Adventures in Ethics and Science

Blogging as myself.

In a private communication, Sciencewoman asks:

Just out of curiosity, how have you been able to blog under your real name? Has your department been supportive? Are you post-tenure and immune from some of the pressures that the rest of us feel? Or is it that a philosophy department views outreach/education differently from a strict science department?

In the same communication, she also suggests that I might answer these question in a blog post, so I am.

Some of you will recall that I’ve written before about issues around using one’s own name or a pseudonym as a blog author. In one of those posts, I said a few words about my own status as a non-pseudonymous blogger:

[I]t should be obvious to readers that I am blogging under my own name (for who would make up a name like “Stemwedel”?) and, for that matter, my own face. My day job at San Jose State University isn’t a secret. I’m rather more guarded with details about my family, but that’s because this is my blog, where I express my views; my family members shouldn’t be held responsible for those views. I used to blog as “Dr. Free-Ride”, but given that the original incarnation of this blog was started for a class I teach, and that it was linked from my (non-anonymous) class webpages, I had no reason to believe my identity was secret from anyone who was willing to dig a little. Indeed, the information in my profile specified my identity pretty uniquely to anyone running in philosophy of science circles (chemistry + philosophy + San Jose = Stemwedel), and years of watching the Law and Order franchise have persuaded me that folks with the right technical know-how can probably shake loose almost any blogger’s identity.

I realize that this tells you how I ended up blogging under my own name, but it doesn’t really address the question of how, with significant numbers of people actually reading my blog, I am able to continue to blog under my own name rather than pursuing a more sensible course* from the point of view of my professional well-being.

I am, in fact, pre-tenure (I go up in the fall), so potentially one of the people on one of the committees that will be scrutinizing my dossier could find a reason to hold my blog against me. Of course, one of the people on one of the committees that will be scrutinizing my dossier could also decide to hold my interdisciplinarity against me, or some comment on one of my teaching evaluations, or something else. Committees don’t always work in predictable ways, and weblogs are a recent enough development (from the point of view of the things certain members of the relevant committees can be counted upon to understand) that there’s no telling how the very fact of my blogging will strike them.

My department is, in fact, wildly supportive of my blogging activities. Collectively, they seem inclined to view my blogging as “public philosophy” that’s along the same lines as facilitating discussions at our Socrates CafĂ© meetings, and they view such activities as an important part of our mission. I’d feel pretty out of place in a department where the prevailing sentiment was that we ought only to be communicating to other philosophers, through the journals, so I’m not terribly surprised that my colleagues have been so positive about the blogging. However, it’s not like I went and secured official permission from my department chair before I got started. If I had, it’s not hard to imagine that some anticipated risk might have led my colleagues to caution me against blogging. As things happened, by the time any of my colleagues noticed, the horse was already out the gate.

At San Jose State, I suspect I might have had just as much support for my blogging if I were in a science department as I’ve found in my philosophy department. My sense is that the orientation of the university as a whole means that people take community outreach and education as a serious part of what we’re here to do. The caveat, of course, is that one must also make progress on one’s research and hone one’s pedagogy. If my research were in chemistry, I’d be logging lots of hours in the lab, and blogging might cut into those hours. Since my research is in philosophy, my blog actually gives me the opportunity to think through early stages of my arguments, and to do it in a forum where very sharp commenters give me feedback very quickly. So blogging has actually helped me keep my research moving forward.

This is not to say that I want to include my blog in my dossier as a “scholarly activity” — even if I were writing for an audience of professional philosophers, and even if there weren’t a question of how the blog ought to be evaluated, there would still be enough uncertainty about how the committees would respond to such a weird new thing that I’m not sure I’d want to chance it. There’s probably a case to be made that someone needs to blaze the trail on blogs-as-scholarship, but I’m inclined to let a more “serious” blogger blaze that trail. (If I’m on that serious blogger’s tenure committee, I promise to be receptive to the case he or she is making!)

There is another big issue with blogging as oneself: what if people at my university (or in my professional circles) don’t like what I’m saying on my blog? What if I bring shame to my university and dishonor to my family?

Lately, in the political corners of the blogosphere, this has been a big deal, and lots of pixels have been aligned to try to draw the proper boundaries between speech as a private individual and professional speech for which one can be held accountable. My blogging has never been entirely private — my original audience was made up of the students in my class who bothered to follow the link from the course webpage to the blog. Even then, we’re talking about posts on a site that nearly anyone with internet access could stumble upon, which made my posting more like a street corner lecture than a private salon.

Practically, what this means is that I need to assume that the people reading my posts don’t know me. My words have to carry my ideas, since the person reading them probably can’t rely on prior knowledge about me (or what kind of a person I am) to figure out what I’m trying to say. And, I need to be ready to stand behind what I say — to take responsibility for having said it — even if I haven’t articulated it as clearly as I might have, and even if I come to change my mind.

As a result, I think long and hard before publishing my posts. I don’t blog about work or personal situations in which I’m involved, at least not while they’re going on, although I may pose questions about abstract scenarios that have something to do with my real life. I also try not to use language that would make my mom uncomfortable to read.**

I do expect that readers will disagree — sometimes strongly — with some of the views and conclusions I post here. But playing it safe by not blogging about issues that might be “controversial” would take away much of what I get out of blogging. Blogging makes me think harder. Blogging helps me see more perspectives on an issue than I would see otherwise. Blogging challenges me to work out what I really think is true and why. I’d like to think blogging would make the same sorts of demands on me if I were using a pseudonym, but the fact that it’s my credibility as an academic hanging out there at least sharpens my awareness of what it means for me to own what I’ve posted.

I am, of course, keenly aware of what’s at stake for many of the academic bloggers using pseudonyms. Some of them work at universities far less receptive to outreach as a professional activity, or far more protective of the “public image” of the institution. Having a feel for how an activity will be perceived in your workplace is really important before you throw yourself headlong into that activity! One might well decide to blog even if there were little or no institutional support for this decision, but it’s better to make the decision knowing what is at stake.

Many academic bloggers using pseudonyms are using blogging as a survival strategy — a way to build a virtual support structure in which they can unload about the slings and arrows of outrageous lab groups (or colleagues, or students, or administrators). I’ve been lucky enough to land in a professional situation that requires minimal venting. Those who have not been so lucky ought to be able to use the tools at hand to get the support they need. To the extent that blog communities can provide such support, I want early-career-stage academics using them. To the extent that what is posted on their blogs might be held against them, I want early-career-stage academics to blog as safely as they can, protecting themselves with pseudonyms.

Someday, maybe, we kick the academic world (and the wide world beyond) into the kind of shape where people can voice their views openly without fear of repercussions more severe than having to defend those views. We’re not there yet. But I’m willing to go out on a limb here, trying to explain what I really think with the full knowledge that you’re out there trying to understand it. Sometimes that’s scary, but having started down this path, I’m not willing to turn around and go back.
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*Here, I mean “sensible” in the conventional wisdom according to Ivan Tribble way. Reasonable people disagree about the wisdom of Tribble’s view of things here.

**Not that my mother is a shrinking violet. Verily, graduate school afforded her a colorful vocabulary for those occasions that require it. However, as she has recommended my blog to friends of my grandparents, she is aware — and has made me aware — of how casual profanity might be an obstacle to the transmission of my meaning to that generation.

Comments

  1. #1 Ted
    March 5, 2007

    Excellent Doc.

    I’ve read your blog only occasionally, but I am struck by how measured your words are. I assume that through comment moderation, you can keep the discourse civil, although I would hope that when you do drop comments into /dev/null you take the time to explain to the poster off-line, why you did it as a conversational courtesy.

    To me, your writing is in the category of Wray Herbert and Massimo Pigliucci for readability.

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    March 5, 2007

    To be honest, the comments moderation is primarily so I don’t miss a good discussion. Except for blatant spam, I think I’ve binned a grand total of two comments, for venomous name-calling and thread derailment (a classic combination if ever there was one).

  3. #3 J-Dog
    March 5, 2007

    I second what Ted says…I am always struck by your clear concise writing style and content. I am especially intrigued by the comparison of your style with the turgid, tortured prose monstrosities hacked out by William Dembski.

    You both write about difficult philosophic concepts, but your comments and thoughts make sense and his don’t. Maybe you could get the Templeton Foundation to give you a check for $100,000 instead of him the next time.

    So, sorry, I went Dembski on you myself, I just wanted to say thanks Doc!

  4. #4 Brian Berkey
    March 5, 2007

    Janet,

    I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this issue. As a grad student blogger I’m really interested to know how my blogging might affect my job prospects once I complete my Ph.D, and how blogging is viewed in the philosophical community as a whole. My sense is that views are pretty wide-ranging, with some departments generally supportive and others much less so. I tend to think that the warnings that I sometimes hear about blogging’s potential negative impact on job prospects are overblown, especially given that more and more grad students, including those at top programs, are getting involved in blogging, and that a great many young professors are blogging, in particular at group sites devoted to particular areas of philosophy (which I think are extremely beneficial). It seems to me that blogging is, perhaps somewhat slowly, becoming an accepted part of the profession. And I’d be surprised if it didn’t become more so as time goes on.

    I’m interested to hear if this sounds right to you. It sounds like your department has responded quite well to your blogging; do you think this is the norm, or an exception? Even if it’s an exception, will it still be so a few years down the road?

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 6, 2007

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Prof. Rudy Rucker blaze the trail for bloggers and webizens at SJSU?

    http://www.cs.sjsu.edu/faculty/rucker/index.html

    http://www.rudyrucker.com/

    http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog

  6. #6 wintersweet
    March 6, 2007

    That was really interesting. I’m glad to hear that your department is open to this kind of thing. I’m about to start a project of my own (in applied linguistics) and I have come to the conclusion that I might as well use my own name, even though that’s not the prevailing opinion on the Chronicle of Higher Ed forums, etc.

    (Also, Jonathan Vos Post–thanks for mentioning Rudy Rucker. I had no idea he had any connection to SJSU. Since I’m at CSUEB myself, I’m always really happy to hear about cool people in the CSU system, like Rucker and this blog’s author.)

  7. #7 Lab Lemming
    March 6, 2007

    An important consideration for anonymous bloggers is that they realize that they can be outed at any time. In my case, the former director of our institute decided to out me in the middle of our lab, while I was trying to sort out standards for some emergency pre-conference, last-minute analyses. He did this in front of my boss, his boss, their senior technician, and two overseas technicians.

    Not being prepared, I simply lied through my teeth, and said I hand no idea what he was talking about- not an ideal response. I then de-anonymized online. According to my site logs, two of those guys had a look at the blog the next afternoon, but got bored- or busy- and stopped reading it (at least from work) in the runup to the conference.

    Nobody’s mentioned it since.

  8. #8 SteveG
    March 6, 2007

    I think that a department’s view on the role of the public intellectual is key to whether they are supportive of blogging as service, even if not officially so. 60% of my department have blogs of their own and this results from a belief that our job is to speak beyond the walls of the ivory tower. I think of myself as incredibly fortunate, not just as a blogger, but as someone who could have easily ended up in a pigeonhole somewhere, not getting to take full advantage of the academic freedom we love to talk about so much in the abstract.

  9. #9 Laura
    March 6, 2007

    I think this is one of the best posts I’ve seen on this issue. I’ve been an out blogger almost since the beginning. I am sometimes jealous of the anonymous bloggers who can vent as they see fit. But then I think I prefer using more measured methods of conveying my point. And as you say, an anonymous blogger can be outed at any time. I know that some people from my workplace read my blog (some of them faculty!) and I tend to not hold back too much when I have issues with faculty. I’m just careful not to name names. And I generally only write about something once it can be generalized to some extent. It’s hard, but I like the challenge!

  10. #10 Jenn
    March 7, 2007

    I’ve wrestled with this issue myself and there is always that moment of temporary anxiety when I see someone actually googled my name to find my blog. I don’t think either my advisor or supervisor would mind – they would probably give me a funny look next time they saw me, but I get the same for every slightly surprising thing I do – but I’m not exactly ready to bring it up in conversation either. I don’t blog about work issues that aren’t general research sorts of things and I keep the details rather minimal, though I do try to be honest about the experience of being a physics student.

    I don’t exactly know why I came to the decision I did. I think in the end it’s because I feel more accountable this way and I hope it results in a better blog because I have to make sure that everything I post is something I’m willing to associate with my name.

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