There’s a fear amongst a growing number of job-hunting and precariously employed scholars who have been switching their social media accounts to private. It’s probably not an entirely unfounded fear. But few have admitted it so famously as the pseudonymous ”Ivan Tribble” in an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education back in 2005. “Several committee members expressed concern that a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum,” he wrote.
A classic “kids these days” rant, the very act of living publicly in a connected age, was apparently grounds for nipping a promising academic career in the bud. Without evidence to the contrary, I think we have to assume Tribble’s victim was real.
Fast forward a generation. The social media landscape has evolved. Few people still have blogs, but many more are Tweeting, #LivingTheirBestLife, and posting videos of themselves trying out the latest dance trends as a reprieve between writing sessions or simply to connect with people who share their passions.
Tribble ultimately lost the debate about social media in academic life. Shortly after his essay was published, blogs became so central to “outreach” strategies (particularly in the humanities) that they were included in nearly every major grant proposal as a way of reaching wider audiences. Some, including the Network in Canadian History & Environment and Active History are still going strong more than a decade later.
Neither did departments succeed in keeping dirty laundry off of the web, and thank goodness. A social media-led campaign in 2020 saw TV-celebrity historian David Starkey resign his fellowship at the Royal Historical Society, after making deeply concerning comments in a video interview about #BlackLivesMatter and the transatlantic slave trade.
Meanwhile, this year at the University of Oxford, a pair of humanities academics accused of long-term sexual harassment have had their access to students removed after drawing international headlines and a subsequent social media campaign. An extension of the fourth estate, social media is now playing an important role worldwide by helping academics keep their houses in order, whether Tribble likes it or not.
Sanitized versions of ourselves
Yet many scholars are still following Tribble’s advice by switching their accounts to private, at least when they’re on the job market. Even those with quite benign profiles worry that they may be no-platformed, cancelled, or pegged either too woke or not woke enough by a panel of strangers over a silly photo, a frustrated rant, or a political retweet. It’s most noticeable during hiring season when people are awaiting the results of their applications. Quietly and unceremoniously, the little lock emoji appears next to their username. The tweets are now private. Nobody asks why but we silently wish them well with the application.
What remains public is the sanitized version of ourselves; the one carefully crafted for the search committee that outlines our teaching philosophy and research plans. The stakes are understandably high, and so the Twitter lockdown seems like a sensible precaution. Perhaps it’s no different than adding that beauty filter on our Instagram selfie before sharing it with friends, or asking someone to help us choose photos for our dating profile.
The strategy likely doesn’t work, mind you. At least not long term. If you’ve done or said something truly horrible, they’re going to find out eventually. Even if you aren’t a monster, if your field is small enough and your reputation precedes you, then you may well already have members of the search committee amongst your social media following who already regard you as a professional contact. They may have been getting to know you for months online, even before they had a job to advertise. If so, they might still be able to see your locked-down posts even as they consider your application, either through intentional searching or passively as part of their own social media feed’s daily scroll. We are all now, at least a little, public.
More worrying is what social media snooping represents. If Tribble is combing through your Tweets and Instagram pictures looking for a reason not to hire you, he’s already waving the red flag of a toxic workplace. The snooping isn’t going to stop once you’ve started the job. Academic postings are long-term relationships, often outlasting the length of a typical marriage, and one starting on the wrong foot isn’t likely to be happy. Tribble doesn’t deserve you, and you don’t deserve what his beliefs about the workplace will do to your mental health.
Research shows the fear is justified, and that hiring processes remain deeply imperfect. We know that in the West, people with European sounding names are more likely to receive job interviews in general. We know that some people are racist, or sexist, or ableist, including within universities, and sometimes they are on interview panels despite best efforts to ensure fairness.
We know that our social media profiles can reveal details about our race, gender, or disabilities, whether or not we have children, or participate in local politics. All of this information, in the wrong hands, can be used quietly to justify setting our application aside in favour of someone who will be a “better fit.” Even automated attempts to avoid these biases using machine learning have only reinforced the racism or sexism they sought to resolve.
Social media as an advantage
There are of course good reasons people may want privacy and may not want to share their social media with the world. But for those who do live publicly most of the year and shut it down during hiring season, how can universities make applicants feel safe enough to be themselves?
Here, the failure of Tribble’s rant offers the solution. Just as blogs shifted from a risk to an asset for universities, so too can social media become an advantage for an applicant, if we allow it to be.
Social media has long been a space where academics passionately discuss and debate how the university sector can do better – for staff, students, and the communities they serve. This is not a new phenomenon. Back in the early days of the scholarly blog, a Canadian historian working precariously in the United States anonymously poured her heart out. Titled The Invisible Adjunct, between 2003 and 2004 it provided a rant-filled and raw portrayal of what it felt like to teach while on an insecure contract. The content is extremely personal and emotional: “the black dog of depression is snarling at my feet, and I am desperately trying to fend him off with whatever means I find at my disposal.”
Her anonymity, which was common of early career bloggers of the day, may have been a shield from professional repercussions. But blogs like this one were important examples of communities of scholars challenging higher education to do better, and of scholars using writing as a form of self-care. As mental health awareness has risen up the agenda over the past generation, it’s time for universities to step up and acknowledge and celebrate this form of public writing that is both cathartic and that builds community.
So too it is time that we recognize the valuable skills of the social-media savvy scholar. Back in 2004, blogging was unusual. But most of today’s applicants have grown up online, and with that they have learned incredibly relevant skills that prove their readiness for academic work.
From effective presenting, to creativity, to social activism, these future communicators are already equipped with the skills to engage with diverse publics. They possess the very talents that many of us take professional development courses to try to learn. Scholars such as Jessie Loyer are breaking ground on TikTok by helping her thousands of followers to better understand the complexities of Indigenous knowledge in the western-centric library systems of our universities. Meanwhile Shina Novalinga and her mother share their Inuit culture and throat singing with millions on the same platform, contributing to tremendous cultural exchange opportunities that did not exist a generation ago.
Many others are reaching across cultures and space to find communities interested in the same issues that matter to them, having an impact like never before. They’re collaborating, building networks, sharing passion, and doing everything we would hope from a colleague and academic in the digital age. It’s time we celebrated them for it, time we liked and followed for more – and made it clear that scholarship is a public endeavour, and we’re looking for the next set of leaders.
Adam Crymble is lecturer of digital humanities at University College London. His book, Technology and The Historian focuses on how the historical professions have evolved and adapted to the information age.