16 July 2005

Tribble’s Drivel, or, Why Universities Should WANT to Hire Bloggers

There’s been a lot of chatter in the academic blogosphere lately about the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble’s recent Chronicle column “Bloggers need not apply.”

I would have posted sooner on this topic, but alas, I have been unpacking and cleaning almost non-stop. But in any case, response has been overwhelmingly negative—probably because a group of people who tend to like blogging aren’t going to react well to someone who nastily skewered a group of blogging job candidates whose applications he reviewed. What Tribble seems incapable of understanding is that bloggers are interesting and interested folks whose blogs contribute to their efforts to become better scholars, better teachers, and better colleagues.

Bloggers, according to Tribble, put too much of themselves out there for consumption and scare away potential employers. They have thoughts and opinions that they share. This scares Tribble, who claimed that “[s]everal 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 not guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.” Uh huh. I suppose when Gutenberg first invented the printing press academic departments around Europe immediately feared potential colleagues who wanted to make use of the device, not to circulate ideas, but to...gossip about other academics.

The overall impression I got from reading Tribble’s drivel is that job candidates should be very, very afraid of seeming at all different from the herd at all stages of the job-seeking process. Those that have already have jobs wield power over those who don’t by spreading fear—hence Tribble’s subtitle: “Job seekers need to eliminate as many negatives as possible.” After reading Tribble’s column the only conclusion I could come to is that those “negatives” include anything that remotely resembles an interest outside of one’s dissertation. Even though Tribble practices a profession that supposedly espouses academic freedom, intellectual curiosity, and creative inquiry, it seems to me that he wishes to beat all these admirable qualities out of job candidates. The Tribbles of the world wish their future colleagues to be bland, boring clones who respond predictably to every question and ask predictable questions of their own.

Tribble’s nicknames for the job candidates he discusses—“Professor Turbo Geek, Professor Shrill, and Professor Bagged Cat”—were tasteless and needlessly cruel. Turbo Geek’s only sin was to have a blog that expressed an interest and expertise in technology that was separate, oh shock and horror, from his academic interests. Good grief. Job seekers, according to Tribble, regardless of whether or not they are bloggers, should be quiet and completely predictable so that they may break into the same hallowed halls he treads daily. (As an aside to the Chronicle: having pseudonymous columns can allow forthright discussion of problems in higher education—from the vagaries of the job market to the struggles of adjunct faculty. But it should never, ever be used to poke fun at people, even anonymously. This Tribble column was beyond the pale in that respect and the Chronicle editors should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this to pass muster.)

Sadly, Tribble’s words of unwisdom for those who must brave the job market are not new. Well over a year ago Invisible Adjunct carried a thread about one (again, anonymous) MLA interviewer who commented, threateningly, on the fact that she googles job candidates regularly. I responded to that here, suggesting that googling is a two-way street. Interviewees can google just as effectively, learning things about departments and their members that can be useful. The web, far from being something to fear in the job process, is an asset to information-seekers on both sides of the interview table.

But mostly, it is a shame that Tribble and his colleagues could not see the advantages of having a blogging colleague. In his fear, Tribble both misunderstands what a blog is and what it can be.

According to Tribble, one can “imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum” although he apparently hasn’t read any blogs that fit this bill. For him, them, blogs are either a“ diary or confessional booth” or “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.”

We’ll deal with the diary allegation first. Blogs, by their very nature, resemble diaries, with their separate, dated entries. And bloggers, both the pseudonymous and the clearly identified, sometimes post the details of their days, in a diary fashion. We learn, therefore, about New Kid’s writing schedule or Cranky Professor’s recent illness. We also learn, in sometimes daily installments, about Another Damned Medievalist’s ongoing job search. I suppose Tribble’s reaction to this would be: it’s bad to publicize how you write, a committee might not like it, who cares if the Cranky Professor has been ill, and ADM, my goodness, if you’re on the market, DON'T SAY ANYTHING about it. My reaction to these entries: Go New Kid! Go! Develop that writing addiction! Cranky Professor, I hope you feel better soon. And good luck, ADM, I hope a Tribble-less job committee sees your stellar qualities.

Blogging the ins and outs of one’s daily life in academia is no transgression. Indeed, the decision to make daily life public has deep historical roots. The idea of the diary as a private document is largely a twentieth-century notion; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries diaries were documents written for public or at least for familial consumption. Blogging encourages a new form of professional and personal self-reflection, with myriad benefits for both the blogger and her colleagues, all of whom face the daily joys and vexations of the scholarly life. Perhaps our blogging diarists could be said to be reviving an old tradition of thoughtful communication about daily life—to the benefit of those who write and those who read

Now, to Tribble’s lament that blogs are not peer-reviewed and therefore illegitimate. This just proves that Tribble does not understand blogs or the blogosphere. While it is true that the author of a blog decides what she publishes on her blog, she does not blog in a vacuum. Other bloggers can (and do!) react to faulty logic or misinformation. Bloggers also write about research problems, research strategies, interpretive issues, writing difficulties (and triumphs!), teaching strategies, and the list goes on and on. I particularly enjoy reading Culture Cat, a rhetoric grad student who muses about how to (and how not to) teach writing (among other things). I bring my own research issues to my blog on occasion; I wrote a few weeks ago about a dilemma I was having about counting godparents in wills. I received emails from several people recounting their own counting experiences and offering helpful suggestions.

Moreover, this particular post was recognized on a History Carnival. I don’t think Tribble has ever encountered Carnivals, either of the History variety or other disciplines. I mention Carnivals because these are the fortnightly “journals” of the blogosphere. History Carnivals are open to all times and places and many methodologies. While bloggers can nominate their posts for inclusion, the dedicated hosts also strike out on their own to find appropriate posts. (I did not nominate To Count or Not to Count.) In short, academic bloggers who write about research and teaching are thinking very seriously about their vocation and they are engaging with their colleagues about how to do it right. Blogging provides a new forum for thoughtful scholarly exchange on works-in-progress without the stringent requirements of print journals. Historians who blog and carnival can perform thought experiments and try out ideas quickly without going through the conventional publications or conference process. They can also comment on areas outside their expertise or current research. In short, blogging makes historians’ work better. Professor Tribble, what’s not to like about that?

In this sense, having a blog also encourages writing. All the writing advice books say dissertators are supposed to write something everyday. Bloggers who write substantial posts several days a week are honing their writing skills as well as accomplishing that task that so many scholars have trouble with—generating text. I wonder, if one did a study, if bloggers would be statistically more likely give conference papers and publish articles than non-bloggers? They do, after all, write quite a bit.

I’m willing to bet that bloggers are more tech-savvy than their non-blogging counterparts. They are comfortable with technology in the classroom—both its virtues and its limits. While Professor Tribble thought this was a weakness in Professor Turbo Geek’s file, I’ll bet that Turbo Geek would have been able to find creative ways to teach an increasingly computer literate and computer-dependent student body. He might have even found a way to use blogging in the classroom. It’s too bad that Tribble couldn’t see those advantages either.

In short, far from being the delusional egomaniacs Tribble wants them to be, blogging job seekers are thoughtful, interesting people who are fascinating by the possibilities this new medium has for enhancing their personal and professional lives. They are engaged colleagues who are part of a large collection of cyberscholars who share ideas and appreciate the joys and difficulties of teaching. My advice to job committees: do not fear the blog; embrace the blog. You’ll be very glad you did.


At Wednesday, July 27, 2005 2:11:00 PM, Blogger Another Damned Medievalist said...

This is a really nice post, Rebecca! One of the things I really like about blogs is that they can switch emphases. But even with the job search chronicle, part of it was definitely the networking and getting advice from other faculty. What I found interesting was that junior faculty were more likely to push for the more prestigious job, while senior colleagues pushed for the longer road. But I would never have had the connections without the blog!

I'm also glad you brought in the carnivals, because it's such a great example, yet I can't remember any of the rest of us bringing them into the conversation.

At Thursday, July 28, 2005 9:31:00 AM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Thanks for reading the post ADM! I was beginning to think nobody noticed it...of course, I was late with it, and by the time I posted most of the Tribble-induced angst had passed...

At Saturday, September 24, 2005 5:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what bothered me most about Tribble's comments (and am I the only one who finds it ironic that he doesn't have to own up to his own words, as he suggests bloggers must, given his use of a pseudonym?) is that he seems to miss the point that academic job seekers are, and should be, human beings with outside interests. In Tribble's logic, I could easily see hobbies, families, politcal activism, or many other hallmarks of functioning human beings becoming a hiring liability. This is repulsive to me because I see it as a throwback- this concept of intimidating people (who aren't even that different) into social conformity by threatening to blacklist them for certain behaviors. And I think most of what Tribble said would be in fact very illegal if one were to base hiring choices on it. Of course, this is why he's added the half-hearted provisos that the candidates weren't worthy in other respects, to make it seem like he wasn't clearly biased by the personal information he learned in their blogs when it came to making the hiring decision.


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