Be Careful (as an Academic) what you Say Online

Co-blogger Katie Allen recently discussed the implications of anonymous comments in public online conversation. But what about when a person’s name is instead associated with a conversation never intended to be public?

Yesterday, Peter Schmidt of The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the story of Rachel Slocum, a non-tenured professor at the University of Wisconson at La Crosse.  Controversy [1] over Slocum’s supposedly partisan email to students, which was about how the government shutdown would prevent them from completing their assignments, eventually bought her a public rebuke by her campus’s chancellor. And all of this was over a message that was, at least intended to be, for a private audience: her class.

Here’s my (somewhat dry) response to the controversy:

You can probably tell that I think that professors should not have to hide their political proclivities from their students.  This is because, to quote Queens College Professor of English David Richter, “there is no politically neutral learning” or teaching anyway; even the position that politics have no place in higher education is itself political. [2] Moreover, I agree with Slocum that her chancellors actions set a dangerous precedent in the use of social media to deride: “Chancellor Gow’s email,” she writes in her own open letter to the campus, “is a signal to students that the university approves of their efforts to publicly shame professors with whom they disagree.”  This is not to say, of course, that criticism of others’ positions should not happen or did not occur before the advent of social media.  But, as Schmidt suggests, never before has that criticism been able to travel so quickly or have such a monumental impact on someone’s livelihood nearly overnight.

What are your thoughts? Do professors have a responsibility not to “impose” their “partisan” views in their classrooms, lest they be seen as having an agenda? And, in the context of digital literacy in academia, do faculty have a responsibility to set an example of tactful diplomacy in online communication?

Technology continues to be a means by which the classroom is no longer perceived as an “isolated space”–a development that is often for the better, as Gerald Graff argues in his 2008 address to the MLA about a problem in higher education that he has named “Courseocentrism”
[3]. But what should academics keep in mind as they tweet or send emails to students and colleagues?

  1. ^ In the midst of this controversy was a message to the La Crosse campus chancellor Joe Gow from an aide to Stephen L. Nass, a Republican State Representative and Chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities; this message targeted Slocum’s email to her students, describing it as “clearly partisan in tone.” According to Schmidt, Nass “had a reputation for perennially looking for reasons to cut state spending on public colleges.” Speaking as a student at a public institution, that infuriates me. But that’s a whole ‘nother post.

  2. ^ Richter, David H., ed. Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000): 22.

  3. ^ Graff, Gerald. “Presidential Address 2008: Courseocentrism.” PMLA 124.3 (2009): 728.

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