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 ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry.

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:

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.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry. Twitter: @dandrezner

Read More On Academia

More from Foreign Policy

The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.
The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.

America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose

Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.

The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy

The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.

Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.
Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.

Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now

In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.
U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.

Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet

As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.