My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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“bloggers need not apply”: maintaining status quo in academia

In the questions, Ehud asked about the state of social software in the academy. It can probably be summed up as paranoia vs. panacea. Of course, this applies to social software with or without the academy involved. Research into how social software is being used is very raw, very new. It’s hard to give meaningful reports because, mostly, people are just experimenting, not researching. That said, it’s great to see the personal experimentation because it’s the first step to research.

All the same, social software paranoia is definitely hitting the press. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay entitled Bloggers Need Not Apply. Anonymously, a humanities professor from the Midwest discusses how blogs were received during the hiring process. I agree with him in parts, but i think that his argument fails.

The reason that your blog matters is because it is part of your “brand” and you get an online identity by writing to mailing lists, writing blogs, commenting on things, etc. And yes, it’s disturbing that we’re moving to a culture of individual brands but that’s always been true in academia. In academia, your brand is this aggregate of your eccentricities and expertise. I do think that you can soil your brand in any public or semi-public environment. This is why you put on a particular face during conferences, at dinner with like minds, etc. Certain institutions have more tolerance for eccentricities than others. My guess is that the Midwest humanities department has virtually none. But find me a prof at MIT that is not quirky as hell. In fact, i think that “normals” would be upsetting there. Academia does not have one consistent personality trait and potential faculty have to find an institution where they match, not just in terms of research, but in terms of personality and passions. In turn, quirky students seek out quirky places and quirky research happens at quirky places.

There is no doubt that all faculty searches include a Google search. Hell, i searched all applicants during mine, not just the narrowed candidates. One of the things i hear most frequently about our new hire is how disturbing it is that he doesn’t have a web presence. Something must be wrong, right? Everything that we could find about him online was accidental, not controlled. Abstracts from conferences, posts to academic Yahoo Groups, etc. You worry about people like this, particularly in the more technical realms.

I feel badly for the students at the authors’ university. Any institution that expects people to stifle their quirks is oppressive in many ways. Of course, it’s probably good that faculty find out that they could not get along with a person before they are brought on campus – saves both groups the headache. But i worry about institutions that point blank exclude anyone who doesn’t spend their lives trying to suppress quirks – institutional identities should emerge as the aggregate of the quirks, not the suppression of them. Homogeneity is not what students need and certainly not what knowledge production needs.

I do wonder how my blog will be received when i apply for faculty positions. Or how my tendency to dress up in bright colors, dread my hair and talk with my hands will be seen. But seriously, if i start wearing suits, remove all piercings and pretend not to know what Burning Man is, i might make it past a faculty hire, but would i ever make it past tenure? Of course a “fuck you, like me for who i am attitude” is not necessarily the most attractive thing either. And besides, i’m definitely past my most rebellious anti-establishment days. What it comes down to is that i have to believe that some of the meritocracy of academia is partially there, even if not entirely. I have to believe that if i do good work, my eccentricities will be less problematic, just as the stupid things that i said on Usenet in the early 90s are less visible in my digital performance thanks to my verbose tendencies.

But seriously, what’s the point of telling a bunch of potential academics that they need to be homogenous, unquirky and unlikely to rock the boat? I’d bet that “Ivan Tribble” is trying to protect current PhDs, but he’s also supporting the status quo. Herein lies the greatest tension to the future of academia – be proud of the quirks and fight or go for status quo to be tolerated.

Update: Some amazing folks have commented on this article and others need to read what they’ve said:

Definitely read other academics who think this is utter bullshit and are cranky with the Chronicle for printing such foolish paranoia.

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17 comments to “bloggers need not apply”: maintaining status quo in academia

  • Mel

    Bravo! An excellent and much needed post. Given your reputation and status, your opinion might help to counter some of the closemindedness/censoriousness of some faculty and HR types.

    I plan to cite your post in a follow up to a similar post I wrote a little while ago about the benefits of hiring a blogger. I actually *received* a teaching offer thanks to a talk I gave on blogging for a small college faculty. The head of a department approached me after to ask if I was interested in teaching. The offer was based, of course, on my professional experience in the area of the course but it was my knowledge and arguments about blogging that sealed the deal. I went in there and made the strongest possible case for blogging students, faculty and programs. The talk went over well and this resulted in the positive response to myself and my knowledge. But not every faculty has a president as open minded as the one I was speaking to.

    My recommendation is that those of us who are students, faculty or staff of organisations or institutions that have not embraced blogging should offer to do simple blogging 101 type talks – free of charge. The idea is not to “sell” them blogging but give them some background and possibly address some of the pros and cons – but from your experienced (as a blogger) POV.

  • Ehud

    My recommendation is that those of us who are students, faculty or staff of organisations or institutions that have not embraced blogging should offer to do simple blogging 101 type talks – free of charge.

    I agree. I actually gave one a couple of weeks ago…

    paranoia vs. panacea.

    Sure. But what about people and places that realize that both of these responses aren’t on point? Is anyone aware of best practices, case studies etc., that aren’t trivial (by trivial I mean anything that can be summarized as “let students create blogs” or “we use wikis” etc.)?

  • I also did a follow up of the article with more of a focus on business here: http://www.jordanrule.com/business/job-searching-with-a-blog

  • Great thoughts, as usual, love.

    I had troubles with the Chronicle article, and not just because I just posted a video of myself in a PowerRanger suit chasing four year olds.

    This is one is the kicker sentence of the piece for me:

    It would never occur to the committee to ask what a candidate thinks about certain people’s choice of fashion or body adornment, which countries we should invade, what should be done to drivers who refuse to get out of the passing lane, what constitutes a real man, or how the recovery process from one’s childhood traumas is going.

    Um, thanks?

    I wonder if the problem lies in the title for this piece. It’s called, “Bloggers Need Not Apply,” but as you rightly hint, it’s really intellectual freedom (with the should-be-old-by-now notion that the personal is political), rather than blogging, which is at issue, here.

    Understand this: committees aren’t doing anyone a favor by not asking these questions; they are simply obeying the law. Every hiring committee knows that asking certain question in a job interview will almost guarantee that some candidate will take legal action eventually.Anyone who has ever sat through an interview knows exactly why these laws exist: to protect candidates from undue duress during the application process, when they are at their most vulnerable.In short, and at least in theory: nobody should feel forced to give personal information in a job interview. The issues mentioned by the author are one of a million on an employer’s “don’t ask” list.

    But as some of us learned after the Clinton Administration’s handling of the military, not everyone does best in a climate of not asking and not telling. Here are at least four things I’ve been warned by others (but interestingly, never my employers) not to discuss in public until tenure:

    1. Sexuality and sexual politics

    2. Labor issues at the university

    3. U.S. sanctioned military activities

    4. Disability issues in general, and mental health issues in particular

    Now, according to Dr. Anonymous at MiddleGround U., I should add to these the following:

    1. Interest in technology beyond Microsoft Word

    2. Passing familiarity with anyone else on the internet who might overstate the scope or importance of my research

    3. Feelings about the passing lane.

    Contrary to the author’s position, I’m going to go out on a limb and argue it’s GOOD to be a potential job candidate and a blogger. The issue of brand that Danah addressed is one reason. Another is that some of us actually want to have a life with fewer, rather than more surprises after being hired. The author of the Chronicle piece says it straight out: blogs are easier to track and read than scholarly papers. When someone hires me, I assume they’ve done due diligence and are comfortable with someone for whom the personal, the political, and the pedagogical are of a piece. This means I can come into a place committed to working my butt off and not pull back for fear that I’ll be asked to leave once someone discovers the Real Me.

    Perhaps the writer of this Chronicle piece is right and perhaps there are some bloggers who really don’t understand how their blogs display them as political and social beings.

    Perhaps I’m being too harsh and all this writer is doing is reacting to the latest warm and happy gushing about blogs. Perhaps all she wants is to warn potential job applicants that writing in public carries risk. With that I would agree, but in the end, I still think it’s a risk worth taking. Every act of disclosure is an act of trust and carries the potential for betrayl, but it’s in those moments that life unfolds.

    Nobody dies thinking of the last chapter of their dissertation, but there is a strong chance that some of us will carry in our last moments of life a memory of a photo, a fragment or an interaction derived from some time spent online.

  • joe

    Doug thinks that the CHE article is a total fake (and a piece of shit at that).

  • Things You Wouldn’t Do In Publix*

    *When I was a wee little sprout in Unincorporated Northeast Dade County (I swear – that was where some of our mail was addressed to), it got confusing sometimes what was “Public” and what was the local grocery store “Publix“. …

  • This is so timely! I just expoused a bit on the total faliure of the modern education system to teach thinking and stop teaching rote repetition. It is a tragety that the problem of ‘don’t think so much’ is systemic and ingrained in the higher educational institution of the Midwest.
    http://como.typepad.com/community_mobilization/2005/07/education_value.html

  • Fake or no, the sentiment behind the article does exist, and I think it sheds light on why there are so few wowing you in academia. As you allude to with the whole branding concept, there’s this expectation that we keep the professional strictly separate from the personal and never the twain shall meet (until after tenure is secured). What kind of bum deal is that? Why wouldn’t we want our “personal” lives to inform our “professional” work? Should our work not relate to our lives (and if it doesn’t, what good is it?), and why the separation? All this line-drawing so that we don’t have to deal with each other’s quirks — but it’s precisely the quirks that are the interdisciplinary parts, where all the jewels lie. We hide them when we should be celebrating them.

    The academy can’t have it both ways — giving lip service to diversity of thought but enforcing homogeneity of role/affect/habit/disposition/demeanor both directly and tacitly. The role of “professional” itself inhibits creative thought. When do we make it to the point where we get to stop hiding the fact that we’re human, and where we can acknowledge that every single one of us has those embarassing moments of emotional outpouring/confusion/despair/etc.? Seems more elegant than pretending they don’t exist. It would be awfully convenient if everybody had a quiet little past where nothing happened, but nobody does, and thank god, otherwise modern thought would be even less interesting. We’re all really messy, and trying to hide that is a dishonesty.

  • Bloggers need not apply…interesting

    In the past 3 years the Chronicle of Higher Education has published 53 stories on blogs and blogging. Of those 53, I have been asked by other scholars for my take on only two of them – first there was the “Scholars Who Blog” article from 2003, and now…

  • Social Software Paranoia…bloggers need not apply

    I read this post the other day…been fighting a massive chest cold and simply did not have the energy to blog about it. A few days later I revisited the blog to find a long wonderful discussion about it. Simply put the hysteria against blogging and …

  • Mel

    “The role of “professional” itself inhibits creative thought. When do we make it to the point where we get to stop hiding the fact that we’re human”

    Beautifully put, Barb! I think we need to revolutionize the notion of the “professional”. Of course, as danah and Barb have both pointed out, there is a difference between a legitimate concern and censoriousness and/or discrimination.
    I can’t help but think of all the great novelists who have been appointed faculty titles at leading universities based on their literary works. Novelists whose personal lives, mental health issues, alcoholism, sexuality and politics are well known. This is tolerated, even celebrated, when it comes from artists. Even some very famous intellectuals like Michel Foucault, for example, whose taste for SM orgies didn’t appear to have gotten in the way of his career. Like those novelists, Foucault’s life was deeply connected to his theoretical objects.

    Seems to me that part of the issue here is power and authority. That one’s expression of the personal or the political (one and the same as they are) is only acceptable when it has been authorized by a publisher (whether it’s fiction, poetry, music or theory). Blogs are not an accepted form yet. I would argue that a famous blog or blogger can “get away” with more than an unknown or new blogger even if the nature of their blog posts is similar. Fame authorizes a voice, as does status, wealth or affiliation. To me, the issue is who is authorized to write about their life in their blog. Where does power (as determined through one’s economic, social or professional status/fame) come into play in terms of who is passed over/avoided or celebrated?

    It all reminds me of high school. Difference is a signifier of trouble until the popular kids adopt a style, attitude or way of talking. Blogs have “hit the mainstream” but they still have yet to be accepted in the larger process of cultural assimilation. It is my hope that if enough famous or authorized voices use blogs to talk about those subjects that are “off limits” it might, possibly, have a powerful effect on more inclusive discussion of unauthorized subjects in the professional and other spheres sexuality, politics, class, mental health, personal issues, etc. I think this is already happening, however slowly.

  • Mel

    Question:

    Have any “pro-blogging” universities or colleges created an online “blogging guidelines” document for faculty, students or staff?

  • Blogging paranoia – round three: academia

    First it was journalists vs. bloggers. They gave us their best shot, citing objectivity, credibility and quality as their witness.

  • Go Read This

    Can I say once again how much I love Bitch, Ph.D.? She has a truly wonderful post, that links to a journalism dust-up that should hit all of us close to home. Her post reflects on two pieces: one a…

  • Mel

    FYI – one of the greatest and most hysterical academic bloggers has just returned from a hiatus. She is the writer of the Chronicle article’s worst nightmare but I think she should have her own show, be a department head, run a school …

    I, Asshole has returned!
    http://iasshole.org/

    … and she’s still as raw and uppity as ever
    http://iasshole.org/oldass/fuckin/index.php

  • Pitching Outside the Strike Zone Part IV

    This post is the fourth part in a series and continues from here.
    A favorite pastime of both friends and family is career counseling with oso. It always starts with a emptyish complement: “you have such a natural talent for …” and th…

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