In July, the US Chronicle of Higher Education’s Career section featured an article about the impact of job applicant blogging on the deliberations of academic hiring committees. Titled Bloggers Need Not Apply, (and attributed to the pseudonymous “Ivan Tribble”), this article questions the wisdom of academic job applicants’ posting sometimes deeply personal information about themselves on the web, in full potential view of any hiring committee member who can google. The article draws particular attention to blogs that contain
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?
The article goes on to note that blogs give hiring committees access to applicants’ views on potentially controversial topics – politics, religion, fashion, etc. – that might never have been broached in an actual job interview, but that could affect a hiring committee’s perception of the “fit” between an applicant and a job. Blogs also potentially expose the hiring committee to the applicant at their worst (intellectually and/or emotionally), particularly if the blog hosts complaints about an applicant’s workplace or a detailed account of petty grievances and gripes. Even at their best, blogs contain unpolished samples of applicants’ writing and thought-process, which may not represent the best possible image to a hiring committee. The article therefore warns:
More often that not, however, the blog was a negative, and job seekers need to eliminate as many negatives as possible.
We all have quirks. In a traditional interview process, we try our best to stifle them, or keep them below the threshold of annoyance and distraction. The search committee is composed of humans, who know that the applicants are humans, too, who have those things to hide. It’s in your interest, as an applicant, for them to stay hidden, not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read. If you stick your foot in your mouth during an interview, no one will interrupt to prevent you from doing further damage. So why risk doing it many times over by blabbing away in a blog?
We’ve seen the hapless job seekers who destroy the good thing they’ve got going on paper by being so irritating in person that we can’t wait to put them back on a plane. Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know “the real them” — better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn’t want to know more.
The impact of this article was accentuated by the near-contemporaneous decision by the University of Chicago not to tenure two prominent academic bloggers – Sean Carroll and Daniel Drezner. The University of Chicago’s actions prompted a burst of blogosphere speculation on whether the tenure decision related in any way to blogging, speculation which ultimately bled into the mainstream print news. While both Drezner and Carroll appear agnostic over the relationship between their blogging and their tenure decisions, their fates, combined with the very public castigation of jobseeking bloggers in the Chronicle, sparked a cascade of reflections on the wisdom of blogging by untenured academics.
For some, the issue of academic blogging touches on broader themes of generational cultural change within the academy. Some commentators asked whether received systems such as tenure need to be reviewed. Others questioned whether the current model of peer-reviewed academic publications needs to be modified to allow for freer distribution and access to peer-reviewed works and/or to recognise different levels of validity for academic work, on a continuum from draft-like blog or public access productions, through to the traditional “gold standard” of peer reviewed publications. Others asked whether universities better need to acknowledge the value of academics’ serving as “public intellectuals” and writing for the non-academic community, as well as for their academic peers.
For others, the concern was more pragmatic: must I blog anonymously, at least until I secure tenure?
In terms of my personal perspective on the relationship of blogging to my academic work: I understand this site as part of my academic production. The materials I post here are drafts – I would hope that anything I submit for publication is more clearly (and concisely!) written, provides a more thorough “apparatus” of citations, etc. Yet the material I post here, while rough, is not intended to be “first draft” quality – I view blog entries as intermediate-level academic writing, somewhere between the “gold standard” of full publication, and the various kinds of field notes, sketches, dot point outlines, and other material that I produce during my research. This is one of the reasons I will sometimes have long gaps between posts: I don’t always have the time to write something of sufficient quality to post on a public forum.
I have also made a very conscious decision to focus on theoretical or historical materials in the blog, rather than more contemporary ethnographic or oral history materials – at least until I am much further along in my research. Analysing interview material on the blog is, I feel, a more fraught enterprise – both practically, and ethically. Practically, many of the people I’m interviewing know of the existence of this site, and I don’t want to them to worry that their words might end up here and self-censor as a result. Ethically, because I am committed to maintaining the confidentiality of the people to whom I am speaking, and posting quotations or reflections on interviews here too soon after the interviews have actually taken place might make it easier to deduce the identity of the speaker. In various ways, this limitation does “flatten” the material presented here, in that it skews the blog away from analysis of empirical material. Then again, I knew this would be the case when I started the blog – hence the choice of the name “rough theory”…
Initially, I also intended to keep the blog loosely anonymous – meaning that I did not post my name anywhere on the site, but provided enough information about my project to allow someone to figure out who I am, if they were particularly curious. I changed this approach when I realised I was being quoted on other blogs, and felt silly being quoted as “NP”. As a result, I’ve now added my actual last name to my posts, although I’ve still hedged my bets a bit by not including my full first name – I suppose I’m still reluctant for my life to be easily googled…
This strategy is not, though, intended to keep hiring committees away from the site. I have shared the site link quite freely, and have never intended to keep the blog a professional secret. As a consequence, however, I limit my discussion here to the sorts of things I might say in an informal, but still professional, context. I view the site, ideally, like one of my university’s research conferences – as a place to air considered, but not quite finalised, reflections so that I can receive feedback and arrive at better ideas and better means of expressing them.
How I personally view the site is not the only issue, of course. As the Chronicle’s follow-up article on the blogging issue notes, there is a distinct cultural divide between a generation of younger academics who are very comfortable with the internet as a means of professional communication, and a generation of tenured academics who worry about a potential decline in intellectual standards associated with internet communication:
As my original column made clear (and many amid the outcry reiterated) when it comes to blogging, I just don’t “get it.” That’s right, I don’t. Many in the tenured generation don’t, and they’ll be sitting on hiring committees for years to come.
In my personal experience, this cultural divide can result in a reluctance to read material posted to the blog – due, I suspect, to the assumption that the material can’t be worth someone’s serious attention and comment, because I’ve just dashed it off to an online forum (I get the impression that some people must be visualising that I’m posting to a chat room – as if my thoughts on social theory will go scrolling past, interspersed with 13-year-olds asking “rU hot?”). I’ve had a couple of experiences where, unable to convince someone to take a look at a blog entry, I’ve pasted the same material into a Word file, emailed it off, and gotten quite positive and considered comments…
Even those who are willing to take the plunge and read a blog entry are markedly reluctant to post their responses – I get replies in person, or via email, but (as you can tell from the comments fields here) rarely on the blog itself. I find this more understandable, as it takes time to write a considered reply posted to a forum where other people might see it – and time is always going to be a limited commodity. Personally, I’d rather people worry less about this, and just post messier, draftlike comments under a pseudonym – I would benefit from their more informal comments (and get the opportunity to reply online myself, if I choose), and they would not have to worry so much about creating a public record of their informal comments. But feedback in any form is valuable and, when people are busy, it’s simply more efficient for them to provide feedback in the most comfortable form. And, for many academics, the most comfortable form is still not unstructured discussion in an online forum.