Why I Prefer to Remain Anonymous

March 31, 2008

Editor's Note: The Chronicle allows writers for its Careers section to adopt a pseudonym if they feel that using their own name would damage their job prospects, tenure cases, or work relationships. First Person essays, individually, reflect only the experience of their authors; collectively, they create a portrait of academic and administrative life. What follows are the responses from the three faculty members mentioned in Peter Plagens's essay:

"Graham Bennett" responds: My first contribution to the Careers section came when I was a graduate student in the earliest stages of my initial foray on the job market. It was a series of four columns, written with my partner, a tenured professor in another department at my university.

Our decision to publish pseudonymously arose from several concerns. First, we were both on the job market at the time, and we didn't want search committees to consider our job diary alongside our application materials. We certainly didn't want to broadcast the fact that any institution interested in one of us would need to come up with a second job offer, and we weren't sure that we wanted search committees to animate our letters and CVs with the voice we had crafted for this more broadly public forum. Further, we wanted the freedom to speak frankly about our interactions with our then-current departments without the anxiety of offending colleagues we genuinely thought well of.

After I found a tenure-track job and published "Life at BSU," a handful of my new colleagues at Big South University put the clues together and unmasked me. But a good portion of the department doesn't seem to know that I'm the one who wrote the rant against the soapless bathrooms and chalkless classrooms. I'm on the tenure track, and I can't afford to alienate my more-senior colleagues, who may feel that I'm publicly "trashing" them.

My closest friend in the department (who knows that I'm "Graham") admits that she was troubled by the truth of the "Life at BSU" column because it "hit a little too close to home." This is someone who knows me, likes me, and is willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.

What of those colleagues who are less forgiving? I like my department. I like my work. The issue is not so much the fear of a savage reprisal in the form of tenure denial but a concern for maintaining good relations with those colleagues who may not fully appreciate the tone of my observations.

But say I had published it under my own name and then been denied tenure as a result. Plagens proposes that I respond by filing suit or finding a new job. Such simple solutions, really. Everyone knows that tenure-track jobs at research universities are to be had for the taking (surely all job offers for assistant professors come with tenured appointments for same-sex spouses these days). And who doesn't love a lawsuit? How silly of me to turn to the pseudonym for protection rather than to the job market or the court system.

Finally, I have found that by masking the identity of my institution, I have managed to render more universal my very individual experiences. In response to the "Life at BSU" column, The Chronicle received several e-mails asking if BSU was really their university. Many readers saw in that piece a picture of their own institution.

Had I identified BSU by name, my observations would have been taken as institution-specific. But couched in anonymity, my critique assumes a more universal resonance. BSU becomes Everycollege, and "Graham Bennett's" bitter ravings strike a more general chord. I believe that my columns have been rendered more effective in consequence of their anonymity.

I would never have written them had I not been given the option of publishing pseudonymously. And now that I've established that particular presence, I realize that Graham represents a voice that is distinct from my professional academic persona, and it feels right to maintain the veil of anonymity that keeps those two worlds from colliding.

"Isabella Rogers" responds: Has Peter Plagens called me chicken? The first thing that springs to mind is the movie Chicken Run, in which a chicken named Ginger sets out to free herself and her feathered cohorts from futures inside a box. "I don't want to be a pie," Ginger announces defiantly. I feel the same way.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to come to work the week after publishing my chick-biker story, had I used my real name. I imagined myself swapping stories of motorcycle accidents and bruises with my colleagues in the hallway. But after that, I also saw students Googling my name and reading the article . . . forever. I saw myself censoring myself as a writer to produce an impersonal work that could appear in a set of ranked Google results well through the end of the Mayan calendar.

Being able to write pseudonymously has been somewhat of a life raft for me. I can conform to the requirements of academic professionalization, but as an anonymous author I can also contribute something personal and authentic. As I document the personal dimension of academic life, a pen name spares me the casual discussion of my personal failings.

In the motorcycle article, I tried to make a statement about social class, the demands of graduate school and the job market, and the possibility of meaningfully addressing class disparity through one's work. I wanted the article to climb out of the realm of the merely personal.

And it's a long climb when you're commenting on issues that affect humanities professors, such as high student-loan debt; low salaries that make it hard to come up with a down payment on a car; the long arc and high pressure of graduate school; and the idea that expressing risk might be an important part of what we need as human beings. In commenting on all of those things, anonymity held a stronger pull for me than notoriety.

I'm a writer and I enjoy writing. I enjoy writing pseudonymous personal essays in a way far different than academic writing. Maybe that's because I can be funny and human in those essays in my own way, and because I don't want to be a pie.

"Martin Sanders" reponds: Why did I, an associate professor, use a pseudonym? It is indeed a good question, and I can give a number of different reasons:

Anonymity is liberating. One can write straight from the heart without worrying about the consequences. Also, if my colleagues knew that I wrote for The Chronicle, they might feel uneasy around me, perhaps thinking they had a "spy" in their midst, or that I might use any incident or statement for a future column.

Articles written anonymously constitute a separate and valuable genre of professional writing. Not only is it the most candid kind of reflection on the profession, but it is also free of the possible taint of being self-serving. My own column about collaboration might have come across as too self-congratulatory had I published it under my real name. And that wasn't the point.

Moreover, that essay involved the research of three other colleagues, and I did not want to pre-empt the way they handled their discoveries or presume to speak on their behalf.

I conceived of the column as the first in a series of three on the topic of collaborative scholarship. The second installment focused on graduate students, and specifically on the failure of some of my graduate students to work together effectively in teams. In that case, I felt a strong need to protect their identities. I wanted to shed light on a problem that I see as widespread in the humanities; I wasn't interested in embarrassing my students.

Anonymous articles are not written to seek personal credit since they won't show up on your CV. So there is a purity about that kind of writing that is hard to come by otherwise. An anonymous essay encourages readers to focus on the issue at hand, instead of being distracted by peripheral matters such as personalities, institutions, or coteries. This kind of writing allows for the exploration of topics otherwise left unsaid.