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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Letters to a Publicly Engaged Academic

I’ve received some recent requests for advice from junior academics who are engaging publicly with their work but facing strong pushback or harassment for it. Since I’ve been through a few of these struggles and witnessed a lot more, this seemed like a good time to actually write down something of an advice column.

I should note here that any advice I give on this topic is not guaranteed to work. Your mileage may vary. When I started blogging in the late Triassic Period, the biggest perceived threat was that promotion and tenure committees didn’t take public engagement seriously and saw it as something that undermined serious academic work. I think we’re well beyond such concerns today.

But today’s threats to publicly engaged academics are potentially a lot more serious. These can include sustained personal attacks, threats of physical violence, and efforts to materially harm one’s career. It’s been less than two years since a syndicated New York Times columnist unsubtly tried to get a political scientist fired for mocking him on Twitter. These incidents are survivable, but not always easy to laugh off. They take a psychic toll. As Lindy West wrote in a key article on this topic, “We’ve all built up significant armor at this point, but, you know, armor is heavy.”

And while I’ve been the target of a number of insults and creepy personal attacks (including some anti-Semitic comments and a letter-writing campaign to my house), it’s clear I’ve gotten off easier than most. I’m a straight white guy of a certain age with tenure. Most often, the targets of on-line harassment campaigns of academics tend to be aimed at junior scholars of color, especially women. And while some of the threats may suggest physical violence, that’s rarely the goal. Rather, the threats are designed to silence these scholars, to discourage them from ever making dominant groups feel uncomfortable again.

So what can you do if you start to blog or tweet or write op/eds and find yourself the target of an on-line harassment campaign? Here are a few suggestions:

Discuss the situation with the tenure chain of command - Your chair or dean or provost may not have that much interest in your on-line life, but chances are they don’t want to see your path to tenure railroaded because of it. If you’re the victim of a sustained campaign, discuss the situation with them before you go up for tenure. Describe to them the nature of the controversy, what you’re being criticized for, how it relates to your scholarship, and so on. These campaigns often fizzle pretty quickly, but if this is going to be an issue when you’re up for promotion, they should understand your framing of it first. They may even want to include a helpful note to external reviewers.

Talk to campus safety officers - When I received a series of letters to my home address critical (in a personal way) of some op/eds I’d written, I discussed it with my campus safety office. To my relief, they took the situation seriously, even though the letters didn’t contain specific threats. There wasn’t a ton they could do about it, but they showed me how to document the situation and report it to local law enforcement, if necessary. And they continue to check in with me about it.

Talk to your editors - If you’re getting attacked over op/eds you’ve written, discuss the situation with your editor at the publication. Chances are, you’re not the first to receive such treatment, and they may have some useful information for you about what other writers have done in this situation, just how serious the threat is, and what some of your options are.

Adjust your social media settings - A lot of on-line harassment occurs on Twitter, and I can’t overstate just how useful it is to regulate your on-line experience there. You can alter your Twitter settings to block unpleasant users, mute annoying conversations, filter your notifications, report threatening tweets, make your own tweets private, and more. I’ve also spared myself a lot of anxiety simply by not reading replies. Yes, there are situations where you really need to know who is attacking you and why, but overwhelmingly the purpose of this harassment is to discourage you, and if you don’t see it it doesn’t have that power.

Push back - Okay, this will depend on your taste for blood, but there are a number of ways to push back against those who attack you. One way involves finding the e-mail addresses of those criticizing you and publishing them on social media, encouraging others to attack them. These attacks don’t have to be vicious -- maybe just signing them up for porn sites or subscriptions to Cat Fancy -- so long as they involve the harasser paying some price for their attacks. Less aggressively, you could recruit a bunch of your allies on-line to criticize the attacker. Also, if it turns out the attacker has an e-mail account tied to a large and well-known company (Google, Hotmail, Comcast, etc.), it’s legitimate to complain to the company that the person is violating a user agreement. Like many bullies, these on-line attackers typically only attack those who do not defend themselves, and even minor pushback can discourage future attacks.

I honestly struggle with the ethics of some of these tactics, but they are probably better than doing nothing. I would also note that your fighting back changes the moral calculus somewhat. A provost or campus security guard may perceive you differently if you are the aggrieved victim than if you are a willing participant in a dispute, even if it’s a dispute you didn’t start. It’s worth considering just how real the threat is in the first place -- Are they there to annoy you? Are they actually threatening your reputation or job or safety? -- when deciding whether or how hard to push back.

Let me also recommend political scientist Ari Kohen’s talk on this topic from 2019. He has dealt with a concerted effort to silence him largely by making his university administrators (and those of other schools) aware of just what this all means, why it’s important, and the legal gray area in which many scholars exist.

I will finally note my distaste for this whole topic. You shouldn’t have to seek advice on how to deal with trolls and attackers when trying to publicize your research and opinions. This is a sad cost of the business we’ve chosen, and that cost is not borne equally across demographic groups or academic ranks. And please remember that the critics’ main goal is to silence you. It is my hope that they fail, and that at least some of the above advice will be useful in allowing you to maintain your voice. But I also recognize that, as West wrote, the armor is heavy.

My thanks to Julia Azari, Ari Kohen, and Dave Karpf for helpful suggestions on this piece.

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