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Re-evaluating the Risks of Public Scholarship


Last week I attended the HASTAC Conference, an interdisciplinary conference from the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (one of the oldest and most active academic social networks around). HASTAC is dedicated to public scholarship: many of its initiatives are based around blogging and sharing ideas through the social network, and the conference included livestreaming many sessions for a virtual conference, with a very active Twitter feed supported by designated tweeters at each panel. Tweeting at conferences is something we’ve discussed at ProfHacker several times: Derek Bruff offered tips for encouraging a conference backchannel, Brian Croxall gave tips for tweeting at conferences, and I offered strategies for presenters thinking about being “Twitter-friendly.” HASTAC’s  built-in strategies for online participation brought it to a next level as a hybrid physical/virtual conference,  with some of us even participating in initiatives like a joint virtual session with the Computers & Writing Conference and a virtual connect buddy Hangout.

This type of public sharing hasn’t been welcomed as easily at other conferences: Adeline Koh documented the conversation around #TwitterGate and potentially damaging consequences of conference Twitter streams. More recently, conversations surrounding Twitter have focused on the changing perception, impact, and risks of Twitter as a medium, as Bonnie Stewart addressed on Hybrid Pedagogy in her essay “In Public: the Shifting Consequences of Twitter Scholarship:”

Twitter as a tactical public allows for abuses, and for defenses of power and privilege. It also allows for bodies marked by race, gender, class, queerness, disability, and intersections of these and other identity facets to publicly resist being made to stand in the gap. It forces a reckoning with the ways that casual, even ephemeral public speech can reinforce the marginalization of others. It has become a space less tolerant of speech unwilling to account for its own power relations and assumptions. This matters for scholarship, and for the ideals of knowledge and the public good that scholarship espouses.

As Bonnie Stewart addresses, the potential consequences and hazards of online visibility are not evenly distributed, and the push for public scholarship must be tempered by the acknowledgement of risk. Wrestling with the potential landmines of public scholarship and social media is obviously nothing new, but it’s something many scholars have been discussing lately. Laura Kipnis recently shared her experiences with a Title IX investigation following complaints around an article and a tweet. Earlier this year, Jon Ronson followed up on the consequences of Justine Sacco’s now-infamous tweet about AIDS and Africa, a reminder of how a single remark can escalate. With the visibility of social media risks and consequences rising, we must be more aware than ever of the potential “real world” attacks that can also follow a public remark.

The HASTAC conference, with its emphasis on public scholarship as an apparent universal good for academic discourse, particularly drew my attention to what the uncritical acceptance and embrace of public scholarship can mean for students. We’ve written a lot here at ProfHacker about the value of teaching with Twitter, and Mark Sample offered several practical tips for using Twitter as part of a class. However, the stakes for embracing these platforms can be considerable, and we explored the potential values and risks of social media in the classroom at HASTAC in our Social Media + Activist Pedagogy session,storified here by Adeline Koh. During the session, I argued that even in fields where we value public participation (like the digital humanities) we cannot uncritically bring real identity-based and public-facing social media into our pedagogy without seriously considering the risks and potential consequences, which are not shared evenly and can particularly impact students whose identities are already marginalized within networked publics.

There are solutions for using social media without being truly “public.” Ryan Cordell suggests the solution of “disposable” Twitter accounts for classroom use, which can be a valuable way to keep students out of the real-identity space and consequences of the platform. However, it also means giving up the value of building an online community and a public reputation through thoughtful participation in social media, and thus may undermine some of the goals we had in mind when bringing Twitter into the classroom in the first place. This trade-off also exists with the strategy of using “public” social media in “private” settings, such as a protected Twitter account (which means cutting off discourse with most of the Twitter-verse, but allows for conversations within one’s bubble) or an even-more private social media space, like an invite-only “secret” Pinterest board. If you want to know more about any social media platform you’re using and how the data is shared, the Terms of Service; Didn’t Read site (recommended by J.J. Pionke during ) is also very helpful for learning more about the policies of any site you rely on for discourse and particularly sharing user-generated content. These options can be solutions for mitigating risk of participation, but often mean compromising on social media learning objectives.

A real solution for students and academics more broadly who want to participate in multiple publics can seem impossible. KT Torrey, a scholar working in fan studies and rhetoric wrote about the challenges of balancing her desire for public scholarship and participation in fan and academic spheres with the expectations and gaze of the job market. She notes that the standard advice to use multiple social media accounts (“the Janus effect”) can mean losing most of the benefits of the intersections and “tables between publics.” Maha Bali has written about the value of Twitter for serendipitous learning, which similarly relies upon discovery through the constantly-updating space of the timeline. Maha offers some practical tips for introducing a “newbie” scholar to Twitter, including the importance of discussing privacy settings and the meaning of having a public account.

Bringing social media and public scholarship values into the classroom can obviously reap many rewards: however, I have moved away from requiring any sort of public participation of students, and before I suggest students engage in these type of activities I believe it is essential to address the risks and realities of these spaces. Patrick Klepex at LifeHacker has a basic guide to protecting your information from the Internet that I recommend to students, and I’ve written in the past about updating your web security and considering two-factor authentication.

What are your strategies for introducing the risks and rewards of public scholarship and social media in the classroom? Share your advice in the comments.

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Isabella Medici of avatars in Second Life watching the HASTAC livestream]

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