When I clicked on this article at Inside Higher Ed called Withdrawal at Brooklyn, I didn’t expect it to be an article about how blogging can blight your career in academia.
Shortellâ€™s election as chair became controversial not because of his actions as a scholar, but because of his writings about religion on a Web site. In an essay on a Web site where Shortell said he did work as an artist, he described religious people as â€œmoral retards.â€ Among other things, he wrote in the essay that â€œChristians claim that theirs is a faith based on love, but theyâ€™ll just as soon kill you. For your own good, of course.â€
The essay prompted a series of articles in New York City newspapers, with many editorials criticizing Brooklyn College for having Shortell serve as a department chair, and questioning whether he would be fair to students or faculty members who are religious. The New York Sun, for example, wrote prior to Shortellâ€™s withdrawal that taxpayers â€œhave got to have the right to draw the line at what kind of person they want teaching students and participating in the tenure process. If a professor had spoken of, say, gay persons or Jews as moral retards, itâ€™s a safe bet that things would not be dealt with quite so delicately as they seem to be on Brooklyn Collegeâ€™s campus at the moment.â€
What they’re not saying in this article is that this associate professor was using that controversial underground personal publishing platform, a blog (a greymatter blog, at that). While tenure may prevent this fellow from actually fearing for his job, it isn’t protecting him from criticism.
I don’t think it should, quite frankly. This story is both wonderful and terrible for academics with blogs. On one hand, the idea of free academic speech is threatened by the fact that this faculty member is feeling constrained because of his own input into the political and academic realm. People are reading what he’s written and are holding it against him. This article was sort of spun that way; does Shortell have the right to engage in political debates and write political manifestos (calling religious people “moral retards”)? Should it be held against him, should be have to step down from a position as chair of the department?
But on the other hand, look at it this way: people actually care. People (not just academics) have read what this guy has written. How many academics can say that? How many academics actually have some reach into the world at large? What this story shows it that academics blogging end up with a larger audience. And while Shortell can write and publish whatever he wants, he does not have the right to be protected from response to that writing.
In a traditional academic environment, frankly appalling things have been written by faculty from all departments for years, written in obscure journals with proprietary keys in their locks and boring covers. No one else was really reading all the offfensive things that were written in academic circles. Not that such things were going unchallenged; a month or two after the offensive article was published, a handful of academics would write sternly-worded letters to the editor that would be published in the next issue, or the one following, and there would be some buzz on academic mailing lists. Historians would hotly debate the ideas at conferences six months later. Unpopular ideas have always had at least some effect on an academic’s rise within his or her own department. They keep their jobs, but they might not become, for instance, chair of the department.
It seems to me that what’s really going on here is that many more people are being invited to the party, and we’re not restricted to a couple of pages in the letters section anymore. I have no doubt that left-leaning academics like Shortell have published articles with the same basic premise: religious people are “moral retards” (a term that would never have popped up in an academic journal, and one that, quite honestly, shouldn’t have been used on his blog either). If Shortell has been restricted to the publishing boundaries of the political science journal, no one outside of academe would have read what he thought. No one without a research library next door would have a subscription to that obscure journal and would be in a position to take the measure of the man.
I’d be surprised if one of the historians producing frankly misogynist history ended up as president of the American Historical Society. People are never entirely protected from the dust clouds they kick up when they publish controversial articles in any context. With the advent of popular self-publishing on the internet, the number of people with an interest in such things has expanded exponentially. A bigger audience is a good thing; what you opt to put before them is up to you. In what context is “retard” an apropriate epithet?
The other battle to be waged here is on the writer’s perception of what a blog actually is; if they feel that it is their personal diary, perhaps such terminology might be deemed appropriate. But a blog is emphatically not personal. It’s a public space, and while you have the power to write whatever you want, you have to face the consequences of talking smack in public. Because of the tenure system, this associate professor doesn’t have to fear for his job because of what he’s said.
I don’t think he should have to tone down his politics. But he should be using respectful language. Post an actual argument about why religion provides a moral vaccum if you will, but don’t just insult the faithful. Random potshots aren’t particularly smart or political.