In the April 9, 2019 issue of Science, Lizzie Wade published a piece titled, “Believe in Atlantis? These archaeologists want to win you back to science.” The article, in a nutshell, details some of the ups and downs of engaging the public via social media, especially when it comes to the misinformation spread through popular television programs and pseudo news sources online, as well as how these experiences vary according to the gender of the professor doing the challenging. Wade reports that all of the female archaeologists interviewed for the story had been harassed after posting corrections to pseudo archaeological interpretations online. In fact, a host of Ancient Aliens, the program featured in the story, urged his fans to send a female archeologist hate mail after she posted corrections regarding the show. She received death threats.
Unlike archeologists, sociologists are not new to the public engagement game. Michael Burawoy’s Presidential Address offered a framework for public sociology and outlined some of its challenges in 2004. Burawoy’s ideas found legs and, arguably, have profoundly influenced the field. Not only do we have several generations of scholars willing and able to write blogs, host podcasts, publicly lecture and educate media professionals about sociological frameworks and findings, but we also have support from our professional association on how to best use digital technologies and social media to communicate our ideas to the public (for example, see the JustPublics365 social media toolkit).
Nonetheless, there are at least two important issues with which sociologists interested in engaging the public must contend.
How to assess whether you have support from your department and university to engage the public – and initiate the public sociology conversation if it isn’t.
If public engagement is not already part of your department’s mission, it may be easiest to initiate this conversation with your colleagues first. It is always wise to play politician and determine how your (potentially senior) colleagues feel about public engagement personally and professionally. There certainly are plenty of academics who do not feel comfortable personally engaging in public sociology, but believe it is important for the department’s reputation and the discipline. If there is enough support, get the conversation going with your chair and try and get in on the agenda at your next department meeting. Be advised that you will need to be willing to help jump start any efforts initiated by the department (e.g., running the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages).
If your department is resistant to public engagement, you may find support in the mission statements and strategic plans of your institutions. Colleges and universities have gotten wise to the value of having their faculty and graduate students featured in newspapers, on legitimate YouTube channels, and on the nightly or cable news. While a large percentage of high school students go to college or university (69.2% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics were enrolled in an institution of higher learning in 2015), individuals have a huge range of colleges and universities to which they may apply and attend. This, coupled by tight budgets, means that institutions of higher education are looking to faculty to help promote their reputations and brands. Not surprisingly, language regarding public engagement increasingly appears in institutional missions and strategic plans. If your department or College is resistant to public engagement, but your institution is on board, you may be able to get your colleagues to come around by selling the advantages of being a leader on one or more college/university priorities. If this avenue isn’t promising and public engagement is important to you personally, try reaching out to your Communications Office. Simply letting someone know that you are willing and able to field requests can help you make public engagement inroads.
How to assess whether your institution will protect you in the event of public backlash and death threats- and what to do if there are not policies in place.
Even if we do not focus on the high profile cases of faculty being fired for their speech/posts, it is clear that free speech protections are a real concern for faculty and students. According to the “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2018: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” which is put out yearly by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), 32.3% of the U.S.’s 461 largest and most prestigious colleges and universities surveyed earned the organization’s lowest rating (a “red light” rating) for severe speech codes that “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech. The majority of the schools (58.6%) earned a “yellow light” rating, which, according to FIRE, means that the institution restricts “narrower categories of speech than red light policies do, or are vaguely worded in a way that could too easily be used to suppress protected speech, and are unconstitutional at public universities” since they are legally bound to protect free speech. Only 37 institutions received the highest “green light” rating for free speech in 2018. Academics, in short, are wise to cautiously wade into public engagement.
Here, your best bet is to start with your Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and your union leadership, if you have one. Academic Freedom is often included in CBAs and, if you are a union member, your free speech rights should be defended by the union if you or your job comes under attack or is threatened. The reality though is that you will likely find your CBA silent when it comes to how the institution will protect you from the blow back that sometimes is part of the public engagement landscape, particularly for female faculty, faculty of color and LGBTQ+ faculty. This means that you may have to initiate conversations regarding faculty protections with union representatives, in your department, in your College, in Faculty Senate, and other forums that encourage faculty to shape the institution’s priorities and agenda. Protecting the free speech of faculty, particularly as research and researchers increasingly come under attack, need to be a priority of our employers – even if they do not like what we say.
The good news is that you will probably find protections from some external threats (e.g., death threats) if you know where to look. Institutional IT departments typically have rules about what kinds of communications are allowed to be sent through and received via their system, and external threats typically violate one policy or another. This means you can get these users blocked from contacting you. Likewise, campus police and local police are often good resources and can locate the source of the threat and hold the those making threats accountable for their behavior. The bad news is that we will have to push administrators, our colleagues, and our union representatives to better articulate how they intend to protect us from threats within and outside of our institutions.
When I decided on the topic for the Chair’s Letter, it was my hope that I would be able to provide some clear strategies for addressing these pressing issues related to public engagement. Even as someone who has done a lot to promote public engagement locally, I was surprised at how much work is still needed, especially regarding protections for faculty. However, I remain optimistic. Sociologists are not alone in this endeavor. Archeologists, physicists, climatologists and many other disciplines have joined the effort to infuse public debates with facts. Together, we can move public conversations on social and political issues, and change our institutional cultures regarding issues associated with public engagement.
This piece originally appeared in the ASA CITAMS Summer 2019 Newsletter.