Thursday, April 03, 2008

Quick thoughts on pseudonymity

At the Chronicle, Peter Plagens has a column opposing anonymity for "First Person" columnists, and the three people he calls out for it respond by saying why they'd prefer to be anonymous. Plagens's points are more or less these:
  • Don't be such a chicken about getting tenure. Heck, if you're denied tenure, you can always sue the university. [Yeah, that's a great option.] You didn't want that job anyway; just go find yourself a new one. That shouldn't be too hard, not in the job market these days.
  • Don't hide behind academic freedom. You were worthless toadies before getting tenure, and getting tenure isn't going to improve your Uriah Heep-like qualities.
  • And your personas are boring, too!
  • What you're writing is pretty dull and general stuff anyway, not like the column of a certain P. P.

    Dr. Crazy and Profgrrrl have responded beautifully and at length (and with much less snark) on their blogs, Dr. Crazy addressing the pseudonymity versus anonymity issue and Profgrrrl explaining patiently why someone might not want to have blog posts be the first thing you see when you Google someone's name.

    I admire the people who post under their own names, like Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Miriam Burstein, Claire Potter, Amardeep Singh, and Michael Berube, but I don't want to do it--and, to judge from the far more articulate blogposts about this, others don't, either. Why?

  • Blogspace is really more like the old Lingua Franca; remember that magazine? It went under in the early 1990s, I think. It was irreverent, and although it published good pieces, it didn't have to be deadly serious about everything all the time. It wasn't obliged to be the Newspaper of Record for academia, so it could take some chances. IHE and CHE are very nice, but blogs also have a part to play in talking about academics.
  • In his discussion about tenure deliberations the other day, Dean Dad said something interesting: he said you could either have transparency or tell the truth, but you couldn't do both. Some of his commenters disputed the idea that this applies to tenure deliberations, but it does apply to blogs. I'm not saying that those courageous people with named blogs aren't telling the truth, but I do think that the kinds of things they can say might be different.

  • The biggest difference might be this: if everyone posted under a real name, would bloggers feel equally free to be, well, silly? funny? tired? stuck in the process of writing something? Some might say that these aren't feelings that ought to be shared, that the people who write this would be mere "bloggers" and not true "academic bloggers."

    In short, your blogging identity, as opposed to your scholarly identity, is more or less in your control. In real life, whether something is published or not, what people think of your scholarship, and so on are all outside your control. In blogworld, your identity depends on how you present yourself: honest, irreverent, angry (like the Angry Professor), or whatever else you choose to be. Plagens might say that this is inherently dishonest, because you're not using your real name, but then, does blogworld have to answer to the demands of the real world, or just to report its absurdities? I'd say the latter.

    Anonymous said...

    This issue is so interesting. For me, though, it is clear cut. I have to embrace the anonymity that blogging can afford. I like to use it as a place to say all the (usually rude) things I could never dream of saying as a professional.

    As a new PhD, I am still in the process of forging my professional identity, but I still love (and need) a place where I can write about all the experiences that are part of that without fearing that my honesty will cost me my current or future job. It is absolutely true, for me, that I would never be able to be as honest as I am if my real name were attached.

    Anonymous said...

    i'm beginning to feel, as the old radio comedian fred allen once said, like i'm being "nibbled to death by ducks." my own fault, obviously, for stepping into this pond. but look:

    1. i wasn't talking about blogs, only essays in a dead-tree publication in which most everybody else uses his/her real name as a byline. cute blogger pseudonyms are part and parcel of blogging. weird thing, though: the way bloggers jumped in and defended themselves against a non-existent attack on anonymous (or pseudononymous) blogging.

    2. another strange thing: this "honesty" business, as with "vague," the newly minted PhD who says "i would never be able to be as honest as i am if my real name were attached." honest? for all anybody knows "vague" is a 46-year-old cable guy who lives in mom's basement and fantasizes about being an academic, or is a disgruntled 70-year-old who was never promoted to full professor and who, having it in for everybody he/she writes about, exaggerates in the negative or even tells, uh, fibs, or is...well, anybody. niggling question: may a student in an anonymous blogger's class (assuming that the blogger indeed teaches) cite an anonymous blog in a paper for the class?

    3. i used to be on the fence about tenure. pro: academic freedom, protection against administration. con: deadwood sinecured faculty. now, because of reaction to my chronicle piece, and other things i've read, in the chronicle and on academic blogs, i'm confirmed negative, i.e., replace tenure with fixed-year contracts. why? because tenured faculty are apparently bullies who deny tenure to candidates who, although terrific teachers and researchers, might have said something critical on a blog or in a chronicle piece.

    4. i'm glad my daughter has graduated (kenyon, 2005). i don't think i'd like the idea of shelling out $40k a year for her to be taught by a generation of faculty so terrified by the prospect of not getting tenure that it gives meaningless, inflated grades to curry student favor on evaluations, and is afraid to make a critical peep under a real name.

    anyway, thanks for blogging on the piece and getting it a few more readers.

    --- peter plagens

    undine said...

    vague, I do believe the honesty/transparency thing that Dean Dad said, although I'm not sure that there is such a thing being as truly anonymous. I hope there is, but unless the blog is a private one, those of us who blog under a pseudonym had better be ready to defend or at least acknowledge what we say if we're willing to say it at all.

    undine said...

    Dear Peter Plagens--thanks for stopping by. Yes, you were talking about dead-tree columnists and not bloggers, and I was a little harsh (sorry).

    I think what got under my skin, though this wasn't what I wrote about, was this phrase: "WASP-y pseudonyms that reinforce an outdated faculty stereotype (why not 'Jacob Goldberg' or 'Akiri Muhammed'?)." Again, this doesn't apply to CHE columns, necessarily, but assuming an ethnic identity that you don't possess is, to my thinking, dangerous ground; think about Margaret Seltzer/Margaret Jones, for example, or Asa Earl Carter. Performing someone else's ethnic identity is different from the relatively harmless pursuit of establishing a blog identity. There's a kind of truth to what even pseudonymous bloggers do, although you're perfectly correct in what you say about the 46-year-old cable guy pretending to be an academic. One of the biggest differences between writing in blogworld and writing for the CHE is that the CHE has to be taken seriously, even in its opinion pieces, because the CHE, as the academic paper of record, has put its imprimatur on the writing. It's the big cheese, and we're just mice (or, okay, rats) nibbling at the outside.

    On the tenure issue: there's no question that it can be an abusive system in some dysfunctional departments, but it isn't like that everywhere. I can't imagine voting down someone because of a blog posting, and, in fact, have seen people who were noisily and consistently critical of the whole institution getting tenure. If every institution went to 5-year contracts, though, I would be very surprised if the following didn't happen: (1) a decrease in the overall salaries and benefits as increasing numbers of people competed for jobs with no job security; and (2) no one over the age of about 45 being offered a contract.


    Anonymous said...


    At last, a reasonable pseudononymous poster! Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou. At the risk of turning this into our own little two-person caucus, a few further comments:

    1. My point about WASP-y pseudonyms--which I assumed (possibly wrongly) that the CHE assigned--was that when pseudononymous pieces are bylined "Martin Smith" or "Jennifer Wellington" or some such, there's a subtle reinforcement of the stereotype of college professors as white guys with tweed jackets or white women with pearl chokers. I figured, why not put ALL sorts of names into a hat and pull one out randomly to assign as a pseudonym? "Performing" a gender/ethnic/racial ID other than your own is, of course, "dangerous. But with pseudonyms it's axiomatic, isn't it, that authors/bloggers/posters might well be doing exactly that--and not always to make their fictional genders/ethnicities/races look GOOD.

    2. Judging by the near-unanimity of response (especially on blogs) to my CHE piece, the chances of getting tenure after saying something critical in the slightest under one's own name that can be even remotely thought to apply to one's department or curriculum or colleages, is like the chances of staying out of jail in North Korea after saying that Dear Leader has an ugly haircut. Either most pseudononymous bloggers are paranoid hysterics, or the Academic Inquisition (as one might call it) is a lot worse than you or I think it is.

    3. Yes, fixed-year contracts in lieu of tenure are problematic (I kind of favor 3 years > 5 years > 10 years > 10 years, then back down to 3 years until retirement), but so is tenure. I know of several cases of septuagenarian tenured faculty clearly not up to teaching full-time and doing hardly any fresh research and publishing, who are hanging on simply for the annual salary increases and the pension boosts they insure, and who are preventing any new blood from coming into their departments and preventing a lot of young scholars from getting jobs. And where else other than the papacy and supreme court justices does one find the kind of "I've got MY job for life!" security one finds in academe? No wonder there's a lack of sympathy on the part of the general public for the travails of college professors.

    4. You didn't mention it, but a lot of women academic bloggers (at least I assume they're women if I take them at their pseudononymous word) say that threats, stalkers, and menacing are other reasons why they must use pseudonyms. This strikes me as probably statistically unsupportable (i.e., women professors are probably a exponentially safer in their jobs than letter carriers, supermarket cashiers, public defenders, hairdressers, or bank presidents of either sex), not to mention a little Willie-Hortonesque (i.e., the same kind of thinking that leads some white people to justify buying handguns when a black family with two male teenagers has moved in down the block). But you can't argue with fear, especially when there's always an anecdote or two that "proves" the fear is justified.

    --- Peter Plagens

    undine said...


    You have a point about the WASP-y pseudonyms. I like what Thomas Hart Benton did in choosing the name of a senator (and his great-nephew, the painter); maybe they could choose those or some other made-up sort of name that has no associations.

    I still think the only reason fixed-term contracts are tolerable now and pay a living wage is that tenure exists in other places. If this were a true free market, without tenure as an incentive and a corrective in the marketplace, the 5-year contracts would go only to people in the sciences and business. The humanities contracts would be for a lot less money and a lot less time.

    I've never thought about the fear thing--interesting.



    Anonymous said...

    I couldn't have my blog if it weren't pseudonymous. It isn't anonymous, at least not to everyone. Two of the people who know I have it are one of my department chairs and my dean.

    But I couldn't have it without being pseudonymous because it is a work of fiction. Fact-based, yes, but concentrated and vaporized (as Baudelaire would have said) out of my experience at various universities, not just the one I work in now.

    Anonymous said...

    ...although my X says my blog is dishonest. In reality I am a small time professor, but on the blog I am smart. That is a contradiction, says he.

    The Constructivist said...

    Any chance the pen names on CHE columns are, well, a joke?

    And you all are missing the #1 reason to write pseudonymously (try typing that 3x fast): your real identity turns into a secret identity, which means, you're a superhero online!

    undine said...

    cero, these posts are a kind of fiction. Did you tell your dean about the blog or did he/she figure it out?

    constructivist, I like the idea of being a superhero in some aspect of life besides that of ferreting out comma splices at a single bound.

    The Constructivist said...

    Originally I started out doing a duelling banjos debate thing in our local paper with a conservative libertarian colleague and friend, but we wanted to have fun on the blog--hence our Mexican-wrestling-inspired/superhero nicknames (speaking of which, I recommend Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange on this trope). Once I started commenting extensively under this name, it seemed easier to continue using it than starting from scratch (and figuring out how to reset my blogger profile).

    momo said...

    I like how someone named Peter thinks he knows more about what women faculty experience than the women faculty who have had those experiences. The assertions have, in fact, been supported by scholarship as well as anecdote, but Peter is not familiar with it, therefore it must not exist.

    undine said...

    momo, I had seen materials on that phenomenon (harassing women online) as it played out in online environments like usenet groups and so on, but I didn't realize that it extended to blogging.