井底之蛙

7/9/2005

Should grad students blog?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:00 am

There was a rather nasty piece on academic blogging in the Chronicle. Comments at Bitch Ph.D. The basic thrust of it is that grad students should not have blogs because hiring committees will look at them and not hire you because of the awful things you will reveal about yourself.

First, I would suggest that whoever did not get hired by the department that the Chronicle author worked for was a very lucky person. That the committee spent so much time looking into blogs and rejecting people for really trivial reasons makes it look like a truly awful department. My take on this is a tad different than some, since I have been a tenured faculty member for a long time now (almost a month.) I have also never really been without a job. The very first time I went on an interview I was ushered into the antechamber of the Human Resources person. As I was waiting I heard two secretaries discussing me, and one asked the other if I was not, in fact, the person they had already decided to hire. She was told that that was the case, but that they still had to go through with the interview. A nice tension-breaker, and as a result, every interview I have ever been on I have been asking myself if I would be happier here than at the job I already have, rather than the more normal question of “How do I have to debase myself in order to get this job and keep eating.” I have also never had to worry too much about being stuck at a place that was unworthy of a scholar of my caliber, since my modesty about my abilities (or my modest abilities, take your pick) keep my out of the status game to some extent.

On the hiring committees I have been on I suppose I would have liked to have looked at blogs, since one of the questions I always asked was who this person was and how they would fit into what we do. This is not the dreaded “collegiality” question that K.C. Johnson talks about, or at least I don’t think it is. Our department, at least, takes teaching with some seriousness, and teaching the majors in particular is a group project, and people who don’t care about that are less attractive candidates. Of course people rarely say “I could care less about teaching” and never say they are bad at it. You have to guess at that from very little information, and anything you can learn about the person is interesting.

As a historian I am interested in people’s scholarly work in a different way than my colleagues in the sciences, since I am not going to collaborate with them directly. Like every other academic department, part of your success rubs off on us, so it would be good if you made a name in your field. Will you be a success in your field? That I can get, sort of from your letters and looking at your work. What I at least am more worried about is how you will fit into the intellectual life of the department. Are you an interesting person who will want to answer my questions about your field, ask me interesting questions about mine? Will you end up with a lot of undergrads who want to do an honors thesis with you? Will you do interesting topics classes? Did you come up with an interesting dissertation topic because your advisor handed it to you, or will you be able to do it again? Those things you get through conversation, and presumably, through reading someone’s blog.

Of course you may not be looking for a job at a place like this. Frankly, even if it’s Harvard or bust (and realistically it’s probably Boston College consumed with bitterness) I find it hard to imagine how having a blog would hurt you. People can be happy at places where the whole department lives in their little cubbyholes and the only shared intellectual life is figuring out how to unjam the copier. At a place like that I would assume that all they really care about is how much stuff you pump out, and your passion for mountain climbing or Shonen Knife is pretty much irrelevant. There are departments, like that of the Chronicle writer, where the faculty have trained their wills to the domination of others through years in the classroom, and look at junior faculty as a particularly tasty carcass to be dismembered, but do you really want that job?

Finally, in my opinion, talking about academic things, wherever you do it, is what we do, and if you don’t like doing it, you should find another line of work. Yes, you are sort of exposing yourself in a blog, and it is sort of an unequal relationship with a hiring committee, but that is how any hiring process works. You are trying to display things about yourself that will make people want to hire you. Being an academic is always sort of exposing yourself. You publish something and you are, to some extent, stuck with it. Say something in class and be assured that every major in the department will re-tell the story. The only way to avoid any danger is to never say anything worth repeating.

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