Rethinking the Submit Button

Ivan Tribble on why weblogs are bad for an academic career. I fully expect that this will be the talk of the academic blogosphere for weeks (if not months) to come.

The article writer is correct of course, that tenure committees could potentially use these weblogs as reasons to dismiss a candidate. In the job search, it’s easy to use irrelevant data to sway a decision (most likely in the negative direction). One problem is that we overestimate the obscurity of our own weblogging. I just assume that people at my company don’t have the time to follow my writings. And to my boss T.B.—here’s a shoutout to you, you’re a great boss, and I’m hard at work on project XY. Really.

It’s also very easy to press the submit button without checking for typos or thinking twice about what you are saying. Yes, your opinion about something may seem interesting and relevant at the time, but two years later, that same opinion might seem absolutely incendiary. Incredibly, you may have even forgotten that you wrote something. In letter writing, this is particularly true. I have on occasion ranted or complained about things in letter only to be reminded about it several years later. Yikes–did I really write that? At the time, something may have seemed very important, but over time its importance may fade. Any longtime reader of this weblog would be familiar with my absolute repugnance for the Bush Administration’s approach to everything. I don’t address it directly because frankly, so many other webloggers are taking care of it for me. My perspective over time has changed from shock to outrage to reformist zeal to taking an almost perverse delight in the lunacies of Bush’s actions.

I’m sure a politically-correct individual could find one post carelessly tossed out and read into it too much significance without realizing that one’s intellectual positions evolve over time, that a weblogger rarely spends enough time going back over old posts to revise them. (In fact, quite a number of my posts turn into essays or articles, and I usually go over these essays quite a bit). Writing is often a matter of practice and habit, and sometimes sheer volume of writing improves it.

That said, webloggers need to be conscious of the public voice they are projecting; in the humanities and literature, that is particularly important. It is naive to think we write in a vacuum or that our opinions or indecorous remarks will go unnoticed (especially if they occur frequently). Academics in particular need to be mindful of this, not only from the standpoint of finding a job but from the standpoint of maintaining a civil discourse in the public sphere.

One danger of weblogging is to use it to laugh at the awful opinions or analysis of other people. For example, every day I come across several political opinions I just find offensive (or to put it more diplomatically, I find simplistic). It is easy for the sake of polemics to pick out one or two asinine weblog post of another and use it as a launching pad to vent one’s own ideas. Every day, I am tempted (and sometimes succumb) to write an informed response on a person’s weblog (if only for the dumb satisfaction of having exposed the blogger’s ignorance to the world). Sometimes, I start writing an angry persuasive response, and an hour later I think to myself, why did I do this? This person’s weblog didn’t deserve my scrutiny and frankly a lot of times the ideological weblogger remove comments they disagree with anyway, so what’s the point?

I have gone for long stretches of time without having comments enabled (long story) and I have to wonder how many times people have been exasperated with my own inanities and wanted to pull me down a notch or two (and honestly, I look forward to the time this weblog will have comments enabled again). In weblogging, there is always someone more knowledgeable or informed or eloquent about a certain issue who sometimes will stumble upon your remarks and find them absolutely infuriating.

There are several easy solutions to this problem. Pseudonyms work, although I would expect that in academia they would be particularly concerned about putting their real name out there. Private posts also work, although in general, the very reason you weblog is for the public exposure. Another solution is to have a single page that ranks high on the search engines containing links to 20 or so posts you are willing to stand behind (perhaps they can be reformatted or put into separate pages). I think search committees and hiring managers know the difference between writing you regard as “exemplary” and writing you did informally or just diurnal thoughts. Truthfully, if you’ve been weblogging as long as I have (I’ve been doing it for 5 years for more than 10 weblogs), I would frankly be astonished (and flattered) if anyone took the time to read a tenth of what I’ve written, even if it were only to determine that I was unhirable.

Another thought. Isn’t it about time for blogging to become an academic field or at least a type of intellectual space that academia incorporates (like debate or research or colloquia?). We have journalism teachers, creative writing teachers, communication teachers. Why not professors of Weblogging Studies?

Looking back, the thing about my weblogging that embarrasses me most is its long-windedness.