A week ago Christopher Rollston wrote a blogpost titled “From Washington to Jerusalem: Personal Reflections on a Year to Remember” wherein he recounted the series of events that led to his forced resignation from Emmanuel College in 2012. Rollston’s troubles began with a blogpost on the Huffington Post where he pointed out how women are marginalized in Scripture. Although he was a tenured professor, who was both well-like and well-respected by the students and most of his colleagues, he found himself on the wrong side of angry donors who disliked his view of the Bible, and as we all know, even in the Church, money makes the world go round.
Whereas there had been an epidemic among Evangelical institutions of higher learning resulting in the controversial dismissals of people like Peter Enns, Anthony Le Donne, and Michael Pahl for things they had written in books the story of Rollston’s trials and tribulations began with blogging. It may be just me, but it feels a bit more gut-wrenching to have your career upended by a short blog post than a published book. Why am I mentioning this story? Well, I think the relevant take-away point for my purposes is this: if a tenured professor can have both life and career temporarily derailed because of a blog post you better believe a student’s can as well.
A few weeks ago I asked people to contact me if they as students or graduates seeking employment had found that their blog had become more of a hinderance to their success than an asset (see Burnt by Blogging?). Several people contacted me and their stories (which I will not be sharing here, but which I will be including in my paper in a skeletal form that protects their anonymity) added to my conviction that blogging has the potential to up-end or significantly complicate career trajectories. Even more disconcerting is the reality that most people do not know that their blog has prevented them from being considered for this scholarship or that job opening in the religious studies department because no one tells them that their blog was a factor.
It has been said, jokingly, that people of my generation (I am thirty-one years old) will never be able to run for the presidency because of social media. It will be far too easy to dig up dirt on us. Our whole lives have been put on display and (ironically, lest digital luddites have reason to boast) those who have no social media presence are even more suspect—what are they hiding that keeps them off of Facebook?! This is true of many people who want to be doctoral students or who want to have a job in anything related to biblical, religious, or theological studies.
As I have learned as a blogger it is almost impossible to avoid writing something that will offend someone. It may be that you espouse a view on a matter that others reject, or you may get into a “debate” in the comments section that can be perceived as somewhere between uncomfortable and ugly. Inevitably, someone will come across your blog and you will be judged by your online persona. In a recent email correspondence with Marc Cortez of Wheaton College (formerly my Th.M. advisor at Western Seminary and a mentor and friend now) he shared this insight (shared with permission):
…many academics, and particularly those in academic administration do not understand blogs. As you know, blogs are their own genre and need to be read/interpreted in the right way. People who spend most of their time with academic journals come to blogs with the wrong set of interpretive criteria and walk away with the wrong conclusions. That potentially means that you’re putting up a lot of material with your name on it that is likely to be misread by the people who control your future.
Then he went on to say that many people don’t understand the “exploratory” element of blogs. That is why this blog has the following disclaimer on the side:
I use my blog to “think aloud,” to have conversations with people interested in the same subjects that interest me. I don’t think I’ve ever blogged a personal credo of any sort and if someone cared to do the research it would be quite apparent that many of the things I write may not reflect my opinion several weeks from now! If the genre of blogging is not taken into consideration than blog posts will be misunderstood. For the most part, blogs should be understood as a written form of a classroom discussion, not as a position paper, not as a journal article, not as a proposal for publication, not as the answer to application questions. It is a place for discussion. Sadly, many people do not know this and their unfamiliarity with the genre of the blog may result in their misunderstanding of what you’ve written.
There are many ways that a blog can ruin your public reputation. I’ve touched on some aspects related to academia and being misunderstood, but it is altogether possible that you might just have a bad day. What you write on your blog becomes a record of that day and if your emotions get the best of you it may be that long after you forgot about what you wrote someone who wants to know more about you comes across it. This is frustrating because in essence you’ve made an official statement without ever being asked a question. An employee or admissions committee knows “your position” on a doctrinal or social issue and they never had to email you, phone you, or ask you in a face-to-face interview. Sadly, what you wrote in 2009 in the heat of the moment may not reflect your current views, but that doesn’t matter, because the genre of blogging is easily misunderstood. If you choose to continue blogging, be careful. You never know how what you say today on your blog may impact you tomorrow.
In my next post I will talk more about offending potential educators and/or employers.
See also: Introduction