Bloggers Need Not Apply

I’m in a hurry this morning, needing to get myself ready to drive into LA, but I simply cannot refrain from comment on this morning’s Chronicle Careers column, “Bloggers Need Not Apply” [Chronicle of Higher Education; subscription usually required but I think this is in the free area]. The jist of the column is that a blog is a major detriment to an academic job seeker, as evidenced by the fact that the search committee that the author recently served on googled all of their semifinalists, found their blogs, and were universally horrified. To wit:

Several members of our search committee found the sheer volume of blog entries daunting enough to quit after reading a few. Others persisted into what turned out, in some cases, to be the dank, dark depths of the blogger’s tormented soul; in other cases, the far limits of techno-geekdom; and in one case, a cat better off left in the bag.

The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one’s unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? It’s not hard to imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum. But it’s also not hard to find examples of the worst kinds of uses.

A blog easily becomes a therapeutic outlet, a place to vent petty gripes and frustrations stemming from congested traffic, rude sales clerks, or unpleasant national news. It becomes an open diary or confessional booth, where inward thoughts are publicly aired.

Worst of all, for professional academics, it’s a publishing medium with no vetting process, no review board, and no editor. The author is the sole judge of what constitutes publishable material, and the medium allows for instantaneous distribution. After wrapping up a juicy rant at 3 a.m., it only takes a few clicks to put it into global circulation.

As a happily tenured (and therefore safe from such depredating opinions) author of a blog that has of late become, at least in part, a “therapeutic outlet,” one that no doubt reveals some odd things about the “dank, dark depths” of my “tormented soul,” and yet as a scholar whose research focus at the moment circles around questions of the potential literary value of such writing, I find myself, not to put too fine a point on it, seriously pissed off by the infuriating combination of condescension and authoritarianism on absolutely unedited display in this article. It is clear that “Ivan Tribble” — and oh, the juicy irony of such an anonymous, snarky rant from someone so apparently above the level of blogdom — imagines the web not at all as a vehicle for the development, exploration, and communication of new modes of interconnection among individual users, but rather as a convenient location from which to spy on those around him. I choose the masculine pronoun here both in reflection of the author’s masculine nom de plume and in service to the ringing sound of “old boy” around the author’s prose, something further supported by his easy panopticism and the conclusions he draws from what he finds.

What does he find? Begin with his response to job candidate #1:

Professor Turbo Geek’s blog had a presumptuous title that was easy to overlook, as we see plenty of cyberbravado these days in the online aliases and e-mail addresses of students and colleagues.

But the site quickly revealed that the true passion of said blogger’s life was not academe at all, but the minutiae of software systems, server hardware, and other tech exotica. It’s one thing to be proficient in Microsoft Office applications or HTML, but we can’t afford to have our new hire ditching us to hang out in computer science after a few weeks on the job.

A presumptuous title? Cyberbravado? Tech exotica? I don’t know what to be most appalled by here. Why is knowing Microsoft Office or HTML acceptable, but any greater interest in technology a sign of danger? Has this search committee never heard of — and I don’t at all mean to be condescending with my use of this term — a hobby? Had the search committees that hired them known of their passionate interests in fine wine, or antiques, or croquet, or whatever, would they have said my god, how unseemly; this candidate will no doubt abandon us at the first possible opportunity in order to pursue such passions full-time? How is the existence of a job candidate’s blog — a form of communication that, not incidentally, interacts closely with “software systems, server hardware, and other tech exotica” — evidence that he or she isn’t fully committed to the primary work of scholarship? All scholars deserve some passionate interest in something other than their field, something that recharges them, keeps them alive. Not allowing for those outside pursuits is the surest way to hand a junior colleague a massive case of burnout.

Moving on: Ivan and the committee find themselves equally appalled by another candidate (the ever-so-cleverly gender-neutrally pseudonymed “Professor Shrill”) and her bloggerly personal revelations, which leave them feeling that “a little therapy (of the offline variety) might be in order.” And they find evidence via blogs that another candidate has not been wholly forthright about his research. I still deplore the condescending tone with which this latter case is discussed, but I’m less put off by its substance; dishonesty is dishonesty, and if there’s evidence out there, good the committee should know it. But why should a candidate’s writings about, as Ivan characterizes it, “certain people’s choice of fashion or body adornment, which countries we should invade, what should be done to drivers who refuse to get out of the passing lane, what constitutes a real man, or how the recovery process from one’s childhood traumas is going,” be grounds not simply for elimination from a search, but for an assumption that the author needs psychological help? If the author of this blog had a column in a national publication — even one ranting about the same kinds of topics — rather than being published online, would the committee’s response to the candidate be the same?

Yes, clearly we should caution all of our students, graduate and undergraduate alike, as one way or another they’ll all some day be job seekers, to be careful about what results googling them can produce. But Ivan’s anxiety about blogs, and about blogging candidates, goes far beyond this:

You may think your blog is a harmless outlet. You may use the faulty logic of the blogger, “Oh, no one will see it anyway.” Don’t count on it. Even if you take your blog offline while job applications are active, Google and other search engines store cached data of their prior contents. So that cranky rant might still turn up.

The content of the blog may be less worrisome than the fact of the blog itself. Several committee members expressed concern that a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.

Read that last sentence again: “Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.” First off, the assumption of future guilt based on an absence of historical wrong-doing is simply insane. But raising the issue does make one ask why such standards are focused on bloggers. After all, to whom would such a sentence not apply? Is the problem that the committee has, finally, that bloggers have an unregulateable voice, one that evades established disciplinary and juridical structures, allowing them, potentially, to say things we don’t want them to say?

Isn’t that part of what academic freedom is about?

28 thoughts on “Bloggers Need Not Apply

  1. Heh — I was going to blog about this today myself. You’ve made most of my points, but I have a couple of comments on yours plus one of my own.

    Re hobbies: As a recent survivor of the hiring syste (three years on one side, one year on the other), I hate to tell you, but no, committees do NOT want to hear about hobbies. Lip service only. I know I’ve ranted about this before, but I mean it. The stories I could tell you!

    Re dishonesty: Actually, the content here irked me as much as the tone. Getting a job is all about packaging yourself; Being Yourself is a surefire way to end up a tech writer. Blaming someone for shaping hemself to the job is akin to criticizing hir for wearing a suit to the interview.

    Last of all, I’d just like to point out that Tribble, like so many others, has a complete misunderstanding of what a blog is. No surprise, I suppose, but it still chaps my hide.

  2. Thank you – I completely agree. The column annoyed me, too. Meg has beat me to the punch on one of my main complaints – that Tribble really doesn’t understand what a blog is. I love the assumption that because someone has a blog, they may say inappropriate things about their department. If someone’s going to say inappropriate things, they can find many other venues than a blog – the question is not whether they blog but whether they’re appropriate professionals. And the complaints about Prof. Shrill – it essentially sounded like the search committee just didn’t want to know that she had any opinions about anything outside of the academy at all. What a depressing reminder of all the worst “you must have no life but work” tendencies of the academy.

  3. I don’t know, meg. On the hobby question: of course committees don’t want to hear about them. But does that mean that a candidate shouldn’t have them? If the tech blogger gave the committee his URL as a piece of his or her application, or brought it up in the interview, then sure, I can see the committee taking pause. But if they found it by googling it? It’s the equivalent of surreptitiously spotting a copy of Wine Connosieur in a candidate’s briefcase and saying, good grief, we can’t hire her, she’s a oenophile and will eventually abandon us to that interest. None of this is to say that committees don’t do that — it is instead to say that they are wrong when they do.

    On the dishonesty thing. Yeah, okay, packaging. But something in Ivan’s description makes it sound like it could be more than simply a packaging issue, something that moves more toward actual misrepresentation. But I could be wrong.

    Anyhow, grrr. I hoped writing this post would make me less pissed off, but it didn’t work.

  4. I’ve been worried about people (and committees) like the author of this article for years. Part of what’s disturbing about it is the implication that any public behavior should be the kind of behavior you’d display in a job interview. Part of why I find that distressing, aside from the fact that I’ve got five years’ worth of weblog entries to hide if I ever decide it’s necessary to hide them, is that attitudes like “Ivan’s” perpetuate a model of professor-as-veneer that is at odds with the discussion-based kind of pedagogy I value.

    Nevertheless, I do imagine that I’ll one day privatize most of my blog entries and at least make it more difficult for casual readers to gain access. I’m very reluctant to do that, particularly since that would cut my blog off from some people who’ve been reading for years, but I’m not sure what else to do. I tend to consider my public entries pretty harmless, but they certainly wouldn’t get the thumbs-up from a roomful of people who expected everything I wrote–everywhere–to be cool-headed and scholarly.

  5. I can’t really say more about the hobby thing here, and I don’t have your skill with toe-nal narrative, but just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait (till the next time I see you).

    There is a small set of acceptable hobbies for the untenured. Any others, better hide ‘em well.

  6. The thought of alienating the alma mater and alumni network made me wonder what kind of institution the author is connected with. ( For a moment I wonded if the author is connected to the Christian Fundamentalist college (was it Patrick Henry?) that was profiled in a recent New Yorker )

    I liked that in Claremont (is it safe to say that KF? you can redact that word if needed), there was such a diverse view among faculty — talking poorly of the school might alienate one to some groups, but bring them much closer to others.

    I’d wager, however, that the author spent too much time reading blogspot blogs or livejournal entries, and failed to read all of the law, literature or science blogs where Professors and Graduate Students present ‘bleeding edge’ information and criticisms that would rarely make any sort of widespread publication either because of their timing or broad appeal.

  7. Thanks for posting this, KF. I’ve been skipping the Chronicle lately as I settle into DC, so I would have missed this. Like you, I’m troubled by the article’s tone and the assumption that anyone who keeps a blog will inevitably say things that are inappropriate.

    Of course, I think Tribble is wrong about blogs necessraily having negative effects on the job search or professionally in general. I believe pretty strongly that my experience has been the opposite.

  8. Jonathan’s comment appeared while I was writing mine, and I had a similar question. Could the author be from a Christian college or another similar institution that would be concerned about their reputation in specific (posibly non-academic) ways?

    The anti-technology rant also seemed specific to the author and his instituion/department. Could he be in a conservative field/subfield?

  9. This is pretty scary, but actually the only surprise to me is that this crazy attitude has gone from corporate HR to academia. Well, that and the idea that a guy who cares about technology is a risky hire because he might “hang out in computer science after a few weeks on the job.” I mean, that is just bizarre!

    And Jonathan, livejournal isn’t all that bad!

  10. LiveJournal is great — I don’t think that it is bad at all.

    But LiveJournal was designed/marketed though as more of a journal than a blog — something that one would expect to have more rants and diary-like entries in, and that is exactly what a disproportionate number of people use it for.

  11. It occurs to me that if committees work for institutions that want so much control over their faculty’s publications that hiring someone with a blog would be right out, they should say so in the job announcement.

  12. In the case of the misrepresented research, you’d think that the search committee would be thankful for a medium that helped them avoid hiring the dishonest professor! The message seems to be that the ability to eliminate a candidate on the basis of academic dishonesty is a BAD thing…

  13. Dear Search Committees: Don’t make us choose between academic writing and non-academic writing. Because I know what I’ll choose… and yet I would like to eat, and have done things for my academic employers that have made me worth having around.

    You can’t have mass higher education and increased staff numbers without broadening your concept of what academics do.

  14. One thing that I didn’t add over in my own space, but probably should, is the hopelessly naive notion that our colleagues without blogs aren’t going to find ways to (a) gossip about us, (b) rail about us on listservs or at conferences, if they’re of a mind to do so, or (c) and this is the biggie, write about us publicly. You can find pretty sizable chunks of the institutional history (and yes, dirty laundry) of Syracuse’s English Department and Writing Program by searching for work by Mailloux, Zavarzadeh, and Zebroski, to name three.

    According to Tribble’s non-faulty logic, this should be grounds to dissuade all job applicants from joining listservs, talking to anyone at conferences, or trying to publish before they go on the market, right? Because cautionary anecdotes aren’t about the specific people who act this way; they’re about the *perils* of the medium itself. After all, past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.

    cgb

  15. I’m sorry, the Chronicle article is clearly a fraudulent essay — obviously designed to “troll” for response. My congratulations to the author for getting some people to take this seriously. For more, see my blog post

  16. As I mentioned elsewhere, what’s odd is that this author commits pretty much every sin that the column claims bloggers commit. Actually, it reads rather like a bloggy rant. But really every day I read better blog enteries than this column.

    \*/

  17. Grr, indeed. But here’s the thing: I don’t think Tribble’s luddism has been sufficiently generalized: “What is it with job seekers who also write blogs?”, he asks, wagging his finger, but he might as well have asked “What is it with job seekers who also post to listservs [as George points out]; or maintain Flickr accounts, De.licio.us accounts, web servers, and personal web pages; or participate in MMRPGs, stream live music, podcast, distribute multimedia, sell on e-bay, or run an online business?” It isn’t just blogs or social software or even network culture that sticks in Tribble’s craw, it’s technomodernity itself. Blogging is just a synecdoche. By Tribble’s logic, the job seeker should think twice not only about *blogging* under her real name, but also about *entering the twenty-first century* under her real name. I’m reminded of the diffident aristocracy of the eighteenth-century who feared ridicule and reprisals if they dared publish in print. Historians of the book have dubbed this phenomenon the “stigma of print.” If Tribble and his ilk have their way, we’ll end up spending the next 50 years trying to overcome the “stigma of new media.”

  18. Do you think that Tribble is real? Or could be a troll, as Doug Tygar believes? According to Tygar’s post, he thinks that the article is a fake because it is poorly written. Since when does poor writing make something a sham? — plenty of earnest, awful academic writing out there.

    However, there are many parts of the article that are hard to believe. Especially Tribble’s implication that job candidates are providing info that make it easy for hiring committees to read very personal blog entries. “Hi there, here’s the url for the blog where I talk about kinky romances and offensive neuroses.”

    With only a few exceptions, all the “juicy” blogs I see are pseudonymous (and thus much more fun, on average, than the “real identity” versions.)

    Is this just someone trying to be maliciously, frivolously “juicy” under the protection of a pseudonym? And if so, why? And if so, is the chronicle in on the scam? And if so, why?

    The piece feels false to me — geared to provoke paranoia — but am I just being paranoid?

  19. In response to your posting about academic bloggers, the flip side of the coin:

    http://www.mediabistro.com/articles/cache/a4754.asp

    In the NY publishing job world, having a blog is apparently a plus. (So much for “objectivity” in a profession that should demand it much more than academia.)

    The interesting thing to me about this was the incestuous relationship between bloggers and formal news outlets. For example, former Gawker Media bloggers who are now editors at MSM publications like the NY Observer still have their own blogs! I’m not going to argue that bloggers aren’t real journalists; I believe the opposite. But it does seem wrong to have two jobs/identities, particularly if one (the blog) is basically a statement that you’re not going to be focused on your MSM work all the time.

  20. Fascinating link — thanks, AGS. It’s still interesting, though, to see the kinds of anxiety that blogging produces in mainstream media outlets. The difference seems to be that the publishing world’s response is to co-opt the blogger as a convenient source of copy and/or publicity, rather than to shun the blogger as either neurotically self-involved or a potential security risk.

    As to your question, Academic Coach — frankly, I’ve got to disagree with Tygar. I’ve dealt with too many old fogey profs over the years not to find this one somewhat convincing, and his unintentional portrait of the questionable behavior of search committees rings all-too-true. That said, there’s a bit of discussion somewhere — unfortunately now I can’t remember where I saw it — suggesting that all of the obnoxious anonymous “First Person” columns in the Chron are in fact written by the same person. They do all seem to have the same smarky style, so that theory’s just weird enough to have that insane ring of authenticity…

  21. This is a response to Kari’s point above, but I think it speaks in a skeptical manner to the enthusiasm for personal/academic blogging that most of you have been demonstrating. The problem is not a “stigma of new media.” What Tribble was arguing for was a better sense of judgment about what, when, and how to publish writing produced by job candidates.

    The “stigma of print” usually refers to late 16th and early 17th century literature. See the classic article, J. W. Saunders, “The Stigma of Print: A Note on the Social Bases of Tudor Poetry.” Essays in Criticism 1 (1951): 139-64. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned Saunders, showing that the overlap between print and manuscript publication continues through the eighteenth century (at least), and that people–aristocrats and others–chose manuscript less on the basis of a stigma attached to print than on advantages to be gained through manuscript publication. What the Chronicle piece was trying to say is that choosing to publish one’s work (or life) through a blog might not be the best tactical choice when applying for jobs that will primarily value another kind of publication: peer-refereed scholarship, which can be published either electronically or in print, but which requires a different process from the self-published, unreviewed process of individual blogs.

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