A pseudonymous professor at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest advises academic job candidates not to blog. His remarks are addressed to graduate students and junior professors, but honestly, they apply to anyone who might ever want to move from one institution to another. I’ve long accepted that if I ever did feel a desire to move, this blog would probably be the thing that would put the final nail in any application. (After the dabbling in cultural studies and game studies and my unorthodox attitudes towards my major field of specialization.)
Tribble’s reasoning isn’t entirely about blogging: it reveals a larger and more typical kind of academic parochialism. Yes, there’s certainly a whiff of pure distaste for blogs. But it’s also not blogs as such, but the decomposition of guild controls over what is verified as legitimate scholarship that they potentially represent. It’s the same attitude that lets other scholars justify opposing electronic publication of journals: all in the name of defending the high standards of peer reviewed publication. Tribble doesn’t tell us what discipline he’s interviewing in. If he’s in the humanities (as I suspect he is), defending the normal practice of peer review as being something worth saving is a bigger problem than an attitude towards blogs. Most peer review in the humanities functions less as a way to authenticate the accuracy and originality of a journal article or manuscript and more as a way to confirm that the author has the necessary hierarchical position within academia to publish the type of work they are trying to publish and as a tool for the enforcement of orthodoxy. Tribble’s defense here is about an entire view of academic knowledge to which blogs are only one small challenge.
It’s also evidence that the hiring process is perhaps the only place where faculty are allowed to let personal feelings run wild. Most of us observe very tight constraints on expressing our feelings about colleagues at other evaluative moments, particularly tenure. That’s one of the issues involved in the “collegiality” debate. On one hand, it feels as if it ought to be legitimate to talk about whether someone works well with others or causes lots of organizational havoc; on the other hand, most of us know that those discussions are a chance to let the devil in, to give people with an agenda (political or personal) a tool that they will misuse. Hiring is a different matter: very few people feel the same constraint.
I wouldn’t want them to be constrained formally, either. You should be able to talk about how your subjective, personal reaction to a candidate. The only problem is that such talk reveals as much about the talker as it does the subject of his or her commentary. Tribble’s comments about the bloggers in his search end up giving me a bad feeling about his own character, a sense of small-mindedness and conformism. I’ve got no problem with a colleague commenting to me during a search that a particular candidate seemed unstable or arrogant or weird–unless the person making the remark is unstable or arrogant or weird, which is sometimes the case. It’s like listening to someone who has published almost nothing in their career fret about a candidate’s publication record. It’s only annoying when it seems to lack self-awareness and proportionality. As Tribble’s complaints seem to, in my subjective feeling.
However, there’s two points he makes that I think have some relevance. I think a blog is in the public sphere, and I think as a contribution to the public sphere, it should be selective. Not because you’re thinking about your potential employers, but because you’re thinking about what does and does not belong in the public sphere. I think reputation, the creation of an externalized self who “speaks”, ought to be an important part of blogging. This sets me apart from the bloggers who see what they do as a diary, as self-revelation and self-exploration. It’s an old debate. I think if I were going to publish a diary, I’d consider being anonymous out of fear for my reputation. It’s also a question of purpose: if the felt need to publish is about doing self-work in a public space, about using revelation to clarify questions about one’s own life or attract support and insight from readers, I’m not sure it has any need to be under one’s own name. So if you’re a diaristic, personal blogger, I wouldn’t connect your blog to your academic career or identify it as academic under your own name. Not even necessarily because you’re afraid of the consequences, but simply because I don’t see what the purpose of doing so might be.
The second thing Tribble says that’s fair is that in a selection process where 10-30 candidates may be perfectly equal on paper, anything that might be used to peel away candidates is going to be used. Any information you provide that doesn’t strictly help or enhance your candidacy is not a good idea. So it’s true in this respect that blogging is a bad idea. I think the prudent academic blogger in graduate school or on the job market would want to constrain their writing for the moment to scholarly or pedagogical topics, and to think mindfully of an audience wider than the Usual Suspects, if they wanted to blog under their own name and draw attention to the blog as an academic one. So, for example, the bloggers at Savage Minds I think could confidently list that blog on their c.v.–but even there, you’d have to be mindful that all it would take is having one person on a search committee who has a particular dislike for an academic argument you’d made on your blog. Until someone sees that, you’re nothing but potential, and almost everyone can tell soothing stories about potential. The moment you make it clear what you think about a scholarly issue of importance, you’re inviting the small-minded, the conformists, the self-absorbed defenders of an orthodoxy, the control freaks and so on to scratch you off a list.