The Young Academic's Twitter Conundrum

The social-media platform is a robust ecosystem for brand-building, research-sharing, and career-ruining.

The shadows of people using smartphones against a blue backdrop with the Twitter logo
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics at Drexel University and an outspoken political activist, has tweeted his way into some hot water. Over the past three years, Ciccariello-Maher, a proponent of the “decolonial turn” in humanities research and a long-time critic of American foreign policy, has regularly posted off-color remarks on social media that encapsulate the same leftist opinions that informed his academic work. Last December, he tweeted that all he wanted for the holidays was “white genocide,” a nod to the problems caused by white supremacy throughout the developed world. And last month, he noted that seeing someone give his airplane seat to a uniformed soldier made him want to “vomit.” The latter comment engendered hostile remarks from many in the Drexel University community and prompted the school’s provost to initiate an investigation, which is still ongoing, into Ciccariello-Maher’s social-media activity.

The most obvious point to make here—and many commentators have already made it—is that Ciccariello-Maher’s free speech is at risk of being chilled by university administrators. But such free-speech concerns are raised constantly in public discourse, as employees without Ciccariello-Maher’s tenure protections are frequently ousted from positions after they have said controversial, unkind, or stupid things. More salient is the issue of how this kind of university investigation, informed by Drexel’s ostensibly speech-protective academic-freedom policy—“the teacher is entitled to full freedom in research,” it reads, although “s/he should be careful not to introduce into his/her teaching controversial matters”—shapes Ciccariello-Maher’s public outreach on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Such outreach is critical, as it helps academics at every stage in their careers gain notice for their work and improve their professional prospects. But in the course of attracting attention to themselves, academics are also attracting attention to their employers. These tensions can sometimes boil over, particularly when a scholar’s activist stance leads to public criticism of the academic institution where they are employed.

Ciccariello-Maher is hardly the first academic to find himself in trouble due to crude tweets that may have been written in the heat of the moment. Back in 2013, the Kansas University professor David Guth responded to a mass shooting in Washington, D.C., by tweeting “The blood is on the hands of the NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters.” Guth, a tenured professor, is a specialist in public-relations theory and crisis communication; his provocative tweet proved a public-relations disaster, at least with KU alumni and donors, and he was placed on administrative leave. Guth’s tweet—though perhaps less relevant to his scholarship than any of Ciccariello-Maher’s pithy statements about state violence and white supremacy were to his—was nevertheless aligned with his overall academic position as a “values-driven” researcher whose work is informed by moral and ethical issues.

In each of the social-media controversies, something about the academic’s very identity, his position vis-a-vis the scholarly work that he is paid to undertake, has been called into question. Even with the protections afforded to them by tenure, Guth and now Ciccariello-Maher suffered serious repercussions because of their speech. For vulnerable adjuncts and graduate students lacking such security, the circumstances are even more dire: These faculty members could be fired perfunctorily or disqualified from a competitive job search for far less egregious comments on social media—provided that these activities give cause for concern to some senior figure with power over them. Yet social media can rarely be avoided; junior scholars are increasingly presenting and discussing their research through online channels. Building or enhancing one’s academic identity on social media—the same place that exposes them to administrative judgment—has fast become a near-necessity for career advancement, particularly in terms of landing a first job.

Scholarly research has lent credence to anecdotal claims about social media’s growing importance as a networking tool for academics at all stages of their careers. In a 2012 paper that represented one of the first systematic studies of social media’s impact on academia, George Veletsianos, a professor at Royal Roads University in British Columbia, analyzed the usage patterns of academics. He concluded that “the participation observed on Twitter presents opportunities for … scholarly growth and reflection,” though it was still too early to make a definitive statement about what that might entail. (He also noted, rather tellingly, that “online practices may not be valued or understood by peers and academic institutions even though scholars themselves may have found scholarly value in participating in online spaces.”)

Four years later, the researchers Charles Knight and Linda Kaye evaluated the social-media practices of academics at a large university, determining that these academics’ “use of the [Twitter] platform for enhancing reputation is an implied acknowledgement of the importance of research within higher education and the increasingly public engagement agenda.” Professors on the campus they studied were far more likely to use Twitter for this purpose than they were for pedagogical reasons: “Academics want to use Twitter to inform the wider community of their activities rather than engage their students.” Networking, it seems, is one of social media’s principal purposes for those in academia.

“Twitter is great for academic networking, because it can be an awesome way for introverts and people who aren’t already in close proximity with the people they want to talk with to start building genuine relationships,” said Jennifer Polk, a friend and academic and career coach who runs the From PhD to Life website. “Of course, it’s all public [unless you adjust your security settings], so you should be professional—whatever that means in your field. And I recognize that in this context, ‘professional’ is a loaded term.”

Navigating the fine line between expressing oneself authentically on social media and making a positive impression on potential employers, however, can be tricky. Ben Labe, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of North Carolina whose research focuses on the behavior of nonprofit institutions, takes a dim view of the personal branding and marketing required of job-seekers, as well as of the ability of university administrators to fairly assess social-media content. “Because the job market for academics is so abysmal, aspiring researchers now endeavor to ‘brand’ and ‘sell’ themselves in the marketplace of ideas,” he explained in an email. “But if you are interested in decoloniality, as Ciccariello-Maher is, you might not even have to discuss this subject, which is anti-capitalist and anti-globalist at its core, in as glib or flippant a manner as he did in order to offend administrators already wary of angering donors and other university stakeholders. Your mere existence, which you have put on display for all to see, may prove offensive enough.”

Maria Helen Murphy, a law professor at Maynooth University outside of Dublin, addressed these challenges in a 2014 article entitled “The Views Expressed Remain Mine Alone.” After discussing an essay I had written about social-media-related problems I encountered with administrators during my time as a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, Murphy argued that “the function of university policies on academic freedom and social media should not be to limit academic freedom online … but rather to enhance it.” An “atmosphere of quietude” arises when speech policies are interpreted as they were at Drexel University and Kansas University, she wrote, which in turn “[stifles] vibrant academic discourse.”

Nevertheless, university administrators assigned to deal with these matters cannot prioritize academic discourse to the exclusion of all other strategic objectives. As Labe noted, they serve in positions that make them directly answerable to all of the university’s other stakeholders. At most universities, the provost has the unenviable task of balancing the often-competing interests of the college deans, alumni donors, and the university president; staying on good terms with all these stakeholders is a provost’s primary duty.

In this context, Drexel University Provost M. Brian Blake’s letter to Ciccariello-Maher, reprinted by Inside Higher Ed, makes perfect sense:

Numerous prospective students whom the university has admitted have written to the university stating that they will not attend the university because of your conduct, and at least two potential significant donors to the university have withheld previously promised donations … Your course of conduct suggests to me that you are unable or unwilling to calibrate your actions to consider the damages that they cause to your university and all those who work so hard to advance the mission of the university.

Ciccariello-Maher’s social-media activity, in Blake’s opinion, created a “serious distraction to the important academic mission of the university,” which encompasses not merely teaching and scholarship but a host of other relationships.

David Javits, a friend of mine who spent several years adjuncting for online for-profit universities with strict speech codes, ultimately left the field due to ceaseless anxieties about becoming precisely that sort of negative administrative distraction. “I networked when getting my Ph.D., going to conferences and such, but my work was politically controversial … Any complaint about my behavior, no matter how specious, could be a mark against my record. In the absence of a union or tenure protection, I was completely vulnerable,” he wrote to me in an email. “I have no social-media presence and never will.”

Still, some scholars at various stages of their career, from young adjunct to distinguished professor, have managed to use social media to bring wider exposure to their research and the sometimes-radical implications of that work, articulating controversial opinions without triggering negative media attention or winding up subjected to institutional discipline. Marcus Rediker, a social-justice activist and Atlantic historian at the University of Pittsburgh who writes about issues of race and class from a “bottom-up” perspective, shares updates about all of this work with a large community of Facebook followers. Eve Ewing, a sociologist of education still in the early stages of her career, has used social media to increase her public profile and ensure that her research on racism and social inequality reaches as many people as possible. Though both are every bit as passionately engaged with their audiences, neither has incited an angry reaction akin to what resulted from Guth’s or Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets—nor have the countless other academics who have struck the appropriate social-media balance between cultivating a serious academic identity and sharing opinions that others may occasionally disagree with.

“The idea of Twitter is to share great content that fits with your intellectual and personal brand,” Polk said. “That’s essentially what I do on there: I use the Twitter platform to curate online content, advice, and information for my audience. The idea is to position myself as a go-to person in my field. My own use of Twitter also helps me keep informed about developments in my field, which I can then pass on. But even people who aren't selling products and services can use the platform to engage with and take a kind of leadership role in their fields or communities.”

Of course, when all expressions are tailored to the expectations of an “audience” or “market,” or intended to please university administrators, some cautious but talented individuals may wind up self-censoring to the point of professional irrelevance.

A “dedication to real-world politics” of the sort that Ciccariello-Maher boasts about on his Drexel University profile page can lead to the distractions about which that university’s provost had complained. As such, many tenured professors, who have secured long-term employment in part through careful navigation of turbulent waters, continue to moderate their positions or leave them unexpressed. “I knew teachers who espoused radical principles when they were hired [and] decided to keep these under the radar but promised to let loose once they earned that coveted job security. I can say from experience that not one of these erstwhile militants did so,” wrote Michael Yates, the economist and editorial director of the socialist Monthly Review Press, in a recent essay for CounterPunch. “They got used to … playing it safe. The years of willingly submitting to authority slowly but surely warped whatever radical instincts they once had, so that by the time they got tenure, they were already ruined.”

In the course of researching this article, I contacted former colleagues at Texas-Arlington and elsewhere. Several replied with lengthy, detailed emails describing infuriating or inane social-media-related interactions with clueless administrators, noting that they were reprimanded for merely trying to draw attention to themselves and their work. In each case, I asked if I could share their comments so that other academics in similar circumstances could understand that they weren’t alone, that these difficulties were universal. I also explained that I was working for a publication that didn’t use anonymous sources; therefore, I needed to disclose their names and professional affiliations. Whether the author was a committed anarcho-syndicalist or a Murray Rothbard-admiring libertarian, the response was the same: “You can use the story, but don’t mention my name. I don’t want any trouble.”