The author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous for good reasons. The Whisperers know the author, and consider this to be a very important issue in contemporary academe.
Impact and public scholarship have become ever more popular elements in institutions, and more attention and pressure on researchers around questions of what academics are ‘allowed’ to say comes very much to the fore.
Each day this week, my supervisor has walked into my office and made verbal demands that I remove content from my beloved blog.
Each day, the boundaries of appropriate social media usage shift a little, and my requests for some clear written guidance are rebuffed.
I’m a postdoc at a research-intensive organisation.
I work in a typical physical science department. That is, it’s a highly male dominated environment with an age profile skewed towards the era of peak Bob Dylan fandom. This isn’t necessarily a problem. But, in my case, it is.
My department has chronic cultural problems. Bullying, gender and race-based discrimination are commonplace, and things are particularly toxic for early career researchers and female academics. I am both, and have experienced first-hand sexist, homophobic and racist comments, and inappropriate physical contact from senior academics in my workplace.
I have long been an advocate of social media as a tool of academic engagement. I have been blogging for several years, on topics ranging from content in my research field to my nation’s research policies and issues affecting women in science and early career researchers. Blogging and Twitter have helped me engage with a new academic community, providing an avenue to talk about key issues in our industry, to identify problems, and to suggest ways forward.
It is a positive and enjoyable contrast to my day-to-day work environment. Social media makes me feel like I’m contributing positively to an industry where women and young people are notoriously disenfranchised. Despite my difficult workplace culture that alienates minorities, I have a deep commitment to my institution. I guess I believe that if only these cultural issues could be fixed, it would be a bastion of intellect and creativity – something I’m sure we all desperately want academia to be.
My social media usage has been a curiosity to my more senior colleagues who trained in a different era and remain firmly rooted to theirs ways of working and communicating. I have given many “twitter tutorials” to my supervisor. He seems impervious to my suggestion that social media is not inherently shallow, that it gives us an avenue to engage more deeply with issues. I’ve even shown him that my blog is not just snaps of my Sunday brunch but talks in depth about critical issues such as working towards diverse participation in academia and science.
This was a mistake.
I have since been told that my blog is defamatory to my organisation. I’ve been told that my blog has contravened the employee Code of Conduct. Each day, the goal posts shift. Although I’ve written compliant emails to my supervisor saying that I am very open to a discussion about appropriate social media usage, and will respond immediately to such a discussion, none has been forthcoming. He has refused to provide guidance of appropriate usage and will not provide any documentation of his concerns.
As a result, I’m paralysed. I’m inhibited in tweeting or blogging because I’ve been told my current practices are inappropriate, but still haven’t been provided with a benchmark to determine appropriateness. Any perceived misstep and I’m sure there will be an angry knock on my door.
Social media issues are far broader than my current tight spot. Social media usage is a minefield in any industry, but particularly tricky in academia, where the distinction between personal identity and academic role is infinitesimal and freedom of expression is vast and encouraged. As a result, clear guidelines for academics around public expression are more necessary.
However, research institutions typically cover social media usage under broad policies and procedures of employee conduct in relation to upholding the good name of institutions and exercising good judgment. These policies are inherently vague and subject to diverse interpretations.
In my case, I feel that I have always demonstrated my positive commitment to my workplaces by working towards improving our industry. From my perspective, those that have brought the institution into disrepute are my colleagues who liberally share offensive jokes in the workplace, discriminate against others, or condone those that behave in these vile ways. My supervisor clearly disagrees. He holds a very different perspective about good judgement and where the boundaries of appropriate conduct lie.
In my immediate experience, most academics who engage with each other and the world through social media do so in a constructive way. They intend to critique in order to improve, not disparage, the research industry. This is a difficult tightrope to walk at the best of times, but it becomes impossible while we operate under an unwritten code of social media conduct.
I would be most happy with my supervisor butting out of my tweeting and letting me get back to enjoying it. Clearly, this won’t happen.
If universities are intent on monitoring, moderating and censoring the social media presence of academic staff, then it’s only fair to actually write these unwritten rules and work together towards some transparent and fair guidelines.
Developing university or faculty level social media committees would be great starting point for bringing together academics and professional staff with expertise in this area and developing guidance around best practice.
Such committees would ideally recognise the power of these tools and aim to promote social media’s potential in a positive light.