Academic job-seeking and weblogs

3 minute read

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running this pseudonymous column discussing the perception of blogs by academic hiring committees. It includes some important cautions:

A candidate's blog is more accessible to the search committee than most forms of scholarly output. It can be hard to lay your hands on an obscure journal or book chapter, but the applicant's blog comes up on any computer. Several members of our search committee found the sheer volume of blog entries daunting enough to quit after reading a few. Others persisted into what turned out, in some cases, to be the dank, dark depths of the blogger's tormented soul; in other cases, the far limits of techno-geekdom; and in one case, a cat better off left in the bag.
The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one's unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? It's not hard to imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum. But it's also not hard to find examples of the worst kinds of uses.

The column has an interesting point of view -- one that may be typical of many senior faculty -- in that it significantly underrepresents the diversity of the blogosphere. It unfailingly describes blogs as full of personal rants, unprofessional smears, and irrelevant tripe. Reading this, you would have to conclude that anyone who bothered writing regularly online is either a narcissist or a closet jerk:

We all have quirks. In a traditional interview process, we try our best to stifle them, or keep them below the threshold of annoyance and distraction. The search committee is composed of humans, who know that the applicants are humans, too, who have those things to hide. It's in your interest, as an applicant, for them to stay hidden, not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read. If you stick your foot in your mouth during an interview, no one will interrupt to prevent you from doing further damage. So why risk doing it many times over by blabbing away in a blog?

But of course, the same thing could be said of any kind of accessible writing. After all, what motivated this author to write a pseudonymous column for the Chronicle?

The article has an important message, though. If you are pursuing an academic career, and you are interested in writing online, then you can't assume that the two will be symbiotic. Clearly you can enhance your prospects with a good blog -- one that is very carefully written, that retains a serious professional perspective, and that gives credit to others where it is due.

But your effort must be both highly consistent and integrated into your academic mission. There are a lot of irrational attitudes out there about blogging right now, many of them widely represented in the academy. In the column, one candidate fares poorly because of what someone else wrote about them in a blog, while committee members voiced concerns that any blog, no matter how professionally written, might be used as a forum to "air dirty laundry." In any academic committee, there is a fair bit of projecting one's own concerns onto others. If you are writing things you wouldn't want a hiring committee to read, you'd better be using a pseudonym, too.

As for myself, I want to thank my readers. The weblog now averages 600 unique readers a day, who view 2400 pages, and download 82 megabytes of files. In June, the weblog was read in 74 different countries. This means that every day I reach more people than will likely ever read any one of my academic papers, regardless of whether they have a university library or subscription to academic journals. A weblog is communication, pure and simple, and that is what academia is about.