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Ivan the Terrible Wanker


I was hoping to never think again about “Ivan Tribble,” but his apologia somehow manages to be even more pompous (“If she’s embarrassed by your bad taste or potty mouth, who is to blame for that?”) and petulant (“A lot can happen when you try to help some people land tenure-track jobs”) than his awful original article. In addition, he uses a variety of disreputable rhetorical techniques to evade all of the relevant issues, and I think it’s worth explaining why, particularly given that his arguments are likely to be shared with grad students second-hand.

The most obvious problem is that he pulls a nice bait-and-switch, making a completely different argument in the second article than he does in the first. As the Little Professor notes, he now claims to merely be making the banal argument that blogs (like any other means of expression) can be used to say things that will work against your interests. Obviously, nobody could disagree with that. But, of course, this was not the argument he was making; he was arguing that blogging counted as a negative irrespective of the content of your blog. Remember the most specious of his many bad arguments–that where blogs are concerned “[p]ast good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.” (As many people have pointed out, this is an argument against tenure, not blogging.)

And then he engages in the rare Level 5–or “Christopher Hitchens”–category of strawman demolition. Needless to say, he doesn’t cite any actual criticism, but makes up some criticism he can easily respond to instead. “Among the more outraged responses to my column,” he claims, “the biggest issue seemed to be freedom of speech.” This is simply dishonest. Perhaps somebody made this argument, although I certainly missed it in my extensive reading about the controversy, but to claim that it was the “biggest issue” is just a flat-out lie. Of course Tribble’s search committee did not violate anybody’s constitutional rights; that’s not why most people found his arguments objectionable. The issue was his irrational Babbitry, the fact that he seemed to regard a search committee not as a serious job vested with the responsibility of finding the best candidate but as a vehicle he could use to assert his petty and conformist aesthetic prejudices. Rebecca Goetz said this well at the time:

The overall impression I got from reading Tribble’s drivel is that job candidates should be very, very afraid of seeming at all different from the herd at all stages of the job-seeking process. Those that have already have jobs wield power over those who don’t by spreading fear—hence Tribble’s subtitle: “Job seekers need to eliminate as many negatives as possible.” After reading Tribble’s column the only conclusion I could come to is that those “negatives” include anything that remotely resembles an interest outside of one’s dissertation. Even though Tribble practices a profession that supposedly espouses academic freedom, intellectual curiosity, and creative inquiry, it seems to me that he wishes to beat all these admirable qualities out of job candidates. The Tribbles of the world wish their future colleagues to be bland, boring clones who respond predictably to every question and ask predictable questions of their own.

Tribble’s nicknames for the job candidates he discusses—“Professor Turbo Geek, Professor Shrill, and Professor Bagged Cat”—were tasteless and needlessly cruel. Turbo Geek’s only sin was to have a blog that expressed an interest and expertise in technology that was separate, oh shock and horror, from his academic interests. Good grief. Job seekers, according to Tribble, regardless of whether or not they are bloggers, should be quiet and completely predictable so that they may break into the same hallowed halls he treads daily. (As an aside to the Chronicle: having pseudonymous columns can allow forthright discussion of problems in higher education—from the vagaries of the job market to the struggles of adjunct faculty. But it should never, ever be used to poke fun at people, even anonymously. This Tribble column was beyond the pale in that respect and the Chronicle editors should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this to pass muster.)

Yes–this is the issue. What was remarkable about his original admonition is that he found completely ordinary things about candidates on blogs–that they liked Star Trek, or liked computer programming, or discussed body modifications–and considered these to to be significant negative factors! (Needless to say, unless everybody in his department shares his particular turn-offs, this is a grossly irresponsible way for a search committe to act.) That he also didn’t care for these kids today with their blogging isn’t incidental, but is only part of a much larger problem. Obviously, everybody has certain trivial things they don’t care for, but the point of a formal job search is to create a rational process that will focus as much as possible on relevant qualifications, not to provide an outlet for a department’s resident Abe Simpson to vent his frustration about people who have personal interests he doesn’t like.

Now, I guess my official advice may still be aligned with Rob’s; if you’re risk-averse, you should probably blog anonymously, although I agree with Brian and Henry that blogging can be an asset in some circumstances. But I have to admit that I’ve never been terribly worried about being “out”, and this controversy has helped me understand why. I don’t actually think I’m making a sacrifice; I’m confident that my tenure will be judged on its actual merits. And, obviously, there are some things I won’t blog about (none of which would, I think, be of interest to most readers anyway.) But, basically, while this may be irrational or stubborn or whatever one of the reasons I went into academia in the first place was pecisely to avoid having to answer to the Ivan Tribbles of the world. Like most people. I’ve had Ivan Tribbles for bosses. I’ve worked in jobs where a single mother would get fired without warning for wearing a skirt an eighth on an inch too short, where assistant managers would punish people for violating aribitrary rules not because these rules had any rational connection to the job but because they just liked to assert power. Even though being a clean-cut articulate white guy I was able to avoid the wrath of these people for the most part, I still can’t stand dealing with them. Academia, whatever its demerits, had much less of that. I don’t want to romanticize my profession; there are obviously a lot of Tribbles out there, and I’m sure as well there are many non-academic managers who don’t care about your hobbies or what’s on your Tivo or tattooed on your arm as long as you do your job well. But if I’m going to have to work for an Ivan Tribble, there are a lot more reumerative ways to do it. Moreover, there is a certain futility to trying to please a Tribble. One can be reasonably certain that his list of things he’s cranky about contained in the first article isn’t exhaustive; there’s no way of knowing what perfectly normal interest you have that will suddenly disqualify you for a job. And then, of course, trying to come off as a bland, cowering kiss-ass may be the way to impress Tribble and his colleagues but may hurt you with another search committee. The most salient characteristic of both grad school admissions and academic job searches is idiosyncrasy; the strategies that work for one group of people will fail with another, and there’s no reliable way of predicting what will work in advance. So it’s important to be aware of the risks of blogging (as you should with anything else), but I would say don’t sacrifice things that are really important to you either.

Goetz has more, with a useful roundup, as does Dan Drezner (whose advice you probably want to weigh more heavily than mine.)

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