Warning: long and meta

A recent post by Alun Salt at Archaeoastronomy entitled ‘Blogging and Honesty’ has re-inspired me to think about a subject that had its genesis at the IMC at Kalamazoo a few weeks ago. I had the pleasure of attending a session on weblogs and the academy, specifically on the topic of anonymity / pseudonymity and issues of identity. organized by Shana Worthen and Elisabeth Carnell, which led me to a set of not-new-but-new-to-me insights about this crazy medium. I urge you to read the liveblog post that gives a very good sense of what was said at the panel.

I decided a long time ago that I would make no effort to conceal my identity online. Basically, I don’t trust that anything I say anonymously will remain anonymous, so rather than say something that could later come back to bite me, I’d rather self-censor ‘at the source’, and just not say anything. Obviously this has the disadvantage that there are certain things I just can’t or won’t talk about publicly, which means that I have to find other ways to get them off my chest. Fortunately I have the Growlery, which is also public, but which I can filter and lock away from eyes not meant to see certain things. It’s just what works for me. When I started this blog, the distinction was not between ‘pseudonymous’ and ‘non-pseudonymous’ but between ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’.

But this does raise some significant issues of identity, because what exactly constitutes my ‘academic’ work? When I look out my office window and see a funny-looking sign, why is this ‘academic’? Or when I write extensively researched posts about particular aspects of English etymology, is this ‘non-academic’?

I may not have mentioned this before, but this blog was a present to myself upon attaining my present academic position. I had always had an interest in academic blogging, but I never felt I had the time or the energy while I was still working contingently. I am very fortunate that in my previous workplace I had enormous academic freedom that not all of my peers enjoyed, and I don’t think that the fear others have, of losing a job or saying something that affects a tenure decision, played a significant role, because by last year I’d been blogging for six years already, and had lots of practice with not saying stupid things that I would later regret.

I think one of the most important reasons why I started an academic blog under my own name, though, was to serve as a public voice for my discipline, my sub-disciplines, and my own crazy point of view. As Kristen Burkholder pointed out in the panel, medievalist bloggers can’t rely on pseudonyms to maintain their identity because the field is specialized. Well, let me tell you, anthropologists who study numerals are significantly more specialized than that, so unless I wanted to avoid any discussion of my actual research, pseudonymity wasn’t an option. I also see this place as a venue for sorting out ideas before they’re ready to publish, and announcing things that I actually do publish. So there’s that.

But as Julie Hofmann pointed out very rightly in her paper, there may well be issues of privilege involved here, because I am a white male, and have less to worry about my colleagues disparaging my blogwork as less than professional. And from what I can see, that’s true for medievalists – but perhaps less so for other disciplines. In linguistics, for instance, the existence of the big collaborative Language Log, which has been running since 2003 and whose non-pseudonymous authors are practically a Who’s Who of the discipline, almost certainly helps budding linguists and linguist-oids such as myself to make the leap without fear of repercussions. LL is authoritative, clearly the top of a hierarchy of linguistics blogs, and sets the gold standard. I don’t know of any linguistics blogger who’s unfamiliar with it.

By contrast, anthropology bloggers are more fragmented, partly due to the fragmentary nature of the discipline, and less prominent within the field. Yet there are also fairly few anonymous anthropology blogs. I’m not sure exactly why that should be. I wonder whether part of it is that anthropologists spend a lot of time in the field, in situations where their research is unique or nearly so. Weirdly enough, while being one of a small coterie of medievalists may encourage pseudonymity as a form of protecting one’s identity, being unique may encourage one to simply be ‘out there’ or risk not being able to say anything professional at all.

So, yeah, identity. Probably the paper that hit me the hardest in the panel was Janice Liedl’s on issues of identity. Because I spend a lot of time and mental energy thinking about how I’m going to come across to others. My dissertation supervisor once phoned me up during my first year of my PhD to tell me what a large superego I had (thanks, I think?). Of course my own persona here is constructed, and is different in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways from my persona over at my other public place on Livejournal – even though both are public. But I also think you could figure out a lot about my personality from hanging around here long enough, even though this is a professional blog meant for an audience interested in the sort of work I do.

And part of all of this being ‘out’ is about a public display of my identity as a scholar and as a professional – hopefully not narcissistically so, but rather, as a model for other scholars, and also for my students. A couple of the panelists pointed out the usefulness of blogging as a model for other scholars, for instance, what it’s like to be a professional, or what kinds of challenges academics face, and I think that’s right. And one of the only regrets I have about not being pseudonymous is that there are those things that I just can’t blog about here, because it would be grossly inappropriate on a professional level. Even though I agree most of the time with Dr. Crazy over at Reassigned Time, for instance, regarding how to relate socially with excellent students or unexcellent colleagues, she can say publicly things that I can’t.

And this is perhaps another difference: there aren’t too many linguistics OR anthropology blogs that take a strongly personal approach. Hofmann argues, rightly, that ‘academic life’ blogs that focus on the day-to-day goings-on in a professional’s life tend to be pseudonymous and written by women. But it seems to me that there are whole blogging cultures (roughly disciplinary in nature) that tend towards one voice or another. And so yeah, I think we need more anthropology blogs, period, but we also need more blogs that deal with the daily realities of anthropological life, not just research findings. We owe it to one another to engage in the sorts of discussions that serve not only as a model to our peers, but also to our junior colleagues – the students who will form the next generation of bloggers. Without wanting to imply any direct causation, I find it noteworthy that several of my former students from McGill have started their own blogs over the past six months – good ones, too! By blogging (pseudonymously or otherwise), we are engaging in a process of cultural transmission, akin to yet different from the face-to-face mentorship we take on in the classroom and the office (and, let’s be honest here, the bar).

Okay, maybe that sounds pretentious, and maybe it is pretentious. Hell, while we’re on the subject of identity, you don’t think my pretentions only exist here in the blogosphere, do you?

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8 Comments

  1. I like it! And I think you’re right — akin to, but different. I still worry about the seeming, yet not-always-true, egalitarianism of blogging. Status and hierarchy are much harder to negotiate on the internet, i think, and that may be even truer where those lines are not as clear in one person’s department, so that, frex, a student used to a very casual relationship with faculty may interact with other blogging faculty in ways that they see as unprofessional.

    • Yeah, it’s true, although it’s not only students, but also nonprofessionals, who may interact with faculty in a way that we might see as unprofessional. The difference is that there may actually be consequences for the students. Maybe that’s another reason to model good blogging behaviour for students non-pseudonymously, actually: to be able to gently note where those boundaries lie to someone we know personally.

  2. Pingback: Seen Elsewhere « Archaeoastronomy

  3. By blogging (pseudonymously or otherwise), we are engaging in a process of cultural transmission, akin to yet different from the face-to-face mentorship we take on in the classroom and the office

    I think you’ve hit it spot-on, here. What might previously have been communicated through personal conversations including classes, letters, conference discussions, or (sometimes) interactions in more permanent public fora like journals, is now often done via blogging. It’s a new medium, and I think for some things a better one, but the purpose remains the same.

    • Thanks. And I do think the transmission can be pseudonymous, and some of my favourite blogs are pseudonymous, but I worry that too much pseudonymous blogging could lead students to the conclusion that the medium is something to be wary of (e.g. the Ivan Tribbles of the world), which is something that I decidedly do not want to convey. So for me part of being ‘out’ is about modelling good professional blogging behaviour, just as I would model good conference behaviour or good book review behaviour or whatever.

  4. I would love to see more anthropology blogs (mostly because I could learn a lot from them!). I think that you’re also right that certain groups tend to develop particular ways of blogging. What I didn’t say in the talk was that I wandered in the wilderness for many years as a blogger, not finding kindred spirits. The only academic blogs that I found at first were antithetical to my personal ethos and approach (think Instapundit and the like). Only by exploring link after link off of some academic blogs did I start to find remotely hospitable blogs and, from there, the academic blogs that felt like home.

    What I hoped people would take away from the stories on identity was that psychological research is showing that, the more we use these online sites, the more likely we are to reveal something of ourselves. To think that a pseudonym will hide identity is very naive! That doesn’t mean that pseudonymous blogging is bad, but we all still should think deeply about tone and topic, however we blog.

    I’m thrilled to read about how you see your students taking up the next stage of academic blogging. I certainly hold out hope that our own students will start attempting more of this. Let’s get them out from Facebook and into the rest of the world, equipped with good examples and great academic work of their own to share!

    • Dear Mike Licht – In my experience most pseudonymous academic bloggers develop a well-defined online persona, which is usually not too far off from the real-life persona they have/use in many other contexts. I don’t know of any truly anonymous (i.e., they don’t actually use any name) academic bloggers – although there are certainly online anonymous commenters, which does require that one beware of trolls, etc. But in academic blogging (and again, this is all that my post is about – I wouldn’t be able to comment usefully on other genres), the three most ‘troll-like’ academic commenters I know (across several platforms – usenet, mailing lists, blogs, etc.) all use their real names, not pseudonyms.

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