Thursday, February 09, 2006

Botanical Girl's in trouble

I've been fuming ever since I read Botanical Girl's post Bridges Burned. Unfortunately, only now could I sit down to blog on this. Here goes:

A few days ago I linked to a post by Botanical Girl (a pseudonymous blogger) titled "What not to do on a faculty interview" (link no longer works; Botanical Girl has deleted the post), wherein Botanical Girl reported on shortcomings in a recent job candidate's talk. The post briefly summarized the situation, and then went on to outline some of the mistakes Botanical Girl felt the speaker had made.

Unfortunately, as one can read about in Botanical Girl's latest post, this has turned into a huge mess. As a result of her post, Botanical Girl was outed to her department and the job candidate, and is "now in the unenviable position of being the cause of an embarrassing situation for [her] entire department."

It's clear from her post that Botanical Girl is in a great deal of trouble; she says that her graduate school advisor "may wind up taking heat for [her] actions", reports that her original post has been taken to be "insulting", and as a result of all of this she's not sure that she'll continue blogging.

I believe very strongly that Botanical Girl has done nothing wrong in this situation; the post should never have been deleted, and she has nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. All Botanical Girl did was write a critique of a public talk; she did not include any personal attacks or smears of any kind, and simply related what she felt could have been done to improve the talk. That's it.

Making the situation even more interesting, Botanical Girl was completely anonymous until this event; she never used her name on her blog, and the only identifying information easily available on her blog was that she lived in California. Botanical Girl also never named the candidate; it's hard to smear someone you don't name when you write anonymously. Yet apparently some in her department believe that she has soiled the department's reputation. This view seems to be strong enough that Botanical Girl feels she must add the disclaimer "the views and opinions expressed here are solely my own, and do not reflect the views of my department and my school" to her blog. The idea that such a disclaimer might be needed is ridiculous; how could an anonymous blogger's opinion be considered to represent the department she's working in when she doesn't even say what school she's at?

But the issue of Botanical Girl being anonymous is actually beside the point; even if Botanical Girl posted under her true name and listed the name of the speaker, the post would still have been perfectly reasonable. Here's an example of the comments Botanical Girl made:
[Thing not to do #3].Make negative comments about your assistants
This is the one that really bugged me. Candidate put up a slide with some preliminary data: GUS localization on other genes in the same family. The images were quite intriguing and seemed to fit with the presentation. Until candidate remarked that "these were done by an undergrad and well...(big pause)....I'd really like to re-do them." Honestly I can't remember if they said they thought they were bad or just that theyd like to repeat, but the intention was there. Clearly this person does not trust the work done, and yet they put the images in a presentation for an interview. Either you stand by your work or you don't. Don't waffle around. If you don't trust the results you should have confirmed them before you left, or at the very least kept your mouth shut. I can't tell who stained the tissue from the picture. If you're knocking your colleagues now, why won't you do it to your post-docs and grad students when you get a professorship?
There's nothing personal in that statement; all that's there is a statement of what Botanical Girl believed to have occurred in the talk, and her response to that occurrence in terms of how she feels talks should be given. It may not be written in the exact style I'd use, but how is this embarrassing to the department? Is it somehow wrong to give someone negative feedback? It shouldn't be, but it sure feels like that's the reason Botanical Girl's in trouble.

When I re-read Botanical Girl's original post yesterday evening I noticed that the original speaker had posted a reply to Botanical Girl's comments. The reply was professional and attempted to clarify the speaker's intentions in the talk. While Botanical Girl may not have been intending to get a reply from the original speaker, this reply could have been the start of a very interesting discussion. Instead, now the discussion will not occur because it has been killed by departmental criticism of Botanical Girl.

Unfortunately, Botanical Girl has not passed her oral exams, so she's in a very tenuous position politically. It's unclear what the best course of action for her in this situation would be, but I think it would be a shame if she were to be forced to stop blogging simply for posting honest feedback about a public talk.

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