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...