Blogs > Cliopatria > The Blogging Graduate Student

Feb 8, 2005 11:52 pm

The Blogging Graduate Student

As the blogosphere turns, the question of whether and why graduate students should blog probably comes around with a fair degree of frequency. Laura McKenna suggested in December that what bloggers need is some kind of bibliography for such"recurrent topics ... so that we don't keep repeating ourselves." But a certain amount of repetition may be salutary since the demographics of blogdom are constantly changing. Graduate students (like myself) who were not paying attention to blogs in January 2004 will have missed discussions here and here about the potential professional dangers of graduate student blogging. So it may be good to spin the wheel back around to the subject every once and a while, for the benefit of those who have only recently gotten on this merry-go-round.

It seems, at any rate, a good subject to broach in my first post for Cliopatria. My joining this blog, at the very kind invitation of Ralph Luker and his fellow Cliopatriarchs, signifies that I have come to terms with being a graduate student who blogs. Feeling comfortable with that fact has not been easy, however, especially since when the subject does come up, it is often in the form of cautionary tales about"blogging from the bottom" of the academic totem pole. These cautionary tales are usually a round-up of usual suspicions: hiring committees will wonder about the work ethic of academic bloggers; they will raise eyebrows at the political or professional views expressed by their job candidates online; they will wonder about the mixing of personal and professional life on blogs. Of course, blogging graduate students are not the only academic bloggers who wonder about how their presence online affects their professional prospects. The subject of how blogging affects tenure committees also comes around the horn every so often, but rather than representing a different issue, it addresses the same basic concern: What is the relationship between academic blogging and professional security? The question is only most acute for graduate students because our horizons of professional possibility are the most open-ended.

One reason the jury remains out on that question is because the trial has only recently begun. Since blogging is a relatively recent phenomenon in academia, and because its profile in the mainstream and academic media is just beginning to rise, hard data on how blogging correlates to job hiring or tenure decisions are scarce. This means that discussions of the subject are rife with anecdotal evidence that warrant, at most, a certain agnosticism. As a recent profile of MLA bloggers (including Cliopatria's own Miriam Burstein) at Inside Higher Ed put it,"It's hard to draw too many conclusions about these blogs. They haven't been around that long (the oldest one in this group started in 2002). And it's hard to know what impact the blogs will have on these academics' careers (the oldest is 38 and none have tenure)."

It's easy to see, however, why the question continues to be of interest, even if it is hard to know what impact blogging really has on professional prospects. We do have hard data on the job market, and especially for historians, that data can be discouraging. So it would be entirely natural for history graduate students to conclude that, given the harrowing conditions of the job market, it is better to be safe than sorry. It is better not to do anything that might possibly jeopardize one's career. If the jury is still out, it's best not to disturb their deliberations by rapping on the jury room door.

But the fact that this tendency is a natural one is one of many instances in which agnosticism really serves as a thin mask for a full-fledged opinion. After all, if the evidence really is out on whether blogging is professionally damaging, then why is the most reasonable position to conclude that it probably is? Why can't agnosticism just as easily validate behaving as if the evidence might come out the other way? The problem here is not that graduate student bloggers are acting in the face of clear risk to their careers, but rather that graduate student bloggers are resolving to pursue a certain course under conditions of uncertainty.

As James Kloppenberg pointed out in his magisterial study of fin-de-siecle Progressive thinkers, Uncertain Victory,"Uncertainty can animate or disable. When certainty inhibits exploration, its loss can be liberating, but when conviction fortifies resolution, doubt can end in paralysis." In the case of blogging, agnosticism about professional implications might potentially liberate graduate students to explore new possibilities for intellectual discourse. Why, then, should uncertainty necessarily paralyze? Conversely, though, why resolve to blog in the absence of a clear conviction about its professional value?

I thought of such questions while reading Timothy Burke's recent essay on why he blogs. I find that many of my reasons for blogging are the same as his. But in a comment thread on another blog, one of Burke's colleagues asked him about the"power dynamics" of blogging for untenured professors -- dynamics that are equally relevant for graduate student."Can they dare put out into the blogosphere what Tim (as a tenured professor) can put out there?" she asked. Burke's response was ...
... no, not unless they're unusually fearless.

It's not because the content might offend someone, but because most academics still perceive blogging (if they perceive at all) as greasy kid's stuff, as something done by marginal scholars. ...

What graduate students who blog need to remember is that even if they later abandon their blog, it will not disappear. If their name is out there and associated with particular arguments, sentiments, claims, it can be found if someone really wishes to find it. Though I think it's pretty rare that someone does: I doubt if more than the smallest fraction of academics google their job candidates' names, for example.
Those sentiments aptly summarize some of the confusing reservations that I feel as a graduate student blogger. On the one hand, I shouldn't worry about the content of my blogging offending someone. On the other hand, I should remember that my content will be forever associated with my name. On the one hand, I shouldn't be afraid of job committees finding my blog. On the other hand, to blog requires me to be"unusually fearless." My resolution to blog often founders on these vaguely incompatible shoals of uncertainty.

Does my blogging, then, in the face of such uncertainty, really require an"unusually" large amount of fearlessness? It depends. The graduate student blogger is only unusually fearless if the most fearsome possibility imaginable is failure to secure a certain kind of academic job. And surely there are much greater things to fear which are far more usual. In comparison to many things, the fear of suffering the opprobrium of a tenure committee pales. Nonetheless, blogging as a graduate student or an untenured professor does require resolution unfortified by certainty. But it would be a sad thing indeed if this kind of fearlessness really is unusual in academia.

The kind of intellectual exploration that academic life is supposed to encourage often depends on venturing into the public sphere without the assurance of certain rewards or the guarantee of approbation. Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for graduate student blogging as an apprenticeship in learning to be animated by doubt, rather than disabled. It may seem that this kind of intellectual"fearlessness" -- the courage not to be paralyzed by doubt -- is of a different sort than the resolution required to blog despite agnosticism about professional gains. But I'm not sure those two kinds of resolution are unrelated. As Kloppenberg's book demonstrated, the decline of certainty in epistemology and metaphysics coincided historically with the rise of academic professionalization in philosophy. The gate-keeping procedures of modern university life are attempts to replace philosophical certainty with professional certification.

Certification is the rough approximation that we have now for the epistemological certainty that thinkers before the nineteenth century usually possessed. It is a way of allowing us to continue to think, to learn, to teach, to adjudicate, even without the assurance of reaching solidly certain conclusions about intellectual matters. Professionalization, in other words, is a kind of intellectual therapy that keeps the modern mind from being disabled by its doubts. What would happen, then, if we allowed ourselves to be disabled by professional uncertainty? What would then fortify our convictions and keep us thinking?

By pursuing this line of thought, I don't mean to exalt the blogging graduate student as the last action hero of academic life. On the contrary, to be an academic these days is, unfortunately, to be uncertain about what the virtues of intellectual heroism would look like. The hermeneutic of suspicion bequeathed to us by Kloppenberg's uncertain philosophers makes us equally suspicious of either triumphalism or dismissiveness when it comes to blogging or, for that matter, most other social practices. But given that we find ourselves in this doubt-full position, we must at least find practices that encourage us to keep moving despite our uncertainty -- either about our convictions or our careers. For me, at least, blogging has been a practice (like the best therapy) that is sometimes uncomfortable, but that slowly increases my range of intellectual motion and keeps me from being paralyzed by doubts. I don't claim to be unusually fearless by blogging; rather, what I'm trying to acquire is the usual quota of fearlessness (such as it is) required by contemporary academic life.

(Cross-posted at Mode for Caleb.)

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Sharon Howard - 2/10/2005

Well, I don't know quite when or how this happened, but if you google Sharon Howard (you don't even need quotes), I come up 1st, 2nd (blog), 4th (normblog profile, heaven help me! I knew I should have said no!), 12th, 13th... And I *will* be on the job market again in the next year or so.

It's a profile that hasn't just come out of blogging, but has been built over several years; far too late to go back now. I wouldn't walk into an interview room and mouth off about it before talking about my academic publications, teaching experience, etc etc, either; but it is a key part of who I am personally and academically. But if I'd thought about all this when I started creating websites as a first-year PhD student, would I have done things differently? I don't know. After all, there is no way to know how that online presence, in its various guises, will play with potential employers. (I have fingers crossed that a) it's of high enough standards to impress most comers and b) it won't give the impression that I'm an idle and obnoxious git.) They might love it or hate it. At least it gives them something to love or hate. (Indifference would be much worse, wouldn't it?)

In the end I don't think worries about the job market should decide the question of *whether* a student or untenured academic blogs or not. (The question of whether you have the self-discipline to not let it get in the way of your 'real' work should count for considerably more.) But, like it or not, it probably should make a difference to *how* you do it: named or pseudonymous? subjects covered? degree of self-censorship? how much personal information? do you blog your research? If your name is on it, I think Tim is spot on: quiet confidence should be the name of the game.

Caleb McDaniel - 2/9/2005

Thanks for the kind words and very helpful advice.

I agree that we graduate student bloggers have to cover our bases with proven scholarly credentials before musings about the professional status of blogging even enter the picture. And I also don't intend to bring up blogging in interviews or package it alongside other scholarly work, unless (as apparently happened to Amardeep Singh) I'm asked about it point-blank.

Since making sure our more reputable scholary credentials are in order has to take priority over blogging, I agree with you and Amardeep that the main objections to graduate student blogging would be practical: if blogging becomes a distraction from getting our work done, that's a problem. In some ways, though, even here blogging can serve a vocational purpose. If being a professional academic means having to multi-task and budget time, then we might as well figure out how to do that as graduate students. If there weren't blogging, there would always be some potential distraction for the academic-in-training. The key is to manage distractions in a way that allows one to get work done in a timely manner, but still make time for recreational habits that relieve the stress of dissertating.

Thanks again for the feedback!

Timothy James Burke - 2/9/2005

Nice essay. I think one of the things that is clear about academics is that they have a pack instinct, which can work for or against the grad student or junior prof blogger. It works against in the way that I suggest: since the consensus is still that blogging is a kind of disreputable activity, it's easy to imagine that consensus playing negatively against you in interviews or tenurings. I certainly wouldn't want to come into an interview *stressing* that I had a blog, or talking about that first before my more reputable scholarly work. That's part of it: if you cover your respectability, I think you're allowed to do other things. But the other thing about that pack instinct that works in your favor is that if you're quietly confident about what you do and why you do it, if you're modestly fearless, many academics tend to assume that you know something that they don't, that they should just clear out of your way and let you do whatever it is that you intend to do. That goes for your scholarly work and it goes for your blogging. You don't want to be a conceited ass about anything, but it's far worse to appear to be begging for permission or approval for something that you feel confident about doing.

Amardeep Singh - 2/9/2005

I tend to think that hiring committees in fact do google their candidates quite regularly now.

I was even googled by hiring committees when I was on the market 4 years ago. I didn't have a blog then, but I did have a web page hosted at my graduate institution. I was surprised to have people interviewing me mention things they'd read on my web page!

I don't have a strong opinion on whether graduate students should be blogging or not. As an untenured prof. with increasingly contrarian opinions, I'm not even sure *I* should be blogging!

Most of the people who challenge me directly on my blog tend to be non-academics. If there are academics who disagree with me strongly, or who are going to use what I've said against me, I haven't seen it yet. But I don't think there are many senior people in postcolonial theory who are using the internet all that much... (It may be different in other fields)

I might just venture to say that one reason *not* to blog is the distraction potential. It's a big enough problem when you are just trying to teach and do your research. I think the temptation might have been even worse back when I was writing my diss.

Caleb McDaniel - 2/9/2005

I also tend to subscribe to the "truth in advertising" dictum that a university might as well know that in hiring me they would be hiring someone who is interested in using the web as a space for intellectual exchange as well as diversion.

Part of me wants to believe that some universities will see that as an asset, but the point is that I can't be certain I'm right, just as you are unsure whether the market will prove you wrong. As long as we're uncertain about professional rewards, though, why not pursue an activity that we've found to be personally rewarding?

Thanks for the welcome and the feedback!

Kevin C. Murphy - 2/9/2005

Speaking as a graduate student blogger (albeit one who posts infrequently on my academic concerns, and one only beginning to awaken to the inconstancy of the job market), I can't say I spend much time at all thinking about how my blog might affect my prospects for employment (or vice versa). In fact, as you noted, I think that kind of emphasis would very quickly be deadening, and obviate the main purpose of <em>GitM</em> for me -- a means of informal self-expression about daily news and curiosities, intellectual and otherwise.

Put another way, I expect I'll continue blogging well into my academic career, for good or ill. If <em>GitM</em> impacted negatively on my application at a given school ("Why so much on pedestrian science-fiction and so little on progressivism?")...well, so be it. Said university might as well know what they're getting.

And, in many ways, the job process these days seems so haphazard and whimsical that I don't see much merit in tailoring my life (outside of my scholarship) to its vagaries anyway. But, again, perhaps that's naive, and a few unfruitful years on the market will show me the error of my ways.

Welcome to Cliopatria, by the way. :)

Ralph E. Luker - 2/9/2005

Caleb, Thanks for this. It's just the kind of thoughtful essay that Cliopatria needs. Welcome home!