Saturday, February 12, 2011

Being a Pseudonym

cross-posted at Dagblog

Some of the folks who read me at Dagblog may have come to suspect over time that "Doctor Cleveland" may not be my actual name. Meanwhile, readers who have actually met me in three dimensions may have thought (but been too polite to say) that the name "Doctor Cleveland" is a pretty lame disguise.

Yes, it is. It is a ridiculously lame disguise. And while I've never blogged about why that is, I think this is as good a time as any to explain.

When I started blogging, I deliberately chose a pseudonym that would be extremely easy for anyone who knew me (or who knew of me) to see through. "Doctor Cleveland" works fairly nicely for this purpose; the moniker does not communicate my identity to those who don't know it, but doesn't hide it or even pretend to hide it effectively. I could not deny being Doctor Cleveland with a straight face; anyone who asks me has already figured it out. And that's all for the best, because I don't intend to deny anything that I publish on my blog. Retract, maybe. Reconsider, absolutely. But I will never refuse to admit that I have written something that I published on the internet. My pseudonym is not a mask. It is not meant to allow me to write things that I will not stand by. And so I chose a moniker that reminds me (should I be tempted to forget) that there is no hiding place and that I should never publish anything that I would not publicly own.

My reasons for using the pseudonym are not about secrecy or privacy. Nothing one writes on the internet could be either secret or private. I use a pseudonym for the same reason that many other bloggers who are professors in their daily lives do. In fact, I'm sure my decision was colored by the fact that so many academic bloggers I admire blog pseudonymously. Hilzoy has always been my most important role model as a blogger, both for the brilliance of her posts and for the unfailing civility and integrity she brought to them. And the blogosphere is still full of pseudonymous academics I admire, from internet institutions like Tenured Radical and Historiann to my peeps Renaissance Girl, Flavia, and Medieval Woman. But aside from emulation and peer pressure, I have two basic reasons for the pseudonym.

The first is to keep my current students free of my political and topical opinions. The best thing about the phrase "Doctor Cleveland" is that my students never google it when looking for me. The pseudonym is an extension of my policy of keeping partisan politics, or at least my own partisan politics, out of the classroom. My 1689 Rule is still very much in effect. Students doing a quick internet search on their professor shouldn't come into class feeling that I'm hostile to their politics or feeling somehow licensed to push their politics on their classmates because they expect me to sympathize. They should figure out the rules of the classroom from the way the rules are actually applied in the classroom, rather than walking in the door with preconceptions that take the first thirteen weeks of the semester to break down. I can't tell myself I'm committing to keeping current events out of class when I'm publishing editorials in the blogosphere under the same name I use to teach.

One side effect of this separation between the teacher and the blogger is that is also creates a split between my other writing, the research I do as part of my profession, and the blog. There's no way to identify myself with my academic writing on the blog without identifying myself in internet search results, so you won't see Dr. Cleveland talking about his book. But that's fine; the blog and the book don't have much to do with each other, and never did. (It's different for writers like Genghis, whose book grew out of his blogging. Have I mentioned that everybody in the world should buy Genghis's book?) The occasional person searching for my work on Shakespeare doesn't need to find my opinions on John Boehner, banking reform, and Tahrir Square, and the person who's happened across my blog while looking for general opinions on topics of general interest doesn't really need to find highly specialized nitty-gritty about Elizabethan playhouses. The difference between my blogging pseudonym and my scholarly byline provides a clarifying division between two different kinds of writing for two different audiences.

The tiny areas of overlap between those two audience's interests, the blog posts about academic life and the way American universities work, actually lead me to the second major reason for the pseudonym. When I write as "Doctor Cleveland" I am very deliberately not writing as an employee of the institution for which I teach. I have blogged occasionally about how American universities work and the challenges they face, and I suspect I will be blogging about that more often over the next several months. What I write under my own name is necessarily a public comment by a faculty member of a specific educational institution. Should I find that I need to make a public comment about the institution that employs me, I will do so using my legal name. When I write about general issues of higher education, which hold true throughout American higher education, I prefer to use the Dr. Cleveland pseudonym, which I use to for general-interest blogging rather than for expressing specific concerns.

I do not use my pseudonym to blog about my own workplace. I use my pseudonym to make it clear that I am not writing about my own workplace. When I discuss academic issues or educational policy in this space, I am not describing the particular concerns of my school or department, not am I advocating for my personal interests. If a question is not of broad concern throughout a large segment of higher education, it is not worth blogging about. Neither am I interested in advocating for policies that happen to be to my own professional advantage; my goal as an academic blogger is to think publicly about how universities work, not to argue for my own professional privileges. While I necessarily draw upon my own experiences and perspectives, my goal is not to argue only for my own place within the system but to analyze how the system functions and why. That which is true only of me, or only of my employer, is not interesting for these purposes.

I have from time to time used details from my own working life as illustrations, but in every case I have chosen details that illustrate broadly representative experiences faced by many college teachers today, rather than peculiar experiences that imply anything unusual or atypical about my employer. I am very much a typical humanities professor of my generation, and the career details I choose to share on the blog are typical ones. I was lucky enough to find a tenure-track job, for which over a hundred other new and newish PhDs in my field had applied. I went through the tenure process, with its attendant anxieties, and got tenured. I work in a department that is slightly less than half the size it was at its peak strength, and I am the only specialist in my particular field although my department once had four or five tenured faculty members in that field. None of this is unusual, or peculiar to my employer; this is what has become normal.

I am also, like almost every academic of my generation, expected to be more productive as a researcher than my predecessors were, but this says nothing about me particularly. I was hired with the basic expectation that I would publish more, and more prestigiously, than any scholar in my particular field has ever done at the college where I work. But anyone that my department hired would have been expected to do that, and if it hadn't been me it would have been one of several dozen other people. Everyone else in my department was hired with the same baseline expectation. If you're hiring a Dickens scholar today, you're hiring someone to be the best-published Dickens scholar your department has ever had. If you're hiring a medievalist, you're hiring someone to be the best-published medievalist your department has ever had. This doesn't mean my colleagues and I are smart or special in a way that our predecessors were not. It means we work under a different system with different expectations and demands. If I had been hired for a job where I had not been expected to become the most-published or at least second-most-published Shakespearean in departmental history, that would have made me special and unusual. It would mean that I had gotten one of a tiny handful of elite jobs. Instead I have a perfectly typical job at a perfectly typical school. This is the way it is everywhere.

I'll be blogging more about this in the coming weeks and months, but none of it will be about the school where I work, and none of it should be read that way. I'm not blogging about one school or one person, but about the experience of my academic generation. The writing I do under my own legal name, like every other scholar's, is dedicated to establishing an almost exhaustingly specific and individual professional identity. Everything I publish as a scholar is expected to differentiate me from all of the other scholars, to testify to my unique intellectual viewpoint and my peculiar depth of learning; that is what the publishing system, and the hiring system, demand. What I publish as Doctor Cleveland is not about me. It is not about the ways in which I differ from the rest of my profession, but about what I share with them.

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