Best Of Debated Disliked

Tribbles Need Not Apply

Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education had a wonderfully misguided article entitled “Bloggers Need Not Apply“. Written by a “humanities professor at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest” writing under the pseudonym “Ivan Tribble”, the article details how his college’s recent faculty search ended up disqualifying a lot of candidates largely because they were bloggers.

An article this misguided is not the sort of thing I’d expect out of the Chronicle. It illustrates the wrong line of thinking about blogs, the wrong line of thinking about interviewing candidates, and the wrong line of intersecting the two. This is worth picking apart. (Please click through for a full dissection.)

What is it with job seekers who also write blogs?

Starting an article with “What is it with ____” sounds like there should be a Seinfeld-style punchline. But there isn’t, and the author instead merely comes off as a jerk. What a question – what is it with the over twelve million people who not only have a blog but also want to work? How dare they!

Our recent faculty search at Quaint Old College resulted in a number of bloggers among our semifinalists. Those candidates looked good enough on paper to merit a phone interview, after which they were still being seriously considered for an on-campus interview.
That’s when the committee took a look at their online activity.

This is made to sound like some giant revelation, that doing a background check online is somehow not a standard thing. You traditionally check references and employment history when interviewing someone; some employers do credit checks or full investigations. Why does online background checking get treated as being as foreign?

In some cases, a Google search of the candidate’s name turned up his or her blog. Other candidates told us about their Web site, even making sure we had the URL so we wouldn’t fail to find it. In one case, a candidate had mentioned it in the cover letter. We felt compelled to follow up in each of those instances, and it turned out to be every bit as eye-opening as a train wreck.

Shame on these people for not trying to totally hide who they are. Don’t they know that being deceptive is the only way to get a job in academia?

Don’t get me wrong: Our initial thoughts about blogs were, if anything, positive. It was easy to imagine creative academics carrying their scholarly activity outside the classroom and the narrow audience of print publications into a new venue, one more widely available to the public and a tech-savvy student audience.

Many do. Why bother imagining? Werner Vogels had a lovely blog called All Things Distributed at Cornell. Apple has a healthy handful of professor-run blogs at the Apple Digital Campus Exchange. There are undoubtedly plenty more around the world.

We wanted to hire somebody in our stack of finalists, so we gave the same — or more — benefit of the doubt to the bloggers as to the others in the pool.

Since when does interviewing entail giving people the benefit of the doubt? You evaluate all candidates to the fullest of your ability, and you pick the one that best fits your needs. You don’t randomly hand out points for external factors – merely having a blog shouldn’t affect you positively or negatively, the same way being a minority, a graduate of a certain school, or a homosexual shouldn’t.

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.

This paragraph baffles me terribly; it can be hard to find a book chapter written by a candidate, so they don’t bother with it. Instead, trudging through a candidate’s entire blog is somehow worthwhile. This is a double standard: someone published in a book is trustworthy and doesn’t need to be read, but someone with a blog requires much more careful vetting.

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 purpose of broadcasting one’s unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? For many, that is the purpose.
Again, we must “imagine” uses that Mr. Tribble considers “legitimate” or “constructive”, but he can readily find examples of the “worst kinds” of uses. (The cases listed below hardly qualify as the worst blogging has to offer, but we’ll cross that bridge soon.)

A blog easily becomes a therapeutic outlet, a place to vent petty gripes and frustrations stemming from congested traffic, rude sales clerks, or unpleasant national news. It becomes an open diary or confessional booth, where inward thoughts are publicly aired.

A blog easily becomes anything you want it to; it need not be limited to the petty or the inward.

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. After wrapping up a juicy rant at 3 a.m., it only takes a few clicks to put it into global circulation.

Ah, the accountability argument – the traditional academic view that an editor and a review board are the only thing that make your voice poignant. I have news for those people that are interviewing bloggers: this lack of vetting is a positive for you in your interview process. How? Consider the two endpoints: a “bad” blogger and a “good” blogger.

A bad blogger will make these 3 AM diatribes against rude sales clerks, post inflammatory materials only to change them later to claim he never said anything bad, and so on. By being able to see this, you are seeing the truth about the candidate: they may be unstable or poor tempered. You will know in advance that this candidate could become a liability. If you can cut such a candidate out of your process, the blog is a net gain for you and your search.

Your good blogger will make well-written arguments that don’t need an editor. They will note corrections and encourage debate, link to opposing view points and criticisms, and do all those wonderful things a proper academic should do. Not only will you know they can do this, you know they can do it on their own – their work is of high and reliable quality. You can now be even more certain about the candidate and their ability to fill your role.

On an aside, there’s something amusing about an anonymous author talking about accountability. Many bloggers – particularly those that are advertising their blogs to you in their interview materials – have the decency to stand behind what they write. I wish I could say the same about the author of this article.

We’ve all done it — expressed that way-out-there opinion in a lecture we’re giving, in cocktail party conversation, or in an e-mail message to a friend. There is a slight risk that the opinion might find its way to the wrong person’s attention and embarrass us. Words said and e-mail messages sent cannot be retracted, but usually have a limited range. When placed on prominent display in a blog, however, all bets are off.

Email has limited range? Perhaps Mr. Tribble didn’t hear about The Cornell Four, where in 1995 four students sent an email to their friends entitled “75 Reasons Why Women Shouldn’t Have Freedom Of Speech”. It quickly criss-crossed the country, generating a national academic fervor and leading to the students nearly being disciplined on sexual harassment charges.

Words have a limited range? The last ten years in academia have been littered with professors forced to resign over comments they’ve made in lectures.

As Anil Dash gracefully pointed out not long ago, no one has ever been fired for blogging. People have been fired for saying things on their blog that would’ve gotten them fired regardless of the distribution channel – but this is quite different than being fired strictly for blogging. So why must we act like blogging your dirty laundry is somehow different than “words said and email messages sent”?

So, to the job seekers.
Professor Turbo Geek’s blog had a presumptuous title that was easy to overlook, as we see plenty of cyberbravado these days in the online aliases and e-mail addresses of students and colleagues.
But the site quickly revealed that the true passion of said blogger’s life was not academe at all, but the minutiae of software systems, server hardware, and other tech exotica. It’s one thing to be proficient in Microsoft Office applications or HTML, but we can’t afford to have our new hire ditching us to hang out in computer science after a few weeks on the job.

This literally disgusts me. If a candidate for a professor of finance mentions offhandedly that he likes to garden on the weekend, will he be turned down due to a fear of him hanging out with the Horticulture department after a month on the job?

Is it reasonable to expect a candidate to have no interests outside of the job at hand? The answer, quite simply, is no.

Professor Shrill ran a strictly personal blog, which, to the author’s credit, scrupulously avoided comment about the writer’s current job, coworkers, or place of employment. But it’s best for job seekers to leave their personal lives mostly out of the interview process.
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. But since the applicant elaborated on many topics like those, we were all ears. And we were a little concerned. It’s not our place to make the recommendation, but we agreed a little therapy (of the offline variety) might be in order.

I read this, and I hear Ron Burgundy in my head repeatedly asserting that we are laughing. Watch as we tick off all the things we found hilarious about this poor candidates blog! It’s hilarious to be joking about his therapy, don’t you agree?

If this is something the committee didn’t feel was something they would ask about normally, why did they feel compelled to read it all? When you hire someone, do you expect to never talk to them about things going on outside of work? Will you never hear the anecdote about the time that driver refused to get out of the passing lane unless this person has a blog? (My friends can readily attest that I frequently repeat stories posted on my blog, only to be stopped short with “Yeah, I read your post”.)

Finally we come to Professor Bagged Cat. He was among the finalists we brought to campus for an interview, which he royally bombed, so we were leaning against him anyway. But we were irritated to find out, late in the process, that he had misrepresented his research, ostensibly to make it seem more relevant to a hot issue in the news lately. For privacy reasons, I’m not going to go into the details, but we were dismayed to find a blog that made clear that the candidate’s research was not as independent or relevant as he had made it seem.
We felt deceived by his overstatement of his academic expertise. In this case, it was not the candidate’s own blog, but that of a boasting friend, that revealed the truth. The lesson? Be careful what you let a close associate’s blog say about you. What that associate sees as complimentary may cast you in an unflattering light in the eyes of a search committee.
Job seekers who are also bloggers may have a tough road ahead, if our committee’s experience is any indication.

I can’t imagine that any blogger would particularly want to work for or with the kinds of people who believe that having a web presence is a negative. Maybe this is a net gain.

You may think your blog is a harmless outlet. You may use the faulty logic of the blogger, “Oh, no one will see it anyway.” Don’t count on it. Even if you take your blog offline while job applications are active, Google and other search engines store cached data of their prior contents. So that cranky rant might still turn up.

“The faulty logic of the blogger” implies that we are of one mind or one consciousness, sharing one collective set of rules and ideals. (Ironic use of the word “we” very much intended.) A small handful of bloggers certainly do believe that no one will ever find their blog – and they are routinely proven wrong and learn their lesson.

The overwhelming majority of bloggers stand next to what they write – I certainly do. It’s why you see my name on each and every page, next to each and every post.

The content of the blog may be less worrisome than the fact of the blog itself. Several committee members expressed concern that a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.

Discrimination knows no bounds. Imagine the possibilities for this paragraph in the hands of the wrong people:

“The thoughts of the woman may be less worrisome than the fact that the candidate was a women herself. Several committee members expressed concern that a woman who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) loudly on her cellphone in a public place for the world to hear. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.”

“The thoughts of the candidate may be less worrisome than the fact that the candidate was a black man. Several committee members expressed concern that an African-American who joined our staff might…”

I don’t need to go on, do I?

A colleague from a different university provides this cautionary tale: After graduation, a student goes to the far side of the world to teach English. Student sends delightful travelogue home via e-mail messages, and recipients encourage student to record rare experiences in a blog. A year passes and the blog turns into a detailed personal gripe session about the job, students, coworkers, and place of employment. It is discovered and devoured by students, coworkers, and place of employment. Shamed student turns for support to alma-mater faculty members, who read the blog and chastise student for lack of professionalism and for tainting alma mater’s reputation. Student now seeks other job — without letters of recommendation from current employer or alma mater.

If the student was that disillusioned with the job, the students, the coworkers, and the place of employment, why would he be looking for a recommendation? The only reason I can think of is that he’s a straw man, deliberately set up as a blogger who turns his “good” blog into a “bad” one, much to the chagrin of his readers, who can then handily knock him down and prove the point of the author.

This is not a cautionary tale, this is a fable – the sort of thing parents tell their kids at night to scare them into not making a face lest it freeze that way.

Not every case is so consequential. And in truth, we did not disqualify any applicants based purely on their blogs. If the blog was a negative factor, it was one of many that killed a candidate’s chances.

So in truth, this article is basically a waste? The large discriminatory headline of “BLOGGERS NEED NOT APPLY” is actually irrelevant?

More often that not, however, the blog was a negative, and job seekers need to eliminate as many negatives as possible.

“More often than not” implies there were at least a few cases where the blog was a positive – how kind of Mr. Tribble not to elaborate on these. Aren’t academics supposed to address counter-points to their research? Perhaps this doesn’t apply those in the Anonymous Department.

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?

I agree that sticking your foot in your mouth during an interview is a bad thing. I disagree with everything else being said, and I’ll illustrate why with a story:

Back in early 2003, I was interviewing on the Cornell campus for a web-related job. I made it past the phone interview, and was called in for a round-table and to meet the team. While I was sitting there in the interview chatting away, I noticed as one of the guys – presumably sort of unfamiliar with me – pulled up my blog through google, albeit briefly.

Now, I didn’t get the job, and to this day I’m not sure the reason. It likely could have been another candidate was better, and it equally likely could have been that something on my blog threw a kink in my chances.

Here’s the thing: if it did, I’m honestly glad. Job searches have to work for both the candidate and the department. If a committee were to read my blog and find things they didn’t like about me – my political leanings, my snark habits, my picture taking ability, what have you – then I’m more than happy to have them find it now rather than later. If I’m not going to click with a team, I’d rather not get an offer than accept a position only to leave a month or two in due to personality clashes or large differences in styles of thinking.

Sure, I won’t go into a long discussion of that sort of stuff in an interview because the interview is to focus on why you’re good for the job. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy to let you know what I’m like as a person outside the interview.

We’ve seen the hapless job seekers who destroy the good thing they’ve got going on paper by being so irritating in person that we can’t wait to put them back on a plane. Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know “the real them” — better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn’t want to know more.

Shorter Tribble: Pepole can be idiots in interviews, and we don’t like that. Now we’ve found that people can be idiots online, and we don’t like that either. Thus, blogs are bad and you shouldn’t have one.

The grand irony here of a professor writing this anonymously for the Chronicle should not be lost on anyone. Rather than being held accountable for his article – like the bloggers he so happily attempts to skewer – he hides. The reasoning is fairly clear: had he posted this with a name attached, surely the bloggers would find out they were being mocked in an article in a national journal. He’d be Googled and found out to be someone who rushes to judgement based on what you do in channels completely unrelated to the job. Smart, talented people would refuse to interview with someone so close-minded. That magical story above about the shamed student could easily have applied to him.

But, sadly, no – apparently lashing out online is limited to just bloggers, not people who write for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Strange, isn’t it?