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Ask the Radical: Blogging and The Untenured Academic

November 22, 2009, 11:21 am

Leaving the country often has the happy effect that people stop sending email to me almost entirely. Why sabbatical doesn’t accomplish this I do not know, particularly given the vivid bounce-back I composed this time around. Only the chair of my department removed my from the distribution list in September, but I am pleased/dismayed to see that now everyone else has too. Perhaps while I was still state side some secret hope was cherished by many colleagues that I would, in fact, come to advertised meetings of various kinds? If so, I am happy to say that they have not taking to dashing their brains on the flagstones in despair that their coy invitations have gone unanswered.

Since arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, the most sustained correspondence I have had to date is with a group of very capable people who are taking care of my affairs (dog and house) while I am away. We have been in correspondence about the circumstances of a mysterious “alarm event,” as ADT Security calls it which, as it turns out, was probably caused by my efforts to draft-proof the front door. But that is all.

Anyway, the lack of email allows me to catch up on messages I have failed to respond to all fall, either because they were too complicated, or because I was ambivalent about them in some way, or because I didn’t know what to say. For example, the following questions were asked by a graduate student who heard me and several other bloggers do a panel several months ago. Since there is no point responding to the actual person (as the date of the assignment s/he wanted the information for is long past) I will answer these questions publicly:

1. What are the challenges non-tenured professors face when deciding to keep a personal blog?

Not using the blog to: a) spend most of your time venting about the oppressive condition of being you; b) publish humorous pieces that are just another way to express your boundless rage at those who offend you; c) say witty things about your students that portray them to a national audience at their most foolish and naive; d) waste so much time blogging, reading blogs, commenting on blogs and checking your Site Meter that you don’t write anything else; and e) blog constantly about your cats (even though they are very cute and do twee things to distract you from working.)

2. What were your main concerns before you exposed your identity on your blog?

Unfortunately, I had no concerns. This is why I made a some critical errors (see 1a, 1b,and 1c above) that required varying levels of apology to others. I probably would have done d) and e) as well, except that I write about eight hours a day when left to my own devices, I no longer participate in memes, and I have no cats.

3. Do you think that blogs should be considered, in any respect, when a professor has yet to attain tenure?

Since the discipline in which I hold tenure (history) has barely dealt with electronic publishing at all as part of the promotion process, and also has a mixed record on how it regards pre-tenure scholarship published to a trade audience, I would hope that we would not start having a conversation about blogs that was not preceded by one that addressed these other critical issues. But I should think that participation in group blogs that serve a field or a discipline should be taken into account as much as book reviews or encyclopedia entries, which everyone lists in endless, boring detail on their vitae as if they took more than a day to write. Would I hold a blog against someone? Sure! If I was certain that a person had been caught in a huge bloggy lie — plagiarism, seducing people on line by pretending to be someone else, and masquerading as a variety of different, malicious sock puppets on their own and other peoples’ blogs are three examples that come to mind — it would cause me to wonder about that person’s general integrity and scrutinize other aspects of the tenure case a bit more carefully for similar flaws. It has been my unhappy experience that people who lie don’t just do it in one context, and they tend to keep doing it. I stumbled onto the website of someone whose first book was plagiarized in the manuscript stage (although when this was pointed out, innocence was claimed and the problems were at least partly rectified.) Many years later, the web page was full of flamers about said person’s personal history that were entirely irrelevant to scholarship but that fabricated a far more dashing past than the individual actually had. Honesty in personal relations strikes me as equally, if not more, important than scholarly integrity, since in most of our daily work we count on people to be honest in all their relationships.

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