Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Point of a Pseudonym, However Many Years Later

(But before I begin, you'll all be happy to note that I'm actually feeling quite chipper this morning and not rant-y and complain-y. Only two weeks left of the semester! Hooray! And then finals week! Yippee! This semester will come to an end! This is not to say that I won't whine or complain as these three weeks transpire - I likely will. And I do recognize how lucky I am - blah blah blah - it's just to say that even the lucky ones get into a funk every now and again. This semester, I've been in a bit of a funk. My job's been stressing me out, and I'm cranky. Some of my reasons for that are good, some less so. Whatever. It's my blog and I'll whine if I want to. Suffice it to say that this morning I don't feel like whining.)

So yesterday, riffing on this post by Tenured Radical, Historiann posted about blogging before tenure, and the conversation turned to pseudonyms and the idea that nothing on the internet is private and such in the comments. I thought all day yesterday trying to formulate a response, but everything I started typing seemed like me rehashing crap I'd already written about blogging and pseudonymity in the past. (And I'm too lazy to link to myself, so whatever. I've said a lot of stuff. You can search the blog if you'd like to read all that.)

But this morning, I feel like I've figured out what it is I actually have to write about these issues that isn't just recycled stuff. And it begins with this issue of the pseudonym.

Now, I've overtly outed myself (like accidentally wrote my real name instead of "Dr. Crazy" a couple of times), I've slightly outed myself (made myself easily find-outable), and I've had super-sleuth readers figure out who I am (which isn't all that hard). I've told people who I am. A lot of people. Professional type colleagues from other institutions, blog readers, other bloggers, friends, some former students, some colleagues. No, not everybody I work with knows about the blog. Mainly because it's a hobby. It's not some deep, dark secret, but just as I don't tell acquaintance-type colleagues about the ins and outs of my other hobbies and personal life activities, I don't announce to them that I blog. But so if all these people know the non-super-hero identity of Dr. Crazy, then why bother with the pseudonym at all?

1. When I started blogging, I chose the pseudonym on a whim. Everybody was doing it. I didn't know of anybody who wrote the kind of blog I wanted to write under her professional name. I had no interest in breaking new ground by being the first (esp. as I didn't have tenure). And I had no interest in writing a "professional" academic blog. I figure if I'm going to write stuff that edges toward the scholarly, I'm going to just write conference papers and journal articles and books. I also liked the idea that this was something that would not count toward tenure, promotion, or annual review. That this would not be another line on the cv. I still like that.

2. But I think it's important to note that just because I write under a different name I'm under no illusions that this is not "public" writing or that my real life self isn't accountable for what gets written under the Dr. Crazy moniker. What the pseudonym does, though, is that it creates a definite separation between "professional identity" and "personal identity." Think of it like this. If I go out for drinks with my friends, and I'm in a bar, I'm in "public." I'm accountable for my actions and for what I say. But at the same time, I'm not in a professional context. I'm in a social context. While it's true that something that happened in a social context could have bearing on my professional life, most of the time, that's not going to be the case. The problem with online identity is that there isn't the clear physical distance between professional and personal, if one uses the same name for both. Google doesn't distinguish between "here this person is writing socially" and "here this person is writing professionally." And let's face it: this profession invades lots of parts of our personal lives. In order to write about stuff that isn't necessarily cv-worthy, I need to create some sort of physical distinction between my cv-worthy identity and my social identity, in a medium that has no physical boundaries. The pseudonym is the way that I found to do that. When people talk about the use of pseudonyms in blogging, though, they often talk about those who write under pseudonyms as wanting to be unaccountable or as being stupidly naive about the potential to keep their real life identities "secret." Look, if I wanted to be private, I wouldn't be blogging. Just as I wouldn't go out with friends to get a drink if I didn't want to be out in public. But just because I'm out in public doesn't equal that I want all of my public activities to be part of my annual review.

3. So when it comes to the question of whether blogs should be considered in people's professional evaluation, in my case, the answer is I don't see why anybody would be assisted by evaluating this blog in that way. Sure, people would find out things about how I feel about my job on a given day from it, or they would find out my attitudes about the broader profession. But you know, people find that stuff out from what I communicate directly to them. I've written nothing here - even in my more whiny posts - that I've not said directly to my colleagues (though more often with less cursing). And I don't need the blog to beef up my cv. But do I care if people know about the blog? Eh, not really. It's just not really relevant in most contexts that I write it.

4. But so you may be wondering why I don't link the blog to my professional identity, esp. now that I've achieved tenure, when so many people know the real-life lady behind the pseudonym anyway. If I've got nothing to hide, you might say, I should do that. Well. I've thought long and hard about that. Pre-tenure I had fantasies that I would do so. But I haven't. Why? Well, partly it's because I've grown attached to the identity of Dr. Crazy. (And, as Historiann wrote, that name is a sort of "brand" in the academic blogosphere, and it would be weird if I monkeyed with that.) In this space, I've developed a particular voice, a particular persona, that feels comfortable, and I'm afraid that I'd lose that if I slapped my name all over the thing. Also, I still like the fact that the pseudonym preserves a distinction between work-writing and social-writing, which I think is good for me. But there's another reason, too. It's also that I've found that many readers like to think of Dr. Crazy as Dr. Crazy. Even when they learn my "real name," they often think of me as "Dr. Crazy" or feel uncomfortable addressing me by my actual name. This is true in both directions, meaning that I've revealed the fact that I'm "Dr. Crazy" to some real-life friends who had been reading the blog not knowing it was me, and that I've revealed my real-life name to some readers who didn't know me outside of the blog. I think that people for the most part like to think of Dr. Crazy as Dr. Crazy. And I'm ok with that. Since I don't have any desire to claim the blog professionally, I don't really see the point in sticking my professional name on it.

Here's the thing: blogging before tenure is not really this controversial thing. Lots of people do it. And even blogging with a pseudonym isn't exactly some controversial move, or doesn't have to be. Both are writing choices, like any other writing choices. I think at the end of the day you've just got to be clear that when you make choices in writing that goes out to an audience that you're responsible for them and that you may be expected to account for them in a variety of contexts, and maybe even contexts that you didn't originally anticipate.


feMOMhist said...

I think for academics of a certain age, to gloss the French expression, anonymous online identities are a well integrated part of our lives. I have multiple fictive online identities and happily live in that fractured online post modern condition. I blog anonymously, and I mean completely anonymously as in my spouse, best friends etc, do not know. Yet, I too am aware that someday that anonymity may be ruptured so I STILL self censor.

Ann said...

Thanks for your response, Dr. Crazy. Very well said. I think you're right that we are sometimes too simplistic when thinking about anonymity, pseudonymity, and our so-called "real life" identities. You illustrate very nicely how different blog personae are analogous to our different performances of our RL identities.

As someone engaged in writing a feminist biography, I've thought about this a lot, specifically with the name changes that women typically go through throughout their lives. Women change their names when they marry, remarry, and in the case of celibate women, they're renamed too when they enter religious life, whereas men (unless they enter religious life) keep their birth names all their life. All of this name-changing has been thought of as a problem for historians and biographers--for example, how to trace people whose names might change 3 or 4 times over the course of their lives through historical records, or even in the case of biography, by what name do we call our subjects? But I've argued that these name changes can and should be seen as more accurately reflecting the changes all people go through as they grow up, age, move around, do different things, etc. IOW, I think there's a kind of false projection of a stable, unified identity by men's biographers, and an illusory confidence that men's identities don't change because their names stay the same.

So, I really appreciate your response here, because it seems to speak to some of the same issues that interest a lot of feminist scholars.


Annie Em said...

FYI: Just started watching this video posted on The Valve, and it seems relevant to this posting: http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/academic_blogging_panel/

Another Damned Medievalist said...

What a nice post. I said something like this is a talk I gave last year, but not nearly as eloquently :-)

JaneB said...

Really nicely put - I agree strongly with the way you argue that a pseudonym is a clear sign that you are in a different writing space than your work/professional space, like a nom de plume which allows a 'serious' author to crank out successful romances or whatever. Performing different selves in different physical/social spaces is entirely natural to us, we learn it from a very early age (all those stories where moms don't recognise the good, quiet child being praised by the teacher as the rambunctious creature they see at home...), but we're still trying to learn how to do it in online spaces.

Susan said...

Nicely put. I would add that some of your posts on teaching would, I think, be relevant to a review, but I completely get not wanting to go there. And I love the thought of your pseudonym as a way of establishing that "you are out with friends for the evening and not at work".

Dr. Crazy said...

FeMOMist: Here's the thing: I totally get what you're saying about being able to inhabit multiple identities, whether online or otherwise. But I would resist, however, the idea that the identities that inhabit, whether online or otherwise are "fictive," anonymous, or secret. This is not to disparage your choice to manage your online life as you do, nor is it to indicate that there is one "right" way to manage online identities. It is only to say that I do not conceive of my own identity (online or elsewhere) in these terms.

Ann - thanks for the comment, and sister, you know that we are totally on the same page. I actually love how you connected what I talked about to your research. I really think that what you're working on is parallel with the issues that are in play with online identities that women choose to (or are compelled to) inhabit. True confession: one of the most attractive things to me about a pseudonym in the first place, other than that all the cool kids were doing it, was the literary tradition of pseudonymity. I was really interested in the way that women chose to don a particular identity for the purpose of writing, and I still think that this is an interesting enterprise, both for the way that it masks "true" identity and for the way that it "liberates" women from certain conventional constraints, even as it authorizes their writing. All of this is very theoretical, but DUDE it is so interesting.

Annie - Thanks for the link, and I did enjoy watching it. I have other things I want to say, but I'm not sure they're appropriate. I guess I'll leave it with that I probably will never participate in such a dialogue. At the end of the day, I really want blogging to remain off-cv. I have no interest in presenting myself as an "academic blogger" although I blog while academic. I have no interest in promoting my professional identity through my blogging identity and I see my professional identity as very distinct from my blogging identity. (Now. Maybe my ideas on this will change in years to come.) That's not to disparage those that do present themselves in that way - only to say that it's not something I'm interested in doing or comfortable with doing at the moment. I like the fact that Dr. Crazy is not Tenured Professor Lady at Regional University in one-to-one relation. I don't know if that makes sense, but that's how I feel.

ADM: You're too modest. There's no way that this dashed off thing was more eloquent than what you said in an actual talk. Seriously: I wrote it this morning over coffee. And I know you must have given this stuff more thought and more research than I did.

JaneB: thanks.

Susan: Maybe those posts could be relevant to review, but here's the thing: I think that real service means that it's not about getting rewarded. It's not about relevancy. I know this is partly why I'm an idiot. But seriously? I love that the blog is "pure" of professional concerns. I love that the blog is about generosity rather than about getting a leg up. The reason I don't want my blog to count, at the most basic level, is that I want a way to serve without it being about my gain. I know that's dumb, but that's the truth. I want for there to be some version of service that isn't about my own ambition, if that makes sense. I want there to be a way for me to give back or to give that isn't about my own advancement.

PhysioProf said...

Awesome fucking post! My experience has been that those who complain that pseudonymous bloggers are "exploiting" pseudonymy to behave "unaccountably" are a bunch of cheezass douchebags who are always waving around their "credentials" like some kind of huge schlong, and are jealous that uncredentialed pseudbloggers have a fuckton more credibility than they do based solely on the compelling reality of what they write.

Bavardess said...

Your point about having a distinct 'persona' as Dr Crazy is a good one. I blog under a pseudonym, but many IRL friends and colleagues know who I am and read my blog, so it's no big secret. But for me, it is a place where I pursue subjects and ideas in ways that are different from the work I do under my real name. I think of it kind of like a 'pen name'. For example, you know the type of writing and the subject matter you get from, say, Ruth Rendell or Agatha Christie is going to be quite different to what you get when she is writing as Barbara Vine or Mary Westmacott. It's more about setting certain expectations in the reader than shielding the 'real' identity of the writer.

I guess it's different for bloggers who use the medium to criticise, attack or expose identifiable people or institutions (often with good reason - there's nothing wrong with that when it's done well). In that case, the pseudonym/anonymity may be a vital protection from legal or career repercussions.