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