‘If There’s an Organized Outrage Machine, We Need an Organized Response’

July 18, 2017

André Chung for The Chronicle
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth U., argues that scholars should be looking out for their colleagues across academe when they come under fire for things they said.

Anticipating the possibility of an internet mob harassing a professor because of something he or she said can seem a bit like prepping for a lightning bolt. Yes, people get struck by lightning, but more often than not it feels like a freak occurrence. It’s easily avoided, some might say, by not flying a kite in a thunderstorm.

But these strikes appear to have grown more common in recent months. Sure, a professor who calls for the hanging of President Trump should expect blowback, but it’s hard to argue the same for, say, a professor who writes a lengthy essay on classical statues and how they have been co-opted by the modern white-nationalist movement. These attacks also come at a time when a majority of Republican or right-leaning Americans harbor a negative view of the nation’s higher-education institutions.

Some professors argue it’s no longer a matter of if the internet mob comes to the door, but when. "The greatest thing our profession can learn is things have changed," said Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who recently wrote an essay describing methods of dealing with online outrage. "If there’s an organized outrage machine, we need an organized response. By the time they’re writing about you on a website or publishing your address or something, it’s probably too late."

In her essay, Ms. Cottom offers a variety of tips for academics to help handle an internet pillorying, including asking the IT department to set up a separate email account or creating an email template for responding to outside inquiries for comment. And while an individual’s options might be limited, other professors offered pointers on how to support a colleague under fire.

Ms. Cottom said that it’s natural to pull away from a professor embroiled in a controversy, but that it may be the least productive course. "We’re afraid of being associated with the crisis," Ms. Cottom said. "Rarely are these attacks about a person. The worst thing we can do is isolate our colleague. It’s a fear tactic. The real goal here is to isolate and shame people."

Instead of saying nothing, colleagues should reach out to those at the center of media maelstroms, Ms. Cottom suggested, even if you don’t agree with their statements. Solidarity, she said, doesn’t mean agreeing with everything someone else said.

“You feel as though you're being pummeled and barraged. And especially for people who aren't used to this, this is a very frightening and dangerous phenomena.”
And for the professors who might be receiving hundreds of emails, Ms. Cottom said sometimes the kindest thing to do is to write an email that opens with "There’s no need to respond to this." That way, one can offer support for a beleaguered colleague without putting the onus on them to reply.

George Ciccariello-Maher is an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, and his comments about race and members of the military have ignited controversy twice within the past six months. The sheer volume of emails and messages overwhelms, he said.

"You get to the point where you know it’s not your fault. You know that you’re in the right, and yet you feel sort of surrounded," Mr. Ciccariello-Maher said. "You feel as though you’re being pummeled and barraged. And especially for people who aren’t used to this, this is a very frightening and dangerous phenomena."

While many people might offer their support or solidarity behind the scenes, Mr. Ciccariello-Maher said, few do so publicly. That’s why those who do, and sometimes put themselves at risk, are so valuable.

Risks of Engagement

Some academics have started trying to prep for what they see as inevitable. Virginia Rutter, a professor of sociology at Framingham State University, in Massachusetts, said that at her institution the preparation has taken the form of conversations on how to respond should one of its professors come under fire. But part of the challenge, Ms. Rutter said, is the lack of models for supporting professors who engage the public with their research. Another hurdle is that some administrators may not understand the importance of social media, and why engaging with the public in that venue is worth the risk of backlash.

"They do not know what it means to come under attack on Twitter or any other place. Until you have joined this culture, you don’t know what this culture is," Ms. Rutter said. (She added that Framingham had hired Ms. Cottom to conduct a workshop on social-media practices as part of its preparation efforts.)

Patricia Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State College, in New Jersey, said she has started a reading list of best practices for professors and administrators dealing with digital disarray. Her list includes tool kits on academic freedom from the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association, in addition to essays, columns, and news articles.

Her efforts began, she said, after she noted a conversation between two fellow academics in which they pointed out that scholars often stick to writing strongly worded letters or petitions when their colleagues come under fire.

"I thought, no, we have to educate people in power and, I think, colleagues who want to be allies but don’t know what to do," Ms. Matthew said.

Ms. Matthew is also the editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, a book about issues facing minority faculty members, including the benefits and perils of social media.

“It's never actually about what the person said.”
Among her pointers, she said that nitpicking what a professor said or how they said it doesn’t solve the problem at hand.

"It’s never actually about what the person said," said Ms. Matthew. "It’s so easy to think, Well, if they only said it in this way, or if they had only not used that term, then that wouldn’t have happened. But that’s just not true. Every time an administration participates in this, they’re emboldening groups of people to keep at it."

In cases where an instructor comes under fire, his or her administration’s response can be crucial. Recriminations or suspensions could signal to outside aggressors that the strategy is working, some academics say.

Already this year, several university administrations have criticized instructors who have come under fire for things they’ve said, and sometimes punished them, too. And at least two digital skirmishes this year have led to the temporary closure of campuses — Evergreen State College and Trinity College — which affects not only faculty, but students, staff, and the local community.

Mr. Ciccariello-Maher added that continued attacks on academe raise a question for scholars: Do they see themselves as unconnected individuals operating alone, or should a sense of solidarity exist?

"Some faculty think this is about a handful of individuals," Mr. Ciccariello-Maher said, "when in reality, it’s about all of us."

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.

Correction (7/20/2017, 12:20 p.m.): This article incorrectly identified Patricia Matthew as the author of Written/Unwritten. She was the book's editor.