Three recent articles about blogging or otherwise posting personal thoughts online caught my interest. The first, which I commented on at my personal website is the Chronicle piece by "Ivan Tribble", "Bloggers Need Not Apply". Tribble, recently released from search committee duties at his school, rails against academics who blog, under the guise of "helpful advice" to job-seekers.
We all have quirks. In a traditional interview process, we try our best to stifle them, or keep them below the threshold of annoyance and distraction. The search committee is composed of humans, who know that the applicants are humans, too, who have those things to hide. It’s in your interest, as an applicant, for them to stay hidden, not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read. If you stick your foot in your mouth during an interview, no one will interrupt to prevent you from doing further damage. So why risk doing it many times over by blabbing away in a blog?
The second article is a NYTimes "Style Desk" piece entitled "The New Nanny Diaries Are Online" (this piece may have fallen behind the Times’ paywall; read the Village Voice’s take on the subject here or Bitch PhD’s take here). The author, one Helaine Olen, describes her growing discomfort with her nanny after reading about her private life on her blog (the nanny has since abandoned the blog, but not before writing a fairly extensive and humiliating rejoinder to Olen’s piece).
Yet within two months of my starting to read her entries our entire relationship unraveled. Not only were there things I didn’t want to know about the person who was watching my children, it turned out her online revelations brought feelings of mine to the surface I’d just as soon not have to face as well.
My husband thought her writing precociously talented but wanted to fire her nonetheless. "This is inappropriate," he said. "We don’t need to know that Jennifer Ehle makes her hot."
And, finally, a Boston University journalism professor was fired for making this comment about a student on an online sports board:
"Of my six students, one (the smartest, wouldn’t you know it?) is incredibly hot. … It was all I could do to remember the other five students."
I don’t want to defend or castigate any of the actors in any of these situations — I’ve said my piece about Tribble at One Man’s Opinion and am working up something more specific on the Boston University case (stay tuned, folks!); Olen’s case has been suitably discussed by both her nanny personally and a bevy of Internet commentators. Instead, I’m concerned here with how each of these pieces illustrates conceptions about the division of public and private life in American (North American? Western?) conceptions of the self, especially where work is involved. In each of the cases, the blogger/poster has committed a transgression, revealing his/her private life in a public forum (the Internet).
Modern American culture is structured around the hard division between public and private spaces, personaes, and expression. This division defines and bounds our behavior among every dimension — religion, gender, sexuality, class, economics (consider how improper it is to ask someone’s annual income!), politics, and so on. Each of us does a pretty remarkable job of adapting to the varying definitions of proper and improper behavior in each context we move through in the course of our daily lives. At the same time, these boundaries can become contested — consider the furor over the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Texas’ sodomy ban (in Lawrence et al. v. Texas). The advent of the Internet has posed one of the greatest challenges to these "hard" boundaries in recent years, confouding efforts to adequately define public and private spaces and often shifting behaviors that were once considered "private" into the "public" eye, and vice versa. It is telling that Tribble contrasts the public exposure gained from blogging with the "privacy" of face-to-face interactions in such public venues as cocktail parties and classrooms:
We’ve all done it — expressed that way-out-there opinion in a lecture we’re giving, in cocktail party conversation, or in an e-mail message to a friend. There is a slight risk that the opinion might find its way to the wrong person’s attention and embarrass us. Words said and e-mail messages sent cannot be retracted, but usually have a limited range. When placed on prominent display in a blog, however, all bets are off.
What seems to bother Tribble here is not so much the comments themselves (after all, one would think an academic would have a bit more worry about inane comments made in the classroom!), but their iterability — their capacity to be repeated and, in being repeated, to escape the control of their author. The appropriate public venue for academic speech is publication, after passing through layers of vetting and peer review to minimize the consequences of iterability. While off-hand comments made in person are, in the Derridean sense, iterable, their lack of a permanent material form somewhat limits their impact. By writing on a weblog, though, the author grants his/her comments the permancence of publication without the benefit of academic screening. (An argument that might seem surprising to anyone with any depth of experience on the web — pages come and go with a surprising suddenness! For example, in the post on "iterability" I just cited, a link is broken, and the post is less than a year old. Tribble answers this argument bypointing to mechanisms like Google’s cache: "Even if you take your blog offline while job applications are active, Google and other search engines store cached data of their prior contents. So that cranky rant might still turn up.")
Iterability seems to lay at the heart of Michael Gee’s case as well. Consider, for example, Robert MacMillan’s commentary at the Washington Post:
But just because his words are gone doesn’t mean they haven’t been preserved elsewhere… like right here in this column, and over at Boston Sports Media, where blogger David Scott posted them on July 15 so the rest of us could wonder at them…
A fellow BU prof, Michael Feldman (writing as "the Dowbrigade"), adds these comments in his own response:
As regular readers will note, the Dowbrigade also works at a Major Boston University, and over the years we have had our share of "hot" students, but we would never dream of saying so in a public posting.
Gee could not have been fired for having "hot" students — professors cannot very well have a policy forbidding attractive women from enrolling. He also could not have been fired for noticing the "hotness" of his student — unless a professor is blind, s/he is going to have students that s/he thinks are physically attractive, whether in relation to their own standards of physical beauty or to those of society at large. Where Gee transgressed was in letting it be known that he found a student attractive (Feldman highlights the "sloe-eyed Sabra" part of the comment as a racial slur, but I don’t think this is the primary reason for Gee’s dismissal)– that is, in exposing the always-present but always-suppressed private reactions of a professor to his/her students (on whatever grounds) to the public eye. We professors are supposed to be neutral with regard to our students, to judge each of them solely on their ability to master the material presented in the class, not on their physical attractiveness, political beliefs, personality quirks, financial status, or any other individual quality (except, maybe, inasmuch as it contributes to their greater or lesser mastery of the course material). By making his private reaction public, he made the illusion of professorial neutrality more difficult to perform not only for himself, but for academics in general.
Gee’s offense lies not so much in his private reaction as in the his public puncturing of his (and his professorial colleagues’) professional image — which is also the offense committed by Olen’s nanny Tessy. Time and again, Olen notes that there are "things I didn’t want to know" about her nanny, things that, eventually, so punctured Olen’s image of what a nanny is supposed to be that she ended up firing Tessy. Now, nannies already blur the line between public and private — they are employees who are paid to take care of their employer’s children and household, but they are also "part of the family", often living with "their" family and certainly privy to many of the most intimate details of the family’s life. For many women — especially, perhaps, of the New York liberal career-woman type — the illusion of "nanny as family member" is crucial to what is, after all, a rather exploitive work relationship. As long as Tessy could be viewed as "one of the family", Olen was comfortable with the arrangement; but when she started reading posts that described Tessy’s nannying as "work" and her employers as just that, "employers", Olen’s comfortable illusion was shattered:
Most parents don’t like to think the person watching their children is there for a salary. We often build up a mythology of friendship with our nannies, pretending the nanny admires us and loves our children so much that she would continue to visit even without pay.
Without that "mythology", Olen literally grew disillusioned with Tessy’s performance.
Each of these cases presents an act of discipline, in which a person is punished for their transgressions against the supposedly hard and fast boundaries between public and private expression — which Tribble and Olen, in their decision to "go public" and write about these punished transgressions, have made to act as a warning to the rest of us (Tribble’s weak objection that no candidate was passed over solely for blogging notwithstanding — the intent of his piece is clearly to warn would-be academic bloggers to keep their mouths shut). But what does this say about the nature of employment in today’s American society? With Tribble’s and Olen’s cases, the real discomfort came not so much in their employees’ (or prospective employees’) lack of qualification for the job at hand, but in their suspicion of an active life outside of work. Although Gee’s transgression touches more directly on his ability to do his job, it must be noted that there is little in his comments to suggest that Gee would be impartial in his grading practices or as a teacher — if anything, his post seems like the effort of a new professor (he had worked as a reporter the prior 17 years) to deal with the realities of his situation. How do you deal with a student whose physical presence is distracting?
In each of these cases, it seems to be the fact of merely having an "unauthorized" — that is, non-work-related — private life that is being punished, reflecting an effort to extend the discipline of the workplace — of public life — into the worker’s private life. The epitome of this attitude can be found in Henry Ford’s Dearborn, a model community where news, church, even appropriate recreation was provided by Ford’s agents — and where workers’ home lives were monitored as well. While ostensibly protecting the boundary between public and private, the employers in the cases mentioned above are all in effect defining what their workers’ appropriate private life should be.
In this respect, the act of blogging/posting becomes problematic not so much for the inability of the author to control the reception of his/her words, but for the inability of his/her employer to control the private life of the author. The act of posting becomes evidence of a deeper transgression than just misrecognizing or refusing to recognize the boundaries of appropriate public behavior; it shows the failure of the employer to adequately discipline his/her worker, or the failure of the worker to adequately conform to the expectations of his/her employer. In the end, though, both transgressions amount to the same thing — in the face of an employment regime determined to draw ever-smaller boundaries around the private, rejecting those boundaries is in itself evidence of an "unauthorized" private life. Which is why, I would venture, blogging has caught on in such a big way; in the face of greater and greater incursions on our private life — not just by employers, but by government, social advocates across the political spectrum, religious organizations, black-hat hackers and identity thieves, and ever-tightening security in retail facilities — blogging has provided a way to "push back", to assert a private life that nobody owns, ironically enough by making it public.