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Anonymity

The thing about power is that even when one has pretty good arguments, people who have power usually get to make the decisions, anyway. Drek points this morning to a decidedly negative commentary about job applicants who blog in The Chronicle of Higher Education. While I think the pseydonymous author of the commentary is sometimes unreasonable in his assessment of bloggers, he nonetheless has a lot of power that I lack, so I’m inclined to take the commentary seriously.

“Ivan Tribble” relates his experience with discovering the blogs of job applicants and finding them to reveal things he’d rather not know about the applicants: Blogs gave the impression that applicants were uninterested in academics, too opinionated, or perhaps even academically dishonest. In a job-seeking process where minimizing negatives is important, Tribble suggests that blogs open candidates up too much.

Tribble is sure to point out that his search committee was open to the possibility that blogs would be a positive way for applicants to “take their scholarly activity outside the classroom and the narrow audience of print publications into a new venue.” Later he notes “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.” Though his own experience was more of the latter, I’m surprised that he didn’t return to mention at all that the former really does exist and is not simply imaginary: There’s a large and active community of genuinely scholarly bloggers, and while I won’t presume to identify myself as any kind of bright light in that group, my own blogging has nonetheless facilitated plenty of academic and otherwise interesting conversations (both electronic and face-to-face) that I think have been positive for the work that I do. Based on a fairly limited experience with them, Tribble instead identifies blogs as a fundamental weakness:

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.

Well, sure, I guess that’s right, but there’s never been a guarantee against lapses of professional decorum. So maybe it’s simply a question of scope: As Tribble notes, a lapse of judgement has a (potentially) narrower audience when distributed in an email than when broadcast on a blog. So even though I think Tribble is needlessly judgemental about the mere existence of a blog, I think he also gets close to an important argument here: A blog might diminish a hiring committee’s confidence in an applicant.

But having lots of paper in the printer doesn’t make me any more likely to write embarrassing letters to the editor, and that’s why, first of all, content ought to matter more than the simple existence of a blog. In terms of content, Tribble still seems to put bloggers in a difficult box: He encountered the blogger who bares all—too much—on one hand, while on the other hand was the blogger who didn’t write enough about academics. Well, that’s a bind, isn’t it? Must one’s blog be either pseudonymous or limited strictly to one’s academic field? Look, this place has a fair amount of academic thinking to it, but if you were to just read the music category, you wouldn’t find much of it. To be fair to Tribble, certain kinds of impressions certainly matter to different degrees under different circumstances, and I’m not suggesting that bloggers aren’t responsible for the impressions they make—especially, as in some of the cases Tribble notes, when job applicants include a URL on their CV. But at the same time I would hope hiring committees could acknowledge that having interests outside of academics might not neccessarily be a mark against, or that writing less about one’s research on a blog doesn’t mean the blogger cares little about that research. When I’m writing up my own work, it tends to be in the places that I hope would matter more, like inside my drafts of dissertation chapters.

Second, Tribble’s negative experience with blogger-applicants really needs to be considered as an N of 1. This returns, I think, to the fact that the world of blogging is indeed a pretty large one, and persuasive arguments about what blogging means and what its consequences are (or ought to be) should be more than anecdotal. That is, after all, what I think all these courses in writing, argumentation, methods, and statistics have in part been about.

Ultimately, however, I have to come back to this whole power issue. I disagree with a fair bit of what Tribble writes, but he’s in exactly the kind of position that will soon matter to me quite a lot, so his commentary makes me think seriously about my own blogging. There’s very little around this place that I’d re-think or be tempted to self-censor, but maybe that’s because I have a different understanding of how the blog fits into who I am than a new (and highly critical) reader. So do I become more pseudonymous? Attempt to disappear entirely? Do more to show my best face? I don’t know.

So I’ll think about that for a while. In the meantime, summer seems to have arrived, and now that all the human residents of Schussman North have just about completed our dental work, we’re going on a short road trip that will have nothing whatsoever to do with gross pulpal debridement. We hope.

Home from vacation update (July 18): Brayden, as usual, has put together some good thoughts about this, including a quick roundup of other sentiments. I’m particularly sorry to see Peter discontinue his blog, though I do understand his ambivalance about blogging.