50 Columns Later

March 12, 2007

I am often asked why I chose "Thomas H. Benton" as a pen name. I didn't give the name a lot of thought. I didn't think the series would last more than a few columns. But I've been writing as "Benton" now for more than five years, and this is my 50th column.

I chose the name because I had just seen the Ken Burns documentary, Thomas Hart Benton (1988). Benton was a leading spokesman for Regionalism, a style of painting -- "Okie Baroque" -- that celebrated the Midwest and American folk culture. There was a lot of Know Nothing jingoism in the movement. Benton was given to posturing against snobby New Yorkers and Europhiles -- the high theorists of his generation -- and, in particular, the dominance of abstract expressionism over more accessible styles of painting.

I didn't agree with the nastier elements of Benton's chauvinism (I didn't know all that much about him at the time), but I liked his feistiness. I thought most of my generation of would-be academics was too deferential to the pieties of the boomer elders who, for all their radical posturing, fiddled while the profession burned. I thought adopting Benton's personality in the columns would give me some much-needed backbone after 10 years as an insecure graduate student and desperate job seeker.

I thought Benton also offered some useful biographical parallels and cultural resonances. Benton was someone who had spent time in the elite artistic circles of the East Coast, but he turned against that world and went to live in Missouri. I was making the transition from an Ivy League graduate school to my first real job at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest. The parallels seemed to multiply with time like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I eventually chose "An Academic in America" as the title of my series because An Artist in America was the title of Benton's autobiography, which was first published in 1937.

When I started my series I was already notorious in a small way for making a fuss about the state of the academic job market, and I liked the pro-labor memories associated with Benton and the other muralists of his era. Benton seemed to offer a model of populism and multiracial labor solidarity untainted by Stalinist orthodoxy -- something like Whitman's vision of American democracy -- long before those cultural energies were co-opted and used to destroy labor unions and the dream of being able to own a small home and support a family on one salary.

More than anything else, when I first began the series, I wanted people to know that graduate school in the humanities has become comparable to a pyramid scheme with cultlike dimensions.

I never thought of myself as a conservative, even though that's how some readers have come to think of me. I do have deep-rooted affections for traditional things: I am a Roman Catholic, and fond of old books, libraries, secondhand bookstores, historic sites, museums, and the rituals of academic life -- all of which I've written about. (To read Benton's earliest columns, click here.)

I don't believe in mandatory gender roles, but I desire -- as does my spouse -- to have a more-or-less traditional family life. We even home-school our three daughters, not because we are fundamentalists but because we enjoy learning with our children, and I have seen enough of the public schools to want my daughters to be spared the experience.

I might also be regarded as conservative because I regard "Theory," despite its radical claims, as an elitist enterprise that does nothing to help the kind of people it purports to care about (as opposed to "theory," which constitutes the tools that are necessary for scholarly work).

I enjoy traditional scholarly research and value reference books more than books by academic celebrities, but I also believe in using new technologies for learning. I don't insist that everyone share my beliefs or preferences, but I also see no reason to apologize for expressing them in my own column.

Apart from advocating larger, structural reforms for the profession, I have argued that individual professors should attempt to restore the seriousness of the teacher-student relationship, even when it jeopardizes their job security within the new customer-service model of higher education.

Perhaps the larger question is why I chose to be pseudonymous in the first place. I had been a graduate-student diarist for The Chronicle's Careers section before, using my real name. At that time, I was strongly cautioned by my advisers against that kind of writing. They warned me that popular writing -- particularly anything critical of the profession -- would harm my viability in a tight job market.

My advisers were right. I am sure the columns I wrote under my own name were regarded by most employers as a red flag that my academic accomplishments were not strong enough to overshadow.

When I started the Benton columns, I was still recovering from my experiences on the job market. My spouse and I were expecting a new baby. We also had a new mortgage, and I was our sole means of support. I was not yet sure of my institution's commitment to academic freedom or respect for popular writing of this kind. I hadn't even passed my third-year review yet.

And there was, no doubt, a satirical reality-TV dimension to First Person column writing that was unusual in the era just before the blog became the universal public confessional. It just seemed safer to be anonymous if I was going to write about my struggle with my weight, my procrastination, my anxieties about advising students, and my desire for a bigger paycheck.

I owe a lot to my current employer. If the college hadn't taken a chance on me, I might be delivering pizzas now in Northeast Philadelphia. I am grateful that the college continues to stand behind me, even when I express controversial opinions that it, by no means, always endorses.

It was a reflection of trust in my employer that, two years after I started the series, I decided to quietly "out" myself on my department's Web site. Some people had already guessed that I was Benton from the accumulation of clues, and I decided that I didn't want the revelation to come up in the middle of my tenure decision. What else could I be concealing, my colleagues might wonder: tawdry romance novels, a secret life as a blogger?

I wanted to be tenured without anything to hide, and -- though I didn't know it yet -- I wanted a career that included all kinds of writing in addition to the usual output of scholarly books and articles.

People often complain that using a pseudonym detracts from one's credibility. Letter writers who have taken the trouble to Google me sometimes ask why I don't just sign my columns now that my identity is not really a secret and I have tenure. But I don't really see any point in doing so. Benton has become a known persona in a small subculture, and he has developed -- like all autobiographical personae -- in ways that don't exactly reflect the more circumspect views I might express under the name I use for scholarly writing. Like an actor, I get a lot of creative energy from a mask, even if people can easily discover who is behind it.

And, besides, why should anybody care who I am? I am not a name that anyone would recognize. I don't have any special claims on the public's attention. If there's any reason to read my columns, it is because of the content, not the author; it doesn't matter who is speaking. You read a pseudonymous column in a different way than you read one by an established scholar writing on his or her area of expertise. I think there are lots of ways of being a writer, just as there are lots of ways of being a reader.

In any case, my relationship with Benton is a continuing negotiation: He rants on general topics that animate me on some level, without too much reflection about complexities or consequences. Sometimes that might lead him into seemingly reactionary views, sentimentality, or self-pity. In general, I see Benton as someone who was shaped by traditional institutions, who maintained a belief in his exceptionality (notwithstanding contrary evidence), and who experienced a deep sense of humiliation at not being able to succeed at an elite level. Institutional biases exist, but sometimes people do not rise to the top because they are mediocrities in the larger scheme of things. In the end, Benton is a loser who is trying to redeem himself.

It's pointless to deny that I possess some of those qualities. But I work harder in my real life to hide and overcome them. My alter ego is a caricature of who I am, if only because of my limitations as a writer.

I don't make any big claims for column writing. A column is something people read while they are eating breakfast; it's something they use to spark a conversation. A column is not poetry; it's not the Great American Novel; it's not a research project with footnotes. A column should have short paragraphs and conversational prose; it should not be written in precise jargon for members of an academic subculture. Columns are exploratory and impressionistic; the detail work is left to abler hands. The result is that sometimes columnists make big generalizations that are supported with little more than personal anecdotes.

Someone once said that the most important quality in a columnist is to be outrageously wrong. The columnist who tries to be scrupulously correct -- however laudable that might be -- provokes little more than a shrug of affirmation. A columnist who is wrong -- and maybe even a little warped -- gives readers the pleasure of showing how right and sane they are by comparison.

A column is an eccentric little dance; it's a shtick, and it can get tedious if you prefer novelty. An established column -- like a comic strip -- can linger for many years, while readers return, again and again, hoping for a flash of whatever it was they once liked about the series, while the author tries to make the old new again. Sometimes the persona degenerates into repetition and self-parody, but -- with good will on both sides -- the author-reader relationship can continue, like the conversations of longtime colleagues.

On the other hand, it may be that something new and exciting is always coming next month, forced into print by an unforeseen experience.

Thank you for reading, for your generosity in so many letters, and for your patience. I feel deeply privileged -- and very lucky -- to have the chance to write this column.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at