Saturday, September 6, 2008

Professor Bierce's very blue Monday

Yr mustachioed purveyor of piffle and prurience is having a very blue Monday indeed. He is considering retreating to the mountains of Mexico, a good place, he hears, to disappear.

With a revivifying dose of the Black Ichor of Life coursing through my veins, I made a most delightful discovery this morning: that I had gained the favourable attention of the Tenured Radical, Wesleyan's once anonymous blogger, Claire Potter. But she, that fabulous fan of Batman and his masked companion, offered a caution that has cut to the quick of the spirit that dwells within me. I am pondering her words deeply. She warns that anonymous blogging is a dangerous thing.

She is not the only one who has offered such counsel. Several well-meaning correspondents have also suggested that I be cautious lest the mustache may be ripped from my fine visage, revealing my constructed identity as well as my real one (though reader, let me instruct you that gender and race are indeed social constructions and that, as a constructionist of the not-too-strict variety, my identity is here fluid, indeterminate or, at least, situational).

Whilst I do occasionally fret about my unmasking, I am clothed in the protective garment of academic freedom. The pleasure of my nights is seldom perturbed by narcissistic fears of the diminution of my already modest reputation. I am a mostly honest scribe who stands behind the truthfulness of everything, save about my own persona, that has appeared in this humble broadsheet. Indeed, in the company of fellow historians I have oft heard expressed opinions far less charitable and far more scandalous than anything I have posted here.

Yet, I worry. Friends, I do fear for my mortal soul. AHB III aims not to injure but to entertain, not to abuse but to amuse. That thought leads me back to Middletown's electronic Rosa-Luxembourg-for-life. Upon reading her following missive, published some time ago, AHB III is reconsidering his current avocation as masked historian who unmasks his fellows' pretenses.

Here below is an excerpt from the Tenured Radical's missive on the ethics and practice of anonymity. You may read it in full here.

I do think anonymity raises ethical and practical issues that everyone at all ranks of the profession ought to think about on an ongoing basis, and not just those unprotected by tenure. As I reflect once more on my blogging life prior to my decision to give up anonymity, several things come to mind.

When we publish things anonymously that are incautious, and we are more likely to do that when we believe ourselves to be anonymous, there are immediate and sometimes long-term consequences for ourselves and for others. There's the equivalent of the flaming email phenomenon -- putting up a post in a fit of rage, or self-righteousness, or manic humor -- in other words, making a set of thoughts public in a way that doesn't engage one's own super-ego as it should. I know because I've done it, and I had to go back and edit or delete a bunch of stuff once I came out that seemed funny at the time (was, in fact) but was potentially hurtful since the humor depended on sarcasm or on exaggerating the characteristics of composite characters that real people were too likely to see as themselves. I remember at the time how differently I saw some of these posts once I had to imagine the reality of them being attached to my name, and to real people at Zenith. That change in perspective is a learning experience I have not forgotten.

But even when the posts are serious and accurate, I do think you need to ask yourself, before publishing something that is critical of others, would I stand up for this in public? After all, simply because something is the "truth" doesn't mean you should publish it. If you can't imagine saying such a thing to someone's face, or don't want to engage your own critics publicly, you probably shouldn't put something up on the web.

I want to emphasize that I personally don't feel critical of anonymous bloggers, and complications in my blogging life will not necessarily be problems on your blog....

This is all a way of saying that the question of one's reputation, and one's responsibility for the reputation of others, is a very serious one indeed. It has many dimensions that anonymity makes very, very ethically complex...

Should yr amiable companion Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce, III, retreat into the rugged terrain of his beloved country south of the border, where he will surely consort with some revolutionaries rather than fretting away his time on this blog? Will that sabbatical mark his disappearance?

Of such a fate, AHB III remains ambivalent.

So much delectable news of our profession remains yet unreported, viz. yr commentator's mostly-written critical dissection of departmental rankings, in which he points out the folly of a system that favors the Greats of Yore but undervalues the recently risen stars, especially at ambitious state universities, most of them outside of the metropole, in the heartland and in the west...Or in which he covers the fascinating quest by the University of Southern California to become the New York University of the Golden State...Or in which he tells the yet-unfinished story of the extraordinary efforts of Vanderbilt to poach talent from its would-be Ivy competitors, undertaken with the ambition and riches of the Vanderbilts themselves... Or in which he explores the remarkable diaspora of early American history from its former centers at Harvard, Yale, and Hopkins to places major and obscure... Or in which he takes to the trenches to cover the bloody battle within the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations over the most controversial John Yoo... Or in which he watchfully accounts for the intellectual torpor in such recently trendy fields as environmental history, whiteness studies, and women's history...Or in which he recounts the remarkable recrudescence of a field only a decade ago left for dead on the scholarly battlefield, the history of international relations...Or in which he finds himself in the madhouse that constitutes the annual history job market...Or in which he serves up the delightful dish that concerns such esteemed departments as Harvard, Cornell, Chicago, Penn, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Berkeley, Davis, Brandeis, Rice, Georgetown, and Alabama that has begun to crystallize into would-be posts on this fair broadsheet...Or in which he demonstrate his polymathic talents by posting knowledgeable comments on Russian, Chinese, and Renaissance Italian history and its practitioners, they of many splendid scandals and travails? Aye, there are many splendid tales both great and small that your bard wishes to sing.

Should your bard remain cosseted in the cloak of invisibility, which is so ill-fitting to the body of his ethics? Should he instead be sipping tequila in the company of latter-day Zapatistas, leaving the purveyors of gossip to huddle in the hallways of the AHA?

Such ponderous thoughts are making AHB's Monday particularly blue. Should you not hear from me again, I will gladly read any and all of your comments and treasure them, whether they are thoughtful or inane. I will carry them with me, along with my fine computer, into the hills of Chihuahua, where if you are lucky, you may find me living a meaningful and ethical life indeed.

Yr humble servant,


Evan said...

This has been too promising a start to end now. Continue!

Anonymous said...

Is anyone going to remove your mustache? if not why not remain anonymous?

Mr Punch said...

I'll vote for continuing, anonymously.

Anonymous said...

Stay, good sir, stay! Your voice is refreshing, and your job is vital. Let's those that must worry tremble, for a public discourse of our profession is direly needed.

Ambrose Hofstader Bierce III said...

Your voices are most welcome, but anonymous 2, am I not a private rather than a public voice of our profession? Anonymous 1, do you or others possess information that I am to be unmustaciohed? Yrs, AHB III

Lance said...

I've come to look forward to these postings. Don't give it up yet. Dish away!

Anonymous said...

I left the academy for high school teaching. Your blog is the only quick way to stay connected with the field and track many with whom I lost touch. You are the best thing since Invisible Adjunct. Don't stop.
Western Dave

The Gurgling Cod said...

I enjoy the blog, but this agonizing over being anonymous seems a waste of energy. I am not aware of any popular blogger who has remained anonymous indefinitely, even if you measure "indefinitely" in blog years. As such, I'd suggest posting as if you were going to be made tomorrow, such that you do not face damaging repercussions.

As for the ethical question of blogging anonymously, I'd differ with TR, in arguing that it depends. I'd argue not so much for the right to multiple authorial personae, as to insist that there is not stricture that confines anyone to a singular authorial persona that is co-extensive with a single human being. Homer, Publius, and Franklin W. Dixon would all beg to differ.

I would argue, more narrowly, that if one were obtaining information under the auspices of a real-life person, and posting anonymously to conceal said persona, that is a bit dodgier, though not unprecedented. (See Cecelia Brady in Spy Magazine of yore.)

Enjoy your anonymity while it lasts.

manan said...

Blog - with good cheer, and well intentions (both of which you have demonstrated amply) - and know that sooner or later, with your choice or without, you will have to take the 'stache off. Look at Fake Steve Jobs, he got a book deal out of it/

Surprisingly Big T Rex said...

With all due respect to TR - whom I adore - the standard for anonymous "dish" shouldn't be, "would I say this to someone's face." That, in truth, should be the standard for everything published under our "real" names (rather than our superhero aliases). Snarky appraisals of the fate of this department or that twists of this field are pretty much standard fare at the AHA anyhow, though AHB has broadened this well beyond the usual Starbux encounter. Onward and upward, I say. And let me be your Liz Gorman.

Oh, if the hounds get too close, just close up shop and become a legend.

N.B. *Please* add the subject of male professors in local musical bands(usually jazz) to your list. I want a top 10 list.

Anonymous said...

As a non-Americanist, I'd like to hear more of what you have to say. It's been fun so far, but I've noticed a focus on my monolingual colleagues over my more cosmopolitan comrades. So stick around.

Ahistoricality said...

It's been immensely refreshing reading: there's a lot which never seems to make it into perspectives, and those of us who aren't well-connected to the old boys networks have never gotten a good look at the profession like this before. Hints, and sometimes a Chronicle article pops up, but usually nothing.

This I'd argue that this really isn't "gossip," either: it's news and analysis, but it's about a world which never tolerated either before.

As for pseudonmyms, I'm all for 'em! But they're only good cover if you're careful: never comment anywhere else under this name, never admit anything, always resist the temptation to discuss anything about yourself under this name. Then you might be able to pull it off.

For that matter, I don't recall too much here that would be "scandalous" if your pseudonym were pierced, but then I don't know your personal situation.

JJO said...

I agree with ahistoricality and others. Continue!

You are providing a valuable forum for considering the state of our profession from an angle that is often mystified, mythologized, and consigned to the realm of ... well, gossip.

And despite your protestations, I agree that this is not gossip but a particular kind of journalism. As long as you stick to what is true, and as long as the axes ground are philosophical rather than personal, I think that the ethical and practical issues of pseudonymity should pose little danger (unless other issues related to your real-life identity are in play).

Anonymous said...

Ditto to what ahistoricality said. Those of us who are outside of the old boys network- whether for reasons of institutional (non)affiliation, junior status, or whatever- need to know more of the gossip in the field at large. (Would you send a promising undergrad off to a graduate program widely known for separating half its Ph.D. students from their funding after year 1 without first telling them about that institution's peculiar reputation? If you neglected to, you'd be remiss in your duties as an advisor, but it happens all too often if the advisor doesn't know the gossip.)

Although some posters have rightly commented on your focus towards Americanists, as an Americanist, I'm happy to see it. If you had a conspiratorial colleague with another subfield, that might jeopardize your anonymity, but it could also provide some balance.

Oran "Juice" Jones said...

You should promise to give your name out only to academics who will henceforth always identify themselves in peer reviews. After all, we historians do not want to hide behind veils of anonymity.

Anonymous said...

You're not anonymous! You are Ambrose H. Bierce, and you would do well to remember that.

Steven said...

Don't leave! The only reason to do it is the worry you might be unmasked at some point. But I think TR's situation was rather different from yours--her writing was much more centered in a particular institution, and that's where blurring her identity caused ethical problems. We all know you're a historian. Given the topics you cover, your institutional affiliation doesn't matter.

You're also being criticized for focusing excessively on U.S. history. The only part of that which annoys me is sometimes you equate "history" with "U.S. history," though other times you specify carefully.