Facebooking Your Way Out of Tenure

July 03, 2009

Not long ago, I radically changed the way the world sees me —the Facebook world, that is. For years my profile on the immensely popular Web site had included my "picture" —not the real me at all, but a coin portrait showing the Roman dictator Sulla. The representation was meant to be a joke, since he was proverbially malicious, ruthless, and careerist, and I hope people don't see me that way.

More than once, however, students (and some colleagues) interpreted my choice of picture as a statement of principle and personality. Their knowledge of Sulla, drawn from Wikipedia or elsewhere, led them to the conclusion that, although he may have been a great general and a hugely successful politician, you probably would not want to take his class on media ethics, or feel comfortable with him as department head.

So now my profile picture is of one of our family's cats.

The vast new world of online social networks —Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, blogs, Twitter —has affected many parts of our lives. So why wouldn't it also affect our promotion and tenure?

I would like to focus here on the "Facebook effect," in particular on its downsides (I'll write about the positive aspects in a future column): how Facebook can negatively influence the way people, including those who will decide on your tenure bid, think about you.

A recent article in The Chronicle, "How Not to Lose Face on Facebook," highlighted the problems that can arise when professors share too much of their private lives with students, colleagues, and the rest of the online world. Tenure-track faculty members must be especially careful on that front.

Early on, the debate over whether probationary faculty members should blog and participate in online social networking was binary: Some argued yes, some said never. Now the discussion has shifted to "How do I do it safely?" or, more bluntly, "How do I do it without mucking up my tenure bid?" Let's review some ways that you can minimize the possibility that your blog or Facebook page might hurt your career track.

Consider your "final" audience for promotion and tenure. The people who will judge your tenure case were born, and began their professional careers, long before blogging became commonplace. I grew up believing that a "diary" was kept secret and revealed only posthumously; that there should be a wall, not of postings, but of separation between work and home; and that only in the rarest cases should professors share intimate details of their lives with students. Now I like to think I have no problems with others' letting it all hang out, but I admit that my instincts are 20th-century-bound.

Some senior professors, however, possess stronger prejudices on that front. Not a few full professors continue to think blogging is ridiculous, and that anyone —including assistant professors —who blogs must be addled. Many others, although they have adopted the new technology themselves, if reluctantly, still think of the Internet as a tool for the dissemination of professional products, not personal musings.

So when you assert on Facebook that you are "in the mood for loving," realize that the 65-year-old head of the tenure committee may not take it as a sign of your maturity as a scholar. And, quite rightly, he may be concerned about the effect of such openness, kidding around or not, on your students. Of course, there is a good chance that he might never see your intimate remarks, but you never know when somebody will point it out.

Control your own content. The old rule about not sending an e-mail message in a fit of anger applies equally to a blog post. Much research on cognition and electronic communications reveals that we are more likely to say things beyond the pale when confronted by a glowing screen than by a corporeal person.

Facebook is a particularly dangerous weapon for self-injury because more than with many other social-networking sites, it is so easy to share an embarrassing admission or offensive quip. When Facebook asks you, "What's on your mind?" the temptation may be strong to go right from musing to typing to clicking the "share" button: "Pamela is frustrated that her students can't write and don't seem to care," or "Pamela thinks her department head is dull, dull," or "Pamela's article has been rejected so many times she is thinking of quitting this stupid business."

You may daydream such thoughts, but Facebook virtually carves them in stone for others to see. My advice to both students and instructors is an echo of the counsel made by Mark Twain and President Harry Truman in "old media" ages: Don't do or say anything that you would not want to see on the front page of the newspaper. The problem nowadays is that anybody is a potential publisher.

Choose your "friends" carefully. Screen people in Facebook whom you allow on your friends list. I decline to become friends with undergraduates who are still matriculating at my university. (Explain your policy to students so it does not come off as unfriendly to those who will fill out your course evaluations.) I feel uncomfortable about their knowing everything I'm up to, and I'm certainly leery of learning everything they're doing.

Friends also can clash with friends and judge you by your virtual company. I teach political communication and, over the years, have made Facebook friends on the (very) left and (very) right. Sometimes I wince and wonder what they must think when they read my wall and see offensive (to them) posts by the other side. I know a professor who had to dump some Facebook friends because they started rants that, while protected by the Constitution, made him look like a racist because he had allowed them on his page. And friends can hurt your reputation as much as you can yourself: That embarrassing photo of you at a party, or that impolitic quote you made about your department, can be an unguided missile wandering about cyberspace ready to shoot down your good name.

About once a week I receive a request to join a group on Facebook related to some research interest, sport, or political or environmental cause. Remember that when you "join" a group, somebody like, say, the head of a tenure committee, may someday claim that you support that group and its agenda —all of it. So apply the same filters of selection to Facebook groups that you would in responding to a direct-mail solicitation.

Don't get too personal … maybe. There is no hard-and-fast rule about which items don't belong on your Facebook wall. But remember that one goal of your tenure-track years is to establish an image of seriousness, focus, and diligence.

Two issues are at stake here. First, avoid earning a reputation as someone who is overly consumed with matters outside of work. One assistant professor told me how he used his Facebook page to dwell on a collecting hobby to the point at which a senior faculty member (whom he had friended) asked, "You spend a lot of time on that hobby, don't you?" The implication was, "Perhaps too much time."

Second, senior professors grew up in an era when there was little mixing of the home and the workplace. Do you really want your colleagues to know, for example, that your "relationship status" has changed to "complicated"? Moreover, female faculty members, especially in the sciences, have testified in the pages of The Chronicle and elsewhere that they actively try to suppress "mommy talk" because they are wary that such discourse might contribute to a negative stereotype of them by senior male colleagues. Mommy imagery on Facebook may feed such unfair suspicions.

Avoiding distraction. Nobody makes it to the tenure track without some distractions or hobbies. But possibly the greatest danger of Facebook for young scholars is that it is so darn much fun.

I have to admit that in moments of boredom or stalled creativity I find myself checking my Facebook page. I enjoy discovering that a former student is getting married, reading a funny joke from a colleague, studying a political rant from one of my activist friends, learning someone's "25 Random Things About Me," or even noticing that a pal has changed her profile picture.

But I try to keep an eye on the clock. Facebook should be an occasional pleasure, not a compulsion. A very sharp colleague in the arts tells me that he purposefully avoids Facebook because he thinks it might be too much of a diversion from his work and family schedule. Another assistant professor in the sciences claims that Facebook is so addictive that she has ruthlessly limited herself to no more than 20 minutes a day.

Blogs and social-networking sites have opened up a new world that is amazing in its utility and transparency, and frightening in its intrusiveness. For the sake of promotion, tenure, and good sense, we should all be prudent about what we tell and show the world about ourselves. But this need not be all about caution and avoidance. Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and other such media can advance your teaching, research, service, and career. Tactics for P&T-friendly Facebooking will be the subject of my next column.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. His latest book is Blog Wars: The New Political Battleground (Oxford University Press).