jobs, blogs, and the weakest link
Several blogs offer thoughtful comments on a chronicle of higher education piece that discourages blogging among academic jobseekers. To paraphrase, "Ivan Tribble" maintains that blogs quickly reveal negative information about candidates that would otherwise never come to light. Sad, but probably true. The safest course of action is to avoid posting to blogs, to do so anonymously, or perhaps to craft a narrowly specialized blog that stays "on-topic" in one's area of expertise.
This caution seems to reflect what I call the "weakest link" problem: academics judge one another by the worst bit of writing or thinking in the entire oeuvre. A whole body of work can be overshadowed by a single weak link -- an ill-considered comment, a faulty interpretation, or even a mispronounced term (I think I'll mispronounce Weber at my next colloquium talk). Like Supreme Court nominees or presidential candidates, a lengthy public track record provides fodder for critics. I don't know whether this is especially true for sociology but I would imagine so, given research on hiring biases in disciplines lacking "objective" criteria to judge the scholarly value of research. So, we pounce on a weak link as clear evidence of a candidate's ignorance, inadequate training, or other fatal flaws. Economists (or James Coleman) might see this as naturally flowing from the dearth of comprehensive or pertinent information about candidates. Still, I like to think of myself as operating in the "ideas business." And it seems plausible to think that the specter of the weakest link might have a chilling effect on creativity.
Artists, of course, get considerably more slack. Iggy Pop once characterized an album (Soldier or Party, I think) as "one of my dogs" in an interview. If the Coen Brothers stumble a bit, say, fifty minutes into the Hudsucker Proxy, nobody forgets Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona and other early sucesses. Not so with academics. In discussing the vagaries of the review process, I've said that some of my articles were "unfairly accepted" but I never hear professors admit that any of their articles were "dogs" or "real clinkers."
Here's my favorite part of "Tribble's" article:
The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one's unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world?... 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 [emphasis added].
Worst of all? The sole judge? Oh no, not that! As I type this, the absence of a review process doesn't seem so terrible. In my scientific work, of course, I value reviewers' thoughtful comments. While waiting six months to get those reviews, however, I think wistfully back to writing late-night music reviews to be published the next morning. It can be revealing and fun to reflect on a topic in print. More practically, if I kept these reflections "private," I probably wouldn't bother to think about them or work through them at all (much less write them). Maybe that's good. Last week, a very busy and very smart grad student innocently asked me, "Do you waste much time on that blog?" How am I supposed to answer that one?
In any case, the Chronicle was really pointing to the danger of blogs for outsiders looking in. As a tenured insider, I'm more worried about writing something (even on a non-university site) that would reflect poorly on my students, my colleagues, my department, my university, or my discipline. That is, I'm not overly concerned about people thinking I'm immature or ill-informed, but I'll have to shut it down if Prof. Tribble so dislikes my reflections (or drummer jokes) that his department refuses to interview my busy and smart advisees.