Friday, May 25, 2007
This Will Go On Your Permanent Record, Young Man...
I don't know if teachers still use the 'permanent record' line, but I remember it as a staple of middle school in Northern Town. Nobody ever actually saw their 'permanent record,' which paradoxically made the threat all the scarier. After all, who knows what might be in there? (After years of that, reading Foucault on the panopticon had a 'well, duh!' quality to it.)
In all the recent conversation about blogging, institutional image, and job markets, I've been struck by a bifurcation in the types of information available.
Official information – the kind of stuff that we're supposed to use as the basis for decisions – is much more closely guarded than it once was. Privacy laws and fear of litigation have made it much harder to get meaty letters of reference, since nobody wants to give a bad reference, even if only by contrast. Many companies won't do much more than confirm dates of employment. Sussing out things like 'reasons for dismissal' is pretty much impossible.
But unofficial information – the kind of stuff we like to think doesn't count – is everywhere, and more easily found than ever. And since nature and hiring committees abhor vacuums, there's an ever-present danger than 'bad' information will fill the void left by the shortage of 'good' information. I may not be able to get a reference that tells me anything, but Google will tell me almost anything. The quality may be infinitely worse, but it's easily available.
There's a cartoon on my refrigerator at home. It shows a puffy old guy in academic regalia, apparently giving a graduation speech. He says something like “I encourage you to question authority, but not on your blog, where future employers might see it.” It spoke to me. In a more enlightened world, I'd happily shed the pseudonym, list my blog on my c.v., and let hiring committees read my stuff to get some insight into my theories of academic management. Some might well be appalled, but some might be attracted, and I'd probably be more comfortable with the latter group anyway.
But no. When hiring season fires up again this Fall, the application will be blog-free. People who could otherwise have gained pretty good insight into my thought processes won't. I can't help but think that the likelihood of a bad fit is thereby increased.
The embargo on official information is well-intentioned, but poorly thought out. Yes, it's good that we don't post student grades next to their social security numbers on office doors anymore; anybody with a basic command of alphabetical order could figure out who is who, and identity theft is real. And yes, it's good that a single asshole boss will have a harder time poisoning future wells.
But the thirst for information about other people – especially other people you're considering hiring – hasn't gone away.
As in so many other things, I think the legislation and the culture have gone in opposite directions.
Leaving aside the valid identity-theft issues, I think most of the formal and informal bans on relevant information-sharing reflect a distrust of how other people will use the information. Maybe I don't know your previous boss, so when he says you were a lackluster employee, I don't have the context to know that he's actually a lecherous drunk whose general misanthropy drove you away. Fair enough.
But the information people put out there on MySpace and Facebook and the rest goes way beyond anything a hateful former boss might say. And there's no ban on looking at that. We're already hearing stories of college grads being shunned by employers for stuff they put on their own MySpace pages.
My hope, and I'll admit it's ambitious, is that we'll start to recognize the weird bifurcation in information, and develop more sophisticated reading skills to compensate. Put differently, the substitution of a plethora of 'unofficial' information may require us to get a little less Puritanical about other people's lives. Ideally, I'm hoping, the sheer fact of so much 'raw' information, combined with the increasing shortage of 'cooked,' may force us to become more sophisticated consumers of it. Maybe we'll stop expecting everybody to be spotless – 'brains on sticks,' as Bitch likes to say – and instead recognize that people are three-dimensional. Maybe we'll even recognize the need for intelligent policies on childcare, since people have children, or health care, since people are mortal. Maybe we'd even take halting steps towards intelligent policies on how people spend their personal time.
That, or we'll be forced to make hiring decisions based on who posted the least idiotic pictures on MySpace (or the least controversial essays on their blog). It could go either way...
There have been quite a few instances where a person has spent years building a public career then unintentionally blogging about something that offends someone or goes against a group belief. Career over in an instant, or at least mortally wounded.
Whenever you lay your cards on the internet table it is almost impossible to pick them back up.
We need to think of the ramifications before we blog. One of my business partners says, “I always consider how will it impact me or my business if a comment from one of my posts appears in the paper the next day”
In other words, that they will confuse their prospective employers, not offend them. Whay are you talking about elliptic functions here, and then your cat here, and then this politics trash? That's not how we do it here at Life o'the Mind™.
It's an impressive hope, though I fear that the stereotypical tendency to prefer talking to listening will cause misinterpretations to prevail over an appreciation of subtleties and distinctions. The ease of misinterpreting in-depth good information, such as in a research proposal, an article, or a book, makes me dubious that more sophisticated reading of disperse information can succeed widely.
In the meantime, I'll keep my on-line presence limited to things I don't mind seeing on the front page of the paper. (A photo of me in my non-academic hobby did actually end up exactly there, just last week.)
Luckily when I google myself, it comes up with competitions/awards I've won, membership of various committees and charitable annual reports. The only dodgy one is where someone else has posted my full name on a forum, which destroyed my anonymity.
I have to wonder - how can an employer justify googling to find out information that would be illegal to actually ask the candidate about in an interview? Should women now start cleansing their online presence of any mention of pregnancy, for instance?
Will readers learn to assess and filter the complexity revealed by online lives and our actual rich diversity of character?
Or will we flee to deeper anonymity, better-blandified posts, ever-more onerous policing, or desperately pay for post-hoc "scrubbing" by third-party companies?
As Bill Tozier writes, what most bloggers really fear is that their online diversity will "dilute the expected stereotypes associated with their career."
This, then, is a problem of society, not of the individual blogger. In an online world, society must learn to filter and evaluate people more effectively, without narrow knee-jerk criticism on litmus-test issues. That, or we go back to the monaural stultification of social role restrictions - such as the patriarchal expectation that even professional women, say, will talk only about gardening, children and husband.
But there's a third way. In a non-Cartesian, postmodern amplification of subjectivity, many professional and academic women have carved out a third new mode of identity - online, unlinked to their RL name and location, yet richly robust and respected.
I refer to online "fandom." Media fandom (more than 60,000 strong just at LiveJournal, my own main "community" area) keeps online identities separate from RL. This is not just to avoid career blowback and vicious, even physical harassment -- remember, we're mainly women, and often working in very transgressive areas of art, sexuality, politics, etc. We do it also to create new richer identities (for many, non-gendered and non-patriarchally-assigned names are imperative) in a world that welcomes and supports this transgression. These identities have robustness online; their credibility and integrity is enacted and evidenced by their work and interaction with others. No CV is needed here, though often, RL connection may also be later established; judgment is made through direct observation, not by the sometimes pale proxy of professional credentials.
But often, online fans choose to leave their identities blurred, or multiple. With multiple identities in play, they're neither DesCartes's brain in a jar, nor just the body somewhere else, but a body and a brain and another brain, and another brain ... is there really a need to integrate all into one "resume-ready" personality, or is that just another mandate of modernist corporate culture?
This contrasting new definition of identity was highlighted for me just last week in a highly charged dialogue between many leaders of fandom and a newly formed for-profit firm called FanLib. FanLib, in a nutshell, wants to trade Manhattan-beads type trinkets, like contest prize t-shirts, for the enormous creative output of fans -- 250,000 stories, artworks, essays for Harry Potter alone.
FanLib's CEO, Chris Williams, didn't want to talk directly to the fans, but instead went through media studies guru Henry Jenkins of MIT. Williams noted Jenkins's "credibility and integrity" as a person with "dual citizenship" in both academia and fandom.
What he failed to understand is that those articulate fan women with the funny online names have their own tremendously robust, well-recognized credibility within their large, intensely interactive, online community. Some, in fact, are authors of books and articles in the same field as Jenkins. Unlike him, though, they may prefer, for feminist and political reasons, an alternative path to that "community of their peers." Or in fact, have established multiple communities.
This poses, for some, the problem Dean Dad referred to: how to note one's extremely active contributions to a community of practice that exists beyond the brick-and-mortar university? In the case of fandom, it's a community that even prefers to avoid the ivy tower's constriction into gendered, heteronormative, class, race, etc.-influenced hierarchical social codes.
Will the problem be solved? Or will a redefinition of the nature of Identity, and even the CV, render the problem moot?
Thanks for the good post and comments.
- Idaho Academic
(For insight into fandom and the recent discourse with FanLib, summaries and links can be found at:
http://www.henryjenkins.org/, May 22 and May 25