Faculty and students discuss academic freedom and social media

    Photo by Rosalie Chan / North by Northwestern

    A mix of about 15 faculty members and students gathered to discuss the interaction of academic speech and social media in University Hall Tuesday.

    "Social media and new information technology are a great boon for academic freedom," sociology professor Jeremy Freese said.

    At an event titled "Academic Freedom in the Age of Twitter," Freese, soiciology and legal studies professor Laura Beth Nielsen and Michele Weldon, director of programming at the Illinois Humanities Council and a former Medill professor, led an informal roundtable discussion presented by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. The conversation centered around how academics should approach social networking and how it affects the academic culture.

    "When we talk about Twitter, we're talking about intellectual discussion being outsourced," Weinberg senior Sunjay Kumar said. "When you're online, you can post whatever you want."

    For professors and other academics, this can pose a problem. According to Freese, there are a number of considerations when it comes to this issue, including who qualifies as an academic, when a professor is speaking on behalf of the university, what happens when an academic speaks anonymously and what counts as public speech.

    "There is serious and awful harassment, mostly of women," Weldon said of public discourse on social media, citing the Gamergate incident as an example. "It isn't just quaint bullying."

    At the same time, though, Nielsen said that this should not stop academics from publicly expressing their views.

    "We have an obligation to give back to society what we're learning," she said.

    The panelists also reminded those in attendance of the exposure of online content, even with privacy settings.

    Weldon gave some simple advice to students who are using Twitter: "Get rid of the silly name."

    She also advised using the rule of thirds when tweeting – make one-third of your tweets about original thoughts and research, one-third about upcoming events and one-third retweets.

    The event was cut short abruptly, as the room had only been reserved for an hour.

    "I think it was interesting, but I don't think it's the sort of topic you can address satisfactorily in an hour," said Simon Nyi, a graduate student studying English who is currently on leave.

    Nyi acknowledged the necessity of addressing the issue of academic freedom and the considerations that social networks have introduced.

    "This is an important conversation to be having," he said. "It's an important question that social media has made enormously more complicated."


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