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Social Media: A Powerful Protest Tool at the University of Houston

The University of Houston’s (UH) legendary creative writing program has long been ranked one of the top MFA programs in the country. Unfortunately, its reputation for paying its graduate students to teach freshman composition is legendary for a different reason: their paltry stipends and strict contracts (prohibiting outside employment) mean all of them live well below the poverty line, having not received a raise in 20 years. 

But that’s all about to change, thanks to the action taken by the UH graduate students, much of which occurred online, proving yet again that if used properly, social media is primed to foment a revolution.

Here are five key steps the UH graduate students took on social media to raise awareness of their cause:

1. Online Petition Boom

In the fall semester, tuition at the university was raised by about $100, but the tuition waivers given to the students were not raised. This inspired rancor in the graduate students, already struggling to get by, and when they were met with resistance by the dean, they decided to organize not only to get their $100 back, but to get a raise as well. An online petition (using circulated on Facebook in January, advertising that you did not have to be a UH student to sign and stand in solidarity. It had an original goal of 50 signatures, but by the end of the month it received over 300 signatures from students and teachers across the country who signed and shared it. It outlined six official grievances about the teaching stipend, fees, and workload, and the volume of signatures was an early indicator there was a contingent of dissatisfied graduate students just waiting to be mobilized.

2. Profile Pictures Get a Cougar Makeover

social media protestIn late February, all current graduate students were asked to change their Facebook profile pictures to an image of the UH mascot, a cougar, dressed as an indentured servant and working on a factory line with the tagline, “UH English TAs, Making $11,000 since 1993.” Scores of current students changed their profile pictures, with alumni and even some outside supporters following suit, a key strategic move effectively raising awareness during a crucial recruitment time. From February to April, all programs send out their MFA and PhD acceptances, with prospectives visiting and conducting online research to choose the best university. The wash of negative profile pictures likely did damage to the acceptance rate, and raised red flags for administrators who had until that point largely ignored the movement.

3. Facebook Page Gains Steam

At the same time, the students started a Facebook page, “UH English TFs UNITE,” which was liked by several hundred people and was updated very regularly with calls for volunteers, meeting announcements, and statistics and information to pass around. Most updates encouraged users to share them. When the students began a peaceful sit-in at the university president’s office on April 3rd, a picture of the sit-in was posted on the page and shared 76 times. Most of the high-profile members of the creative writing faculty, who also sat in, shared the photo on their own Facebook pages. In one day, the page jumped from 600 likes to more than 1,000, a move the graduate students said the university public relations team was alarmed by.

4. Reaching Out to Journalists via Twitter

twitter activism

But the students didn’t just sit there. Pictures of the sit-in circulated widely on Facebook, and the UH English TFs UNITE Twitter page blasted media outlets with tweets. They tweeted everyone from the mayor of Houston to Houstonite Beyonce, but mainly targeted magazines and newspapers. The mass tweeting worked, resulting in coverage from the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Press, and the Chronicle of Higher Education in the first few days alone.

5. Memes Drive the Point Home

They didn’t forget that everyone loves to share a meme. One the second and third days of the sit-in, the students made memes to share on Facebook, poking at the university’s new “Tier One” status as well as what has happened in the 20 years since the teaching stipend was raised. “A Tier One School: Where Your English Teacher Can’t Pay Rent” read one of them. See another favorite, below:


Cautiously Optimistic with $1 Million

After three and a half days of sitting in and three months of bombarding social media, the UH graduate students are on their way to getting what they want. When the president of the university announced on Tuesday plans to redirect $1 million toward address the stipend concerns, Facebook and Twitter rejoiced, but updates advised to remain cautiously optimistic until a concrete wage adjustment is in writing. If the raise isn’t satisfactory, you can bet you’ll hear about it on Facebook.

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