Wednesday, April 02, 2008

My Two (Anonymous) Cents

The topic of Anonymity is perennial -- see the most recent discussions of anonymity in The Chronicle of Higher Education and subsequent web-discussions (e.g. Zuska). I briefly mentioned the issue last year.

Is there anything new to say on the topic?

Some of the brave souls who rage against us Anonymous Ones say that we are damaging the public image of Academe. According to the anti-Anonymous writer in the Chronicle, Peter Plagens the Painter, we "skulk" (in fact, some of us simultaneously skulk and gripe, perhaps indicating a talent for multi-tasking?), we fear our stories might not "check out", and those of us with tenure have "no excuse whatsoever".

The particular examples in the Chronicle piece are perhaps not the best ones to choose for debating the reasons why an academic might choose to be anonymous. A thorough, thoughtful discussion of the anonymity issue would at least mention some concerns beyond fear of mild reprisals for saying, just as an example, that the Dean of my college is a robot.

Here's one of my many reasons: Safety. Every week I reject (delete) a number of obscene and/or threatening comments that are sent to me via this blog. I don't delete comments that say that I am a selfish, exploitative, cheap, racist man-hater, as long as there is some content to those comments beyond the criticism and epithets. I delete only the truly obscene and hateful comments whose only purpose, as far as I can tell, is to demonstrate that there are immature and sick people out there.

What if I weren't anonymous? (or, I should say, semi-anonymous, as some readers know who I am). Do I only get these comments because I am anonymous? I don't believe that. And why would I want these sick people to know exactly who I am, where I live, where my daughter goes to school? In my real, non-anonymous academic life, I have dealt with enough unstable people, including one who threatened my child, to know that I'd rather not expand my personal encounters with such people, even if most of them are just jerks who would never do more than try to post an obscene (anonymous) comment on a blog.

The anti-anonymous Chronicle essayist says that we anonymous writers might reinforce the view that academics are "fragile, frightened creatures". That sounds like the point of view of someone who has never been truly threatened. I don't spend my days feeling frightened, and I really would rather not. The fragility and fright mentioned in the article seem to refer to fear that one will be reprimanded for complaining about a lack of chalk in a classroom, not fear that someone will harm your child.

The obvious way to reduce my exposure to threatening people is to not have a blog, but I am not so fragile and frightened that I want sick people to control what I do.

I have picked a rather extreme reason to discuss today, but I chose it in part because I think that people like Peter Plagens the Painter are being unrealistic and sanctimonious in criticizing anonymous writers. Also, he chose to title his commentary "The Dangers of Anonymity", but he didn't discuss any real dangers, just trivial ones.

I probably sound angrier than I really am, but I think it is bizarre to suggest that anonymous writers are endangering Academe. I worry more about people who don't think through their arguments before piling on ridicule and accusations, and who can't imagine that anyone has a different experience than their own.


PhysioProf said...

I am convinced that those who rail against anonymity are weak-egoed credential-obsessed lickspittles who hate the fact that anonymous bloggers--and other writers--can develop tremendous influence and credibility in academia--and society at large--without relying on fancy credentials from fancy institutions. They are the kind of people who admire and tune thir CVs on a daily basis, polish their framed diplomas, but who no one reads, listens to, or gives a flying fuck about. It drives them berserk that they are ignored despite their credentials, while many anonymous writers are respected, admired, and even loved.

And BTW, something you alluded to that makes me feel great shame is the phenomenon of "blogging while female". Female bloggers, anonymous or otherwise, receive orders of magnitude more vicious, hateful, and threatening comments and e-mails than male bloggers, regardless of the content of their posts and solely for daring to speak publicly as a woman.

I am not exactly a milquetoast blogger, and I sharply criticize a lot public people, events, and things. But I am identifiable as male, and I never receive the kinds of comments and e-mails that you and other female bloggers do on a daily basis.

This is a disgrace, and it makes me sick, and sad, and ashamed, and you and every other female blogger out there--anonymous or otherwise--kick total fucking ass for not letting this patriarchal male garbage shut you up.

Jill said...

I like the fact that you are semi-anomyomous.
I envision a "coming out" party one day where you walk on to stage with a bag over your head and then remove it. We could also get Ms. Phd, Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde, physioprof,etc. and all the regulars to do the same.
It would be a party.

You are doing a great service for women in science with your blog. The problems that women in science face are real, and they are not going away. Departments are still not hiring female profs, mostly because men feel too threaten. What if a woman brings in more $$ than me, and has more students, even though my research is superior, blah, blah, blah.... Most men in Science are reluctant to add diversity. And what is happening? In my subfield, there are very few Americans anymore. As one of my male friends said, if our subfield wants more Americans why don't they treat us better? If we make the environment better for women, than the environment will be better for everyone else.
Keep up the service you are providing. I only wish NSF was paying you for it.

Anonymous said...

I would love to know who you are. I'm curious and I can be a brat when it comes to satisfying my curiosity (and isn't science the best job for people like me?). However, I'm not big enough of a brat to make up some ridiculous story about how you're damaging academia to try to shame you into coming out of the blogger closet =)

Peter Plagens said...


Thanks for posting on my piece in the Chronicle "Careers" section. A few small points:

Am I taking a risk in putting my real name on that piece because such people as "physioprof," who thinks that I'm one of those "weak-egoed credential-obessed lickspittles" who indulges in "patriarchal male garbage" might be as threatening to me as some of your readers are to you?

If anonymity is such a necessary protection, why not grant it to anybody who writes anything for publication? My colleague at Newsweek, movie critic David Ansen, received borderline threats when he negatively reviewed "Episode I" of the Star Wars films. Should the magazine have henceforth had their movie reviews bylined "Male Movie Critic"?

Blogs are a bit different than dead-tree media, though. Anonymity is a bigger part of the game in blogs. My piece said nothing about blogs; it merely protested the Chronicle "Careers" section's propensity for allowing pseudonyms on fairly low-voltage little essays--something that the Chronicle itself finds problematic (or they wouldn't have printed my piece).

If academic life is so dangerous, maybe professors ought to be anonymous in the classroom, e.g. teaching from behind a screen with an electronically altered voice, conducting office hours under a hood, and certainly nameless in the college's faculty directory, etc.

Anyway, thanks again for giving the piece a few more readers.

--- Peter Plagens

chall said...

Sometimes I think there is a better thing with being anonymous, or as others define it 'semi-anonym or psuedonomous'. Why? Well, since I don't think it matters if you are at IVY league uni 1, State college or University of Xtown abroad or if you are at 'named' university when discussing topics about research and science.

Maybe it is even better to have those things unknown to really get your point across? (I know that some people would get more credit for writing "I'm at Yale" and vice versa but still...)

That said, I do believe a pseudonym more that a 'anonym' but there is also that factor that ususally there are 'some specific people' who know who you are and therefore you do exist, if that makes sense?!

Regarding the openess and feeling threatened. I don't point out all aspects of my research (animal stuff) of fear of recieveing some [more] hate comments. If I was open with my name and instution? I'd be in trouble most likely since we are under obligation to send everything that can be linked to the [name of the ] institute via HR... but also that people could tag me IRL. I'm not writing a column in a paper, I'm writing to share thoughts with other "scientists"/academia/intersted people.

[since I am not the recipient of the answer provided by PP I refrain from commenting that one. Although, I must say the last paragraph is very unnecc. and kind of childish in its argumentation.]

Anonymous said...

Keep your anonymity for as long as you choose. You are not using it to make vulgar comments or personally damaging attacks on other people. Blogs do not have the formality of articles in Newsweek. They are a place to express personal observations and opinions, among other things, and are not restricted by the evidentiary support required of a university classroom.
There are too many righteous people with too much time on their hands who feel the need to delve in to the personal lives of people they disagree with. And plenty of them are other women. When someone we've never met can purchase our personal information (names, age, possible relatives, addresses, phone numbers, property values, income) for $39.99 from the web, we must guard protectively what little privacy we currently have.

Vodalus said...

Omg, physioprof, I think I just fell a little bit in love with you! It's good to know that the "blogging while female" phenomenon is something other men see too. All too many men like to pretend that it's not as bad as we claim.

Anonymous said...

Every comment I wrote so far on this blog has been approved by FSP. According to this post, I'm not some sick weirdo.

Take that smother!!! Er... I mean, mother...

chemcat said...

Dear Peter Plagens:
teaching can be dangerous indeed. My state is considering to pass a bill to allow concealed weapons and arms on campus. Concealed weapons permits are carried by former police members, veterans, etc (ie a good chunk of the population here). If the bill passes, my fist step will be to inform chair, dean etc that I will never ever tech Orgo again.
LAst thing I need is some weirdo with a firearm permit to think that I ruined their life by not giving them an A and burying their chances for med school...

Dr. Shellie said...

For me too, safety is a factor in blogging under a pseudonym. As I've alluded to here before, I have also had some unpleasant experiences with creepy and potentially dangerous individuals, and I don't want to make it easy for them to find my blog.

Fortunately, I am not getting any obscene comments or threats on my blog, probably due to my small readership of generally like-minded types. I like it that way. When I blog, I am not really looking for arguments, challenges, or contradictions. I get plenty of that in other areas of my life. All I really want to do is hang out and relax with people who understand what I'm talking about.

neurowoman said...

Mr. Plagens apparently doesn't realize that academic life CAN be dangerous - he must have missed the news of univ shootings. In the last several years, there have been two incidents of student threats here; in one case the guy is in psychiatric jail after they caught him with an arsenal. Other case a class was canceled and the female engineering professor is leaving due to the stress of an anonymous threat. Neither of these incidents make the news.

Add to that the threats against biomedical scientists by animal right wackos, it's amazing academics are as public as we are.

Blogging seems to have particular attraction to nutjobs, I'm stay anonymous too!

Keep up the good work FSP!

jope said...

I'm male, and while I'm not especially worried about someone stalking me, my family is a very different matter, hence I have always posted under a pseudonym and used nicknames for my family. Physioprof pretty much nailed it: Based on his original post and comment here, it sounds like Plagens has little identity outside of his professional self. Whereas your blog is interesting precisely because it does delve into the murky areas between professional and personal life, usually with examples from your own -- and thus at no small risk to the privacy of your personal life.

Rather than railing against supposed cowardice, the Chronicle piece could have taken a more practical angle of approach in its criticism: That "semi-anonymity" really gives only the illusion of security. All it takes to blow one's cover is for a single link between real name and nom de plume to be posted and then picked up by Google, et al. Not much of a hurdle, if someone is already hellbent on causing mayhem.

The solution is obvious: Pen-named posters should band together for mutual protection. But then, I'm always looking for an excuse to build an online consortium of colorfully masked vigilantes. =)

Anonymous said...

Once again Peter Plagens shows his inability to understand there may be experiences beyond his own. His friend received "borderline threats" as a response to a review, so you should be just fine with people make real threats to the safety of your daughter. Cuz it's the same thing.

vodalus said...

Peter, you might want to brush up on your critical reading skills (and familiarity with women's issues.)

"Patriarchal male garbage" refers to threatening "blogging while female" and not the kind of person with a 30 page CV.

Blogging while female also results in serious, graphic and generally overtly sexual threats being leveled for no obvious provocation. It's pretty well documented; the trouble with the issue is men failing to understand why these sorts of ludicrous threats make women bloggers genuinely afraid.

Perhaps its related to the fact that women professionals are subject to a disproportionately high level of sexual violence and threatening behavior in real life? FSP herself has detailed several distinct occasions where her safety was threatened by various persons in direct response to her position as a female professor. Other women routinely mention male students assuming physically threatening posture and violating personal space when discussing volatile subjects such as poor grades. Even if these are low grade threats, the constant accumulation of physical intimidation for daring to assert authority while being a woman takes its toll. Why invite additional threatening behavior of a more explicit sort in the "safe space" of a blog?

Some people want to use their blog or writing to create additional leverage for their career image. These people use their own names. Other people want to address issues that they fear reprisal for mentioning. These people publish anonymously. Some of these issues are more credible than others; so what? Publication carries as much risk as reward, so perhaps you should just trust the individual's judgment on which is more pertinent to their situation.

If the Chronicle is truly plagued by petty anonymous complaint articles, then why don't they just stop publishing them? This is actually a genuine question.

(Sorry to hijack, FSP.)

Anonymous said...

I don't see any reason why we should know your name. Would I like to know who you are? Definitely! Would it change my perception of you? Probably.
But as I see it, anonymous blogging is the only way to speak out on every possible topic - including ones that are politically (ademically politically that is) sensitive, or directly affecting others. After all, a blog is personal. It's a vulnerable glimpse of a person's soul stripped away from all outer decorum. Plus, with no safety net provided by a newspaper/organization/boss backing up this personal opinion, you'd be plain crazy (as well as giving up the privacy of the people you blog about) to do this under your real name.

Ms.PhD said...


It makes me kind of sad to hear that you get that much flaming. Mine has died down of late, but I thought yours was less than mine, not more.

I think I get as much anti-postdoc flaming as I get anti-female, although I've often wondered if people are less receptive to my analyses because my pseudonym is feminine, and therefore less sympathetic and more likely to accuse me of whining?

physioprof- lickspittles? that's a new one. yuck!

I think the only drawback to writing this kind of post is that it calls attention to people like this Peter guy.

Sometimes arguing back means you're giving them more respect and acknowledgment than they even deserve.

Among the other things blogging has taught me, I've learned that some arguments (and people) are better left ignored.

PhD Mom said...

For the six word meme, tag you're it. See here

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I want to respond to Peter Plagens. I agree with FSP that there can be many reasons for anonymity. Let's add a few to the discussion:

* When FSP is discussing some horrible behavior (and I join in, recounting some other disaster), we are focusing on the behavior, not the person behind the behavior. Being semi-anonymous (I know a few people who know who I am when I comment anonymously, and my own blog is similarly semi-anonymous). So this is actually to protect *them* from people quickly googling to find out who the Dean of FSP or the Vice President of EFSP is.

* I am also very comfortable with FSP not telling us who she is (or rather, where she is) even though I love looking for clues. That way I don't have to wonder if Mr. BigShot at the next conference is perhaps the specific instance of Prof. Troll she is talking about. Rather I can concentrate on using the good ideas I get here to neutralize him :)

* Even being semi-anonymous has its drawbacks - the other day I wanted to rant about a "Stu Dent" like ProfGrrrl does, and I realized that the student in question may actually read my blog, and I refrained from the blast because I was concerned that this might drive him off the deep end, as unstable as he currently is.

* I have even commented here anonymously, because I was concerned about someone figuring out who I am!

PhysioProf said...

I summarized this discussion in part and elaborated further at my place:

Minos said...

A very interesting post. I must say, I was not overly impressed with the Chronicle article, which was more than a bit curmudgeonly.

There are a number of reasons to blog anonymously (or, in most cases, pseudonymously), and to automatically jump to the conclusion that it comes from cowardice suggests that one can know the unspoken thoughts of another.

Many have given such reasons in this comment thread (many better than mine own), but I'll add more. I blog pseudonymously because: (1) I don't want my professional face to the world to be my blog, since it's not a professional activity, but a hobby. I want a Google search to find my professional self instead. Once those people get to know me well, that can change. (2) Since I don't blog in my area of expertise, I don't want my face to students who have not had courses with me yet (or who are just starting) to be my blog. Again, once they get to know me as a person and an instructor, that can change. (3) Being untenured, I'd rather not have to defend the small number of hours I spend in a week blogging to those who are unfamiliar with it and might consider, say, having a kid an "Okay" reason to not spend a couple of hours working, but a blog unacceptable. After the tenure gate, reason (3) will evaporate, though reasons (1) and (2) will remain. I anticipate that I will become quite free with identity with those who know me, but will still not want a blog to be my professional interface with colleagues and students with whom I do not yet have a personal relationship.

Abel Pharmboy said...

Dear god, not another >65-year-old man telling us what we younger faculty should and shouldn't be doing with our writing. I almost excuse the curmudgeon simply because he seems unaware of the pervasive, viral nature of modern communications that did not exist in his day. It's easy to be high and mighty at the end of one's career, especially when apparently ignorant of the situations faced by today's faculty. And that's without even getting into the specific issues of women writing and blogging anonymously.

Outside of the sciences, I need only point to the case of Kathy Sierra, the tech-business blogger who canceled all further speaking appearances in 2007 because of her receipt of death threats and images depicting her with a noose around her neck, etc.

Scoble noted in this BBC article about the episode:
"It's this culture of attacking women that has especially got to stop. I really don't care if you attack me. I take those attacks in my stride. But, whenever I post a video of a female technologist there invariably are snide remarks about body parts and other things that simply wouldn't happen if the interviewee were a man," he said.

If women scientists were not out there feeling safe to blog, I would (sadly) be equally ignorant of the hostility they face in the academy and in larger society. I thought that our generation was past that but I have learned so much from people like FSP, MsPhD, Zuska, et al., that we have a long way to go in rehabilitating or eliminating fascist, racist, sexist men.

MT said...

We're not talking about anonymity, we're talking about candidly writing under a pen name--ethically one up on George Eliot. People who read your posts can publish their every criticism or compliment right beneath the posts themselves, a huge privilege over Eliot's contemporary readers. I think we're near the end of an age that has apotheosized and made a myth of professionalism--that it's not being professional but really who we are and all we should be, or else it's phony. I'd relate it to presidential candidates not being allowed private foibles or a right to privacy, because of a public interest in whether they use one ply or two. The Internet is now demonstrating how absurd this ethos is. Here's to keeping it real...and pseudonymous.

Greg Laden said...

I basically agree with everything you say here, but I also think that anonymity makes you different than non-anonymity with respect to your relationship to the community with which you interact. You may think of your dean as being a robot (which, actually, could be kinda cool), but as far as I know, it is you who is the robot, or perhaps you are MY dean pretending to be a blogger!?!?

So, I can easily live without knowing who you are, but my question is, how does your anonymity affect how you act, how you interact with the community you are part of, and so on?

Anonymous said...

Peter Plagens said "If anonymity is such a necessary protection, why not grant it to anybody who writes anything for publication?"

This rang a bell with me. My husband and I do not publish in academic publications, but we have been outspoken in our local community on community and political matters. Some years ago our regular venue was the editorial page of our local paper. Until that is, we began to receive death threats. Not kidding. At that point we pretty much gave up writing the letters.

More recently, my husband has started several blogs, on various subjects. It's been a few years, but the abusive responses have begun to appear.

I guess what I'm thinking is that yes, it might actually be a good idea if all publication could be anonymous, especially considering the responses to some academic publications here in our (collegiate) community. It could never be practical for academic publication to be anonymous, but that doesn't mean there is no danger to the author in such publications. One is in at least some small amount of danger whenever a crazy person can get one's name. Too bad, but it is obviously true.

Anonymous said...

I can't resist an anonymous comment here!

Yes to all of the above.

I think that being anonymous can save a lot of aggravation for a blogger. That way your employer can not possibly complain that you are lowering/raising the tone and you don't have to make personal contact with nutters. Very important.

I am anon here mostly because actually signing in to Livejournal to sign this with something would take effort.

And Physioprof. You rule.

Anonymous said...

I think I get as much anti-postdoc flaming as I get anti-female, although I've often wondered if people are less receptive to my analyses because my pseudonym is feminine, and therefore less sympathetic and more likely to accuse me of whining?

physioprof- lickspittles? that's a new one. yuck!

I think the only drawback to writing this kind of post is that it calls attention to people like this Peter guy.

Sometimes arguing back means you're giving them more respect and acknowledgment than they even my blog.

Among the other things blogging has taught me, I've learned that some arguments (and people) are better left ignored.