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Monday, November 21, 2005

Can a Brother Get a Blog?

In the last few months, two articles have been published in rather respected publications that call into question whether anyone seeking a career in academia would be well-advised to publish a blog. One was Bloggers Need Not Apply and the other was called Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs. From their titles, it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out on which side the authors were.

This has caused a bit of consternation among my colleagues in the Writing Politics specialization track at the CUNY Graduate Center. After all, last semester we listened to Micah Sifry explain why blogs are the wave of the future and how they allow activists to get around the "gatekeeper" function of the mainstream media. In Micah's opinion, blogs have done nothing less than totally revolutionize the news industry, turning a one-way dialogue into a multi-faceted discussion among peers. They have definitely revolutionized political commentary, with at least some of the very most popular blogs being a more important source of news for some readers than broadcast media.

The articles have some good tips for bloggers. For example, if you are an academic cheat, you don't want to broadcast that. As an addendum, you definitely don't want to tell me about it because I will make sure everyone knows about it (well, to the extent that I can). However, there is a big prejudice exposed in the two articles.

For example, the anonymous author (wonder why they were afraid of using their real name...) of "Bloggers Need Not Apply" points out:

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.

So the University will automatically disqualify anyone who might need therapy? WARNING! WARNING! DO NOT RELEASE YOUR MEDICAL RECORDS TO THIS COMMITTEE MEMBER!

One of the purposes of higher education is to expose people to a broad range of contentious issues and to give them the critical skills necessary to arrive at their own opinion about what they find. Here you find someone who is perfectly willing to do so - at least under some circumstances. We need people like that. Perhaps the manner in which the candidate expressed his or her desires was improper - but then the critique should say that he inappropriately expressed opinions. It should not disqualify a professor that they are willing to discuss controversial topics and issues that some people may find uncomfortable. I've seen statistics that indicate one in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes - should we then act like it doesn't happen in college or to college students? Recovery from trauma is often a lifetime problem and one that takes incredible person bravery to accomplish - should we punish these people for being honest about what happened to them and why it is wrong?

Here's the real issue: Would this person have been a better or worse professor if no one knew they had these issues? Would it have been better for them to wait until ten seconds after tenure was granted and then to unload? In other words, if the only thing wrong with this candidate were his or her personal issues, would it not be better to call them back for another interview to discuss whether or not they had these issues under control? Would it be better for their supervisor to know what specific problems they might want to keep an eye out for or is it better that they be kept in the dark.

A couple of times when I was intereviewed for jobs as an addiction counselor, I was asked point-blank: "What's wrong with you?" It wasn't that I was exhibiting strange behavior - in fact, like most job-applicants, I was doing my best to appear exactly what they wanted. The fact is that a counselor deals with people in need and any supervisor needs to know what kind of cases may cause problem with their counselors. When you consider that a college professor is taking young minds who, in many cases, are out from behind the shadow of their parents for the first time, isn't it good for professor's department heads to understand their young, charismatic professor may have some problems dealing with the adoration of some of the students?

"Attack of the Career-Ending Blogs" exposes another prejudice in academia - against people who do not just study, but try to actually do something in the greater society in which we all exist. I make no attempt to hide my political influences and beliefs - chief of which is that our system gives the ordinary person a considerable amount of power if only they are willing to put forth the effort to wield it. I am a populist, and unabashedly so. I believe that one of the greatest lessons I can hand my students is that they must be the ones to change the world as they wish it to be. That is personal responsibility and it is something in much too short a supply in our society. In a perfect world, college students would know that already, but I live in reality. Reality will make a mushcake of anyone's blind ideology - so take it down the line and peddle it somewhere else, buddy.

A few months ago, my wife and I were at her sister's house, watching a documentary of student activism during the Vietnam War. My sister-in-law commented, "I think today's students are letting us down." I disagree. They are letting themselves down. And the reason they are letting themselves down is because those precioius few who are willing to "suffer the outrageous slings and arrows" of publically taking a stand, those who offer themselves as the conscience of society, those who would stand and point towards the mountaintop are sneered at by those too afraid to stand out from the crowd.

If there is an anti-intellecualism in today's society - and it is almost rampant - then there is a matching distate for populism, or anything that smells of something less than the Ivy League, from the other direction. We must all learn what Micah told our class over and over - "You may be really smart, but you are never as smart as your readership. Collectively, they know more than you will ever hope to." The anti-blog sentiment among academics is proof that, perhaps, Micah should have been preaching to a different choir. Perhaps. But the beginning of wisdom is the admission of ignorance, and these articles have much proof that Micah would have been wasting his breath had he spoken to academia instead of young intellectuals.


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