Striking a Nerve

By Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt

When Inside Higher Ed’s “Conditionally Accepted” column published my op-ed “A Checklist to Determine if You Are Supporting White Supremacy,” I was warned of potential backlash. Then it went viral.

While my piece was shared by hundreds of colleagues around the country, especially faculty of color, marginalized faculty and those who are committed to various equity, diversity and antiracist initiatives and interventions, it was simultaneously shared on right-wing media platforms that actively support structural, institutional and cultural racism and discrimination.

By Jan. 13, 2018, the next day, Campus Reform had picked up the piece and retitled it as “Prof Creates Checklist for Detecting White Supremacy.” This retitled piece had already been shared 1,500 times on various right-wing social media outlets.

The College Fix, The Washington Times, Barbwire, Reddit, The Blaze, The Gateway Pundit, Liberty Unyielding, Legal Insurrections and The Rightly Reportrepublished the article on their sites under different titles. The National Sentineltitled its piece “Campus COMMIE: Lib Professor Claims Meritocracy is WHITE Supremacy.” The various headlines in these right-wing and alt-right publications quite correctly defined me as a “liberal” or “left-wing professor,” while others like The National Sentinel mistakenly marked me as an academic pushing “Communist” ideas in the classroom. Some right-wing critiques suggested that op-eds like mine are a clear indication that “Serious study is being replaced with social justice activism.” The College Fix made a point to emphasize that “Gender studies coordinator offers ‘checklist’ to determine if you support white supremacy.”

The above headlines proved my central thesis on white supremacy and two other significant points:

  1. These backlashes against social justice scholarship and activism are a reminder of the pervasive nature of everyday white supremacy in our culture.
  2. Social justice activism is not divorced from “serious study” — it is “serious study.”

There were also confessions from self-proclaimed white supremacists. In Renegade Tribune, “WhiteWolf” commented, “I’m White so of course I support White supremacy. If Whites aren’t supreme then that means that other races are supreme over us. Why would I want that?” Joining WhiteWolf, thousands of self-proclaimed white supremacists doubled down on their racism, but also confirmed some features of white supremacy as noted in my “checklist.”

By Jan. 16, 2018 (just four days after the publication of the op-ed in Inside Higher Ed) conservative millennial Allie Beth Stuckey debated former Missouri Democratic state representative Don Calloway on Fox News, using my op-ed as a premise for discussing white supremacy, white racism and liberal bias on various college and university campuses. In their conversation Stuckey commented on how liberal professors are using “bias to drive their curriculum rather than honest dialogue” and concluded that “liberal colleges teach white shaming.”

While those who teach about racism and conduct antiracist work grounded in sociological and historical findings are repeatedly charged with “white shaming,” what is also ironic is that such work (both academic and activist) is often marked as promoting “reverse racism.” Sara Ahmed in her book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life makes a poignant remark on “how the creation of diversity as a political solution can participate in making those who speak about racism the cause of the problem.”

These outbursts and outrages against liberal professors who have written or spoken about white supremacy in America have become routine. Scholars like Steven Salaita, Saida Grundy, Johnny Eric Williams, George Ciccariello-Maher, Amanda Gailey, Dorothy Kim and, most recently, David Palumbo-Liu have all been subjected to severe right-wing media scrutiny for their stances against white supremacy, white privilege, settler colonialism and fascism.

Furthermore, many scholars, and particularly those who are faculty of color or marginalized, have received little to no support within their own institutions that proclaim to protect the academic freedom of their faculty members. Their experiences mirror what Arianne Shahvisi has called “epistemic injustice” within the academy.

It should be noted that it is not just these attacks, but the chilling effect it produces on academic freedom that is detrimental to all faculty. While some institutions have taken strong positions to protect the academic freedom of their faculty members, there are other institutions whose reactions have been lukewarm. On her blog, Tressie McMillan Cottom points out quite succinctly “how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.” Joan W. Scott (in an interview given to Bill Moyers) concluded that the treatment scholars is receiving today are worse than during the McCarthy era. “The internet has made possible a frightening practice of threats and intimidation — threats of unspeakable violence and death … McCarthy’s were violent threats at a more abstract level. These are specific threats.”

So rather than depending on institutions to respond, I want to suggest a few safeguards if you want to enter the public discourse of critiquing white supremacy. These safeguards will certainly not eliminate any attacks or threats but can certainly minimize it.

  • Be sure to remove from your institutional page your email address, telephone number, office address, office hours and any personal information that can easily be assessed by internet trolls.
  • Make your Twitter account private and set your Facebook setting to “friends only” before the publication of your piece.
  • Forward your piece to your president, dean or provost, head of the campus security, and media relations office as soon as it is published. This allows them to prepare a strategy to protect you and the institution before they start receiving thousands of phone calls and requests to fire you.
  • As you start receiving the first wave of backlash, remind your administrators of the institution’s policy on academic freedom and request that they keep you informed about any outside interventions or threats made against you.
  • Forward your administration AAUP’s recent publications on targeted online harassment and “What You Can Do About Targeted Online Harassment.”
  • Avoid hyperlinks to any alt-right and right-wing media outlets. By linking to them, you not only invite the digital mob to make you a target for their attacks, but also promote their revenue stream.

Just alerting the administration will not be enough. You will have to safeguard yourself from the emotional stresses as a result of the various threats and comments made on social media about you.

  • Do not take each comment made by the trolls seriously, but do report the serious threats to your administration.
  • Expect some of your own liberal (white) colleagues to be a bit nervous around you. Many of them will not want to discuss your article, although they may have read it. Give them time to process what you have written. Most of your colleagues are well meaning but simply are not trained to discuss race or white supremacy.
  • Do not take it personally if people you thought were your allies are hesitant to share your piece on their social media spaces. Some of them have conservative friends and family members, and sharing your piece (which your allies actually endorse) may also invite some ugly conversations on their own social media space.
  • Welcome the new group of allies who will thank you for your thoughts and share with you some of their own experiences.

Last but not least, stick to your conviction about what you have written and said and remind yourself what Angela Davis once declared: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things that I cannot accept.”



Photo of Reshmi Dutt-BallerstadtReshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is a professor of English and also co-coordinates the gender studies program at Linfield College in Oregon. She is the author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant. Her most recent pieces of public writing are “On Being the Right Kind of Brown” and “When Free Speech Dismantles Diversity Initiatives,” both published in CounterPunch. She also has a blog called On Being Brown and Out/Raged.

A Sound Prevention Base For Addressing Campus Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Brian Van Brunt (@brianvb) is the executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. He served as director of counseling at New England College and Western Kentucky University. For more information, see or contact him at Amy Murphy (@DrAmyLMurphy) is an assistant professor at Angelo State University, where she teaches graduate courses in the student development and leadership in higher education master’s program. She previously served as the dean of students at Texas Tech University (

As former university administrators, specifically a dean of students and a director of counseling, we have a distinct perspective on issues of sexual violence impacting college campuses. Speaking frankly, investment in prevention is not as exciting as investing in Title IX coordination and investigation. In our work, we have found the most effective strategy to mitigate risk is not only to fund crisis intervention and post-vention efforts such as investigations and clear due process but also to develop prevention and assessment efforts to better identify early behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that have the potential to escalate into an attack.

Frequently, however, the temptation of people in dean of students and director of counseling roles is to respond to immediate fires rather than to take the time to pull together a compressive, evidence-based approach. That is not an effective way to eliminate sexual violence on college campuses.

Think of the investment a community fire department puts into its work. While purchasing new fire trucks and having the latest in thermal imaging technology may help respond more effectively to fires, a more efficient way to deal with a fire is to prevent it by identifying risky hot spots (Christmas trees, space heaters, fireworks and so on) and educating community members how to prevent a fire before it begins. Similarly, what we need in the Title IX world is a Smokey Bear-style investment in stopping the fire before it starts.

Important Risk Factors

In our 2016 book, Uprooting Sexual Violence: A Guide for Practitioners and Faculty (Routledge), we offer such prevention strategies to reduce incidents of sexual violence and create campus environments that support healthier attitudes, behaviors and relationships. Sexual violence is not just a series of incidents perpetrated by individuals. It is also a broader societal issue that is better addressed by considering systemic attitudes and environments that support the reoccurrence of sexual assault, stalking and intimate partner violence.

We cannot make casual assumptions about where the epidemic of sexual violence might be coming from, but we can look at the roots of the problem that are buried deep within our institutions, organizations and societal values. It is by digging at these root risk factors that we can have the best chance of developing targeted and efficient educational strategies.

The first group of risk factors may be the toughest with which to wrestle, because we see examples of these underlying attitudes and beliefs in our daily lives. They include objectifying and dehumanizing other individuals, misogynistic ideology, lack of empathy, and hardened points of view. Some people see these root contributions to sexual violence as “political correctness” gone amok or even an attack on individual freedoms. But these attitudes and beliefs are regularly connected to the research on violence and tend to feed upon other similar attitudes. In fact, in group environments such as fraternities or athletic teams, these attitudes become implicit approval to think of others as less than oneself.

The second group of risk factors involves behaviors that relate to our treatment of others related to sex: using substances such as drugs or alcohol to obtain sex, behaviors that falsely lure others into feeling safe, ultimatums, and other patterns of escalating threat strategies. These factors may be used at the individual or group level to lessen supportive communication, isolate people and lower their self-esteem and ability to defend themselves.

The last group of risk factors focuses on experiences that escalate our risks related to sexual violence. How do we learn about sex? What are our past experiences with sex? Students with an obsessive or addictive focus on pornography, and who have developed no alternative narratives around how sex occurs, may be influenced negatively by exposure to pornography. Other past experiences as well as sensation-seeking and obsessive behaviors can also contribute to attitudes about sex. Unfortunately, many students have not had access to adequate sex education and are left on their own to understand consent for sexual activity and other issues of healthy sexual relationships. Colleges and universities are often left to fill this information gap for students.


In our favorite episode of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More, With Feeling,” the cast comes together to sing the concluding song “Where Do We Go From Here?” (See a snippet on YouTube here.) That is a fair question.

Here is what we suggest:

  • Monitor social event planning. A higher education institution should devote equal time and energy to appropriate planning and implementation processes for events that include alcohol. Administrators need to actively monitor the social environment and address the opportunities for perpetrators to take advantage of others. They should ask themselves questions like “How is the event being promoted and what messages are being sent?” “How is the safety of the attendees considered?” “What lessons have we learned from past events to ensure everyone has a safe and fun time?”
  • Teach otherness and empathy. The teaching of empathy is best tied to the overall mission of the college. For many liberal arts institutions, this mission involves teaching students to think critically and diversely about the world around them. To that end, faculty and staff members could reasonably teach basic empathy and perspective-taking skills to students in their classes, workshops and orientation events. This directly impacts the root risk factors of objectification, misogyny and hardened points of view.
  • Challenge hardened viewpoints. Critical thinking is the hallmark of liberal education. It cannot be just about content knowledge, but must also be about teaching students how to think. Following that logic, there is little room for inflexible thoughts or entrenched points of view. We need to challenge students’ thoughts that center on women being worth less than men, that other people are objects to be enjoyed regardless of their agency, or that you just have to ask more aggressively when someone says no to sexual activity.
  • Teach consent. Simply identifying the “bad” and developing programs to reduce at-risk and concerning behaviors is not sufficient to stem the tide of sexual violence on our campuses. We also must teach sexual consent and relationship health in a continuing, affirmative — and, quite frankly — engaging and entertaining format. Specifically, we recommend:
  1. creating dialogue, not monologue, when teaching students;
  2. knowing your policy and conduct code;
  3. using technology to help engage students;
  4. teaching students that good sex begins with good communication; and
  5. embracing the prevention year, not the prevention month (such as Sexual Assault Awareness Month during the month of April).
  • Teach healthy relationships. Healthy relationships, in all their wonderful diversity, are based on concepts of open communication and respect for each other’s autonomy and connectedness. In healthy relationships, people cultivate each other’s worth, as well as demonstrate willingness to reach a middle ground and to contribute to the betterment of the other. Colleges can support healthy relationships by helping students build their skills around practicing active listening, empathy and equanimity; focusing on the other’s happiness; and fostering social connection and mutual respect.

While institutions must investigate and respond to incidents in an efficient and consistent way, and often put out fires, we would do well to focus more time and energy on prevention and education. We need to find the time and resources to prevent those fires before they begin.

So what next? Again, we turn to the end of the TV series Angel, the companion series to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to offer some guidance.

Spike: “And in terms of a plan?”
Angel: “We fight.”
Spike: “Bit more specific?”
Angel: “Well, personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon.”

Academic Blackballing – Censoring Scholars Who Critique Inequality

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column for marginalized scholars on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Sandy Grande is a professor of education at Connecticut College, where she is also director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Ever since National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during a pregame national anthem last year as a form of protest against police brutality and racial injustice, he’s been the target of boycotts, death threats and fan backlash. Consequently, despite his talent and performance, he remains conspicuously unemployed, even while less accomplished quarterbacks have been signed. The situation has led many to speculate that Kaepernick is being blackballed and possibly even colluded against by the NFL.

Kaepernick’s story resonates with faculty members, particularly faculty of color, who have also suffered backlash for speaking out against injustices within and outside the academy. Some have similarly become the subject of national media storms, death threats and intimidation and found themselves suddenly unemployed.

While such severe cases capture the spotlight of media attention, I focus here on the more quotidian forms of backlash, or what I term academic blackballing: everyday acts of silencing, gaslighting, bullying and “mansplaining” that not only serve to marginalize and exclude but also limit or outright deny opportunities for professional growth and advancement.

As a professor who has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, I have been both witness to and target of academic blackballing, the experience of which, as detailed below, shares things in common with Colin Kaepernick’s.

Tone Policing and Victim Blaming

Just as Kaepernick has endured criticisms that he brought the blackballing on himself by choosing the “wrong” form of protest, professors who speak out are also often subjected to this form of victim blaming. The justifications sound something like this: “If only you had spoken in a more reasoned tone” or understood that “there is a time and place for everything,” because in the university “we” value “civil discourse and debate” and not “emotional” diatribes.

Such tone policing functions as a means of redirecting attention away from the injustice itself to the method of protest, a form of silencing that suggests emotion or expressed anger is what is intolerable, not the inequity, prejudice or bias that is being named. But what exactly is the “right” tone for expressing frustration over the fact that, in 2017, the professoriate remains more than 75 percent white and 60 percent male? That the college graduation gap for students of color is still growing? That ethnic studies still struggles for legitimacy in the academy? That (hetero)sexism remains rampant?

Lest we forget, Kaepernick chose a silent mode of protest and, in the month immediately following, 15 more black people died in encounters with police. What kind of measured tone should we, as a society, strike to raise questions about the nearly 600 Americans killed by police in 2017, particularly when the combined total of such deaths in England and Wales across a nearly 30-year span is 67?

History bears witness to the violence that nonviolent protest has generally garnered. Similarly, within college and university settings, it does not seem to matter whether one chooses a direct form of protest or plays the role of good university citizen — you still pay a price for speaking truth to power.

The Distraction

Kaepernick has also been labeled a “distraction,” meaning his politics distract from the teams’ focus on the primary work at hand: football. Some well-meaning “supporters” have even suggested that perhaps Kaepernick prefers his activist work to his day job. Outspoken academics, often perceived as “activists,” receive similar messages from their colleagues, and grad students from their advisers; they are told either tacitly or explicitly to concentrate on their work and leave their political activities for a more appropriate space and time.

The problem with such advice is that it fails to understand that we are women, people of color and otherwise minoritized faculty all the time, not just between the hours of nine and five. And whether we speak out while on the job or not, there are still consequences for just being who we are. The struggle to be perceived as rational, reasonable, collaborative and nonthreatening in environments where even the mere utterance of the words “racism” or “sexism” is experienced as injurious is constant. And the dilatory effects of carrying the weight of this struggle are well documented.

Conditional Acceptance

At the same time Kaepernick’s blackballing carries on, so does its denial, explained away through arguments that it is his lackluster performance and not his politics that is in question — despite all evidence to the contrary. In other words, his blackballing is justified because it isn’t blackballing at all; it’s just what happens when (suddenly) your skills are found to be subpar.

Academics who speak out similarly experience the questioning of their qualifications and performance either directly through denied promotions or indirectly through the disparagement of their scholarly expertise. That is, in the court of public opinion, one is typically found guilty until proven innocent. To the extent that it does not seem to matter if words are misconstrued, taken out of context or grounded in empirical evidence and historical facts, institutions often capitulate to public outcry before they stand behind their faculty. The outcome is the same: if you find yourself the subject of academic blackballing, your skills — the ability to teach and conduct research in a manner suitable to your profession and field — will be called into question.

Paying the Price of Admission

Insofar as the default setting for American society is defined by hierarchies of race, class and gender, then the work of social justice, by definition, requires disruption. Yet disruptive actions, whether in the form of public protest or speech acts, are rarely experienced as necessary or productive interventions — as moving us toward more just and equitable outcomes. On the contrary, they are viewed as un-American, disloyal and uncollegial.

To be sure, under such precarious work conditions, staying silent and keeping one’s eyes focused on the “prize” of tenure, promotion or other forms of academic recognition makes sense. But for as long as racism, sexism and other forms of oppression continue to negatively shape the work-life conditions of both American colleges and society, there is a stronger case to be made for staging protests of multiple kinds. We need to keep speaking up and out because the alternative — the ascendance of the authoritarian state and the neoliberal university — is unacceptable.

That said, it is also incumbent upon people in positions of power to reject the narrative of “disruptive” acts or speech as categorically negative and unproductive and, instead, embrace it as an important and necessary strategy for positive change. They need to support faculty and staff who come under attack, because once threats of lynching, bombing, death and rape become the regular consequence for the expression of ideas, we will have solidified our decline into pure despotism.

Acts of disruption and pedagogies of dissent are vital to the health of a democracy. Thus, as faculty, we owe it to our students and society to insist on “thinking dangerously” and to engage critique as an essential mode of inquiry. We need to ensure that campus leadership understands that education has never been a neutral enterprise, diversity and inclusion are only starting points, and that study by definition requires struggle.

We need to recognize that the story of Colin Kaepernick is our story and work ever more assiduously to connect across various justice projects. The future of democracy and higher education depends on it.

Understanding The Recent Slew Of Attacks On Public Scholars

Note: this blog post originally appeared on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared at Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Weaponizing Free Speech

The political right has developed a coordinated network to systematically target the free speech of presumably left-wing professors. Over the course of the last few weeks, this network of activists has launched a vicious series of attacks, leading to intimidation, calls for firing and even death threats. Colleges and universities have shut down operations, while scholars have canceled speaking engagements and even gone into hiding with their families.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Johnny Eric Williams, Sarah Bond, Tommy Curry and George Ciccariello-Maher are the most recent targets of the right’s campaign against higher education. As the attacks have spread and intensified, the American Sociological Association joined the American Association of University Professors in condemning the targeting of individual professors and calling on universities to protect those whose speech is targeted. Jessie Daniels and Arlene Stein have written an excellent overview of why and how universities should support these scholars, and Eric Anthony Grollman offered a model for scholars to protect their colleagues from public attacks.

The specifics of these professors’ statements have been covered and analyzed elsewhere. My concern here is twofold. First, it appears that free speech is policed differentially based upon the identity of the speaker and whether they are supporting or challenging power. Second, the right is exploiting these manufactured outrages, using free speech as a wedge issue as part of their years-long strategy of delegitimizing higher education itself.

There is little doubt that some on the right disdain the institution of higher education. We, as faculty members, are regularly caricatured as effete, out-of-touch liberals with an overabundance of leisure and job security. By attacking faculty of color in particular, these organizations have brought a Southern strategy to higher education. Research shows that allegedly principled free speech arguments are often thinly veiled defenses of racist attitudes.

As Steven W. Thrasher argued in The Guardian, free speech is often a disingenuous framing device, with racial and ethnic minorities’ speech less likely to be protected. Wendy Moore and Joyce Bell document this selective application of free speech, showing that protected racist speech promotes a hostile racial climate. Campus Reform, the National Review and Fox News gamble, correctly, that the magic of racial alchemy will silence so-called principled free speech activists.

The disingenuousness of this strategy is apparent in the worry about hypothetical bias against white students, while ignoring the well-documented, ingrained, pervasive and routine bias against people of color on and off campus. The fake news outlets promoting these attacks outsource violence to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability. They hope to silence critics and make an example of those who stand up. White supremacy becomes frictionless.

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors

The broader political climate has emboldened white supremacists. And their fellow travelers’ violent attacks from the right are supporting and driving official policies. The full impact on academe writ large is of course unknowable, but I fear their use in undermining tenure, diversity and the very notion of empirically verifiable knowledge. The well-publicized sabotaging of faculty governance and proposed cuts to funding are furthered by the selective policing of free speech. These manufactured outrages are quickly leveraged into attacks on higher education. Legislators have already seized upon them to call for the firing of tenured professors, and Trinity College has placed Johnny Eric Williams on leave. Those academics without the protection of tenure face greater speech restrictions, as they often lack even basic employment protections.

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

When Your Work Becomes A Facebook Fight

nicole-bederaNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Nicole Bedera is a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with an emphasis on sexual violence and masculinity.


When I realized that I wanted to be a rape researcher, I thought about deactivating my Facebook account — or at least unfriending many of my Facebook friends. It felt as though every time that I posted anything relating to my work on sexual violence, someone appeared to fight with me about it.

There was the guy I went to high school with who wanted to debate the accuracy of statistics on campus sexual assault. And there was the former teacher who left comments on my wall that blamed victims for drinking too much or dressing provocatively. Even my mom chimed in, wondering whether my new interest in sexual assault was an overreaction, reflective of an emerging hatred toward men. I frequently received unsolicited messages from friends who wanted to debate me on all of these issues privately in the name of keeping me from becoming an extremist or in the spirit of an intellectual debate where they could “play devil’s advocate.”

I am far from alone. For scholars whose academic work touches on contentious issues in the public eye, the internet can become a battleground where our contributions, and those of our respected colleagues, come under fire. In those moments, our aggressors do not treat us like experts in our field, but instead like the old friend, grandchild or relative stranger they know us to be. That is especially true for women and people of color, and especially true when our work has some relationship to the marginalized identities that we hold.

In the online world, people presume that all opinions are equal, regardless of how much thought someone has or hasn’t put into forming them. There is also little recognition that an issue one person views as an interesting story that just popped up on the nightly news is another person’s life’s work.

For those reasons, Facebook debates can be hurtful and exhausting, but there is reason to believe they are worth the time and effort. For every critic we face, there are plenty of people who appreciate the articles we post and who learn from the disagreements that unfold — and sometimes the critics are among their numbers.

Facebook can be an effective medium to introduce our friends and families to our academic work and to make social change more generally. But for these interactions to be successful, especially in the face of disagreement, we must break away from the common approaches employed in hostile online arguments. Below, I share nine tactics that I’ve developed to ensure that my online engagement with friends and family remains civil and meaningful.

1. Be kind — even in the face of hateful comments. It is easy to get sucked into the vitriol of internet trolls, but never forget that they get just as put off by your insults as you are by theirs. Obviously, some comments, such as violent threats, do not deserve a response at all, but if you are going to respond, make sure that you focus on setting a polite and educational tone. Plus, a little respect for someone with whom you disagree goes a long way toward opening them up to your ideas.

2. Empathize. We have all made ignorant comments, but academics have had the privilege of formal education to redirect us to more scientifically defensible or inclusive beliefs. Remember how you developed the ideologies that you have, and use your own learning experiences to bring someone along a similar path. The things that changed your mind-set might open someone else’s eyes.

3. Validate. When whoever you are engaging with hits on something you agree with, point it out. You can use those moments as a jumping-off point for the stuff on which you disagree. This is especially effective when you both feel aggrieved by something but disagree on the cause of the harm. For example, I share the belief held by most men’s rights activists that it’s terrible to punish someone falsely accused of rape. But instead of immediately arguing about the prevalence of false accusations, that shared belief can be a jumping-off point for how important it is to make victims feel comfortable during sexual assault investigations to make it easier for investigators to get the story straight. (And then we can have a whole conversation about victim blaming that will still tackle factually inaccurate beliefs about false accusation rates!)

4. Respect the other side’s intelligence. A Ph.D. alone is not enough to demonstrate that you are always right and that everyone else who disagrees with you is stupid. If you treat others that way, they may dig their heels in. Instead, treat the discussion like a topic you are learning together. It should be a shared intellectual challenge rather than an intellectual showdown.

5. Embrace subjectivity. As academics, it is tempting to stick to the facts, but in the era of partisan think tanks and Google, a back-and-forth battle of statistics misses the point. You have a distinct perspective — as do your “opponents” — and using it just makes sense. Combine that personal perspective with all those facts and data you learned in your graduate program.

6. Embrace vulnerability. If someone says something that hurts you, calmly explain why. People are generally empathetic folk who do not want to hurt others. Explaining how someone (probably unintentionally) caused you harm can be a powerful teaching moment and does wonders to save a friendship or ease tensions on the next family holiday.

7. Play the long game. You do not need to change someone’s mind immediately and probably can’t, even if you try. When dealing with friends in particular, you can post an article on the same issue you debated a week ago and they will likely read it, especially if you were kind and give them a nudge like, “After our conversation last week, I thought this might interest you.”

8. Pick your battles. Since you are playing a long game, do not feel pressured to respond to everything that riles you up. Sometimes it feels too personal and sometimes you are too tired, and that is OK. I have been known to respond to requests for my professional opinion on contentious issues with, “You know, this line of work is hard, and I’m just too tired today.” I also have more general rules, like, “I don’t argue about false reporting rates. I’ll tell you which study I recommend and why, but I’m stopping there.” Your mental well-being matters more than any single Facebook argument, and you should get to choose when you engage.

9. Lean on your allies. Not all Facebook altercations will lead to a rewarding resolution. Identify friends with whom you can talk about especially tough conversations, or ask them to chime in when you need backup. Your allies will help you heal from any harsh words that are exchanged and remind you that you have a strong support system that values your work.

Our online interactions have the potential to strengthen our support networks for our work — and change some minds along the way — but only if we are thoughtful about how we treat disagreement.

You Don’t Have To Let Students Into Your Online World

crowderNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder (@stepbcrowder) is an author, minister, and Bible and pop culture educator. She serves as assistant professor of theological field education and New Testament and as director of the ACTS doctor of ministry in preaching program at Chicago Theological Seminary.

“The ‘Sacredness’ of Social Media”

#boundaries #academy #balance #socialmedia #nope #sacredspace #theology

No, this is not another article on why you should or should not engage with social media. I will not waste cyberink on how much time you should allot to Twitter. The degree of frittering on Facebook is up to you. That is not my purpose here — not today. I am a proponent for exploring the vast tools of technology.

Interactions on the Internet are crucial in academe whether one studies history, sociology, geometry or, yes, even theology. From professors posting podcasts to the live-streaming and Periscope activities of pastors and church leaders, the use of the web is ubiquitous to say the least. It is worth emphasizing that access to the world online is beyond a luxury. It is a social, professional, political and theological necessity.

However, we must have boundaries. Too much of a good thing is abusive and irresponsible. I am especially concerned that, in the academy, professors allow themselves to say yes to students who want to invade their social media environment. It is OK to say no!

Within the hallowed halls of academe, we spend many days and some nights responding to student emails, answering the same questions, reviewing paper outlines, drafts and final papers, and serving as disciplinarian and counselor — ad nauseam. Thus, we must establish a perimeter somewhere. Well, it stops here. Know that your social media space is off-limits; students cannot cross this line.

We should not feel obligated to reply to class-related work on Facebook. No, it is not a pedagogical sin to ignore a “Can you explain the directions again?” request on Twitter. A student’s direct messaging is not a substitute for direct use of institutional email. A class-related shout-out on Instagram does not give students instant access to you or me. Our social media presence is precious, priceless and off-limits. It is sacred — holy social ground.

My posting and trolling on social media — well, it’s for me. As a professional, I want to be in conversation with others in the guild with whom distance, time and just plain inconvenience preclude our dialogue. A retweet here, a like there, and a message or two allows me to be in touch with colleagues and potential collaborators. This is the space where I can expand my academic, social and cultural horizons. I discover the latest article, the newest book or most recent political movement. This is not where I want to expend more energy fielding student inquiries about the syllabus or an assignment.

Establishing such lines of professor-student demarcation is not about weariness from responding to student queries. This is par for the course. Pedagogy is an exercise of questions and answers, thinking and responding. But it must also be a discourse of silence, reflection and meditation. Vocation calls for places of professional growth and development. The idea is for professors to have an arena just to be. The busyness of social media can perchance serve in this vein. There is much to be gleaned from the constant, ready access to information, ideas and movements. Everything, however, must be done in moderation. This, too, calls for academic balance and scholarly equilibrium.

The “me” on social media is professional, yes, but is not solely that of professor. There are many facets to my social location and identity. Because who we are “out there” can be personal, it is OK if students are not Facebook friends — although some would tend to disagree. I have colleagues who gladly converse with current students in cyberspace, while others prefer not to have such connections until after students have graduated.

If a request to befriend or an automatic follow comes from someone in a present class, it is professionally and personally within your right to ignore or block such requested connections. If asked in person about the decline, I gently let students know the rationale: social media space is all about me. There, I said it again. Our work requires the time for self-conscious advocacy, adventures and professional advancement proffered through the Internet maze. This is just another teachable moment.

Truth is, students could post items that I really should not see. I choose not to be put in such a precarious position. Let them have their Internet freedom. Note, we all need to proceed with caution. One never knows who is lurking or trolling. The Internet is always watching. Yes, we must be careful, but we do not have to be cowardly.

When it comes to alumni, former students, staff members or other people connected to an institution, there are perhaps a different set of criteria. Relationships change as people matriculate through shared organizations. In this light, some professionals establish various Internet accounts to reflect their respective social, political and career loci.

I think it is relative. You know you. You know what degree of any type of engagement inside and outside of the academy is personally apropos. No, I am not trying to hide anything. Probity says I am who I am in the classroom and in my dining room. This is comparable to not answering work-related emails on the weekend — same, same. A healthy dose of work-family, professor-student balance is beneficial for everyone.

It is just a matter of boundaries for me. I hear the stentorian retort: What parameters could there possibly be when Googling reveals information about ourselves even we had forgotten? The Internet is unforgiving. The World Wide Web has a long memory. It never forgets. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can find our pictures, posts and papers without our consent or knowledge. Nonetheless, I would like to believe in a modicum of control over who or what enters and feeds on my cyberself. I study theology. Belief is important to me.

So go ahead. Draw a line in the social media sand. Stand up for your cyber yes. Stand in your Internet no. Erect that “No Students Allowed” fence. Save your social media persona for the work your soul requires. This is holy ground. For the sake of self and society — this is sacred.

On Being “Conditionally Accepted” in Academia

Note: This essay was originally published as the inaugural blog post for our Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized scholars

Photo adapted from Gustav Aagesen (

Photo adapted from Gustav Aagesen (

In July 2013, I launched a blog called Conditionally Accepted — an online space for scholars on the margins of academe. At the time, I was beginning my new position as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond and had just finished the six-year chapter of graduate school at Indiana University. The blog reflected the growing rage I felt about the reality of injustice and inhumanity in the academy. After six years of microaggressions, undermining my career choices and activism, and the resultant mental health problems of these experiences, I decided to break my silence. I wanted to begin writing the stories and advice that were not available to me as I struggled to navigate graduate school and the academic job market.

When I first created Conditionally Accepted, I defined its scope as a space for marginalized scholars in academe, including women scholars, scholars of color, immigrant scholars, LGBTQ scholars, working-class scholars, first-gen scholars, fat scholars, scholars with disabilities, and scholars who are religious and nonreligious minorities. Today, members of these groups are subject to regular bias, discrimination, harassment, violence, isolation and exclusion — regardless of their discipline or career stage. Some experience an additional kind of devaluation and exclusion: intellectual oppression. That is, scholarship on these communities is devalued, either treated as inferior to “mainstream” research or even seen as suspect (biased or “activist” research). This is particularly strong in fields (like my own, sociology) in which it seems that the majority of scholars buy into the myth of objectivity or “value-free” science.

The phrase “Conditionally Accepted” is more than play on words familiar to academics who publish in peer-reviewed academic journals. It reflects the feeling of being accepted in the academy on the condition that one does little to challenge the academic status quo. One might just barely get ahead with few challenges as a black scholar on the condition that one avoids research on black people or other people of color — especially any work using a critical race framework — not to mention any sort of service or advocacy that threatens the racist status quo in higher education.

In my graduate training, I learned that being queer was a supposedly a nonissue in sociology — and I should keep it that way when deciding which kinds of topics to pursue in my research. White, middle-class, heterosexual, “normal weight,” cis men without disabilities who do research on people who look just like themselves (but, of course, under the guise of “mainstream” research) are not accused of doing “me-search” or being biased. Nor do they struggle to the extent that marginalized scholars do to get published in their discipline’s top journals or to secure grant dollars or obtain tenure-track jobs. These are privileges not readily afforded to marginalized scholars, especially those who conduct marginalized research, and especially if it appears to threaten the status quo in academe.

In the two years since its creation, Conditionally Accepted has grown in scope, readership and visibility. The original concerns of discrimination, harassment, violence, bias, and limited and exclusive professional standards continue to regularly appear in blog posts. New topics have emerged: service, particularly serving one’s own and local communities; alternative and devalued career paths (e.g., liberal arts, #altac); pressing labor issues in the academe, including the overreliance on poorly paid and exploited adjunct faculty; self-care, health and work-life balance; professional development and career advice; growing threats to academic freedom; and, making academe accessible (e.g., open access, blogging, intellectual activism).

Some of these issues disproportionately affect marginalized scholars. For example, recent challenges to academic freedom have mostly targeted women scholars of color who write publicly about racism, sexism and classism. Other issues are pertinent to all academics but reflect disenchantment with academic standards and traditions that no longer reflect their needs, experiences, values and opportunities. Some of Conditionally Accepted‘s growth reflects the reality that most academics are not actually “inside higher ed” in the traditional sense — that is, on the tenure track or tenured.

One of the best things to happen for Conditionally Accepted is its move to Inside Higher Ed. This change affords the blog a much wider readership, among other opportunities (like the ability to compensate guest bloggers). However, I must acknowledge that moving an unapologetically radical blog to a mainstream website is also scary. I’ve been assured that Inside Higher Ed does not expect a change in the content or tone of Conditionally Accepted and, more important, that Inside Higher Ed will not censor its bloggers. (I would have immediately declined the offer if strings were attached.) But I’d be lying if I said the change in my imagined audience won’t at least indirectly influence a change in the blog’s content. The very academics whom the blog regularly criticizes and implicates in injustice may now begin reading. I can already envision the kinds of comments we’ll probably be receiving from now on!

Mainstream home or not, Conditionally Accepted remains radical, even by its very existence. It continues to serve as a reminder that meritocracy and objectivity are, for the most part, myths in the academy. The column will regularly offer personal narratives of experiences of injustice and inhumanity in academe, letting other marginalized scholars know that they aren’t alone and providing tips on how to survive and thrive. It lets grad students and junior scholars know that there is more than one way to be a successful academic and that fulfilling and flourishing careers exist outside of academe, too. It challenges unhealthy, exclusive and oppressive traditions and norms in higher ed.

Most radical of all, Conditionally Accepted affirms that being accepted by mainstream academe as a marginalized scholar is overrated. Like embracing black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’s “outsider-within” status, the only effective path to liberation isn’t to be accepted by privileged academics, appeasing their conditions. It is to define one’s academic career on one’s own terms and envision a new way to be an academic in the 21st century.

We’re movin’ on up. Conditionally Accepted is now officially a biweekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. We hope our loyal readers will continue to read, comment on and share our blog posts and that we will gain more readers through the transition. Many (hopefully most) of our guest bloggers will continue to contribute.

We are also pleased to welcome new bloggers. If you have an idea for a post that fits within our vision and mission — in particular, advancing the careers and well-being of marginalized scholars and, in so doing, elevating oppressed communities inside and outside the ivory tower — please email us at We look forward to hearing and sharing the narratives of the “conditionally accepted” inside (and outside) of academe.


We’ve Moved!

Big News!

Dear readers,

Conditionally Accepted is now a biweekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Our new blog posts will appear on our IHE column, located here:  In our first blog post, I remind readers what it means to be “conditionally accepted” in academia — the marginalization, bias, discrimination, and accusations of conducting “me-search” that oppressed scholars face regularly in the academia.

Be sure to tune in to our IHE column every other Friday for new posts from me (@grollman), and regular contributors Dr. Jeana Jorgensen (@foxyfolklorist), Dr. J. Sumerau (@jsumerau), and — introducing — Dr. Manya Whitaker (@ivyleaguelady).  We continue to accept guest blog posts, which can be pitched or emailed to us at  (See our suggested guidelines for guest blog posts here.)

Also, you can continue to keep up with us on Facebook and Twitter (@conditionaccept), as well.

Finally, a note of thanks.  Thank you to our thousands (tens of thousands?) of readers for your time and interest, for sharing our blog posts with your friends and colleagues, for returning multiple times to see our latest content.  Thank you to the few dozen guest bloggers who have given away a piece of themselves on this blog.  Thank you to my department and university colleagues who repeatedly reminded me that it was silly to fear that my secret-public blog would cost me my job and, instead, that this work is important and actually valued.  Thank you to friends and family who have encouraged me to fight with my passion, not against it.  And, special thanks to my partner Eric (yes, with the same first name), who has never grown tired of hearing about blog posts, intellectual activism, trolls, the traumatizing experience of grad school, R&Rs, IHE, and everything else related to being “conditionally accepted.”  And, now thanks to Inside Higher Ed for taking a chance on us, taking this little project prime time.

In Solidarity,
Eric Anthony Grollman

Tweets For Liberation: The Promise Of Digital Popular Education

ShayShay Akil McLean is a Sociology PhD student and activist.  He studies the philosophy of biology, medical ethics, bio ethics, and the impact of intersectional inequality on human biology and health inequities.  He works to provide free popular education resources on his website ( and tweets at @Pundit_AcadEMIC and @DATTFreedomSch.  In this post, he discusses the urgency of making contextually- and historically-accurate academic scholarship available for the advancement of oppressed groups. He highlights the powerful potential of digital popular education — for example, teaching through Twitter — to liberate us.

The Promise of Digital Popular Education

#BlackLivesMatter as a hashtag, organization, and series of movements has managed to do a lot. BLM is seen as a movement that gives voice to many Black people, not just in the US but across the diaspora. Living in a settler colonial police state that is organized around what Cedric J. Robinson calls “racial capitalism” has very much shaped the experiences of people of color worldwide. The death of Mike Brown was not the first nor will it be the last life claimed by police brutality. The uprising in Ferguson was one of the many boiling points we’ve seen Black communities arrive at after enduring endless violence from police vigilante acts. But now that race is being seen as a hot topic in the media, people from everywhere are weighing in.

What appears to be lacking from the center of the national conversation about racist violence is a strong connection between the public and those who research the social issues impacting their daily lives. One promising way to strengthen such a connection is through popular education, also known as education for liberation. Discussions on #BlackLivesMatter, police brutality, and race relations need to move beyond just hot topics.  While discourse for the sake of discourse seems a lot like improvement, it’s not. We can’t begin to move forward in any way if we aren’t having informed conversations about the impacts of white supremacy, cishetpatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, and settler colonialism on the lives of Black people, as well as Indigenous peoples, killed by police.

The call for informed discussions about inequality can only be met by empowering people through education. One thing that #BlackLivesMatter has managed to do as a collective movement is highlight the need for the people outside of academe to know what is being said about their lives versus the popular notions that we’ve all been told to believe. Contextually accurate historical information enables communities to more effectively organize themselves, produce platforms that move beyond reform, as well as join in solidarity with other communities.

The contextually accurate scholarship being produced in academe doesn’t always reach the very communities impacted by the research topic. As a graduate student and activist, I can see where the disruptions lie. There are issues blocking the public from having access to information from academic gatekeeping, language barriers, paywalls on scientific research, to the defunding of public libraries and the dismantling and defunding of predominately Black schools across the US. Knowledge being made public via social media is an important and crucial means through which people are working to forge that connection between academe and disempowered communities to promote popular education. Popular Education is education for liberation. It was theorized by Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire. Popular education is a process that fosters the empowerment of dominated people to take control of their learning process and contribute to building social change, justice, and equity from the bottom up.

Black Twitter (as a complex number of interactive communities and not a single entity) has changed a lot of the ways in which people create community and share knowledge. There are a number of communities within Black Twitter acting as informed voices of dissent. We’ve seen academics like Dorothy Roberts (@DorothyERoberts), Kimberlé Crenshaw (@sandylocks), Crystal Fleming (@FlemingPhD), Jessie Daniels (@jessienyc), Eric Anthony Grollman (@grollman), Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd), Christopher Emdin (@chrisemdin), Matthew W. Hughey (@ProfHughey) and many others have contribute to discussions about social issues based on their expertise.

You can also find a wide range of reading lists, syllabi, topic discussions, and hashtags around important issues (e.g. #BlackTwitterstorians, #HipHopEdChat, #DATT, #BlackAugustReadingList, #BlackResistanceReadingList, #SaturdaySchool, etc.). These hashtags, storified discussions, Tumblr posts, and other blog pieces are finding ways to realize popular education. Hashtags are not only a means to having discussions but also a useful teaching tool that people organize around to distribute popular education. Making scholarship public through social media is one of the many tools that we see people employing as a means to not only push back against popular narratives in media, but also to amplify the voices of those silenced by intersectional inequities.

And, academics aren’t the only ones chiming in. People across demographics are finding ways to analyze the social issues impacting their lives. There has been a range of digital non-academic and academic knowledge communities formed in attempts to making popular education accessible through digital teach-ins. As a graduate student and activist, I (as well as other students and community members) have worked to make the knowledge we come across accessible to the public. That was the goal of the “Decolonize All The Things Freedom School” (@DATTFreedomSch) that I ran this summer. There was a syllabus, access to all of free reading materials, Twitter chats for discussion, and summaries of the readings written by me and another intellectual activist, Arash Daneshzadeh. I later redesigned the program for online use.   We did our best to avoid difficult language in scholarly text for the program to increase its utility across populations. I, and many others, have used our Twitter accounts to do some of that same work of undoing gatekeeping surrounding academic knowledge.

This year, I attended a couple of academic conferences and noticed a disturbing trend: there is a lot of research about inequality, but most of it is limited to expensive conferences that exclude the public. Researching inequality for the sake of just researching inequality turns social issues into spectacle and inequity into a sort of fetish. It is time for academe to move its research from being “inequality porn” to knowledge in service of the public, knowledge in service of a vision of transformative and restorative justice.

However, relying on an entire institution to provide the education people need to liberate themselves isn’t realistic. The voices of these scholars should not be on the margins of public conversations about the very phenomena influencing the lives of those most affected by it. There are academic intellectuals and community/organic intellectuals who are finding ways to connect and disseminate information crucial to social movements. Making knowledge public through social media is a means through which we can find ways to empower our communities through an informed awareness.

Popular education is what is needed in oppressed communities to foster justice, progressive social change, and equity led by the very communities affected by domination. As stated by Assata Shakur, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.” And, with that understanding, we can see the need for organizing around education through digital platforms to provide the tools that we very rarely receive from the formal institutions that limit or lock us out of participation. Popular education enables oppressed communities to ground their individual troubles in the larger context of the social issues causing them. The promise and potential of digital popular education is to formulate a means of empowering those on the margins with a means to fight back and organize to build equitable communities.

How To Support A Scholar Who Has Come Under Attack

Thank A Public Scholar

Academics, can we talk seriously about social media for a moment?  Like much of the rest of the world, we use various social media platforms.  Some of us use it strictly for personal reasons, some exclusively to share our scholarly work and perspective, and others for a mixture of these reasons.  I have witnessed enough attacks on scholars by conservatives, bigots, trolls, and even other academics to conclude that no one is shielded from backlash.  While our academic freedom is generally protected (though, that statement is debatable), we can no longer expect our colleagues, departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations to stand up for us when we come under attack.

The Times (And Attacks) Have Changed

The rules of engagement have changed.  We now live in a time when a 20-year-old college sophomore, who writes for a student newspaper to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges” (see bio at end), can spark a national conservative assault on a tenure-track professor at a different university over a few tweets critiquing racism.  (They believe, however, that they are somehow protecting innocent, uneducated laypeople from the evils of brainy, radical professors in the liberal ivory tower.)

Make her a thing

Indeed, this conservative student reporter did make Dr. Zandria F. Robinson “a thing” — both in the sense of a trend of attacking her, her appearance, her politics, her identity, and her research, and by making her an object of a larger, calculated conservative attack on critical and public scholars.  With a mere tweet to the president of University of Memphis, this student reporter influenced an internal investigation on Dr. Robinson. Though unsuccessful with the first assault, the site along with another conservative college student site launched a second attack that caught the attention of national conservative media.


In essence, conservatives found success in launching a national assault on the scholarship and character of Dr. Saida Grundy, and were using the formula a second time on Dr. Robinson.  They got their first taste of blood in not only dragging Dr. Grundy’s name and reputation through the mud, but also in influencing her university’s president to issue a statement essentially calling her a racist for critiquing racism.  U Memphis never formally sanctioned or criticized Dr. Robinson, but their vague tweet disclosing her departure from the university is suspect — perhaps a passive way of quieting the conservatives who demanded her termination.  (Fortunately, Dr. Robison had the last word.)

Memphis Tweet

I was pleasantly surprised to see Dr. Robinson’s new academic home, Rhodes College, issued a statement to the press that not only sung her praises but affirmed her expertise and scholarship.

Dr. Robinson was hired for a faculty position in the Rhodes Anthropology & Sociology Department that calls for expertise in particular areas, specifically gender studies and social movements. Her expertise in these areas, her extensive understanding of the complex problems of race in American society, her deep roots in the Memphis area, and many years of successful teaching experience, made her an attractive candidate for the position…Dr. Robinson has an extensive and impressive body of scholarship that provides clarity and context to the sound bite world of social media. This situation ultimately shines a light on Rhodes as a place where intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas are among our highest priorities.

For once, this wasn’t a passive commitment to tolerate a controversial scholar’s academic freedom; this was a proactive statement to say, “she knows what she’s talking about, so please take several seats.”

But, I worry Rhodes may be an outlier here.  And, I am not entirely optimistic Rhodes would defend every scholar who comes under attack.  Though I have been informally supported at my own institution, I’m not confident that I would be defended if donors threatened to withhold their financial support if I weren’t fired.  Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an expert on academic institutions, penned an excellent essay that substantiates my doubt:

What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.  In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action. In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters… Basically, the scale of current media is so beyond anything academia can grasp that those with agendas get a leg up on pulling the levers of universities’ inherent conservativism.

Simply put, academia is behind the times.  And, there’s far too much academic cowardice, rather than academic bravery, to entrust our protection to our universities.  Controversy — the very thing that academic freedom is designed to protect us against (professionally) — is feared rather than embraced.  What’s worse is that these attacks coincide with, or have even been made possible by, the decline of labor rights and protections for academics.  Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield argued this in an insightful essay, Canaries in the Coal Mine? Saida Grundy, Zandria F. Robinson, and Why Calls for their Firing are a Problem for Everyone”:

As more institutions adopt a market-based model where students are consumers, teaching is pushed off onto poorly paid adjunct professors, and administrative bloat runs rampant, the conditions that tenure track faculty have enjoyed—and that have allowed us to do our best work—are becoming increasingly weaker. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to weaken tenure at state colleges and universities (with predictably bad results as noted faculty leave the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for less hostile climates). In this type of environment, it’s not really a wonder that faculty are at risk not for their scholarship, or their teaching, but because they made public statements that generated outcry and controversy.


Like other employees in an increasingly neoliberal environment, academics are facing growing job insecurity and precariousness that stands to weaken and minimize the ways our jobs should allow us to contribute to understanding a changing society. If, as I suspect, Grundy and Robinson are just early indicators of what’s to come for all of us, then we should all be very concerned.

In this context, besides the real professional risks, we are also largely on our own to weather trolls, harassment, rape threats, death threats, and hate mail.  And, that goes for those who are relatively uncensored and those who think they maintain their public presence the “right” way.  Indeed, you don’t even have to engage the public outside of your classroom to find yourself under attack.

But, let’s be clear: the pattern of attacks on scholars appears to suggest that people of color, women, and other scholars of marginalized backgrounds are most vulnerable to these attacks.  Women of color who publicly write about racism and white privilege seem to be overrepresented among the targets of these witch hunts for critical and public scholars.  Academia continues to change around us.  We can no longer bury our heads in the sand, telling ourselves our only goal is to “publish or perish.”  There may not be a decent job left within which we can publish on the topics of our own interests and passions.

Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack

I have come across a fair amount of advice for targets of online (and off-line) harassment, and even offered my own.  See Dr. Rebecca Schuman’s reflections on dealing with trolls, “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story” and “The Thickness of My Skin.” And, Joshunda Sanders’s, “Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama.” Also, see the science about online trolls [video], and a cute musical response to trolls [video].

But, I have not seen any advice for others to support scholars who come under attack.  So, with what little experience I have, I’m proposing my own approach.  In my proposed strategy, I draw from bystander intervention work, primarily used to prevent sexual violence and support victims of such violence.  In the recent past, I created a report for a local rape crisis center/domestic violence shelter on existing bystander intervention curricula [PDF].  I wrote about bystander intervention for sexual violence when I blogged for the Kinsey Institute.  And, I have written about using bystander intervention to fight racism and support victims of racism — a blog post that has been used as a major theme for an anti-racist group in Tennessee.  I hesitate to claim expertise here, but I have referenced or heavily used the bystander intervention model enough to feel comfortable using it here.

Briefly, the bystander intervention model calls for others who are present for some problem or emergency situation to intervene in some way.  The language of “bystanders” comes from the concept of the bystander effect, wherein witnesses to some crisis are less and less likely to intervene with more and more witnesses present.  If you are the only bystander present, you are quite likely to help if possible; if you are one of one hundred people, the odds are extremely slim that you’ll do anything besides mind your business.  Bystander intervention explicitly counters this tendency, instead demanding that bystanders intervene in whatever way possible.  And, for social problems like sexual violence and racism, this approach conceptualizes of the problem as a community’s responsibility.  To eliminate sexual violence, we are all responsible for fighting rape culture: challenging sexist jokes and comments; challenging victim-blaming; teaching and practicing sexual consent; intervening when we see sexual violence occurring; demanding justice for victims of sexual violence; and, so forth.

I want to apply bystander intervention, then, to supporting scholars who are targeted by bigots, trolls, conservatives, and hostile colleagues.  First, we must conceptualize such attacks as a larger problem, one which affects all of us in some way, and which we are all responsible for addressing. A culmination of factors — the absence of academic freedom policies that reflect the existence and scholars’ use of social media, the decline of labor rights and protections in academia, ongoing conservative attacks on higher education (even tenure) — have produced an increasingly easy route to target and then take down public and critical scholars.  And, these forces exist within the larger intersections of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression, thus making marginalized scholars the most vulnerable to attack and the subsequent inaction of academic institutions and organizations.

As a social problem (at least among academics), it is thus our responsibility as a broad academic community to counter these attacks and support the victims of these attacks.  This community responsibility exists at multiple levels, ranging from small acts to large policy changes.

Source: Dahlberg, L.L., & Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence – a global public health problem. In: E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, & R. Lozano (Eds.), World Report on Violence and Health (pp. 3-21). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Source: Dahlberg, Linda, and Etienne Krug. 2002. ” Violence – A Global Public Health Problem.”  Pp. 3-21 in World Report on Violence and Health, edited by E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A.B. Zwi, and R. Lozano. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

A Bystander Intervention Approach To Support Attacked Scholars

We could adapt the above social-ecological model to fit academia, which should include the following levels: individual; department; university; discipline; and, the profession.  Below, I offer specific ways to support scholars who are attacked, drawing from my own experiences and suggestions offered by colleagues on Twitter and Facebook (including those who have been subjected to attacks themselves).  Please, offer additional suggestions in the comments section.

Individual-Level Strategies

  • Assume that the targeted scholar is already aware of the attack against them.  While well-intentioned, “hey did you see this awful thing about you!” can do more harm than good, potentially re-triggering their negative response to the attack.  I also recommend not tagging the targeted scholar on social media if and when you share links from the attack or stories about the attack.  Unlike social media platforms such as Twitter, we have a choice over who we connect with on Facebook; don’t threaten one’s safe space/chosen community by bringing in the external attacks.
  • Offer to take over keeping up with what is written about the targeted scholar so that they do not have to.  Only inform them of positive responses and anything else that seems important; don’t let them know about the negative responses.
  • Make an informed decision about whether to point out the attack to others.  On the one hand, raising awareness and calling others to arms is useful to prevent a situation in which the attacked scholars is on her own to defend and support herself.  We certainly can stand to be more aware of these attacks, to whom they are happening, and why they occur.  But, on the other hand, you might empower the attackers more by giving their attack more attention and readership.  In some cases, simply not feeding a troll could be effective in containing the situation.
  • If you decide to raise awareness about an attack, be mindful that some colleagues (especially department colleagues and administrators at the targeted scholar’s institution) may be prompted to act in a way that harms the targeted scholar.  You don’t want to be responsible for initiating professional consequences against the targeted scholar in your effort to support them.
  • If you see that a colleague has come under attack, simply ask what they need and extend an offer of support.  At a minimum, this is a reminder to the attacked scholar that they are not alone.  I can say, from personal experience, sitting alone with only nasty and bigoted comments from strangers can feel very isolating; if the attacks are persistent, one might even begin to question whether their attackers’ claims are true.
  • Say something more helpful or useful than “you must be doing something right!”  Weathering an attack is already psychologically taxing enough; asking the targeted scholar to trick their mind into seeing the attacks and threats as a compliment isn’t helpful in the moment.  It’s hard to appreciate the supposed badge of honor that is digging deep into your skin and drawing blood.
  • Don’t say “just ignore it” or “just turn off the computer.”  We live in an age where our online interactions are a real part of our lives.  It’s not as simple as pretending the attack doesn’t exist when you turn the computer off.  And, the professional consequences are real.
  • Counter the attack with supportive notes and messages.  Express your appreciation of the scholars’ efforts and their bravery for being a public voice.  Start a campaign to encourage other friends and colleagues to send the targeted scholar kind notes and thanks.  Or, take a moment to thank them using the #ThankAPublicScholar hashtag on Twitter.
  • If you have been subjected to an attack in the past, reach out to an attacked scholar to let them know you have gone through it and that they are not alone.  Offer advice for the best ways to weather the attack.
  • Defend the attacked scholar.  This can be as small as reporting offensive content from their attackers on social media or as big as writing your own blog post or op-ed to affirm the targeted scholar.  Take screen shots of offensive comments as evidence.  Fight the attackers’ ignorance with research if they get the targeted scholars’ words/scholarship twisted.  If you can stomach it, contribute to the comments section to say you agree with, or at least appreciate, the scholars’ writing.  (Note: These efforts may open you up to being attacked, too.  I’m still blocking trolls who are giving me grief on Twitter for defending Dr. Zandria F. Robinson.  And, there’s foolishness.)
  • If an attacked scholar is harmed professionally — whether as minor as public sanctioning or as severe as termination — hold the institution accountable for protecting academic freedom.  Start a petition.  Employ the advice and services of AAUP and other professional organizations.  Perhaps suggest that the targeted scholar seek legal counsel, and help them raise money if they cannot afford to.
  • Challenge colleagues’ comments that blame attacked scholars for their own attacks.  I have seen and heard scholars rationalize recent attacks, attributing blame to the targets because they used social media in a certain way, spoke/wrote in a certain tone, failed to give broader context and offer citations within the limits of a 140-character tweet, and so on.  “They knew the risks!”  I’ve even seen discussions that offer no sympathy for targets because they weren’t really engaging in public scholarship — just “popping off.”  These sentiments suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to engage the public. Even scholars who write more extensive op-eds, explicitly backed by research, have come under attack.  As I argued in the previous section, these attacks reflect calculated assaults on higher education, liberalism, people of color, and women; and, we are all increasingly vulnerable as higher education becomes more corporatized and relies heavily on a poorly paid pool of adjunct laborers.  If we conclude that the only safe way to avoid being targeted is to stop engaging the public and delete our social media accounts, we are deluding ourselves into thinking that silence will protect us.  We do too little to make academia accessible, anyhow; we would only be making matters worse if we self-silence.

Department and University Level Strategies

  • If the targeted scholar is receiving death threats, threats of sexual violence, and/or hate mail, contact campus (and perhaps local) police to investigate and offer a police escort.  You or the police should take over checking your colleagues’ mail and answering their phone.  Even if you don’t agree with their actions or comments, there is no excuse for leaving them vulnerable to physical, mental, or sexual violence.
  • When a colleague has come under attack, fight fire with fire — pressure your department and/or university to issue a public statement defending your colleague and affirming their expertise and valueDo not take Boston University’s approach, which suggested they tolerate Dr. Saida Grundy’s academic freedom, and also called her a racist and a bigot — in a statement that “denounces” her “racially charged tweets.”  It would have been better for BU to say nothing at all because it only fueled her attackers’ taste for blood.  DO take Rhodes College’s approach, which clarified Dr. Zandria F. Robinson’s expertise, affirmed that her tweets and blog posts are backed by her expertise, and explicitly stated her value to the institution.
  • When people from outside of the university target a professor and demand their termination (or worse), do not readily accept their claims at face value.  Use your critical skills as a scholar to assess the significance, source, and validity of these claims.  I recommend being particularly suspicious of claims that a (minority) professor has somehow harmed a privileged group (e.g., whites, men, heterosexuals, middle-class and wealthy people).  Stand firm in the distinction between public statements backed by research, especially that are critical of the status quo and inequality, and proclamations based solely on personal opinion.  Remember that the public isn’t necessarily ready to hear what scholars have to say — and that’s no reason to panic.  (How often do we encounter our own students’ [and even colleagues’] discomfort when we challenge their worldviews?)
  • Demand that your university and, if relevant, your department, establish guidelines for academic freedom that reflect today’s forms of public scholarship and means of communicating with the public.  Drawn on existing AAUP materials on academic freedom and social media.  To be clear, I am suggesting that academic freedom policies include explicit protections for scholars’ use of social media, among other forms of engaging the public — not setting limits on what is considered “responsible” social media use like University of Kansas’s controversial policy.  The major problem with KU’s policy is a stipulation that social media use that “is contrary to the best interests of the employer” may be grounds for termination.  As universities have come more corporatized, it seems the quickest way to have a professor sanctioned or fired is to threaten the university’s bank account (i.e., donors’ financial contributions).  In this vein, think about who has the most means to donate to a university; people of color (among other marginalized groups) will never have the same level of power to pressure a university to sanction/fire a controversial white professor.  So, the power of the purse in academia will always loom larger for marginalized scholars.
  • Related to the point above, demand that the university institute a formal means of lodging complains of inappropriate or offensive use of social media or other engagements with the public.  (There is no reason why a university president should be taking requests from students, with a known agenda to target presumably liberal professors, to investigate one of their faculty — especially via Twitter.)  Just as any internal offense (such as sexual harassment, academic dishonesty) must be officially reported before any action is taken, external charges, if investigated and acted upon, should first be formally reported with proper evidence.
  • Pressure your university to employ lawyers who will aggressively fight on behalf of scholars’ academic freedom.  (Several academics have speculated that BU’s public statement about sanction of Dr. Grundy was written by cowardly lawyers who looked to protect the university, not her.)
  • Demand that your department and/or university value community service (not just academic service) and public scholarship.  Here, I explicitly mean that these efforts count in hiring, tenure, promotion, and pay raises.  When university administrators praise or even demand public service, hold them accountable for actually counting and rewarding these efforts — and matching these rewards with professional protections against any backlash.
  • Challenge the academic culture that demands that you “keep your head down” and “keep your mouth shut.”  Question the implicit assumption underlying this advice that scholars, particularly at the junior level, will be reckless and irresponsible with regard to department and university politics, and engaging with the public.  In light of the few rewards and great risks entailed in serving the community and engaging the public, these efforts should be rewarded, not punished or kept quiet.
  • If you work in a graduate department, advocate for explicitly discussing academic freedom and public scholarship with graduate students — perhaps make these discussions a regular part of a professional seminar, preparing future faculty programs, or some other form of mandatory professional socialization.  Also, discuss the changing nature of higher education: the decline of tenure-track positions, the increase in student debt, the decline in state funding, and the corporatization of universities.
  • Train your graduate students how to effectively and safely use social media and work with the media.
  • Rather than attempt to “beat the activist” out of your graduate students, recognize that activism or, at least a desire to make a difference, is what drives many people into graduate school and academia (especially those from marginalized backgrounds).  Find ways to harness this passion in your graduate students’ careers.

Discipline And Profession Level Strategies

  • Demand that your professional organizations, especially those to which you pay dues, actively defend scholars who come under attack.  This can entail issuing public statements and press releases in their defense, offering financial support and help finding new employment for those who are unexpectedly fired, and offering access to legal counsel if necessary.   (Sociologists, as far as I know, ASA only intervenes when scholars have been fired by their universities — and, even then, it may not be to defend them.  The rest of us are on our own.)
  • Create resources to support and build community among public scholars.
  • Host conferences on academic freedom, public scholarship, and intellectual activism, with at least some focus on the inherent risks of engaging the public.
  • Host conference workshops on using social media and working with the media.
  • Work to reverse the adjunctification of higher education.
  • Demand that your local and state politicians stop making efforts to undermine academic freedom (including tenure), and start making more efforts to protect it.

UPDATE [7-9-2015, 4:27pm EST]: I have been informed of two additional resources that are relevant to this post.  One is a map of threats to academic freedom and other barriers in academia in the US: “Scholars Under Attack.”  Another is a well-written essay by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, “‘Who Do You Think You Are?’: When Marginality Meets Academic Microcelebrity.”