Monday, February 27, 2006

The Pseudonymity Meme

I don’t usually do memes, but this one spoke to me.

Is your blogging persona more serious than your real-life persona?

Less, actually. In real life, given the ‘public’ nature of my job, I have to choose my words carefully. This year I’ve learned just how eager some people on campus are to try to create issues and political drama out of nothing; as careful as I’ve been in the past, I’m even more careful now. On the blog, though, I can float ideas, think out loud, without worrying about the faculty union taking it as evidence that I’m out to get them. I have a freedom of speech on the blog that I lack in real life.

Do you think the only safe way an academic can write publicly is to write anonymously?

No, but for an academic administrator, it’s a good idea. Tenured faculty can write pretty much whatever they want. Untenured faculty have less freedom, but there’s a kind of freedom in relative indifference; even if people at your school found out, would they care? In my position, it’s pretty much a given that they’d care quite a bit. I think there’s a reason that I have the ‘candid administrator blog’ category pretty much to myself.

Do you think that your blog could ruin your career?

Yes. I certainly hope not; I’ve gone to some lengths to couch issues in structural, rather than personal terms. Writing “Bob is a dick” isn’t terribly useful to anyone else, and wouldn’t solve anything. Figuring out the structural mechanisms that allow dick-like behavior to thrive is both more useful and of more general interest, while also letting poor Bob off the hook.

Do you use a pseudonym out of fear?

Among other reasons, yes. Honestly, part of the fear is for my kids. I mention them from time to time, and I don’t know who’s out there. So they’re The Boy and The Girl.

What is the biggest drawback to writing pseudonymously?

Losing the c.v. line. I’ve had far more readers as “Dean Dad” than as myself.

I’ve also been subject to being dismissed as a fraud. When my ‘don’t go to grad school’ entry got picked up by some bigger blogs, some commenters started with “if he really is a dean.” I am, and it would be lovely to be able to use my real name, title, location, etc. But I just don’t think my campus (or the profession generally) is quite ready for that yet.

Has your blog allowed you to experiment with writing?

Yes, and that’s a blessing. When I started, it was mostly with mini-essays. Over time, I’ve mixed it up more, including transcripts of conversations with The Boy, open-ended questions, advice to readers who send questions, a playlet, and even a satirical compare/contrast essay. Mixing the genres has been one of the more gratifying parts of blogging. You’d be surprised how little room for, say, irony or satire there is in a dean’s memo. Yet irony and satire are as natural to me as breathing.

I’ve also discovered some wonderful writers through reading blogs. Bardiac, Aunt B., Dr. Crazy, and Bitch consistently produce interesting, timely stuff, Harvey makes me laugh out loud, and Danigirl is probably the best unpublished writer I’ve ever read. I hope she loses eligibility for that category soon.

Has anyone stumbled on your blog and found it accidentally?

Yes. Luckily, not from my own campus, as far as I know.

Have you outed yourself to any other bloggers?

Yes. I’ve chosen pretty carefully, and so far, everyone has been honorable. I’ve reciprocated, as far as discretion goes – in the “Ask the Administrator” letters, which are usually my favorite entries, I reveal only as much as the correspondent specifically allows me to.

Why do you use a pseudonym?

If you know the “Thomas the Tank Engine” series, you’ll get the reference: I want to be a Really Useful Blogger. While there are plenty of wonderful academic bloggers out there, they’re mostly either students or faculty. The administrative side is almost completely unrepresented. By dint of my idiosyncratic career path, I have a different angle on higher ed than most people, and one that’s mostly missing in candid public discourse. If I posted under my own name, I’d have to keep everything anodyne, which would pretty much guarantee banality. A pseudonym gives me the freedom to say what I really think, even if the thoughts are still only half-formed. I’ve received incredibly generous and thoughtful feedback (generally) from my readers, much of which has sharpened my own thinking and helped me on the job.

Honestly, although I’m sure an angry union rep could pick out a sinister-looking sentence here or there, I try to be constructive. Sometimes I need help with problems I’m facing, and the readers provide it. Sometimes I offer help to readers, by demystifying some of what goes on in the dean’s office. Sometimes I get ambitious and try to do larger structural issues, with mixed results. And sometimes I just write for comic relief, like the Curious George/Brokeback Mountain essay or the Elephants playlet; those get more hits than anything else I do. Kinda puts things in perspective.

(Thanks to jo(e) for starting this, and to Bardiac for highlighting it.)