One of the paradoxes of academics who blog is that we practically grovel for name recognition in all of our official work. You get published in your field and your name is the currency that helps you get a job, keep a job, earn tenure. Scientists tussle over who gets to be lead author on a paper. Yet academics who blog tend to go underground, taking on a pseudonym and often not revealing their blog to their colleagues.
It’s not just bloggers who do this. Authors of personal essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education routinely use pseudonyms, too. This practice recently came under fire in the Chronicle with an article by Peter Plagens hyperbolically titled “The Dangers of Anonymity”:
I understand why Valerie Plame might want to use a pseudonym, or why Larry Summers probably should have used one, but I don’t understand why so many academics, even when writing fluffy little “casuals,” think they have to use them. The practice is particularly common in The Chronicle’s Careers section, with articles that are neither scandalous personal confessions nor heroic acts of whistle-blowing.
Plagens’ argument boils down to his accusation that these authors are, in a word, “chicken.” He sees no reason why people can’t use their real names while complaining about leaky faucets or airing their fantasies of being a biker chick.
The specific authors Plagens attacked got a chance to respond in the Chronicle. They very reasonably said they didn’t want to be Google-able from here to eternity by current students or future employers. They pointed out that academic freedom is pretty damn fragile if you’re untenured, and that Plagens’ proposed remedies for discrimination – suing your colleagues’ asses or getting a shiny new job – are un-amusing and often infeasible. Even barring serious repercussions, these authors are reluctant to poison relations with co-workers who’d dread appearing in an essay lampooning them or their department.
But none of these authors addressed what I see as the biggest barrier to using one’s real name: the threat of not being taken seriously. Dr. Crazy hints at this issue in her blog, Reassigned Time:
Sometimes people want to write about the mundane. Tragically, the mundane does not generally accord one professional accolades. While it’s true that one might not face profoundly negative repercussions (like not getting tenure) for writing such things under one’s “real” name, one also will not receive professional accolades. In a culture of tenure and promotion that depends upon accolades, well, it certainly doesn’t make sense to write about the mundane under one’s “real” name. Why? Because, well, it makes one seem mundane as opposed to outstanding, which is what tenure committees even at the most lame universities seek.
Yes! And in fact, if you look at the quotation I grabbed from Plagens, you can see from his use of the term “fluffy little ‘casuals'” that he doesn’t just object to anonymity or pseudonymity, he’s sneering at anything less than Deep Serious Intellectual Texts.
Writing about anything personal can quickly be perceived as not just mundame but frivolous. Sure, once you’ve achieved a reputation through more conventional channels, you may get away with publishing glimpses of your personal life. (I’m thinking of the autobiographical portions of Susan Bordo’s wonderful The Male Body or Jane Gallop’s Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.) But if you’re not already famous, you tread lightly. Academics and network news anchors are about the only remaining professions where “gravitas” seems to be regarded as a basic job qualification. (This is no longer even required of the POTUS, as evidenced by the Current Occupant.)
Academics who blog bump up against the prevalent academic norm that there’s no such thing as “spare” time. You ought to be devoted to your job 24/7, living a sort of modern-day monastic life. Which is why parenthood and motherhood are too often regarded as crippling one’s chance at a tenured position (whether that’s true or not in any particular case). (Note that failure to win tenure doesn’t just mean job insecurity; it often means unemployment and a strong chance you’ll never work in your field again.)
There’s also a gendered dimension to this. Insofar as women are still taken less seriously in many academic disciplines, there’s probably more pressure on us not to appear too frivolous. We’re also still more closely associated with the body, which means that if we blog about mothering or sex or anything else with a major corporeal dimension, we may play into stereotypes and again provide fodder for those colleagues who still have (usually unarticulated) problems seeing women as their equals. We’re also too quickly presumed to be mired in our personal lives.
All of this can vary, depending partly on your discipline. Women remain highly marginal in many of the sciences, but indefinable bullshit like gravitas seems to matter less there. In the humanities, women are quite prevalent but a certain tweedy seriousness plays more of a role than in the sciences. (Picture the historians who appear on TV as talking heads. Doris Kearns Goodwin is the only female, and she sure does the tweedy thing.) In the program where I currently teach, women’s studies, none of these intangibles seem to be very important. I’d have no problem with my colleagues reading my blog; they’re wonderful and real people. But we’re also marginal to the rest of the university.
Being pseudonymous can offer some nice positive benefits, too, as the Chronicle commentators point out. When you detach from your real-world identity, what you write can more easily be read as universal. You can develop a different voice than you might use in your other writing projects. You can explore personal topics frankly. You tell the truth, as you see it, without embarrassing innocent bystanders. All of these benefits apply to pseudonymous academic bloggers, too, as Profgrrrrl has thoughtfully explored.
Is this irresponsible, much less “dangerous,” as Plagens suggests? Dr. Crazy notes that there’s a big difference between pseudonymity and anonymity.
Pseudonymity … is not about being untraceable but rather about taking on a traceable identity that is distinct from one’s legal identity, or one’s identity at birth. It’s about taking on a “pen name,” a name that people can follow, and by extension a way of thinking that people can follow.
If you use a pseudonym, you develop a consistent persona over time. In fact, it’d be really hard to do otherwise. You also feel a sense of responsibility to your readers. As I learned last week when I got attacked by Clintonista partisans for blogging on the O’Bleness story, I felt no less beholden to getting it right just because I wasn’t using my legal name. I carefully re-examined what I’d written, and precisely that self-scrutiny let me feel confident that I hadn’t distorted the truth insofar as it could be known from a sparse set of facts.
I was also grateful for pseudonymity when I started getting hateful comments. Someone who really wanted to track me down could do it, but I haven’t left a trail of bread crumbs leading straight to me. If there’s any danger lurking out there, it’s not from “chicken” grad students and professors airing their dreams and complaints under an assumed name; it’s from crazies and stalkers who’d like to put the chill on those of us they call eggheads, surrender monkeys, and feminazis. In this climate, I’m happy to share a name with the world’s yummiest cherry tomato.
Gratuitous crocus photo from my garden, taken about a week ago.