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.

2 responses to “Should grad students blog?”

  1. K. M. Lawson says:

    I hope you are right Alan, indeed I’m counting on it since I’m already, “in too deep” as any google search on me will attest to. In the long term, I don’t think it will matter since it will be very hard to remain “unexposed” – and those who do, may come to be viewed with suspicion (“What is she hiding from us?”). On the other hand, I worry that there is a transitional period when hiring committees and scholars who read our material and discussions on the web will not appreciate the fact that our fragments of discourse online cannot stand for “who we are” or “what we know” for all time. Those of us who frequently participate in email lists or web discussions, etc. can attest to the fact that we can now very easily watch our own ideas, knowledge, and positions change over time – indeed our very ways of framing discussions and strategies for approaching issues all change over time. This is certainly not new with the net but we no longer need historians to dig up and compare every diary entry written, letter sent, and book published. Instead, we have a growing collection of easily compilated materials available online for immediate scrutiny.

    While I’m completely comfortable with the fact that both the content of my ideas and their presentation will change over time and differ depending on the audience or time available, in this transitional period, we are particularly vulnerable to all sorts of criticism that will one day hopefully seem comical. This is unfortunately preventing a lot of really intelligent and interesting people from contributing to discussions online because, even though they know a great deal and have much to contribute, they worry about contributing anything that is less than solidly researched and completely thought out.

    I believe that we must overcome this reservation and admit that there are is in fact a full spectrum of acceptable formats which represent different levels of development, detail, or diligence. Not every idea or argument we utter needs to have the full weight of a sabbatical year of research behidn it. Many of the most powerful and useful ideas first make their way into “the open” in very “half baked” forms, and I believe the academic world must evolve to accomidate more of them (or at least promote and permit us to venture out freely to share them). The resistance to this is, I believe, a consequence of the “crap on the internet” argument. It goes something like this,

    “1) We scholars are sick and tired of our students citing materials from the internet or using it for their research because there is so much crap there.
    2) Because we need to defend the (ivory?) walls (of Vienna?) against the barbarian hordes unleashing this crap on the internet, we should continue to produce only very high quality and deeply researched materials for publication in reputable and refereed journals or published monographs. That way there will always be a place to turn to for authentic scholarship and reputable debate.
    3) Contributing to the internet discussions in informal environments not only means that we are “lowering ourselves” to conducting discourse with the ignorant masses online but a) we are wasting valuable time which is better spent plowing through another obscure archive document to round out that paper for publication b) we are potentially producing less than high quality work by posting blog articles etc. that have far less time and effort contributed to them than we should expect from scholars. Do you really think you have more than 2 interesting things to say per month that you can sufficiently argue and research?”

    I will leave it to other commenters or the reader to find the glaring problems with this sort of argument. However, it might be worth adding that the kind of thing that we are now doing on our blogs and a place like Frog in a Well is not so different than what we do in our own seminar discussions, in the debates that follow academic presentations, in the lounges of univeristy history departments, in the coffee shops and libraries where we study. I for one, always feel a bit uncomfortable with the fact that there is a whole world out there of interested individuals who might benefit from these discussions and, god forbid, might have something to contribute. I can’t help feeling like we are complicit in shutting the door on them, or in building the wall for entry too high. I am not ashamed of the things I say in these more confined settings, nor do I find it at all problematic that I am later discovered to have made proposterous arguments that turn out to be hogwash. That some of these failed attempts are now often on record is unnerving but not necessarily a negative development. If anything, I think that my increased participation in these online discussions will increase the quality of the whole of my history related discourse with friends, future students, and others I happen to subject to some of my ideas. My arguments will be refined, perhaps a bit of my cynicism will be blunted, and I will hopefully gain a greater appreciation for the range of responses there might be to any given way I might approach a historical question.

  2. Kate Merkel-Hess says:

    Trawling old posts here and, I must say, the Shonen Knife reference will send me rustling through my dusty box of melting cassette tapes.

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