If you blog, will you lose your job?

I am publishing this post outside of my usual Wednesday schedule because I want to comment on a very live issue in Australia.

A deliberately unprovocative picture of the package of cheese snacks I ate while I wrote this post. Nothing political to see here. Moving on!

A deliberately unprovocative picture of the package of cheese snacks I ate from a Starbucks in Canada while I wrote this post.

The Thesis Whisperer is truly a labour of love. It does not fit in my work week, which is filled to the brim with meetings, teaching and other commitments. I edit contributions and write my own posts during the weekend. It takes me about eight hours a month. I usually do this work on quiet Sunday afternoons when my boys are amusing themselves with video games, bike riding or some other activity they like to do together. I curl up with a cup of tea and my laptop on the couch, read guest contributions, edit, write correspondence and new posts.

I don’t want to be part of promoting the culture of overwork in the academy, but if I didn’t do my blog work on the weekend it just wouldn’t happen. I honestly enjoy this time spent in what I consider a form of public service. I know people appreciate this work and I feel a sense of deep pleasure every time someone tells me that they value the blog – like they have been doing all this week at the Congress of the Humanities in Canada. I tell them that it runs on love and they have just added fuel to the love fire, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a selfish side.

The blog is of enormous value to my career. I wouldn’t be where I was if I wasn’t capable of doing all the things an associate professor needs to do, like teach, research and manage other people. But the blog means these capabilities get noticed by people. Sometimes these people are a position to offer me things: jobs, travel, publishing deals, information and advice. I could have published in academic journals forever and never enjoyed such benefits from my writing.

I’m often asked to talk about my work on social media in public forums. There is always at least one question from the audience along the lines of “will blogging put my job at risk?”. If the forum is for students, the question will be something like “will blogging mean no one will want to hire me?”. I used to dismiss these concerns out of hand, but now I don’t. I talk about blogging with great fondness and enthusiasm, but I stop short of suggesting to others that they should do it. In fact, over the years I have become more and more cautious in the advice I give, despite the clear advantages I have enjoyed.

My public engagement online has always been positive, but not so for other academics and sometimes the blame for this can be laid directly at the feet of their university.

This morning I read yet another article of an academic being suspended from their job because of an internet perfect storm. In this case the combination of highly public and controversial work, sexism, personal politics, homophobia and a breach of online privacy. Rather than try to explain it, I’m going to quote at length from the Campus Morning Mail, the indispensible gossip sheet information digest that Stephen Matchett compiles and circulates by email to academics all over Australia. Stephen does a good job of outlining what has happened in this case:

La Trobe University has charged Roz Ward with serious misconduct and suspended her employment. Ms Ward was an advisor to the Victorian state government’s taskforce on bullying of LGBTI students in schools but resigned after a Facebook post in which she suggested a red flag should fly over state parliament instead of the “racist Australian one.” University HR director Fiona Reed stood Ms Ward down yesterday. La Trobe was not commenting last night saying it was following normal HR process. The university has previously expressed concern at the impact of Ms Ward’s comment on the credibility of La Trobe researchers in her field. However the National Tertiary Education Union, which is advising Ms Ward, isn’t having any of it.

“The media attack on Roz Ward, purportedly about a social media post about the Australian flag, is in reality part of a concerted political and ideological campaign by Australia’s right wing ideologues on views that do not accord with their own,” NTEU Victorian Secretary, Dr Colin Long said last night.

“The hysterical response to Ms Ward’s private Facebook posting about the Australian flag is typical of the right’s absolute refusal to consider the ways in which racism is expressed, often unconsciously, in symbols, institutions and attitudes.

“That La Trobe University has apparently allowed itself to be cowed into participating in this anti-intellectual, anti-democratic attack reflects the dismal state of intellectual capacity at the senior management level in some Australian universities.”

Whatever you think of Ms Ward’s politics, you would have to agree that she has the right to have her Marxist opinions. She also has the presumed right to post on a closed Facebook account in peace. A ‘friend’ leaking what she said about the Australian flag to the mainstream media is something she probably didn’t expect to happen and hearing about it sends a chill down my spine.

It’s one of the great pleasures of my life that my Facebook feed is full of academics, because they are full of opinions and happy to share them – and I’m no different. We are especially opinionated about politics. Oh how we love to sprout off our critical discourse theory take on Tony Abbott eating an onion or deconstruct Peter Dutton’s fruitless attempts to stop becoming an internet meme. Many of us share our outrage about our current government’s stance on issues like refugees and marraige equity. Academics are highly intelligent and often very witty when they are angry. My world would be a poorer place without this online banter which, frankly, helps me cope with my own sadness and anger.

Although I don’t identify as Marxist, I can totally understand Roz Ward’s jokey moment with a friend. How terrible for her that it snowballed out of control and how shameful that her university not only failed to support her, but piled on with the other attackers. Regrettably this is not the first time an academic has found that their university has no stomach for defending them against attacks by the mainstream media. Let’s compare what happened to Dr Ward with the attack by Right wing columnist Andrew Bolt on Martin Hirst – who happens to be another Marxist. Dr Hirst was saved by a petition by his academic colleagues.

Hopefully the petition to support Roz Ward (you can sign it here) will help Latrobe management come to their senses. [Since I published this an hour or so ago, it came to my attention that there is another petition here as well – take your pick]

Now, I’m not going to publicly comment about the role of the News Corp paper ‘The Australian’ in this matter. This is from fear of being sued or attacked myself. And this is precisely the problem. ANU has been unfailingly supportive of my online activities, I don’t want to put them in the centre of a mainstream media shit storm – and so I censor myself.

But can I censor everyone else as well?  As one of my academic friends, Deb Verhoeven, said on Facebook this morning:

“It’s another layer of self monitoring. It reminds me of the way people are taught “defensive driving” – you have to assume everyone around you is a potential danger. So you are no longer responsible for your own actions on the academic superhighway but the actions of everybody else as well.”

Deb is right. Over dinner you can say what you like about The Australian newspaper with your academic friends. Unless you are being recorded, you always have plausible deniability. However, if you say the same thing online, you might find yourself in trouble with your employer.

Anything digital can escape its context – this is both its great strength and great danger. Email is the most dangerous form of digital communication of all. This is because an email feels very private, but it can be shared with a mainstream outlet like ‘The Australian’ via a simple click of the mouse.

So, if you are an academic, should you blog or otherwise be present and opinionated online?

It really depends. If you do fairly uncontroversial student support work like myself, it’s probably fine and blogging can be the source of pleasure and advantage it has been for me. If you have a highly political or controversial subject you might, one day, find yourself hung out to dry by university management. I don’t blog on religion, climate change, racism or politics because it’s not my area. I’d like to think if I was a scholar of those topics I would, but in my heart I know I wouldn’t. I just don’t have the guts, resilience and determination to do so.

What I can do, however, is support academics who blog on controversial and risky topics, even if I don’t agree with everything they write – and so should their university. I want these academics to be able to curl up with a cup of tea on the couch and do their blogging work with pleasure, just like I do.

I’ve done work for Latrobe in the past, but I certainly won’t do work again if there is not some sensible resolution to this issue. Latrobe University management needs to show leadership and give its academics confidence that they can have opinions – which, after all, is what we are paid to do.

#istandwithRoz

Thank you for listening to my rant and I look forward, as ever, to your constructive and thoughtful comments. I believe that, if we stand together, we can persuade university management to protect us – no matter how mouthy and opinionated we are.

What do you think?

*** UPDATE ***

I’m pleased to be able to report that Latrobe University has backed down and reinstated Roz Ward to her position.

In my opinion she deserves an apology too. Latrobe has done lasting damage to its reputation and to staff morale. I received many private messages from Latrobe staff in response to this post – staff who were too scared to speak ‘publicly’ online. This should not happen. This is the kind of ‘chilling effect’ we saw in 1950’s McCarthyism. It has no place in 21st century Australia.

The statement by the Latrobe VC indicates that they backed down under legal pressure from the NTEU. They might not want to acknowledge it, but I believe the size of the public response mattered. Yesterday I watched the bombardment of the Latrobe Twitter feed and saw over 11,000 people signed the online petition linked in this post. Newspapers publised articles and rallies were being organised. It made me feel hopeful.

Other universities should take note of how strongly the academic community values privacy and the right to political self expression. I hope the next VC who faces this kind of situation will think twice before caving in to a moral panic like that surrounding Roz Ward and her excellent work.

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48 thoughts on “If you blog, will you lose your job?

  1. Omg I am on a research scholarship at Carleton in
    Ottawa for the summer and I social media posted a photo of this exact same freeze dried bizarre Canadian cheese snack just the other day! Feeling kinship with my favourite blogger!

  2. Thank you for writing about this. La Trobe is to be ashamed of their stance and is clearly a stifling and miserable place to be. ‘Suitable’ political views are not a prerequisite for employment!

  3. Sportsmen get penalised by their clubs for what they say on social media, the claim being that they are public figures. Yet with the implied common laws right of free speech and the constitutional rights to free political association, why should a place of employment be able to penalise employees for what they say outside of the capacity of their work, especially if the law courts haven’t penalised the individuals for the same behaviour?

    Why shouldn’t this freedom of public comment also apply to academics?

  4. Have commented this on your blog before, but just to reiterate your warning for others:

    As an undergrad, I was asked to write a very short series of blog posts, by a major journal in my field. I excitedly did so, only to find on applying to grad school that the very ***** I was talking up on the blog decided not to hire me because I had blogged, ever. (There were a great many more, much worse reasons too – but that was one.) This was several years ago, and I have worked very hard to get mentions of the posts out of the public eye.

    Yesterday, I was chatting to one of our admin staff and she said, “I know you probably have a lot of contacts, such as through your blog…”. I put her right. But just to say, best not even to do it once unless you really do plan on continuing and fighting for it, because the myth pervades.

  5. I’m an autistic academic who blogs mostly about how autism effects my life – my working life included. I’m always trying to figure out where the boundaries lie between what I can share safely and what I can’t. #Istandwithroz

  6. Yup. Am paranoid about that stuff, which is why as much as I want to start a blog about my garden and my life as a rural academic, I won’t. I want to blog about my thinking process etc, but I won’t. I want to make the connections I can’t because of where I am and how I am perceived by certain people, but I can’t, because I am paranoid.

    • Sadly, you would probably be perfectly fine blogging on these topics – but you’re right. You can’t know for sure. I worried about pushing the publish button on this one… but I thought back to the 50s and the era of censorship of academics and I couldn’t bear the thought of not saying what I think.

    • Isn’t is sad that we have to censor ourselves but people like Andrew Bolt can say what they like with impunity?

  7. Thank you for yet another, as always, incredibly thoughtful and interesting blog post. Please add me to your growing list of academics who deeply appreciate and enjoy your blog posts. I’m a huge fan.

    Kathy Dobson
    Ottawa, Canada

  8. When I started blogging, I wrote anonymously because I wanted to figure out my own voice without association with any particular institution. Unexpectedly I was outed as myself, and “of the University of Wollongong”, by The Guardian, which gave me a bit of a fright. But then I just got on with it, and in many ways doubled down on it by becoming publicly associated with activism against casualisation.

    Since then I have tried to be both respectful and tactful with issues that might be assumed to be particular to any one university, and if I’m writing about someone else’s work, I try to think about what it would be like to do that job and run into ill timed or uninformed snark about it from me. Still I’m aware that someone at my institution working hard enough to find insult to the brand could find it (cough, *Stands for Purpose*, cough). And like you, Inger, I’m increasingly noticing cases where university HR departments are moving to manage the reputational risk of blogging in new ways.

    So I have a question: why, and why now? Is it that the stakes are being raised in relation to higher education brands, and if so, what is making brand protection such an urgent matter? Is it rankings? Or is it that universities are making new kinds hires from HR, who are bringing other assumptions with them? Or, and this is the most worrying, is it that universities are strategically using brand protection to move on staff who trouble them anyway?

    I would dearly love to hear from HR managers on this question. What is their stake in holding their own brands up to this very obvious level of disrepute, with hashtags, petitions and so on? How could they not see this coming?

  9. For heaven’s sake. This place is looking less like Australia and more like Nazi Germany every day.

    If expressing your opinion means you can’t have a job, do you really want that job?

    Good on you for speaking strongly, Thesis Whisperer.

  10. I am not an academic but I want academics to be able to think out loud, discuss, argue and debate freely, topics that affect us all. That they obviously can’t is not healthy for any of us.

  11. I used to advocate for social media use by academics and professional staff- not any more. Most recently i was told that in my high level professional staff position it was not “appropriate” to comment on strategic or other management decisions, but to simply implement them- this was post a ‘planning day’ where input was sought. Leave your brain at the door to work here in HE.

  12. We counsel students to watch what they post online because of potential impact on their future career. The same holds true with the rest of us. Tenure only gives you an extra day to pack your suitcase (quoting a faculty member of mine). I keep my professional online identity exactly that – professional, clean, respectful, circumspect, and on topic with respect to my professional life. I have some alter egos I use to post on topics of interest to me in my private life or if I want to make commentary about my professional life that doesn’t “fit” my online professional persona. The better part of prudence, unless you are independently wealthy, is don’t do things that might risk job loss, result in failure to hire you, tick off those who have (or potentially will have) power over you… Sure we have freedom of speech. And then there is the better part of prudence.

      • It just isn’t academics where this is an issue. In the USA it is an issue in many, many work places. Kids don’t get into college or students/employees don’t get jobs because of what they have on facebook or photos… Facebook, twitter, instagram, etc. have all “hung” employees. I am not talking about employees using those mediums to blast their employer, rather what the post with respect to their private lives.

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  15. I am currently writing posts for our ”Anthropology Blogging 101” series on The Geek Anthropologist and you have given me much to think about. We created the series to encourage fellow anthropologists, particularly graduate students, to blog about their research. I agree with you that blogging brings about great opportunities all while being enjoyable and yet it is very hard to recruit contributors. Yet as you say, one should be careful when giving advice about blogging.

    I am amazed that you only need about 8 hours a month to produce such great content!! Amazing! I need to review my work flow! I always seem to spend too much time fiddling with esthetic or technical aspects and not enough writing. Finding potential contributors and reaching out to them also takes a lot of time, especially because we don’t have as many readers as you. We still need to get the word out about our blog in order to build a team of regular contributors I imagine!

    In any case, thank you for this very relevant piece. I’ll make sure to link to in our blogging series!

  16. Great blog raising a serious issue – thank you.

    In addition to my thesis work I am, amongst other things, a consultant to the nonprofit sector. I also write a blog on matters nonprofit (at nonprofitexplore.com if anyone’s interested) in which I don’t hold back on the iniquities of the sector (not a popular stance to take) and in this regard it could be said I’m biting the hand that feeds me. However I find there is no option for me but to present what I see and feel to be true – I could say it’s a calling, so I’m willing to go there. In fact I pretty much feel compelled to do so to the extent it doesn’t feel like an option not to, which means I haven’t ever really equivocated.

    As a self-employed individual I’m not at risk of losing a job but there may be those who don’t hire me because of what I write. On the other hand, there may be some who do. Either way, the right to express what we as citizens wish to should be upheld, as long as what we have to say first does no harm. Indeed institutions, especially universities where critical thinking is a requisite, should welcome a multiplicity of views, even those critical of them.

    The other disturbing aspect of this story is that Roz Ward was ‘outed’ to her employer by someone she presumably knows. Has it really come to this?

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  18. I had a pretty funny experience with my first blog. Actually you inspired me when I came to a talk you gave at my uni. You said blogging had been good for your career and I was wanting to change jobs so I thought I would give it a go.

    At the time I was working as an International Student Advisor. Actually, I knew my department would disapprove of a work related blog so I made sure it was a completely personal blog and not affiliated to my uni. I did mention it to my manager but, to be honest only in a way I knew she wouldn’t really get (because she was completely computer illiterate). I did not tell any higher level managers because I thought they would either think it was a bad idea and stop me doing it or a good idea and make someone else more skilled than me do it.

    I called it the International Student Advisor. I put all information relevant to international students studying in my city. It started to get popular and even had hits from overseas. I mentioned it to one of the members of the International Advisor Organisation and she said they wanted to promote it because they thought it was useful for International Students.

    Of course as soon as they started promoting the blog, it came to the attention of my higher level managers and the shit hit the fan. I was told that although the uni could not force me to shut it down (with the implication being that they wanted to) they could ask me to remove any references to my uni. Their explanation was that it might “get out of my control”. They said I also could not use the title “The International Student Advisor” because that was my job title so they owned it and that it could not be promoted the the advisor organisation because they paid my fees.

    I had NEVER included any comments about any educational institution that were negative. In fact my uni appeared to be the most exciting place in the city because I knew all the events they were advertising so I always included them. I only ever included events open to the public. Of course there were no references to individual people : I just talked about common problems and how to avoid or fix them. No one could post on my blog without me approving their comment. I really don’t know what was going to get out of control.

    Anyway by that time I already knew I would be starting a new job the next semester – not in Australia or advising so I decided to just let it go and stop the blog. Really, I was over it by then – as you say it is a lot of work. However, it meant that in a way the whole thing was potentially dangerous to my career rather than helpful.

    As a funny endnote, I heard that after I left the uni hired an online media manager. My blog apparently came up in a meeting and those involved with shutting it down were chastised. OK – yes – I did take some smug comfort from that.

  19. This is a great blog post which raises an important issue.

    I personally know an academic who was released from his post because a student found their way onto his private Facebook. The student revealed a personal post that the academic had made, and he lost his position.

    I believe a person should be able to live a personal life on the internet without fear of losing their job.

    • I think that we should demand the same behaviour on social media as we do in any public space. Although we like academics to be able to voice their opinions and participate in debates there are probably some places we can all agree to draw the line. For example if someone got drunk and went down the pub and told everyone he beats his wife because she deserves and all men should follow his example, I would say the university has the right to say that they take a moral stand against such behaviour and dismiss him. The same should apply to social media. However, I think it is important that such moral lines be very open and well articulated so that they are available for public examination and challenge.

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  26. La Trobe knew the flag issue was ridiculous and the whole thing was pure pantomime. A diversion which took just a one one day suspension on a indefensible charge to frame Roz as a cultural hero and to divert from the real safe schools issues at La Trobe. Namely why Gary Dowsett still hasn’t explained his (career-spanning) pedophile-advocacy. I wonder if this little diversion has allowed La Trobe to cut back on the PR team they employed instead of holding Dowsett to account. I support LGBTI rights and promoting acceptance in schools, that’s why I oppose the creeps like Dowsett who conflate LGBTI rights with predator interests, and who are the stokers of a war on LGBTI people.

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