Q&A with Steven Salaita

Lydia Ramsey, Managing Editor

The academic Steven Salaita had his job offer rescinded from the University of Illinois this summer after he posted a number of controversial tweets regarding the conflict in the Gaza Strip, bringing into question the role of social media in higher education.

Illinois offered Salaita a tenured position in the university’s American Indian studies program in the summer. The University withdrew its offer Aug. 1 after Salaita, a Jordanian-American of Palestinian descent, posted politically charged tweets from his Twitter account.

Salaita will be speaking on campus Monday at 5 p.m. about the intersection of social media and academic freedom for university faculty. The event, hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine, is part of Salaita’s weeklong Chicago speaking tour. The Daily spoke with Salaita in a phone interview ahead of Monday’s talk.

The Daily: What has your year been like so far without this teaching position?

Steven Salaita: It’s been unusual. It’s been a little strange not to have class to get up and go to. In lots of ways, I really miss it, and I look forward to getting the chance to picking up that part of my career again.

The Daily: Knowing the implications it had on your career, do you still stand by some of the statements you said in your tweets?

Salaita: They were written in a particular moment, in a particular context and there was no expectation, and there still should be no expectation, that speaking one’s mind on social media, which is an extramural activity, should lead to termination from a tenured faculty appointment.

Knowing what I know now, that changes everything, but we don’t participate in social media, academics don’t anyway, under the assumption that they’re going to be watched, recorded, taken out of context and in turn, summarily dismissed from a tenured position. That was kind of the last thing on my mind at the time.

The Daily: How does your experience with indigenous studies connect to your Palestinian/Jordanian-American identity?

Salaita: When I was a student … I started noticing a lot of similarities in the types of colonial discourses that were being used in the settlement of North America by Europeans and then the settlement of Palestine by Zionists. There’s a lot of movement in recent years to take up the question of Palestine in the broader field of indigenous studies.

The Daily: How has the response from the University of Illinois, rescinding your offer because of your tweets, shaped your perspective on how higher education interacts with social media?

Salaita: It’s really confirmed, more than anything, suspicions that folks have had, that universities are beginning to function more like corporations than places of education. I think that one reason why my case has generated such interest is because I think a lot of university policies and procedures, both formal and informal, around the use of social media are still nascent.

The Daily: I’ve seen that you’ve published a book and articles on blogs. Have you ever gotten any feedback from universities about that, or is the response really so different between social media and traditional media?

Salaita: I think, in my case anyway … I’ve noticed a difference. I feel like one reason people are attracted to social media is it gives them a potentially broader reach. The platform lends itself to a type of speaking style and a type of discursive performance that certainly is more rapid-fire than traditional essays. Being in social media, it gets circulated and it always has the potential to quote-unquote, go viral.

The Daily: Have the events of the summer ever made you rethink your career?

Salaita: I haven’t had a chance to explore those possibilities, but I probably will in the near future. I’m still kind of shell-shocked and overwhelmed. I’m probably going to get to a point soon where I’m going to need to sit down and think about these things systematically and think about what these possibilities are.

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