Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Chapter the Seventieth: In Which I Discover I Have Screwed Up

So today I learned simultaneously that:

There are Zenith students reading my blog and they know it is *my* blog; and

That a post I wrote about a month ago, in which a student figured, made said student feel mocked.

I am not going to belabor this topic because a) I apologized to the student for harm incurred that I did not intend or foresee; b) by making it a Bigger Deal I risk undermining my apology to said student; and c) I have taken down the post, as well as two others in which any other student might be recognizable. But I have a few random thoughts about my sudden campus visibility as a blogger that are, perhaps, worth sharing.

I had noticed there were a fair number of lurkers with Zenith addresses, but it had honestly never occurred to me that they were students, or that students had any way of (or interest in) locating this blog. I knew that two of my colleagues had located me, because they told me so, and both of them are finishing books, and hence liable to be logging onto websites repeatedly to see What's Up. My explanation, therefore, was that the multiple apparent lurkings were me logging on to my own blog, and them.


When I confided in a colleague later this afternoon, she and I figured out pretty quickly how I got outed on the student network, and it probably wasn't just one way. And now I feel pretty dumb, because I really did not connect what I know about the internet (that a few keystrokes on Google can get you to almost anyone but the Queen of England, and I bet even she has a Yahoo account -- lillibet@yahoo.com) to the fragility of my own status as an anonymous internet personality. As my colleague also reminded me, Zenith students dedicate themselves in their off hours to securing facts about faculty members.

I re-read the post before I took it down, and really, the student who was upset played only one of several roles in the incident in question, and it is true I was blunt (although I do not think mocking) about what I thought about the incident in the post in a way I would not have been in class. And my students don't know that blog person -- they know the *other* person, the teacher person. So that was one level on which I knew I had screwed up.

The other was this: it didn't take me more than two seconds to recognize the nature and depth of the student's upset -- because she looked how I felt when I was a young teacher and read a horrible, nasty, or thoughtless comment on an anonymous teaching evaluation from a student. It can still feel, many years into my career as a teacher, like an arrow out of the blue to read one of those comments. Needless to say, this moment of recognition and empathy short-cut any impulse but the one I followed, which was to apologize and reassure said student of my actual, real-time respect.

This incident also reinforces something I know but don't really deal with most of the time: that students at Zenith believe that the classroom ought to be a private space, whereas we faculty experience it as a public space, a place we are always exposed -- to students, to the people who will eventually read those teaching evaluations, and to gossip about what we do there that is spread to our colleagues, to parents and to other students. Hence, my (I now realize naive) belief that because something happened "in public," that four or five people were involved, and ten others witnessed it, that what I was describing was in the realm of common knowledge and it was reasonable to comment on it. It turned out I was wrong, or at least, less aware of how complicated this could be than I should have been -- I screwed up.

But this incident leaves me with a set of dilemmas, including (but not confined to):

1. Should I remain anonymous at all if some people have discovered my street identity?
2. Does it matter that students know who I am, or will they get bored and go away?
3. If I come out, will it be better because if and when I offend people they will just tell me?
4. Would it be better to come out because then I would be more actively conscious about what I write about, who is implicated and whether I am prepared to defend it?

What would Superman do in a situation where his street identity hung in the balance? Or Wonder Woman? Fortunately, I can turn to GayProf for advice on this.



I am not asking Zenith community members to stop lurking: this blog is public, not private.


The Combat Philosopher said...

The whole real world meets internet world thing can be both disturbing and odd, especially at first. However, you are not the first person to come across this issue. In fact, there is even research on it, I believe (sorry, I don't have citations to hand). It went on even back in the early '90s. Until people get more used to it though, it can feel disturbing.

As for whether you should 'out' yourself, my recommendation is not, or at least, not too much. I have a few students who know about my blog. They are the few I trust. They may tell others, indeed have done in some cases, but the attention does not last long. Most get bored and go back to MySpace and Facebook.

The veil of pseudo-anonimity has advantages. Being fully out means some stupid office somewhere can object to honesty. Having plausible deniablility, is useful in this case. Even if the students know, why should they be believed (by the office of stupid enforcement)?

I know of one real life person who also has a blog. They even use their blog identity as an e-mail on official communications from time to time. Unfortunately, the blog identity is entirely fictional. They claim to be senior faculty and successful, when their real life is very far from this. However, this individual appears to gain some kind of psychological benefit from this fiction. If the truth were known, they could no longer gain this benefit from this 'white lie'.

Now, I do not support this fiction. In fact, when I read the blog, I would wince at the horribly misleading advice that was offered. However, given that the person gains some psychological solace from the fiction, is this not something which does little harm and helps someone with severe psychological issues a little bit? The point of this example is to suggest that remaining 'cloaked' is not necessarily a bad thing.

The other reason to not 'reveal all' is that there are times when a blog is a good place to tell truths that are too uncomfortable to tell with one's usual public face. I have revealed things about the most powerful and dangerous man in my State on my blog. If too many people knew who I was, doing this would be a real issue.

Indeed, even describing some of the horrors of recent events in my neck of the woods (like the crooked hire), could not be done, if my identity was widely known. Thus, my recommendation is to stay cloaked and only confide in friends. Others may find out, from time to time, but they will forget, especially if they are students.

I hope that this is helpful.

The Combat Philosopher

James said...

I'm actually a bit tired of anonymous academic blogs. Generally speaking, they're not all that anonymous. If what is written is important enough to anger/threaten someone, they can probably figure out who you are, and they can then--not necessarily inappropriately--reveal the author publicly.

More importantly, I think anonymous content is less reliable. Why should I put faith in what someone says who doesn't even reveal their name?

I understand why many of us graduate students and junior faculty members blog anonymously. We constantly feel extreme vulnerability and are worried that our careers could be derailed by the wrong comment. My own blog is not anonymous because I am not interested in an academic career if it doesn't allow me to at the very least express my thoughts candidly and publicly. That said, there are things I won't blog about since I know they'll be publicly linked to my name. Is departmental gossip really a proper topic for public writing, though? I see some value in it, but I also see serious risks.

I have friends who blog (semi-)anonymously and who have shared their blogs with me. When they're writing, their core audience knows exactly who they are, but a Google search of their name won't reveal the blog. This can be a valuable form of communication, and probably valuable in protecting these bloggers against potential employers discovering anything untoward that they may have said.

Still, why would a full professor hide behind anonymity. Isn't tenure supposed to protect freedom of expression? Is the system really that broken?

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Tenured Radical,

I clearly do not use my weblog anonymously, but I still respect decisions to not be obviously revealing. Maxim 1: Pure anonymity is impossible on the Internet. Maxim 2: There are no "safe" forums - anywhere. What's that old rule, attributed losely I believe to Benjamin Franklin, that the only safe secret between two people involves one being dead?

I won't presume to tell you which way to go, as I think there are advantages to both. I choose to be public because it's a needed professional outlet for me. If you don't need that outlet, there's no need to be outright with your identity. But you will just need to be ready, psychologically if nothing else, for the occasional "outing." The problem here was a lack of preparedness, but you're whip smart and will not be caught like this in the future.

I think you could perhaps also use advice from "Dean Dad" at Confessions of a Community College Dean.

- TL

Flavia said...


I'm so sorry to hear about this--though it's definitely giving me pause, as I'm in the process of composing a post about one particular (but very good) student of mine right now!

I feel much the way that Tim and the CP do. I don't think that there are just two options--ano/pseudonymity, on the one hand, and a blog that bears your name right up front, on the other. It's useful to have a degree of privacy, and to know that your blog isn't one of the first five things that the idle Googler finds out about you. But at the same time, it's essential to be aware that, at any time, someone you know could stumble upon your blog and recognize you--and therefore you may choose to make decisions about what or what not to post based on that.

I've definitely reduced the amount of bitching on my blog as I've moved into my new position and my new blog (on my old one, I was vague about my teaching & research subfields), but I haven't felt it to be much of a loss; a lot of that bitching isn't stuff I'd want preserved for posterity, anyway.

Personally, I think I'll probably never blog under my own name, but I anticipate my identity's becoming easier and easier to figure out as I talk increasingly about my teaching and research--and that's okay. But I don't need a Google search to out me to any and all comers.

Good luck negotiating this new phase of your bloggy life--

Sisyphus said...

First of all, I want to say how I really appreciate the existence of your blog, _particularly_ the academic demystification and what might be considered gossip or outing of how the academy works. (And it's a pleasure to have met you, if only virtually.) If I just relied on what my profs told me and the official academic handbook, I would think going on the market was a cakewalk and life on the tenure track would be completely fulfilling and rewarding at all times.

So I believe you are doing the profession a valuable service, although one that --- since it involves lifting some veils that the profession itself has put in place --- would not be appreciated in any simple way.

I also find it fascinating that the students appear to think of the classroom as a "private" space, particularly when so much else of their lives is public, as the people who mention Myspace and Facebook indicate. I'll have to ponder on that more.

Anonymous said...

The issue is not whether the classroom is a "public" or a "private" space. The issue is that the professor occupies a position of incredible power and authority in the room: a comment from the professor about somthing that happens in class is NOT the same thing as the same comment made by a student, or by a person in a setting where there is not such an incredibly skewed power dynamic. It's not that all are equal to comment with an equal degree of impunity when an event is "public." Public or private, not all participants in a classroom altercation are equal, or rather, some are more equal than others.

I really don't think it's appropriate to imply that professors are some how *more* exposed than students--in fact, students often feel the pressure (real or imagined) of the univocal gaze of the professor on everything the do, say, and write. Professors might get teaching evaluations, but students are basically in class in *order to be* evaluated by someone who is (one hopes) smarter, more well read, and more augustly pedigreed than they are.

Dr. Crazy said...

TR -
What a horrible situation. That said, I've mistakenly outed myself both on my old blog and my current one, a troll threatened to out me on my old one, and I've since revealed my "real identity" to a slew of people, so I've given a lot of thought to retaining the pseudonym when, really, it's pretty easy to "figure me out" if one even has to do that anymore.

I think that the pseudonym (even if to some extent one's identity is a "public secret") can be valuable (for many of the reasons that The Combat Philosopher notes, but also for others, which I'll talk about). For me, the pseudonym affects the voice that I use on my blog, the kinds of things that I post about, and ultimately, is an "identity" all its own. Yes, it has to do with who I am as a professional, but it is not the professional work that I do. It's not for me about fear to speak my mind as a professional; it's about wanting to speak my mind in ways that are not part of traditional academic discourse AS WELL AS to speak my mind in ways that correspond to traditional academic discourse. In that way, the pseudonym for me is positive. You will notice, however, that over at RT I rarely post about specific students or interactions with students. I tend to go more abstract in my posts about the classroom, and I think that works for me. I also never post about goings on in my department or administration in a specific way. That's not entirely about fear, though, either - it's about the fact that I want to talk about other things on my blog.

And I don't buy the whole, "why should I believe you if you don't use your name" argument. I trust the bloggers whom I read based on what they write. If I then find out who they "really" are, the relationship changes, but it doesn't lend any more or less authority to their blog posts.

What I think is that you have to do what feels right to you. I felt (and still feel) that the Dr. Crazy identity is valuable. It allows me to put a personal face on my professional identity in ways I wouldn't feel comfortable doing with my professional name. Also, I really resisted the idea of being bullied into using my real name. If I ever choose to do so, I want that to be my choice - and not one I make because I was "discovered" or might be "discovered."

Does it matter if students know who you are? Well, I'd say only you can answer that. (I know, helpful.) But what I mean is that you can choose not to let it matter. If you act like it's ok, it will be ok. If it makes you uncomfortable, and if it makes you feel uncomfortable with your identity on this blog, then it does matter. (I went through a bit of that when I changed blogs. The move was very much about a change of voice so that I wouldn't feel that discomfort and so that it wouldn't matter if anyone realized who I was.)

As for questions 3 and 4, I feel like you might want to drop Michael Berube a note about that. He would be able to tell you about what it's like to be a "public" blogger better than I, with the security blanket of my pseudonym could.

Good luck whatever you decide. And if you'd like to talk more about this stuff (because I know I'm hogging the comments), drop me an email at reassignedtime at gmail dot com.

Tenured Radical said...

I rarely use my own comments section to comment on comments to my blog, but these are incredibly useful comments. So first I would like to say THANK YOU. I have a lot to think about, and since some of the commenters are among my most revered blogger pals, double thank-you for paying attention and chiming in.

I think where I am beginning to fall is on keeping the pseudonym -- I like it, I find it expressive, and it is a different voice than the one I would use on campus for a lot of reasons, one being it isn't appropriate to be in a tenure meeting telling everyone that tenure should be abolished. To speak many of these things on campus more publicly puts my critique at the center of ongoing practices that need to be ongoing until they morph into something better, whereas to speak them as the Radical and imagine utopian worlds is a whole different thing.

I don't actually think the pseudonym gives me plausible deniability: in the recent situation, unless I had been willing to lie -- a lie that would have been deeply transparent, and immoral, and would have been reasonable crazy-making viz. the student in question who knew exactly what sie was talking about -- I had no deniability. It is true that people can't get to this blog just by googling my street name, and that is an advantage, I think, if I don't want everyone taking pot shots at me all the time.

And speaking of pot shots -- the anonymous comment sounds very much like it is either a Zenith student, or a former student, because the tone is characteristic of an unhappy shift in how some students speak to faculty and speak to each other now at my beloved U. And I might add, it is usually done either anonymously, or published in a portion of the student newspaper, the unhappy charm of which is that it is entirely unedited and often crass.

I would like to point out to anonymous that: the blog post was an apology, which you responded to with what reads very much like contempt. Why do I think you need to re-think this? Read on.

My comment on the classroom's dual quality as public/private space is *an* issue -- for me, if not for you, and it is *my* blog, pal. Being sorry for having done something does not preclude additional speculation on the context for my own poor decision making -- on the contrary, it demands it, because how else are whatever students who are reading this to know that I will in the future be more mindful? One of the generative things to do after misjudging one's own behavior is to try to figure out why it happened. And to tell people you have learned something.

Most importantly -- I think I was quite clear in the post that the student's distress, and reassuring hir of my respect, was the central and overriding issue for me. Frankly, hir belief that things said in the classroom were said in the confidence of the group (privacy) -- and my understanding that a room with fifteen people in it was a public space -- was a real difference in two people's understanding of what was moral behavior subsequent to the actual classroom interaction.

I am not normally unaware of the consequences of what I do, nor am I intentionally cruel to my students, nor am I ignorant of the delicate nature of student - faculty relations, or of the bottomless well of insecurity that some students (and many adults, actually) carry around with them. But it isn't just a structural inevitability that students are powerless and vulnerable in relation to faculty. Questions of power in the classroom -- and in the world -- are complex and fluid, not merely hierarchical in the way some Zenith students describe them. And on a campus where Foucault is Zenith's version of the Gideon Bible, it is often surprising to me that this understanding is not brought into the classroom by some of the very students who are often outraged by their teachers' so-called abuses of power.

It is also my experience that students do not come into the classroom as emotional blank slates to be *acted on* by power. To paraphrase one of my favorite queer scholars, scratch the surface of any of us and you'll find a well of pain. Very often when a classroom interaction is hurtful to a student, the quality of the hurt is not disconnected from emotional baggage a student brings into the room with hir (after all, everyone has parents for eighteen years before they *get* to college.) This theory, of course, applies to department meetings as well.

It is not to obviate students' anxiety about how they are judged to say this, nor does it evacuate my responsibility to behave in a way that does not make a student feel personally attacked. But it is not inherent in a classroom structure that only students can be hurt, or offended.

And in relation to the original incident -- which I will not rehearse, and the post has been removed -- my initial concern was that other students in the class would be intimidated because they saw a few students apparently intimidate me, as well as creating rules about what could be spoken in the classroom through their intimidating behavior. And while you are right, anonymous -- stuents don't scare me -- they *do* have the power -- and sometimes use it deliberately -- to scare other students.

Anonymous said...

Tenured Radical,

I appreciate the comment by "anonymous," but I also agree with you. Power is "complex and fluid" in the classroom. Often students have little knowledge of how a professor is experiencing the classroom. However, while reading your posts which relate to Zenith students and classes with which I am affiliated, I realize how differently professors (yourself and some of your bloggers) read classroom situations. I have felt a few times while reading your posts, that you may forget what it is like to be a student, inside and outside the classroom. Now that you know Zenith students are “lurking,” perhaps some of us will be moved to comment and add a different perspective to some of the issues you bring up. I have learned a lot about the professor’s point of view from reading this blog. I urge you to continue and hope you are open to hearing an undergraduate’s viewpoint as well.

A Zenith Student

moria said...

Hi, coming out here. A while ago, a fellow Zenith alum pointed me over here, I read the blog, admired it, and commented pseudonymously as I do now -- though this time, now that I've shifted my blogging approach, perhaps more transparently. When I realized that this might somehow become awkward (not to say "inappropriate"), I stopped commenting. That's stupid.

Re-start: Hi, Radical. Great blog. And way to go on the response to the anonymous student commenter. I may have to revise my thoughts on college students' narcissism. And my own.

Tenured Radical said...

Welcome Neophyte -- I'll link you.


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