Academic Outrage: When The Culture Wars Go Digital

It has been a busy season for professors who have the nerve to engage in the public as Nick Kristof once intoned my tribe to do. Of course, as I said at the time he wrote that tripe, Kristof did not mean professors like me. He did not mean social scientists and artists and humanities professors or scholars of color or queer scholars or really anyone who isn’t an economist from Yale, Harvard and Princeton. When people like Nick Kristof are asking academics to engage in public they generally mean for traditionally erudite scholars — white, western, male, elite — to engage in refining the margins of orthodoxy on a subject.

But what about the critical scholars?

What about the scholars who are not at elite universities or in elite disciplines with great political power, like economics?

What about the scholars who violate the assumptions of expertise by being a woman, or gender-queer, or brown or black or working in a language other than English?

For those scholars, public engagement is far more combative, risky and fraught than it is for those other folks.

And that’s what we are seeing.

Over the past year or so we have seen an intensification of what I called academic micro-celebrity:

There are multiple overlaps between academia, public discourse, and digital media. Not only are academics developing these microcelebrity practices in the cultivation of brands but also they are doing so using the digital tools from which the microcelebrity concept is derived. Engaged academics are not confined to traditional mainstream media. They are encouraged to use ostensibly democratizing tools like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.

Media cultures, market models of higher education competition for dwindling resources and a well-funded and organized team with clear ideas about the culture wars have made academic micro-celebrity a contested space for public engagement.

What to do if or when you are put in the cross hairs of those who would prefer that “academic” and “expert” remain unchallenged in public discourse?

Many of my colleagues are working on that. I have heard from scholars, most of them women and people of color, who are organizing resources to help in this area. My own professional organizations — Sociologists for Women in Society and American Sociological Association — are finally taking seriously the issue I outline in this article over a year ago and this blog post even before then.

As someone who came of professional age in this climate and is deeply enmeshed in academic micro-celebrity processes, I have some experience with orchestrated outrage and social media attacks on academic legitimacy. As an assistant professor, I have some experiences with institutional cultures during such campaigns, although not as much as my more senior colleagues. I have also consulted with organizations and academic offices on various forms of social media training, including organizational analysis and crisis management. This draws on my work experience in corporate marketing, my academic experience with colleagues at the Microsoft Social Media Collective and Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Finally, I occasionally study status, internet cultures, and organizations.

Here are some take-aways from my experience:

  1. Beware the hand-wavers and the hand-wringers. Our profession has more than its fair share of drama hounds. This isn’t a professional read but a personal one: do not trust folks who only show up when you are under attack and then only when there is some chance at them being recognized for showing up. You don’t owe anyone your strength or superhuman victimhood. If you do not want to talk about your story or do interviews or go on the academic conference tour, you don’t have to. If you do want to do those things, you only have to do what you want to do and only what you are comfortable with.
  2.  On the flip side, don’t be a hand-waver and hand-wringer. Support your colleagues by respecting their agency. I try to never speak about someone publicly under attack without first reaching out to them. Offer support, offer your credibility, ask your colleague what they need from you or if your plans to “help” them will be of any help at all.
  3. If you or a colleague is under attack, help your institution to help you. Tell them concrete ways they can support you. I suggest things like having IT to set up another email exchange for all email you receive outside the institution. That email address can be a different one than what you provide students and yet different again from the one that faculty and administrators use to email you. This can help you sort through email you really shouldn’t be reading anyway, focus on your actual job instead of the circus, and change them as needed to accommodate the inevitable waves of internet outrage when an old story is re-discovered. You can also ask for protocols with your department admin and other staff to vet packages and visitors for a set period of time. The College or unit can help your colleagues write a template to easily respond “no comment” or “we support X” to requests for comment. If your college or university is not willing to do these things, share that information. Academics and students should have some idea of campuses that encourage academic engagement and those that do not. Shame does not only work on individuals.
  4. Take care of your family. Yes, most of this outrage is just vicious rhetoric but the sad truth is it is impossible to discern when there is a credible threat of bodily harm. Verify with your children’s daycare and school providers who is allowed to visit them. This often alerts them to be extra cautious with strangers without necessarily telling them all of your business. Monitor your children and family member’s social media accounts to make sure they are not unknowingly sharing location information or details you would rather not be shared during this time. Have a talk with younger family members about being safe online. (I love, love, love this resource from Equality Labs)
  5. Master platforms. Social media platforms are designed to facilitate certain kinds of behaviors. Twitter amplifies. Facebook brands. Tumblr remixes. Instagram illustrates. It isn’t a surprise that most of the more orchestrated outrage attacks on academics are emerging from Twitter and Facebook. The architecture of those sites make them ideal to do exactly that. There are individual and group strategies that can help disrupt some of the amplification and branding effects of these platforms. Learn them. Master them. Institutions should value these skills as much as they do the public notoriety. You can read materials curated by sociologists (including me) for ASA. You can also find experts who have done this work for ages (see: Nancy Baym and Annette Markham to start). You can order a copy of “Written/Unwritten” for yourself, your staff, your department, your colleagues (the final chapters have a great deal to say about this). You can, in a pinch, hire me and my team to do an onsite workshop for faculty and administrators like the one I did with Framingham State University.
  6. Get long-term. The most critical thing faculty and administrators can do is get out ahead of the call out culture. Crisis management firms sell their services to universities but they are reactive. They are also only concerned with the university brand, not the well-being and esteem of faculty or students. I hope AAUP takes leadership here but at this point we are in an all-hands-on-deck situation. Faculty governance remains the single greatest labor tool available to academicians. Host teach-ins on social media —  the business of amplification, the power map of outrage culture, and individual strategies —  for your faculty councils. Take your concerns to job talks for your university’s chief technology officer, a role unique to the corporate university that is usurping a great deal of institutional power. Be proactive by determining how academic freedom applies to public engagement. Request that your university develop and publish protocols that protect students and faculty (and not just the trustees) should something flare up.


Above all, be kind, be brave and put your academic skills to good use deciphering the context of recent attacks. If you read nothing else, please start with this primer from Media Matters. This isn’t an issue for individual professors. This is an organized effort. Sociologists may know a little something about those. Learn how to organize, then organize.

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On a more personal note, this whole thing sucks. People have no idea what it is like to have your drama arrive before you do until it happens to them. I recently talked to a young academic, a black woman, about this. I have been at this a minute. I was raising hell against the Chronicle for black grad students, and raising money at Emory to support public work, and behind petitions and letter writing campaigns and god knows what else. I obviously believe in solidarity, or at least I try (there are beginning to be too many for my welcome wagon of one to be efficient). But every single time I do this for someone else I have to relive some part of the things that have happened to me. No doubt, it has made me smarter and wiser and more empathetic. But, I like to think there was an easier way to develop those capacities.

What I do know is that we must take better care with one another, even if we do not like each other. I always try to reach out to scholars going through this kind of thing. A nice note of confidence really does go a long way. Like any attack on status, orchestrated outrage’s main objective is to isolate and obscure. Solidarity and sunshine are the best disinfectants in the age of social media.

7 thoughts on “Academic Outrage: When The Culture Wars Go Digital

  1. Thank you for posting this. It’s all good advice, though I really wish it was necessary to give it. As you said: “this whole thing sucks.”

  2. Thanks! This is very helpful. I really hate seeing people get chewed up and spit out by the microcelebrity machine. Be great to talk about this soon.

  3. Tressie, you are brave and generous and heroic, although you undoubtedly cringe at being told so…
    Thank you!

  4. As a higher ed communications professional, I have to chime in to thank you for this down to earth advice. I believe it’s an important part of my job to help faculty who find themselves in the crosshairs of the outrage machine — whether that’s with statements, templates, practical advice, or moral support. It’s important for people to hear from peers who have experienced the ugly side of instantaneous global communication and I can’t thank you enough for your generosity.

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