The Trouble With Tribble

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.

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9 Responses to The Trouble With Tribble

  1. A. Cephalous says:

    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 this is spot-on. If you’re interested in making a name for yourself as an academic, and consider how you blog accordingly, then you need not fear the Tribbles of the word. If, however, you’re interested in building a reputation as a person, then you run into problems. Granted, there’s no way to disentangle these two aspects of a public persona, but this is a case in which approach counts because it’s manifest in the results. Another thing to consider: keep the blog up and running, but when you hit the market or are looking to hit the market, delete or “unpublish” the posts that don’t help your market-value but leave up the ones that do. There’s no reason to present a carefully groomed image of yourself as a candidate and not extend it to all those facets of your life the hiring committee could possibly investigate.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. And this has been said elsewhere, but in some sense, you don’t really want to be hired by the Tribbles of this world if they’re going to be pompous and small-minded enough as to make your life miserable anyway. I know that’s easy to say when you’ve already got a position, but as long as you manage your self-presentation, and are at least mindful of the norms and manners of academic life, then having a distinctive public persona might help as much as it hurts in that it will help you in the places where the people are interesting and open-minded.

    In this sense, blogging is just a subset of the way you manage all of your research and intellectual interests as a junior scholar. I’m quite certain that the research topic of my first book hurt me in two searches I was in–and helped me a lot at Swarthmore, because there were two people here who for different reasons understood why it was an interesting and important topic.

    The only bad thing about blogging in this calculus is that it’s likely that the individuals who will be most impressed by the fact that you blog are either junior people or weirdos like me who have a hard time convincing their colleagues about such matters. But that may be changing.

  3. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    “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 …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.”

    Well, OK, but it seems to me that the same thing could be said about *publishing*–which is not to say that it isn’t true about publishing or at least widely felt to be true–hence all that writing which manages to not quite take a stand on issues of scholarly importance. But our whole enterprise is in a lot of trouble if we become afraid to be opininated (which is not the same as closed-minded) about scholarly issues.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree. The only point here peculiar to blogging is that the longer you blog, the more opinions on scholarly and pedagogical issues you’ve voiced. If you stick to normal academic publication, not only is conventional academic prose so heavily qualified that many journal articles have no opinion, but you will have fewer opinions in any event to your name.

  5. savitri says:

    Your point is very, very well taken. I only wish I had read it a month ago.

    I posted fairly frequently on the comment boards of a few blogs in my area of interest. I did use a “tag”, but did not realize that on some of the blogs my name was retrievable as a link behind the tag. I had used my own email address, which gives my full name. Stupid of me, I (now) know. I’m sure this will come back to haunt me when I go on the market in a few years’ time. Indeed, I have already received quite a bit of nasty email in my inbox. I am sure I should have expected it.

    There are probably many such cautionary tales. And it’s easy in these cases to say “but you should have known – it was obvious”. As we (some of us, anyway) become more familiar with blogging, I think it’ll be fair game to say that. And admonishments to young scholars to manage one’s identity and online presence may also, perhaps, be less patient and kind and thoughtful than yours. Perhaps rightly so.

    For the moment, though, I only want to add to your thoughts by pointing out that there are more places online than just in blogs themselves that can be searched, judged, and found wanting. Even when you are trying to learn, to think, and to converse, others may be appraising you and your words. That’s kind of a sad thought, to me: I’d believed that I could have instructive interactions without having to worry about such things.

    I guess I feel a bit burned, and maybe that has tainted my perspective, though.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s a very sad thought to me, as well.

    Look, one of the beefs I have with graduate school and academic training is that it fosters both by design and by accident a pervasive, panoptic sense of being observed. It’s a paranoid culture, and I think many (including me) enter it with no sense of that at all.

    One might protest that all workplaces have this paranoia. But academia has it both because of an aggressive use of confidentiality strictures but more because the stakes are so final in relation to the time investment. You sink six to eight years into training for a career which is all or nothing at all (usually). You get the great (or not so great) job and you can keep it if you get tenure, but if you don’t, unless you’re in a select number of fields, it’s back to Go and you don’t collect $200.00. If you lose your job in an ordinary office space (allusion deliberate), well, what the hell, there’s more where that came from and your skills are relatively mobile.

    So we’re already watching each other obsessively. Now comes blogging. Blogging looks like what a lot of people drawn to academia were dreaming of: intelligent conversation with passionate people who care about ideas, a chance to produce knowledge collectively while also preserving your individual insight, and so on. That it should be yanked back inside the stifling tent of paranoia by the Ivan Tribbles of the field feels cruel. All the more so when you realize, as you have, that this potentially includes email-identified comments on blogs, and so on.

    Academia is just itching for a Reformation. If some of us hesitate to tack our theses up on the door, it’s partly because we know that the Horowitzes of the world are just waiting to seize on reasonable statements about strong reform and twist them to seriously negative ends. But this is work that if you don’t do it on your own terms, it’s going to be done to you by others.

  7. savitri says:

    Thanks, TB, for a thoughtful response.

    What else makes me sad? I’ve wanted to post more in a spirit of inquiry than one of conviction – in part because I don’t always know what I think, and want to hash it out by tentatively posing an idea and looking for useful replies. Apparently that’s not the way you do it, though; there seems to be much more of an “argument as challenge”, riposte, and counter-riposte, type of blog posting behavior that is preferred.

    Do you find this structure to exist, and if so, does it work well, do you think?

    Maybe it’s not just the nature of academic work that’s involved here, but equally the nature of academic argument that creates a kind of avenue for some of us, but a roadblock for others. For instance, I always have preferred the inquiry mode; while in law school (eons ago) I found the challenge/argument mode much more rewarded. The world of a blog (and its comments) is pretty much determined by the preferences of its initiator/moderator, I would suppose. But in the subset of academic blogs, wouldn’t it make sense that the favored model would be the one preferenced by the discipline?

    For me, the problem is partly that this doesn’t (solely, at least) constitute “intelligent conversation”. Not if I’m treated dismissively, or even being accused of being a “troll”, when I try respectfully to listen, talk, but yes, sometimes disagree. That’s about as counterproductive as some of the slanging matches that occurred in first year con law. (And heaven knows, I wouldn’t want to go through that again!)

    I wanted to write something about how difficult all this is when there often aren’t the usual ways of establishing mutual trust and confidence in each others’ motives online. Blogging, even in academia, seems to entail a certain suspiciousness among some; and occasionally some openness (sadly, also sometimes ill-rewarded) among others. What gives rise to the difference? Why are even some of the most sympathetic writers – whose thoughts I can appreciate, and therefore whose scorn is so very hard to take – uncompromisingly closed-off with respect to people they don’t “know”?

    I’d welcome the chance to hear about your ideas for the Academic Reformation, if and when you ever feel up to it.

  8. savitri says:

    Gosh, I just realized how aggrieved I sound. I’m sorry! I’m not usually such a whinger, I swear!

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Not whinging at all!

    I know what you mean about the instinctive contrarianism or contentiousness of some bloggers. With academic bloggers, I think it has a lot of sources. Some of it is the general culture of blog-commentary: so many thoughtful blogs have nevertheless attracted lots of trolls in their comment sections, particularly the political ones. Once a blog-comments section gets a particular culture or feel, it tends to visit that on all new respondents. But peculiar to academics is also a sort of adversarial style that I think we’re trained to as graduate students–you know, where people sit around and rubbish a book. Maybe that’s faded some since I was in grad school, I dunno. Plus as you say there’s a certain amount of sniffing around people’s credentials, not just in blogging but in all sorts of academic contexts. You get a completely different reaction when you say the same something as an associate professor than you did as a graduate student, though that’s also discipline specific–you have to earn your chops all over again when you go off and work in a new disciplinary context, which I find unbearably tedious.

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