessary, or productive?
  4. If you are a commenter on someone else’s social media account or platform:  Consider the intended audience for a blog, Instagram, or Twitter account, and be respectful of the proprietor’s online space and attention.
  5. If someone publishes a nasty or personal post or comment about you or something you’ve written, resist the urge to return the favor.  Read it two or three times to be sure you’re not overreacting or feeding a flamewar.  Consider ignoring it if it’s really inflammatory, but otherwise use your teaching skills to turn it around:  is there something in the comment of value you can address respectfully, thereby modeling the kind of conversation you’d like to be a part of?

Here are my rationales for these principles, in seriatum:

  1. No one likes a jerk, and when you’re a jerk online, you are performing jerkiness before a potential audience of hundreds or thousands.
  2. You can always ask a blogger or Tweeter why they wrote what they wrote, or ask for further clarification before unloading on them.
  3. Since when is thinking a bad thing?  Aren’t we inteleckshuals?
  4. See rule #1, and remember:  don’t be a jerk.
  5. Let your productive, positive social media presence speak for itself.  If you lie down with the dogs, you’ll get up with fleas.


60 thoughts on “A guiding set of principles for the professional use of social media

  1. I think this is the discussion. The manner in which student tuition dollars are used to “maintain” the universities is part of what should be discussed and debated. If it’s decided that the research is important enough to be subsidized by tuition dollars, so be it, but this should come with the acknowledgement that in doing so, there’s often an increased reliance contingent faculty that in many cases are exploited to support the research of the TT.

    It should also be transparent to students, who, I think, would be surprised.

    An alternative is for the university to lessen the contractual burdens of research on TT faculty and concentrate on their teaching mission. Yes, this will likely result in fewer adjuncts, but it does address the ethical and moral question of whether or not it’s just to have these jobs as human shields protecting TT faculty research when the money paying for that research could be going to pay for instruction.

    Of course faculty who are engaged in research bring extra value to their teaching, but contingent faculty do this as well for no compensation other than the intrinsic rewards of being better at your job. I have to think that research would continue for many for those intrinsic rewards, just as it does for so many now.

    Yes, this increases the burden on TT faculty, but I’ll go back to my earlier observation that it’s likely the burden has already gotten much worse for the contingent.

    There is no false choice because we’re talking about a continuum. It’s where you move the needle in terms of priorities on the balance between teaching and research. No one is claiming that it “solves” the problems of higher ed (talk about a false choice!), but it begins to address some of the systemic inequities.

    Different departments will choose differently, but I believe they should include the human cost to those outside the TT when they make these choices. How much is denying benefits to an adjunct worth to protect research hours, a move that happened at two of the R1 universities at which I’ve worked.

    If a department is “making money” on sections taught by contingent faculty, and running a deficit on sections taught by TT faculty, the person paying, indirectly, for that research is the contingent faculty.

    While the labor conditions of the public university aren’t the fault of TT faculty, the only people with the power to advocate for the contingent and improve their conditions even marginally are the TT faculty. If we’re going to agree that it’s a crisis, then this should be the first consideration of departments as they discuss staffing and structure.


  2. Continuing the slightly off-topic thread (which I’m assuming is okay, since I see you engaging it, Historiann), I teach at an institution similar to the ones John Warner mentions (R2 that would like to become — and now has an explicit goal to become — an R1), and have similar concerns. It’s not quite cause-and-effect, but it’s clear that, as my department has moved from a 3/3 to a 2/2 as the standard load for TT faculty over the last 10-15 years (with a few grandfathered/mothered into the older, more teaching-intensive model, the ranks of contingent faculty (some part time; a good many of us full-time, and paid a living wage, but still at least 1/3 less than TT faculty, with double the teaching load) have grown. Basically, some TT faculty no longer teach intro/core courses on a regular basis (unless their upper-level courses don’t fill), and most teach them considerably less frequently than they did before. But, because full-time contingents don’t have service as part of their load, TT faculty are still making the decisions about those classes, based on much less experience, and/or experience of teaching those courses in a very different context (as I’m reminded at this time of year, handling a 4/4 load of writing-intensive classes is, among other things, a immense planning puzzle in which one tries to set up deadlines that both work for each individual course and increase the chances that the instructor will be able to provide feedback in something resembling a timely fashion). That’s a governance problem, in addition to those John has named above.

    There are also other problems. First and most obvious (at least to me), tenure track faculty who truly fulfill their service obligations (which of course isn’t all of them) don’t necessarily have more time for research, because they’re very busy with service — because it has to be spread over fewer (proportionally, since our school is growing) TT faculty, because there is an increasing amount of it (mostly due to externally-mandated assessment/accreditation/other “accountability” requirements), and because managing contingent faculty is, itself, time-consuming (and remains so; unlike TT faculty members, we don’t require less assessment as time goes on, and we reach higher rank — or at least not as much less so – and we’re not allowed to do things like observe each others’ teaching for annual reviews, contract renewals, promotions, etc. Also, there’s much more turnover in the contingent ranks, though admittedly the hiring process is somewhat less complicated and time-consuming.)

    There’s also a good deal of talk among TT faculty about how the department has become less collegial over the last few decades. Part of that has to do with housing prices, and an increasing proportion of faculty who choose housing locations based on two careers (whether a full-fledged two-body problem, with residences in two cities, or just a balancing of commutes in a large metropolitan area, with the person who commutes to work 5 days a week reasonably enough having a greater argument for a shorter commute), but part of it also, I suspect, has to do with greater expectations that TT faculty members produce individual work, even as they shoulder the service burden mentioned above (and teach relatively few of the classes with multiple sections, which of course require coordination).

    Overall, I think there’s an argument to be made that the department might be healthier with the old 3/3 TT load, and more modest (or at least slower) research expectations, and a larger proportion of TT faculty. The other alternative, of course (an attractive one from my point of view) would be to create some 3/3 teaching+service (perhaps + some modest research expectations) jobs, preferably TT, but even contingent jobs of this description would be an improvement on the current state of affairs (for some of us in the contingent faculty, who would like to have a greater voice in departmental affairs, and for our research-oriented TT colleagues as well).


  3. CC, Having moved to a non-R1 that works very much like your last paragraph, I can attest to the healthier atmosphere. Knowing that TT have comparable teaching loads (unless they’re in major administrative positions), and seeing them also teaching introductory courses creates a much more collegial atmosphere and has resulted in positive departmental governance moves to improve contingent conditions.

    In short, the TT faculty get it because they’re living a similar version of life at the college as the NTT. They teach the same classes and the same students.

    We also have a position titled “senior instructor” that comes with 5 year contracts and service and advising duties in addition to teaching. It’s almost as tough to get these lines approved as TT position, unfortunately.

    If a department is majority contingent (in terms of student contact hours), and the contingent are the exclusive instructors of gen ed and intro courses, I think there’s a fair argument that the TT are the clear beneficiaries of the exploitation.


  4. Other somewhat random pieces of the puzzle in my neck of the woods:

    –Although TT teaching loads have officially gone down, there’s significant pressure to bring class sizes up (and to eliminate writing-intensive components of those classes if that’s what it takes). Basically, higher administration very much wants to see gen ed lit classes taught in lecture format, and are pretty much forcing that change through budgetary constraints within which the department has to work. My TT colleagues have (consciously, voluntarily) borne the brunt of this change (though any contingent faculty member who wants to teach a lit course now and then pretty much has to deal with it, too). And since it’s very hard to get conscientious literature professors out of the habit of assigning at least some work that requires time-intensive grading, the effect is very similar to teaching a second section of the class in its former, smaller size.

    –Administration would love to see composition taught in very large sections, too, but that is, of course, harder to implement (at least until somebody comes up with effective essay-grading software, but that seems unlikely, at least for essays that actually stretch students’ abilities). At the moment, it looks like the pressure is toward adopting formats that would allow them to leverage a few somewhat-better-paid Ph.D. (or, in our field, MFA — terminal degreed) instructors of record (for accreditation/ranking purposes) over many more students through the use of much less well-paid adjuncts or TAs (where the latter will come from is, of course, an operative question, and, I hope, as the economy gets better, a pressure point). At the moment, pressure in this direction is coming mostly from encouragement to experiment with “innovative” forms — distance learning, multiple teachers in a big interactive classroom, etc. — but I suspect it will become more coercive. In the last few years, I’ve gone from worrying that the course I teach (an junior-level required writing-in-the-disciplines course) might be eliminated because it’s too expensive to teach (still a possibility, but I think we — by which I mean primarily the TT director of the program, for whose efforts I am extremely grateful — have made a good case for our usefulness, and there’s a lot of emphasis on transferrable skills, of which we can claim to teach several — writing/communication, reading, critical thinking, research, etc.), to worrying that I may need to adapt to a teaching environment more like the one in which a friend who teaches the micro/macro economics sequence at another school, and spends most of her time lecturing and supervising TAs, works.

    –We’ve got a couple acolytes of the “tuition shouldn’t subsidize research” school of thought (which, yes, seems to be coming in large part from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, who also seem to have no idea how much time either class prep or student feedback, let alone service, take, so their ideas do, indeed, deserve skepticism), at least one in a potentially powerful advisory position. Like John, I have some sympathy for this view. I’d like to see many more of the tuition dollars generated by intro/gen ed classes plowed back into making those classes better (by paying the faculty who teach the majority of the sections better, giving them more reasonable loads, opportunities for service/input into the curriculum, opportunities for at least a modest amount of supported research, etc.), and, as I’ve mentioned above, I think the best way to do that, at least at our school, would be to have more TT (or at least full-time) faculty on a 3/3 teaching+service+modest research load. However, everyone I’ve met who espouses this school of thought is actually looking for ways to teach intro/gen ed classes more cheaply (and seems to think that they are easy to teach, when in fact any of us who have done it know that teaching them well, especially in an institution where students enter at various points in their educational journeys with varying abilities and preparation, is among the most difficult teaching assignments). So I don’t think there’s in fact much common ground there.

    –One possible way to highlight the falsity of the teaching/research dichotomy is by encouraging undergraduate research. This seems to be a growing movement (old news, of course, to those of us who were lucky enough to attend undergrad institutions with a strong tradition of senior theses). It’s easier to implement in some fields than others, and I worry that, once in the hands of the initiative-builders, it will become watered down (in part because it’s very expensive to offer to any substantial portion of the undergraduate body, which is why it has up to now been the almost exclusive province of very well-endowed private universities and SLACs, and honors programs in public institutions), but it may be one way to talk about the synergy between professors’ research and students’ learning that resonates beyond the academy (and the Council for Undergraduate Research actually has a lobbying arm).

    Okay; enough. Happy new year! (a bit late).


  5. [or, rather, a bit more, since John and I seem to be intertwining comments]:

    If a department is majority contingent (in terms of student contact hours), and the contingent are the exclusive instructors of gen ed and intro courses, I think there’s a fair argument that the TT are the clear beneficiaries of the exploitation.

    It certainly feels that way from my perspective (full-time, non-TT, with 3-year contract, associate rank, but less than entry-level-TT Assistant salary). Among other things, I’m keenly aware that my TT colleagues are being paid to build up academic capital (i.e. publications) that would help them get another job should they choose (and should the market allow — a big “should” these days), while I, who by the definition of my job need to be prepared to seek another one on a few years’ notice — am not. As I get older, I’m also very aware that I have less opportunity to build up retirement savings (either through the school’s contributions, which are pegged to my salary, or my own efforts), even though I’m the one who is subject to involuntary retirement. Back in the late ’80s/early ’90s, when I was in grad school, people who envisioned a mixed TT/non-TT system generally suggested that schools would pay more to non-TT faculty, who would be taking their chances at getting another job when/if necessary, and less to non-TT faculty (who would accept lower salaries in return for greater security). That system strikes me as fair, but it’s not the one we’ve got. Also, the people whose efforts are most directed at the particular institution, and the ever-changing needs of its student body, are the ones who are least tied to or rewarded by the institution. It’s a very strange system. The perverse incentives aren’t as obvious as they would be if the academic job market were better, and standout tenured professors nurtured by R2s were snapped up by R1s, but they’re still there.

    On the other hand, I’ve attended enough department meetings (voluntarily; yes, I’m a bit nuts, but I like to know what’s going on, and I am allowed to speak, and even vote on some things), and read enough blogs written by tenured professors (especially associate professors) to know that things don’t look all that rosy from their perspective. There are all the pressures I’ve mentioned above, plus, in some places, the threat of wholesale restructuring (of departments/programs, which can lead to the elimination of tenured positions, or of responsibilities, curricula, course structures, etc., which can make a job very different from the one somebody signed up for). And, increasingly, administrations are trampling all over faculty governance, especially when it comes to curriculum, simply setting up new programs and/or initiatives (distance learning! and institute for x!) if a traditional department raises objections to some hare-brained scheme.

    All the same, I’d take a TT job, especially in the sort of department you describe, if one were offered.


  6. Great points in both posts, Cassandra.

    Also, at an R1 you are paid to do what you need to do to get ready for the market, and elsewhere, even if you are not contingent, you often paid to do what you need to do to stay in that place and perhaps not in the best circumstances available in that place. So there is a whole set of class divides, not just one (adjunct vs FTE, or contingent versus TT/T).

    Ultimately I don’t think this is about communication but about politics, strategies, hegemony, ideology.

    Also, the TT-T faculty really do have harder lives, esp. dealing with admin., than many of those who have not been in those roles realize. Meanwhile the adjuncts and the unemployed are mad because the situation really is more dire than some senior faculty will allow, and talking to a brick wall, or a condescending brick wall, is infuriating.


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  8. Pingback: Tuesday roundup: hellz to the FAIL, or CU booze & loser cruise, and who’s screwed by CSU-Pueblo : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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