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Black Swan Blogging

Spencer has a post from near a week ago now where, in part, he talks about the difference between revising and rewriting. I take the former to be much more modest in scope, a tweaking of a basically stable text, while the latter, as Spencer observes, is a lot more messy and transformative. When I think back on the writing that I've done that I've considered successful, I can name the places where I did good work revising and also the ones that required rewriting.

I've been thinking about this distinction lately, because I think there's an analogous distinction to be made when it comes to organizations--perhaps someone's already made it, I don't know. But there's a difference between making tweaks to an organization headed in the "right direction" and trusting in its momentum on the one hand, and making large changes or having to generate that momentum on the other. It's not so much that one is right and one is wrong--I can imagine each is appropriate in particular circumstances, just as I've had pieces of writing whose needs for revision or rewriting have varied widely.

Problems emerge, though, when there's a clash between perceptions, when one person looks at a situation and sees "revision" while another looks at it and sees "rewriting." For the record, I'm neither person in this example, at least initially, but this is an oblique way of getting around to the fact that I've been sitting on my hands for the past week or so. I've been specifically not blogging what I hold to be a fairly important situation occurring in the background right now, and I say this knowing that some of my colleagues who read this may be after me to tell them what I'm talking about. Some of them will already know, and everyone else will just have to trust that I'm being intentionally careful for a reason, both here and in general.

This is sometimes the point where those of us who post under our birth names express a desire for a pseudonymous blog, some place where we can write through our thoughts, but that's not the issue here. There is no way for me to talk about the situation without tipping it off, so ingrained is it in our particular context. Instead, all I can do is not blog about it, but doing so makes it harder for me to post about more inocuous topics. Big changes have a tendency to seep into your spare thoughts, and even as I've started a post or two in the past few days, I find my mind drifting back to the big things, distracting me from my attempt to deflect my attention a little.

We don't talk much about the "not blogging" that we have to do sometimes--the examples we hear about blogging are all Dooce and Tribble--when for every person who missteps online, there are probably dozens who exercise judgment or restraint, or at the very least, think carefully about the implications of what they say and don't say in these spaces. A couple of weeks ago, in his CCCC talk, Thomas Rickert referred to Nassim Taleb's discussion of black swans, events that are by definition rare and unpredictable. I don't mean to suggest that showing restraint or good judgment is rare (!!!), but rather that there's something similar to the logic of black swan events and what I'm talking about here. Here's Taleb on our inability to understand risk:

Our system of rewards is not adapted to black swans. We can set up rewards for activity that reduces the risk of certain measurable events, like cancer rates. But it is more difficult to reward the prevention (or even reduction) of a chain of bad events (war, for instance). Job-performance assessments in these matters are not just tricky, they may be biased in favor of measurable events. Sometimes, as any good manager knows, avoiding a certain outcome is an achievement.

Although it's a little misleading to call it "black swan blogging," I suppose, I've been thinking of it in these terms. My own affective experience of "not blogging" is that it's taken a great deal of effort on my part to hold my tongue or my fingers, and yet, the page itself empties out as older entries fade into archive, and it looks like I'm just not engaged. There's a certain degree of engagement that is necessarily invisible, a threshold past which transparency can do more harm than good, and lately, I've been struck by how hard it is to articulate this idea positively. Harder still to recognize it and its value, when judicious restraint and inactivity look the same. Neither is as sexy as tales out of school about job searches and the danger, danger, danger of blogging.

That's all for the moment. Maybe it will have helped me a little to write about why it's been hard to write. We'll see.


The other day, I caught Debbie in the hallway or someplace and told her I thought one of her recent posts was both great and verging on wildly out of control in terms of comment-action.

"I know," she said. "I keep thinking I should post a dog picture or something."

For me, "posting a dog picture" or the equiv. is what I do when faced with situations like the one you dance around and finally discuss not topically (though we're all dying to know what's up!) but as a sort of exigence for the impass in your public writing here.

"Posting a dog picture" as a sort of tactic of the cover-up strikes me almost as decodable as "something's up." Instead of code and obfuscation, we get from you (here) recognition that there are, quite simply, things you feel you can't say in this space. I think we all could write volumes on that bird, black or otherwise.

How many, many times I've been in the same boat. And sometimes I've thought, maybe I should blog it anyway. Maybe my boss or colleagues will read it and get a clue and ultimately save face. Still, there are always things that are unbloggable. People comment on how open I am on the blog. I often respond, but I'm only giving you about 20%. I'm on a search committee right now that I'd love to blog about but I don't dare. Maybe when it's over.

Of course, you've now taunted us, but hey, the blog's for you. :)

You really pointed out what for me has been the difference between my blogging as a grad student and blogging now as a member of a department and on the tenure track. I don't regret my open blogging vs. pseudonym choice, but I have to more consciously choose or not choose to blog about certain things and still avoid filler.

Man, from the title I was sure this was going to be about Locke scribbling and scrapping his map-sketch in the Swan hatch last night on Lost. But no. This, which I'm going to need a UV light to decrypt.

Damn, Collin. You're reading my nonblogging mind. As for rewriting v. revising an organization, is there an equivalent of lighting a draft on fire?

Which is to say (chuckling non maniacally I hope): maybe someone else's comments are the place to let the fingers go, if only a smidge. Or group emails. Those are fun too. Dog blog!

Dog blog indeed!

I do feel a little bit better tonight than I did last, to be sure. There's really only a small margin of things that end up being unbloggable for me--I'm pretty consistent about not blogging about students, colleagues, searches, etc., but most of the time, it's for wont of anything bloggable rather than a great deal of restraint on my part. Not that I couldn't blog on those topics, I suppose, but I think my blogging eye is just focused elsewhere mostly.

Where I feel constrained are those times when I do want to level a little transparency at a process and can't for fear of having too much read into it. Like you, Laura, there were times when I wanted to blog during our search this year, but even when I thought about things not directly related, I came up against the possibility that it would get read as related. I've been in all sorts of situations where different folk were protected by opacity, so I'm sensitive to that possibility as well.

Ah well. None of this is particularly on-point, but even obliquely, it did light a fire under my writing ass...


For what it's worth--even if I were an anonymous blogger, I would still be uncomfortable blogging about colleagues, students and so forth. Even my personal blog is filtered so that I don't ever write about anything that I wouldn't own up to. Blogging creates a false privacy in that once you've developed friendships, it can seem like you're talking over coffee in the middle of nowhere, but you're not.

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