Friday, July 8, 2005

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Grad students: no blogs allowed

I've expressed trepidation in the past about whether graduate students or untenured faculty should start a blog.

An essay by "Ivan Tribble" (a pseudonym) in the Chonicle of Higher Education doesn't make me feel any more sanguine. The highlights:

What is it with job seekers who also write blogs? Our recent faculty search at Quaint Old College resulted in a number of bloggers among our semifinalists. Those candidates looked good enough on paper to merit a phone interview, after which they were still being seriously considered for an on-campus interview.

That's when the committee took a look at their online activity.

In some cases, a Google search of the candidate's name turned up his or her blog. Other candidates told us about their Web site, even making sure we had the URL so we wouldn't fail to find it. In one case, a candidate had mentioned it in the cover letter. We felt compelled to follow up in each of those instances, and it turned out to be every bit as eye-opening as a train wreck....

A candidate's blog is more accessible to the search committee than most forms of scholarly output. It can be hard to lay your hands on an obscure journal or book chapter, but the applicant's blog comes up on any computer. 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....

It would never occur to the committee to ask what a candidate thinks about 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. But since the applicant elaborated on many topics like those, we were all ears. And we were a little concerned. It's not our place to make the recommendation, but we agreed a little therapy (of the offline variety) might be in order....

Job seekers who are also bloggers may have a tough road ahead, if our committee's experience is any indication.

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....

[I]n truth, we did not disqualify any applicants based purely on their blogs. If the blog was a negative factor, it was one of many that killed a candidate's chances.

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.

How to respond? One fellow scholar-blogger puts it this way:

Shorter Chronicle of Higher Ed: blogging is dangerous because hiring committees are paranoid, conservative, and illogical. Even if you are not indiscreet on your blog, you could become so--but if you don't have a blog, you couldn't possibly start one and therefore never be indiscreet. Publishing pseudonymous articles about your search committee deliberations in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, though, is not indiscreet.

This point is made elsewhere in the blogosphere as well.

I was all set to defend the utility of academic blogging, but I see that Robert Farley was kind enough to do it for me -- literally:

I know that there is a difference between a Dan Drezner blog post and a Dan Drezner article in a major political science journal. So does Dan. He sometimes uses the one to complement the other, and sometimes talks about things that would never make it through a peer review process, often because they are too topical or too speculative. If a blogger regularly displayed contempt for co-workers, rage against employers, or demonstrable insanity, that would be one thing. But the [blogs discussed in Tribble's article] above doesn't have anything to do with any of those. It conveys a fear of a forum which bypasses traditional academia, whose practitioners need to be punished through intimidation and exclusion.

Traditional academic journals are wonderful institutions, because however much we may complain about them they DO keep out much of the dreck, they do enforce standards of scholarship and evidence, and they do play on important role in imposing a form of meritocracy on the academic world. Blogs play a much different role, one that is oriented around topical policy debates and a more intimate relationship with the non-academic world. The one does not threaten the other.

I'll close with two pieces of advice:

1) To "Ivan Tribble": Click here before you condemn blogging to the academic dustbin. But if you or your colleagues still truly believe your assertion that, "Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum," then here's my advice -- do not hire anyone ever again. As you say, "We've all... expressed that way-out-there opinion in a lecture we're giving, in cocktail party conversation, or in an e-mail message to a friend." Therefore, it doesn't matter whether potential future colleagues have a blog or not -- all it takes is five minutes to set one up. The only foolproof way to "guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum" online is to have no colleagues. Come to think of it, you should also ban any current colleagues from using any computer hooked up to the Internet -- it's the only way to preserve decorum.

2) To graduate students: I'd like to say that Ivan the Tribble is your classic piece of outlying data, but I can't. The default assumption you should make is that the academy has a lot of people who share the Tribble worldview of the blogosphere. I seriously doubt that any amount of reasoned discourse will alter this worldview. So think very, very, very carefully about the costs and benefits of blogging under one's own name.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum says something that had occurred to me as well:

what struck me was that Tribble's piece is actually more a cautionary tale for the rest of us than it is for prospective university professors. After all, universities at least claim to value creativity, free speech, and academic freedom — even if Tribble's essay confirms that they do this more in the breach than in the observance. But what about the rest of us?

A garden variety commercial enterprise doesn't even pretend to value these things, and if you think HR departments don't google prospective applicants, I suspect you're sorely mistaken. As a result, if you write a blog under your own name it might well spell trouble on a whole variety of levels. A liberal boss might not want to hire a conservative. A straitlaced boss might decide not to hire a lesbian. A prudish boss might not hire someone who brags regularly about their sexual conquests. And fair or not, any boss is likely to be at least slightly hesitant about hiring someone who has a habit of telling the world about every little detail of their personal life. Some of this discrimination might be legal and some might not, but it hardly matters. You'll never know it happened.

To be fair, however, there are short-run and long-run countertrends:

1) Business and organizations that value good writing might well be more likely to hire bloggers;

2) Firms that choose to bypass creative people who happen to blog will eventually suffer the economic consequences.

posted by Dan on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM


This is why my political blog is carefully anonymous, while the occasionally-updated blog under my own name is educational, discrete, and covers only issues relevant to my profession.

Even with that, Mr. Tribble's comments give me something to think about.

posted by: Opus on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

LOL, "do not hire anyone ever again." Yup, that about sums it up.

posted by: bitchphd on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

Increasingly, academia comes across as a stereotypical small town ruled by Mr and Mrs Pecksniff and their friends. Why would anyone want to spend time there?

posted by: David Foster on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

As a recently completed graduate student & a job-seeker, I plead guilty as charged.

One looking for academic or professional positions should not place anything on their blogs which they can not reasonably defend.

Outside of that one message I have to wholeheartedly agree with DD's #1 piece of advice completely.

One would think that any hiring committee would be interested in creative/honest people who are unafraid to lay it on the line for all to see.

I do believe jealousy may play a part as well. I am sure that Dan could post one article on his site and reach more people in one week than the collective lifetime works of others.

As always, IMHO.

posted by: George Adair on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

Everyone worried about this should add to their template some simple html that will prevent google and from saving their posts should they decide to delete the entire blog later. You can also ask to delete all references (realiability uncertain) or manually enter posts for deletion into google's archives. I wiped out the previous pseudonymous blog this way, and the new one has never been archived, so I can pull the plug and walk away at any time.

posted by: Dylan on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

David Foster wonders why anyone would want to
spend time in academia.

Well, if you are a far-left extremist you will
find many who openly share your political views
here. Not so in the "real world" of commerce.

From a programming/doing things perspective,
the problems and issues you get to resolve are
fascinating. Vastly more interesting than
re-writing the 1,305th version of "an important"
report for yet another operating entity.

posted by: Ted on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

This is why I wait with blogging until I have finished my PhD...

posted by: polsci grad on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

Erm, I wouldn't assume that such attitudes are restricted to academia. The corporate world is quite well acquainted with the desire to restrict it's employees public speech to what conforms with the companies image.

posted by: Factory on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

Are Blogs the natural evolution of the scholarly journal for the ADD generation?

posted by: Johnny Upton on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

I suspect this has to do far more with human nature. In many things, when we lack information, we assume the best. Don't know his political views: they're probably rational (i.e. my own). Don't know about his home life: probably reasonable (i.e. like my own), etc.

Essentially, any nonessential extra information that will inform someone's opinion of you is very likely to *decrease* their opinion of you, unless you're *completely* compatible.

It works like that in politics as well. Don't know a candidate's position about something: we assume that it's close to our own. A candidate who lays out his opinion about everything has lost points to the candidate who only speaks in generalities.

Of course, once you know someone well, differences are not such a black mark. But if you only have a short while, then you really want to limit the information to only what you know will go over well.

Of course, there's always the *chance* that you will click with an interviewer on something so that it exceeds their generic expectations, so if one likes to gamble, you can always expose oneself, but as a general rule, I'd avoid it.

posted by: Tom West on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

"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...."

As a non-academic academic, I find this bit of confession troubling. I thought we always assume the people we work with are not going to suddenly turn on us. This expressed fear seems entirely unreasonable, if not a little paranoid. As I see it, you could imagine even those people who are required by the terms of their employment to not have a blog, could still complain, perhaps even with justice.

It seems to me I've been compartmentalized in my life, a fact that has troubled me. And so, to encourage myself to take responsibility, I put my name on my posts and on my blog.

I thought you always suppose that the stuff you write, even in a letter, if ill tempered, thoughtless, or cruel, for example, might hurt someone. If not sooner then later. And I would have thought this caution would inform anyone's blogging.

The fact that you might discuss your personal problems would seem to be of no interest to a hiring commitee. If someone found a box of some candidate's love or hate letters, and brought them in because they contained juicy gossip, should we expect "Ivan Tribble" to factor them into the hiring evaluation? If they were, I'd say the department itself should get some offline counseling.

I wouldn't take this piece by Ivan as a good argument against blogging.

posted by: steven andresen on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

As a computer scientist, I especially appreciated Tribble's remark, "...we can't afford to have our new hire ditching us to hang out in computer science after a few weeks on the job." His department certainly sounds like one that asks for ditching.

posted by: Mike Stiber on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

i know this is somewhat off the subject, but did anyone notice that Jeffrey Sachs has a G* blog going. dan, you should post on this.

posted by: off the subject on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

What crap. He could have condensed it to a single sentence: "Given information of no predictive value regarding future behavior, we nonetheless reject candidates out of fear that, should the candidate behave inappropriately, we'll still be blamed." Academic freedom, indeed.

posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

But the bloggers here sound like Darwin award winners. It's nothing new to know not to blog under your own name where this could affect your job prospects. How did flakes like these make it so far in the selection process -- they were semi-finalists, selected over hundreds. I have more thoughts here.

posted by: John Bruce on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

I think I detect the usual academic snobbery from the old guard in the academy. It is obvious that many are reluctant to give up their "gate-keeper" roles although they are being steamrolled by the openess of bloggers.

If such scholars were more open, perhaps we wouldn't see reports such as this July 10, 2005 Associated Press article that says: "Allegations of misconduct by U.S. researchers reached record highs last year as the Department of Health and Human Services received 274 complaints — 50 percent higher than 2003 and the most since 1989 when the federal government established a program to deal with scientific misconduct."

The article by AP National Writer Martha Mendoza said, "Research suggests this is but a small fraction of all the incidents of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. In a survey published June 9 in the journal Nature, about 1.5 percent of 3,247 researchers who responded admitted to falsification or plagiarism. (One in three admitted to some type of professional misbehavior."

Those of us who blog, whether academic or otherwise, are subject to instant scrutiny and criticism. If you are a plagiarist, it will be immediately known. On the other hand, I can understand the reluctance of the gatekeepers,and those seeking their approval for entry into the academic fort, to allow themselves to be vetted based on what they shared with the world rather than only with their peers.

posted by: Munir Umrani on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

A simple question? What consequential problem has any blogging solved? It seems that the Very Vast majority of "blogging" are statements and positions in which commentors simply stage a forum slanted to suit their own positions and invite comments to support them. An opposing position will find hordes of mercenaries upon them to tear them to shreds. Is blogging a way to outshout others in writing? I have purused many sites, and most of it is just boring debate from people who are not in any position to make any difference about anything. Does George Bush care that blogging exists? Does he even know what it is? Does anyone in high public office care? This country isn't educated enpugh to understand the language or interested enough in the activity to care. They will still go to the polls and elect some dummy that the major political parties front; like the one that is now potentially the most dangerous singular man in the world. Carefull disect the last five years of this presidential administration. There are authoratative bloggers who are quite satisfied with all that has transpired under this person, who looks like a deer in headlights when he has to say something not previously written by someone else. I cannot believe he has any ideas of his own; that he is surrounded by equally inept and partisan people and the next three years will prove it to even the blindfolded and earplugged conservatives...although there will be no admissions. Blog all you want. Your debate is unheard by people who have the power to affect change.

posted by: Marcell on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

This is actually a far more interesting and subtle problem than "Ivan" implies. It's part of the question of how we consider a candidate's personal life in the application process. Of course, there are aspects of their personal lives (such as marital status) that are illegal to consider, but in the hiring committees I've been on it's has usually been considered unprofessional to consider a job candidate's personal life even as evidence of personality relevant to job performance.

But that attitude was probably based on an expectation that one's private life will remain private, or at least local. I would think that if a candidate had a national TV show or newspaper column, that would have been discussed, but, of course, it never came up. Now, as Dan indicates, anyone can put their views before the world in a matter of minutes. Does this make it more legitimate to discuss a candidate’s personal life? Are only the topics of an existing blog fair game (an existing blog indicates an existing interest in presenting one’s views on a subject to the world.)?

I think the best advice for grad students is to keep their professional and personal lives as separate as possible. Using different names (I just use different versions of my name) is probably a good practice. It would be nice if every hiring committee (and colleague) kept your professional, political, and personal life separate. But it’s tough to expect that if you mix them up on your web site or blog.

posted by: Bob_Rogers on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

I don't think we should take seriously the suggestion that across the board, the wouldbe job seeker would be wise not to blog. I'm a grad student at a small, unranked department in Nebraska. How am I supposed to network without my blog? It is my only contact with the outside world. I doubt that my situation is all that different from the vast majority of phil grad students. Maybe they shouldn't describe in juicy details their arrests or plots against members of their committees, but they have to do something to impress potential employers and it seems a well run blog is one way to do that.

posted by: Clayton on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

I saw this on Drum, and here's what I posted there:

I would posit that many people who are paid to know better haven't exactly thought through blogging. Online outline for original expression is great, but the blog ethos of "skim facts, form opinion, write blog post" is not necessarily compatible with academia. Nor is it the way that non-published writing has to be. But that's what the connotation of "blogging" is, so people just walk into that trap.

Put another way: 10 years ago in school, I would have loved just to be able to skim the webpages of all the professors to see what they were currently researching on a daily basis. But if they were posting in the Winer-winger blog fashion, it would have mostly been a waste of time

posted by: Jon Garfunkel on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

Thanks for the post. "The default assumption you should make is that the academy has a lot of people who share the Tribble worldview of the blogosphere."

I agree. I also have thought very carefully about this issue. In the end, I decided I'd rather take a stab at "full disclosure" and blog under my own name. I'll just have to see how things go...

posted by: Yvette on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

nyhan will blow this mold for polisci.

posted by: last laugh on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

Bob_Rogers - Good points. I wonder what exactly Tribble's search committee thought it was looking for when it started Googling candidates' names. I somewhat doubt it was strictly to explore their academic background, since that's usually available via vitaes, transcripts, and journal searches.

Ideally the search committee may want to stick to strictly academic guidelines and leave personality entirely out of it, but that's not how it works a lot of the time; one of the reasons for both the formal interviews and for more informal gatherings while a candidate is in town is to reassure the faculty that a prospective hire is someone with whom they'll feel comfortable. So, it seems like avoiding blogging is just trying to obscure one's real nature, at least until you get the job, which is a dishonest (if canny) way to go about things IMO. To be sure, exercising discretion over what one puts out for public consumption is good advice, but that's true generally, not just for academics.

Another thing: should there be a "statute of limitations" where anything a person says before age 18 or 21, or before they get their B.A., needs to be considered verboten for search committees? There's a lot of foolish stuff which people say while still growing up, but the Internet assures that a lot of that is being preserved in some form even years or decades later. It seems like there should be guidelines for what aspects of online activity should be considered 'valid' for consideration and which aren't. There's precedent for this in not considering things like marital status, sexual orientation, etc. in candidate selection.

posted by: tagryn on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

I tried, unsuccessfully, to trackback to this post. I have some thoughts about the subject here.

posted by: Nick on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

"Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.... "

Could that not be true of ANY situation, outside of bloggage even? I mean, what about the gung-ho grantgetter who (it turns out) has burnt himself out in grad school or postdoc, and never lifts a finger to do research once he has the job?

Or what about the person who, let's say, conducts serial affairs with students - wouldn't be a clue of that in the interview process (unless they happened to leer openly at several attractive undergrads coming down the hall)

What about the person who comes off as calm, meek, and well-mannered in interview but turns out to have major anger-management problems under the stress of an ordinary semester?

Sure, some of this could come out in the references, but it's not really that likely to - people cherry pick their references and choose people who reasonably will give them a good review.

I really think that that blanket statement above reveals Tribble's basic distrust of humanity - "Ohhh, everyone is strange and bad, how can we possibly find another paragon like myself for the department?"


I've served on several search committees, and based on the sheer volume of applicants, I was doing well to get through all the "official" application materials they sent - I'd have never thought to Google their name - not only would that have taken even more time, but frankly, would have felt like spying in their trashcan to see if they ate all their vegetables or if they lived off of McDonald's and Oreos...

posted by: ricki on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

I have been glad to see this topic attacked with energy in blog-dom. I've been a writer for over twenty years and a teacher that long (adjunct, economically challenged, productive). I've been blogging for about six weeks. I think that there is much potential creative benefit for bloggers. The judgments about candidates' blogs presented in the article sounded like rationalizations to weed out. Many people, shy or outspoken, are drawn to this medium. It is a valid way to communicate, to think out loud.

posted by: maria on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

My son is still a student and I have just decided to advise him not to blog unless he does it pseudonymously

posted by: John Ray on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

People applying for jobs are often googled. If you're in private industry, don't post left-wing opinions. If you're aiming at an academic position, don't post right-wing opinions. It may well be used against you in connection with that ridiculously vague notion of "collegiality". I don't know how often this happens, but I've seen it happen.

posted by: anon on 07.08.05 at 05:39 PM [permalink]

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