Starting with Small Steps: Hashtagging, Academic Precarity, and Offline Action

For many years now, I’ve been writing about the promise, potentials, and challenges that hashtag activism offers for bringing attention to critical issues. And not only bringing attention to critical issues in digital spaces, but also making an impact in the offline realm. Contrary to critiques of hashtag activism as being merely slacktivism, an empty feel-good effort that does nothing more than help the poster pat themselves on the back for doing something helpful, hashtag activism has played a role in advancing offline actions in support of important causes.

In such work, I have advanced the idea that even small gestures can have an important impact. With regard to academic precarity, others are in agreement. Hashtag activism can bring attention to the larger issue at hand; offline action can advance change. This is not to say that one is to be more privileged than the other—digital activism is still activism, while offline action may lack amplification without the inclusion of online information that helps get others on board. But examples such as those outlined in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and other academically oriented publications showcase the reciprocal and critical relationship between online activism and offline action when working to address issues of academic precarity.

Carolyn Chernoff, for example, in an August 2018 column in Inside Higher Ed calls for tenure-line faculty to reach out to colleagues in precarious academic situations:

Small individual actions might help. If you’re tenure track or tenured, buying a lecturer or unemployed friend a coffee or a drink won’t create a job, but a humane action might remind both of us that the university is a system that operates on forced scarcity. … Including your friends in panels, calls for proposals, paid lectures or workshops -- none of that will create jobs or change universities. That requires larger structural changes. But the individual actions can help create some bottom-up improvements, as well as call attention to the larger labor conditions that marginalize already-marginalized scholars, and make some individual success seem merited.

Echoing Chernoff’s call, Douglas Dowland and Annemarie Pérez in The Chronicle of Higher Education state that “In such dire times, what once may have been simple gestures of support and collegiality have become radical unto themselves.” They articulate that generosity “starts with the individual,” such as including adjuncts in, and paying for their participation in, service work; buying coffee or lunch at a conference for a grad student or adjunct colleague; or working to convert a contingent teaching position to a permanent one.

Hashtags such as #SolidarityWithPrecarity, #COLA4All, #IStandWithPrecariousStaff, and others help circulate messages about academic precarity via social media, allowing them to reach broader audiences who ideally are then motivated to take additional action, whether recirculating that messaging to broaden the audience even further, taking offline action, or both. The digital age offers an array of tools that allow for collective action, and as academia continues to move further toward privileging precarity and continued exploitation, both online and offline activism will be ever critical.

As the image asks, What does your #activism look like? This is a question we can all ask ourselves, but particularly those of us who occupy privileged positions within academia.



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