Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Return of the Tribble

The Chronicle of Higher Ed's pseudonymous gadfly, "Ivan Tribble," returned earlier this month with a follow-up on his controversial "Blogger's Need Not Apply" column earlier this summer. I am late to this party, and others have done a good job of defending the honor of academic blogging from Tribble's largely specious arguments (see the ivantribble thread on A few notable responses:

I won't try to re-cover any of that ground (besides, I've made my own argument for the respectability of academic blogging already). What interests and disturbs me about Tribble's diatribes is that they reveal just how sick the academic hiring system in the humanities has become.

The centerpiece of Tribble's first article was his anecdote of a recent hiring committee's unpleasant experience with the the blogs of three job finalists. Of one of these, dubbed "Professor Turbo Geek," Tribble writes:

But the site quickly revealed that the true passion of said blogger's life was not academe at all, but the minutiae of software systems, server hardware, and other tech exotica. It's one thing to be proficient in Microsoft Office applications or HTML, but we can't afford to have our new hire ditching us to hang out in computer science after a few weeks on the job.

Let's think about this for a minute. First off, this objection shows the sneering disdain for anything outside one's own field of interest that is all too prevalent in academia. An academic disparaging someone else's interests as "minutiae" and "exotica" is a spectacular case of the pot calling the kettle black.

But there's more at work here. Can you imagine a similar comment being made the other way around, that a prospective computer science hire would be a bad risk because his "true passion" was Jane Austen novels and he might "ditch" his job to "hang out" in the English department? For that matter, can you imagine the same argument being made of an English candidate with a passion for opera (might ditch us for the music department), or photography (art), or running (physical education)?

Clearly, the issue here is not the candidate's commitment to his discipline (nor should it be for anyone who has made the sacrifices that pursuing a humanities PhD demands), but the fact that the interest is in technology. Why? Could it be that these interests (and the potentially marketable skills that accompany them) might lead the candidate not to the computer science department, but out of the academy altogether? Might the hiring committee really be afraid of a colleague who might actually have options, who might tell them to them to take their tenure hoops and publish-or-perish culture and shove 'em while he hopped on the next tech boom?

Options are something many academic jobseekers in the humanities do not have (or do not think they have). After spending five or six or more prime years becoming one of the world's experts on some very narrow and probably esoteric topic (essentially the definition of a viable dissertation since it must be both an original contribution to the field and finishable), a newly minted humanities PhD is prepared for exactly one career: that of a humanities professor at a research institution. There are much fewer of these jobs than there are candidates; for that matter, there are much fewer tenure-track jobs of any description than there are candidates (an assistant professorship in American Lit at even the most podunk-ish college in the nation is guaranteed a few hundred applicants). It's a buyer's market, and tenured professors like Tribble know this. That's why they can afford to indulge whatever petty biases (however unrelated to the quality of the candidate) they may bring to the table.

[As a side note, the thing that probably exasperates me the most about the academic humanities — and I say this fully aware of having been guilty of it myself for most of my academic career — is its glorification of irrelevance. When confronted with questions like "What job will an English major get me?" or "When will I need to know the difference between Stoics and the Cynics?", humanists tend to either dismiss the question as being crassly materialistic (the Humanities are too pure to be concerned by money) or evade it with vague statements about "critical thinking" and being "well-rounded." Even when there is an obvious practical application of a humanistic discipline (as in technical writing or graphic design), these sub-disciplines are frequently marginalized or even allowed to emigrate to Schools of Business or Communications (which are viewed by humanists with a mixture of distaste and jealousy for the financial resources that their impure but practical disciplines enjoy).]

Back to Tribble and his hiring committee: the sad truth is that to wade through a pool of 400 applicants, a hiring committee needs to quickly filter candidates down to a manageable number, and will latch onto any reason to toss one out (Don't like their dissertation advisor? Out. Wrote on a topic you deem marginal? Out. Degree obtained too recently/too long ago? Out. Etc.) Tribble acknowledges this, comparing getting hired to "hitting the lottery," and his advice is essentially to craft an "on paper" persona that will be safe and inoffensive. If blogging is risky, or is even perceived as risky, then it's best to stay away from it. Needless to say, this attitude is not very compatible with expanding the boundaries of knowledge and understanding. Instead, it seems designed to suppress creative thought and enforce the status quo.

For this reason, I cannot share the bravado that many rebuttals to Tribble displayed. The general argument was, "Sure, he's wrong, but his kind are doomed to extinction and won't bother us much longer." This is dangerously complacent thinking (and I see echoes of it up and down the world of academic technology). Yes, Tribble and his generation will retire or die in another decade or three. But this is not a generational battle, not really. There are senior faculty and emeriti who embrace change (some of them caused this kind of change). There are Luddites who have not even matriculated yet. If we wait for the Tribbles to die out, we will find that they've been replaced by a new crop of similarly small-minded reactionaries, who were trained, hired, and promoted by the previous generation. Tribble makes this very threat at the end of his second column:

As my original column made clear (and many amid the outcry reiterated) when it comes to blogging, I just don't "get it." That's right, I don't. Many in the tenured generation don't, and they'll be sitting on hiring committees for years to come.

That's what it comes down to: I've got tenure and you don't, and if you want to be part of the club, you've got to humor me and keep that "blog thing" you do out of my sight.

Yet another reason for me to be happy that I derailed from the tenure track when I did.