Advice for (Virtual and Actual) Life: Don’t Be a Butthead

Don't Be a Butthead

Profiles in Science from the National Library of Medicine. Poster for a 1998 anti-tobacco campaign by the Centers for Disease Control. Original Repository: The History of Medicine Division. Prints and Photographs Collection.

That’s not the kind of butthead I had in mind, but, well, if the shoe fits, don’t smoke it. Or something.

Anyhoo, yours truly was on a little panel Monday morning at QTU focused on online professionalism for grad students. The panel included poet Josh Weiner, digital wunderkind Matt Kirschenbaum, and digital wunderkind-in-training Amanda Visconti, whose fabulous blog post of the remarks she made you should totes go read, soon and carefully. (Great links! Sound advice! Pithy wisdom on the magic of blogging!) The audience was lit critters, but the issues and advice are relevant to all job seekers in the age of social media, so I figured I’d share my own comments and links here. Feel free to weigh in with your insights, questions, and pithy wisdom. The un- and under-employed are eager to hear from you!

One of the questions put to the panel by organizer (and blogger) Rachel Vorona was, What does online professionalism mean, especially for graduate students? That’s where I decided to begin my reflections.

* * *

What does online professionalism mean, especially for grad students? Pretty much what it means for anybody else:

Don’t be a butthead.

Don’t tweet naked selfies. Don’t provoke flame wars with senior scholars in your field. Don’t brag about grading drunk on Facebook. Don’t blog as a dog or, worse, a dead dog, until you have tenure or, better still, are a full professor.

Here is a good local example of why online professionalism is important for aspiring academics. Recently adopted changes to Queer the Turtle U’s guidelines on search and selection have this to say about use of the Internet and social media in the hiring process:

a. The Internet and social media may be used to recruit and vet applicants for employment.

b. Information pertaining to personal characteristics or traits that are not job-related, such as race, religious affiliation, and personal appearance, should not be considered in the hiring process.

c. The use of the Internet and/or social media should be consistently and fairly applied to all candidates at the same stage.

d. The use of the Internet and/or social media should not be the only means of vetting applicants.

e. Search Committees should not use information found through Internet searches and/or social media unless the information is verified and related to the essential functions of the specific job.

I love point d. in particular. Oh, crap, you mean we have to keep reading all these recommendations and writing samples after all? The Google can’t do it all for us? The guidelines are an admirable attempt to acknowledge that we live in the twenty-first rather than the nineteenth century, but the problem of course is that you can’t un-ring a bell. Once a search committee member has seen the photo of you tongue-kissing Testudo or read your agonizing blog post about what an intellectual fraud you are, he or she is almost certain to reassess your candidacy, even if only unconsciously and silently. You can take comfort in knowing that all of your competitors on the job market are as vulnerable as you are to such scrutiny, but the bottom line is that you need to exercise good judgment in your online behavior and do what you can to assure that your digital footprint bolsters your chances of gainful employment rather than undermining them. That doesn’t mean you should live in a state of digital paranoia or desperately cultivate and promote unrealistic images of yourself as a saint or a superstar. It just means you should assume that everything you put up online will be permanently and universally accessible. Nothing ever really disappears, so make sure you won’t mind having it follow you around forever. (You can try to delete yourself from the Internet, but is that a realistic option for someone aspiring to work and live in the world? I don’t think so, sweeties.)

How might blogging fit into your efforts to build a professional online presence? That’s a great question, but I’m not sure it’s one that a former dog blogger is equipped to answer. A year and a half ago, I put down the dog, as it were, and started blogging as a Madwoman, but The Madwoman with a Laptop is still not an “academic blog” if by that we mean a blog primarily aimed at developing and promoting my scholarly work. Nonetheless, I do blog regularly on academic professional issues, and blogging has become an important part of my academic profile. I’ve published articles on the subject, given lots of talks at conferences, teach a class called “Writing for the Blogosphere,” and now list my blogs on my CV under the category of creative nonfiction. (That feels right to me, though the question of whether it fits and how it counts is something we might take up later.) My most widely viewed post ever was one I published this Labor Day called “Take This Job and Shove It.” It focused on assistant professors resigning from tenure-track positions, a trend we are seeing increasingly, unfortunately, among women and faculty of color. I’ve written a lot on the so-called funding crisis in higher education and on the pressure on universities to produce Excellence Without Money in the age of helicopter parents and neoliberal austerity.

So, why should you blog? I peeked ahead to Amanda’s presentation and note that she describes blogging as magic. She’s right. I think it’s also, ideally, just about the most fun you can have while staring at a screen. What thrilled me about blogging was that it helped me to re-establish a regular practice of writing something other than the dull reports and soulless e-mails I had to crank out in my administrative work. I enjoyed the informality and the creativity of blogging. I delighted in being able to compose multimedia texts without having to know anything more technical than how to flip open a laptop. As the blog grew, I loved the sense of connection to a live and responsive audience. Every post felt like an adventure and an experiment. If it was labor, it was a labor of love. Nearly eight years later, I still feel considerable love for blogging and can recommend it to scholars at any stage in their career as a writing practice that encourages the disciplines of clarity and concision and affords the pleasures of thinking out loud in public. Light-hearted as it often is, my blogging is always informed by what I’ve learned in my life as a scholar and teacher. I view blogging and other social media as tools of outreach and education, means of engaging in public pedagogy, of translating our work into terms that a broader public can understand and, I hope, support. David Palumbo-Liu wrote recently in the Boston Review of the profound effects that changes in communications technologies and the information landscape have had on the concept of the public intellectual. His comments resonate with what I strive to do as a scholar blogger, and I think they would be useful to anyone interested in engaging in public conversations. He writes:

What is called for are public intellectuals who exert critical intelligence in synthesizing multiple sources of information and knowledge and presenting their opinions for debate, not simply for consumption. A public intellectual today would thus not simply be one filter alongside others, an arbiter of opinion and supplier of diversity. Instead, today’s public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that in the last couple of years I have come to feel a little burdened by the labor part of my labor of love. Blogging is work, and it is work that is devalued if not wholly disregarded in the academic reward system. That is something worth thinking about very seriously if you are in the early stages of your career and trying to figure out how to spend your time and energy and balance your various commitments. I’m fortunate to be in a department that let me start teaching courses on online writing and culture when I decided it was time to make my hobby part of my work life. With the security of tenure, I was able to re-tool myself as something of a digital humanist. It is worth noting, however, that, although my hilarious – and entirely fictional — Xtranormal cartoon “I Want to Be Promoted,” in which an associate professor meets with her department chair to discuss her desire to go up for full partly on the basis of her blog, has gotten more than 11,000 hits on YouTube, I am still, three years later, an associate professor and expect to remain so unless and until I produce that second scholarly monograph, which is still the standard for promotion in humanities departments at R1 universities.

Thus, though I cling stubbornly to the kind of idealism Palumbo-Liu expresses about the vital work of the public intellectual in our changed information ecosystem, I also share the ambivalence articulated so eloquently in Mimi Nguyen’s trenchant “Against Efficiency Machines,” which I urge all of you to read in its entirety. (She published it in September on her blog, Thread and Circuits.) Nguyen is absolutely right that blogging, tweeting, and other modes of online communicating have been sucked up into the maw of the neoliberal university, with its insatiable demands for “flexible subjects, immaterial labor, round-the-clock consumption, and the commodification of the self.” We are expected to prove our public relevance, encouraged to cultivate and “enjoin our personal brands to the university while being capable of working more for less compensation, or the same — or none at all.” Nguyen’s closing words feel hauntingly relevant to the kind of conversation we are having here today:

Professionalization comes at a cost, including that of your own uncompensated labor. And, you might not distinguish yourself after all, but instead become just another click in a continuous feed.

I pass those somber words along to you by way of a conclusion and hope that we’ll have a more upbeat conversation during discussion. I’m a glass half full kind of gal, but these are times that test even the most cock-eyed optimists.

* * *

The conversation that followed was indeed upbeat and lively, with Kirschenbaum insisting that building a professional digital presence should be as much a part of academic career prep today as putting together a CV, while Weiner extolled the virtues of writing within the 140-character limit of Twitter and Visconti focused on blogging and tweeting as ways of workshopping ideas and building connections. (The whole convo is Storified here if you’d like to follow along, thanks to Kathryn Kaczmarek. I’m not sure I’ve ever been Storified before!)  I hope the audience of aspiring English profs found it informative and maybe a little provocative. Mind your digital footprints, kids. Don’t leave a mess behind you. Build something you’d be thrilled to have the world see. Because, you know, the world may well be watching.

Comments

  1. Twitter is a waste of fucken time, and a distraction from real reading and writing. It is intentionally designed to sucke people into allowing the kinds of (rightfully) ephemeral conversations that take place in the hallway, at lunch, etc, to take up much more time and mental energy than is healthy. Extensive repetitive use of the near-illiterate writing style that it enforces is also destructive to its users’ intellects.

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    • Oh, I can always count on a Twitter reference to get a rise out of you, Physio, but if a bona fide award-winning poet who actually uses it praises it as a writing and communication practice, I am afraid I must defer to his judgment. Also, of course, now our good friend Historiann has climbed aboard the 140-character bandwagon. You can’t argue with that, can you??? I don’t love Twitter myself, but I see its merits and realize it works for a lot of people for a variety of reasons. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

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  2. Having written a blog on-and-off for the last decade, I found myself smiling all the way through this. Wonderful post.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] presented with Professors Matt Kirschenbaum, Marilee Lindemann, and Joshua Weiner. Update: Marilee posted her remarks from the panel on her blog (Madwoman with a Laptop), and it’s a great read: how university social media […]

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  2. […] does not see your post, many other people do see it and reflect on what that means about you. Madwoman with A Laptop comes steaming to the rescue with a wonderful post about online (un)professio… Sage advice contained therein? Don’t be […]

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  3. […] advice are relevant to undergraduates as well. I wrote up my remarks as a blog post cleverly titled “Advice for (Virtual and Actual) Life: Don’t Be a Butthead.” Give it a click while you wait for the snow to start […]

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  4. […] presented with Professors Matt Kirschenbaum, Marilee Lindemann, and Joshua Weiner. Update: Marilee posted her remarks from the panel on her blog (Madwoman with a Laptop), and it’s a great read: how university social media […]

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