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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?


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