By Mira Sucharov, Department of Political Science, Carleton University
As the prominence of social media in society intensifies, the question of how scholars can most effectively engage in the public sphere has taken on new significance. In a piece in PS: Political Science & Politics earlier this year, Brent Sasley and I looked at how various commitments, including ethno-national subjectivity and other political judgments, shape scholarly activities in the realms of blogging, Twitter and Facebook. Looking at the case of Israel/Palestine politics and the activist communities around them, we argue that these fora enable a new form of engagement for scholars, one fraught with challenge and rich with opportunity.
Through blogging and other social media, scholars can more directly deliver insights to activist communities whose members might otherwise be insulated from more traditional academic research findings. These communities — where we happen to count ourselves as members — may be more predisposed to engage with us and our ideas since there is a natural ethnic and social affinity. In this way, we have a greater potential impact for shaping policy outcomes, or at least, in our case, the dynamics of Diaspora-Israel relations.
Instead of sticking to strictly explanatory questions, we are now pushed towards posing and addressing questions that emerge from moral outrage, since this type of debate naturally characterizes much of social media debate.
Yet there are also risks to this form of engagement. As particular Diaspora communities learn more about our ideas, there is the chance of shunning. The speed, efficiency and proliferation of social media is therefore a double-edged sword: private thoughts more likely become public, and public engagement can easily become polarized into echo chambers where those who espouse challenging views may be shut out completely.
Second, as university professors we have new ways of encouraging our students to consider their own burgeoning role as scholars and as engaged citizens. Our blogging and social media activities can serve as a model for demonstrating to students how to bridge the mind and the gut in a more productive way.
The nature of social media also expands the type of questions scholars ask: instead of sticking to strictly explanatory questions, we are now pushed towards posing and addressing questions that emerge from moral outrage, since this type of debate naturally characterizes much of social media debate. In a sense, the question of moral outrage is the elephant in the room when it comes to assessing the professional appropriateness of a given scholar.
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The ongoing case of Steven Salaita’s de-hiring from the University of Illinois shows that the trend towards publicly-issued moral outrage can be dangerous. Given that the Chancellor decided to quash the appointment apparently for Salaita’s crude and outspoken tweeting during the Gaza war, the case puts many of these themes into sharp relief.
Brent Sasley and I addressed this case directly in a subsequent post on the LSE blog. There we addressed the question of what standards of appropriateness do and should exist when it comes to scholarly tweeting. What became apparent to us in the Salaita case were issues surrounding medium-appropriate style and professional responsibility.
Specifically, the kind of language and delivery considered unduly terse and abrasive in a classroom or on the pages of a traditional manuscript is considered normal in the world of Twitter, where brevity is required and snark is not only socially permitted but even encouraged.
- Thomas Juneau, Behind Canada’s Shifting Rhetoric on Israel
- Roland Paris, Has Canada Finally Discovered Digital Diplomacy?
Second, the nature of the Twitter medium means that tweeted statements may be issued in succession and in conversation with others, but they also stand alone with their own distinct URL. In the case of Salaita, for example, this means that leaving a highly misleading tweet (one which appears on its face to be hateful, but which is only fully understood in the context of the preceding and succeeding tweets) is professionally irresponsible at best.
Ultimately, it seems evident that the nature of social media and the rise of scholar-blogging (whether in traditional journalistic outlets or in more self-styled ones) presents both great opportunities and great challenges. There is an obvious opportunity to engage with a much wider audience (and thus both teach and learn from) a broader array of individuals and groups, whether fellow scholars, policymakers, activists, or simply everyday citizens. However, the quick-form nature of social media and the opinion-style of writing that characterizes much of the blogging enterprise poses a risk, namely that the thoughtful nature of scholarly deliberation may be sacrificed.
Then again, with scholars’ traditional fealty to particular theoretical approaches and methodologies often a driving force behind research agendas, was it ever there in the first place?
On September 16, 2014, Mira Sucharov will be speaking at CIPS on the topic “Writing through the Thick of Identity: Observations on Being a Scholar-Blogger”
Event Date: September 16, 2014 – 12:00 pm
Location: Social Sciences Building, 120 University Street, room 5028