Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Pseudonym Issue

So today Ed Whelan outed Obsidian Wings blogger "publius" as John Blevins, an assistant prof at South Texas College of Law. Publius is obviously pretty damn upset, but is taking it with class. Here's his explanation of why he chose not to blog under his own name:

As I told Ed (to no avail), I have blogged under a pseudonym largely for private and professional reasons. Professionally, I’ve heard that pre-tenure blogging (particularly on politics) can cause problems. And before that, I was a lawyer with real clients. I also believe that the classroom should be as nonpolitical as possible – and I don’t want conservative students to feel uncomfortable before they take a single class based on my posts. So I don’t tell them about this blog. Also, I write and research on telecom policy – and I consider blogging and academic research separate endeavors. This, frankly, is a hobby.
Privately, I don’t write under my own name for family reasons. I’m from a conservative Southern family – and there are certain family members who I’d prefer not to know about this blog (thanks Ed). Also, I have family members who are well known in my home state who have had political jobs with Republicans, and I don’t want my posts to jeopardize anything for them (thanks again).
All of these things I would have told Ed, if he had asked. Instead, I told him that I have family and professional reasons for not publishing under my own name, and he wrote back and called me an “idiot” and a “coward.”

As someone in academia, I am deeply sympathetic to this reasoning. The part about teaching is particularly important to me -- I've had fabulous experiences working with conservative students, and the idea that they might avoid taking classes with me because of my blog kills me. Now, I don't have a hard-core, Stanley-Fish-style "no politics in the classroom" kind of ideology about this stuff, and I would imagine that most students probably end a semester with me able to hazard a pretty good guess about some of my positions. And as an intellectual matter I define "the political" very broadly, so I can't really imagine how one would run a "politics-free" history seminar. There is no entirely neutral, universally unsuspect way to talk about the French Revolution, or the Algerian War, or the American sixties, or all the other stuff I teach about. But I believe that there is a way to run a classroom in a spirit of openness and profound respect for reasoned, well-articulated difference of opinion, and to avoid imposing one's own political beliefs on students. I worry about the ways that blogging about contemporary politics (which is not what I teach about) might make it more difficult to create that climate of shared inquiry and mutual respect. What if students who know coming in to a class that they disagree with me about prosecution for America's use of torture in the Bush years thereby become less likely to fully engage with the portions of the class devoted to torture in Algeria? What if they steer clear of taking my classes at all?

I do think that there are ways to tackle these concerns besides pseudonymity. (Beyond what one can do in the classroom, one thing that strikes me as important is to write a blog that forcefully defends its positions but nevertheless remains open to dialogue, respectful of genuine adversaries, and responsive to reasoned criticism. ) But I think that for a lot of academics -- and especially doctoral students or people without tenure, who have to avoid pissing off not only their students but also their advisors, hiring committees, tenure committees, etc. -- blogging pseudonymously will sometimes be the best option. This is especially true because blogging is just not designed to be a "careful" art -- you don't triple-check your citations, then stick it in a drawer for a week to get a chance to look at it with "fresh eyes," then check them again. You just write and post. I think this is a healthy thing -- it feels great to work on developing a more spontaneous and free-flowing, less tortured relationship to writing. But, look, for people trained to be extreeemely careful and conscientious about detail, like historians, it's also pretty scary. Doing it under a pseudonym at least relieves some of the haunting sense that what you're writing might end up in your tenure file, and lets you click "post." (I don't think, by the way, this means the blogosphere turns into a place where academics are relieved of responsibility for getting the facts right and being thoughtful about what they say -- in fact for most of us, after x years of Ph.D. programs and training in academic writing, being careless about that kind of stuff in any forum is basically unthinkable. Even under a pseudonym, we're still going to be insanely conscientious. We just might be slightly less neurotic about mistakes or overstatements or personal revelations somehow ruining our lives, and thus more willing to blog in the first place.)

So those are, I think, some compelling reasons for the pseudonym option being open. They're the reasons I'm doing this sort of semi-open-identity thing here myself (although anyone with google and twenty seconds could probably work out who I am), and haven't yet decided if I'm going to tell people I know about this blog. And yet, at least for myself, I'm ambivalent about it. I was disgusted by Jeff Rosen's gossippy smear piece about Sonia Sotamayor before her nomination, and I thought Glenn Greenwald's takedown of it (and lots of other blogger criticism of Rosen that followed) was dead on. So what's the difference between Rosen's use of anonymous sources and pseudonymous blogging? My gut feeling is that there is one, but -- especially given the trenchant nature of Greenwald's critique of the "professional reasons" excuse for allowing sources to retain their anonymity -- I'm having trouble articulating it. One to sleep on, I suppose. I'll return to this.

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