Cylons Are The New Tribbles

'I played Othello once.'

A few months ago, as some of you are aware, the Chronicle of Higher Education posted an essay by one “Ivan Tribble” warning academic job-seekers against the perils of blogging. The essay triggered considerable indignation from Blogtown, lots of discussion about the rewards and pitfalls of this new medium, a pseudo-retraction from the pseudonymous Tribble, and more Star Trek riffs and Tribble / trouble / tribulation puns than one would think the infrastructure of the internet capable of sustaining. [For my mom: What’s a Tribble?] My man Ralph Luker, who’s got more links than the PGA, provided a round-up of comments on Tribble from the history district of Blogtown. And as Exhibit A in the case for blogging on the job hunt, he offered yours truly! (Plus the brilliant Caleb McDaniel.) Thanks for the shout-out, Ralph. I actually have it both ways: I have a blog, but to please the Tribbles of the world, I never post on it.

I wasn’t going to say more about the Tribble troubles myself because a) all the other folks Ralph linked to have already done a fine job defending academic blogging, and b) every time you blog about blogging, a puppy dies. But I did take the time to answer Rebecca Goetz’ survey on blogging and the job hunt, and my answer got long enough that I thought I’d excerpt a bit of it here. […]

I started out by answering Rebecca’s questions: Did I include my blog’s URL on my CV and job hunt materials? (Yes, usually.) Did blogging come up in any interviews? (No, or at least very rarely.) Do I think blogging helped or hurt my job search? (Not strongly in either way.) Then I said a few things about the culture of fear that surrounds the job hunt:

The job market is scary and stressful and competitive, of that there is no doubt. But I also think there’s a culture of fear in grad school that goes far beyond what is necessary or healthy. At least there is at our particular grad school, and I doubt that Harvard is alone. That fear is often fed by well-meaning career advice workshops and Chronicle of Higher Ed. columns. … For some people recounting stories of job hunt disasters and pitfalls may be cathartic, but I can’t stand it. I never needed outside help coming up with things to worry about.

We cling to the illusion that we can control the job hunt process, but for the most part we can’t. All of us on the market will apply for dozens of jobs that we are more than qualified for—but so will all of our peers. And in all but a very few cases, our applications will be rejected for some largely arbitrary reason over which we have very little control. That reason could be some random comment we made in our weblog, or even the very fact that we blog. But it could just as easily be somebody’s prejudice about where we went to college, or something our advisor said to somebody once at a conference twelve years ago, or the mood somebody on the search committee happens to be in at the moment they pick our cover letter off of the stack. (I like Chris Williams’ comment over at Early Modern Notes: “It’s not as if conferences (with their face-to-face communication, bars, hotel rooms, etc) don’t already allow academics to make fools of themselves in academic and personal ways.”) You can agonize about foreseeing every single thing that might put a search committee off, or you can let go of the illusion of total control.

Finally, I came around to my one reservation about the defense of academic blogging. I am an academic who blogs (occasionally), but I’m not 100% sure I want my blog to be “academic.”

What does disturb me about the Tribble article … is the tenacity of the idea, sometimes spoken, often just internalized, that as an academic you are not entitled to have a life outside of work. You lose your right to be frivolous. You are not supposed to have hobbies, to let your hair down with your friends, to geek out about comic books or the ouevre of Joss Whedon, to get into flame wars, whatever. That tendency has to be fought.

I applaud efforts to investigate and explain how blogging can be useful to our research, teaching, and professional life, but I would hate for blogging to have to be useful. … The internet is changing scholarly publishing, I hope. It offers the possibility of rethinking and repairing a clunky model of distribution that really ought to work better. But if getting “credit” for my blogging in promotional and tenure reviews meant that I couldn’t also post stupid silliness on a LiveJournal, I don’t know if I would want that credit.

One thing I love about the internet as it relates to history and academia in general is that it is a place where professional academics and non-academics actually talk to one other. The rules are loosened a bit. There’s room to shoot from the hip, there’s room to be silly and room to be wrong. There’s a third space being born, or reborn, on the internet that is neither “home” nor “work.” I love this space. You can’t roam around in your underwear there, metaphorically speaking, but you don’t always have to wear a tie.

I want my blog to be a place where I can play with history. I can prattle on about Ben Franklin versus robots; I can construct alternate histories in which Don Cherry is the ruler of a fascist super-Canada; I can make obscure conceptual jokes about Hal Holbrook that nobody but me finds amusing. I would never do those things in a classroom or in a journal article, but they are absolutely part of my relationship with history. They’re how I have fun with it, and they’re part of what brought me into the field.

I think it’s unfair and unfortunate that such a lively and creative new hobby might interfere with the job hunt. But I hope the solution is not to make blogging more like a job. I’d like to think the solution is to always protect our right, when work is done, to play.

2 Comments

  1. Great post, Rob. I would contest your flattering remark about myself, but the rest of the post more than makes up for that momentary lapse of judgment.

    I’ve added a thought of my own at the end of this post. I think your two major points here are closely and causally related.

  2. (Replied here because Mode for Caleb doesn’t seem to take comments?)

    Thanks, Caleb. I think you are quite right in your post about the connection between the two. I might add: academia isn’t the only field which makes totalizing claims (good phrase) on its members. In the corporate and government worlds the fear of blogging probably has more to do with the possibility of airing dirty laundry or inappropriately appearing to speak for the institution. I have friends in those lines of work who have been called onto the carpet for online comments about their work place or their industry in general that seem incredibly innocuous to me as an academic.

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