Friday, April 21, 2006

An Unusual Keynote Address

The feminist blogger BitchPhD was recently invited to give a keynote address at a Women's Studies conference as her blogging persona. It's a brilliant turn for pseudonymous blogging, and in a way makes perfect sense given the content of her talk (which she quite graciously posts in its entirety).

There was a little surprise for me:

A few months into the blog, Amardeep Singh, who keeps a blog of his own, said in passing somewhere that he didn’t want to know who Bitch was, because he preferred to see her as “everycolleague,” and I think that’s right. In the real world, the line between private and public thoughts, especially in the workplace, is fairly definite, if not always clear. But--and of course this is a feminist statement--that line is a false one: after all, professionals are people, and while everyone plays different roles at different times, all those roles are played by one person. Bitch exists to cover up my anxiety about the blurring of my own personal, professional and (as things evolved) political opinions; but because she isn’t a real person, she can be all those things at once.

Well, let me amend that. Part of my argument, of course, is that real people are all those things at once. What I mean to say is that the social structures we’re working and living in define “work” and “life,” or “personal” and “political,” like “private” and “public,” as separate spheres. So it can be very difficult to talk about these categories together, because we’re used to thinking of them as conceptually separate, even if we realize that in our own lives and stories, they overlap. As a persona rather than a person, Bitch *demonstrates* the overlap as well as talking about it, and I suspect that on some level that’s a big part of the blog’s popularity. It’s kind of amazing, if you think about it, to have the same blog linked by both mommy bloggers and the big boy political blogs. Which are, of course, virtually all written by boys--but that’s a different issue.

I'm pretty sure the phrase she's referring to is one that I left in a comment thread on one of her posts, so the fact that it stayed in her mind a year and a half later is pleasantly surprising. Anyway, enough about me: go read the talk.

As for the point she's making about how she can transgress public and private boundaries, it's important -- and it's something you can do on a pseudonymous blog that isn't advisable on a 'real name' blog. With your real name on the sidebar, you can cross that line at times to talk about personal matters, but you have to tread carefully -- to protect both your career and your family.

The larger question might be something like: how can we redraw the line, so that personal life choices and family obligations can be seen as legitimate (as in, non-stigmatized), publicly marked factors in an academic career? (An example of it in action: my own university faculty is currently considering a proposal to require that all faculty who have a child before tenure extend their tenure clocks. This proposal has both advantages and disadvantages...)

In the comments, someone compares her argument about how the personal impinges on the public/professional to a speech by the former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers. And here is BitchPhd's response:

There's . . . a major rhetorical difference between an argument that essentially throws up its hands and says "we can't change the reality that people make these choices" (Summers) and an argument that says "given that these choices are reality, we need to change the system" (me).

That seems like a really good way to imagine the effect activist pseudonymous blogging might have.


Ruchira Paul said...

While Bitch Ph.D.(B.P) is a hugely popular and readable blog, I have a bit of a problem with the *anonymity* of the blogger vs the public persona angle in her case. B.P. is not blogging entirely anonymously. She plays it both ways - lets us know that she is professor but does not tell us where etc. This tantalizing tidbit about her "real" identity is what makes her more of a "person of interest" than say a completely anonymous person. If she is blogging to only let her hair down about various aspects of her life which she cannot share publicly, such as her sexuality and dissatisfaction at work, she could have done it artfully and completely anonymously. She may or may not have been as much of a hit as a blogger, depending on whether what she was disseminating is of enough interest to her readers.

I am not saying that she did this deliberately as a gimmick to snag readers but the result is the same. There are several bloggers who blog anonymously and do so with varying amounts of success and popularity.

A professor is a public person - like a journalist or a movie star. One of them blogging anonymously (after disclosing their "other' profession), is somewhat akin to a peep show or a bait - controlling the information both for your own advantage as well as safety. For example, some time ago, at one of the legal blogs, an anonymous prof (for tenure reasons) blogged regularly and was quite opinionated. He/she also criticized the academic and political opinions of some of his colleagues by name. Understandably, it caused some anger among his/her targets who found it somewhat cowardly on the blogger's part and frustrating on theirs because it is a bit disconcerting to be debating an anonymous challenger. In the case of B.P., when you identified her as your "everycolleague", your interest in her opinion was surely piqued to a larger degree than say if you had seen her as an "every woman." Right?

B.P is a smart and very interesting blogger but she is doubly more captivating because she does let us "know" who she is.
Professors run some of the best and most influential blogs. I just like my favorite prof bloggers professing with an honest by line.

4:23 PM  
Amardeep said...


You're right about Dr. B's investment in publicly identifying herself as an academic -- it's right there in her moniker. But I think what she's saying is that she's chosen this particular, partially anonymous approach because she wants to explore the relationship between her personal and professional roles.

I think she likes the term 'everycolleague' because it suggests a sense of a collective project to try and improve the situation for academics whose careers take a hit because of their personal lives. She's not just doing it for notoriety or to express herself; she wants to provoke a conversation that leads to a new orientation to the idea of professionalism along feminist principles -- which is at present rather unsustainable.

If she did use her blog to criticize other scholars in her field she disagreed with, then the problem you're describing with the law blogger would be something I would agree with -- it would be a kind of cover. But here she's using it to talk about a systemic problem (academia as a whole) as well as issues potentially of interest to everyone (i.e., feminist issues). She can't totally 'come out', because under the current system that could be catastrophic for her career.

Thanks for the detailed objection! It pushed me to say more clearly what I was thinking.

6:39 PM  
Akash said...

I did not quite read the entire text of BitchPhD’s talk posted on her weblog and presume what I’m going to tell now does not require the reading, though, fits perfectly well into the present discussion.

I don’t see anything wrong in running anonymous weblogs and for that matter, roaming across the Internet under assumed names and personae. I don’t say that I support pseudonymous interactions; rather, I would like to leave the option completely to the Internet user. A little reflection convinces that the main reason for the requirement for a cover is the author's desire to vent the pent-up emotions against someone or on some issues with a sense of fearlessness – a state of mind valued highly by any passionate writer -- what you otherwise could not have done without jeopardizing your career or, for that matter, say, a relation with someone. To tag these undercover actions as dastardly may come down very harshly on some, as it may indeed be the case that revelations of their real identities will throw them into undesirable situations which are best avoided for a peaceful life, to say the least. True, that it is a potential problem to overcome the frustration of arguing with an anonymous opponent. But, over the time, one will surely grow used to facing anonymous challenges and calmly refuting them with counter arguments. In a few rare cases, where the undercover challenger’s only purpose is to libel, or indulge in vituperation, their evil intentions will surely be exposed to the public (for example, if the debate carries on in a public forum etc.) very fast rendering their cases null and void.

8:59 PM  
Ennis said...

There's . . . a major rhetorical difference between an argument that essentially throws up its hands and says "we can't change the reality that people make these choices" (Summers) and an argument that says "given that these choices are reality, we need to change the system" (me).

The problem with this, as the Marxists demonstrate, is that it usually shows a lack of respect for the choices that people make. The idea is that people don't really know what's good for them, or they're too constrained, so if you change society enough you can change people's chocies. What if people don't want to change? What if people want to own property, for example? Then it's false consciousness and must be eradicated through vigorous re-education. I may be making a mountain out of a molehill, but I find the road that she's starting to walk down potentially troublesome.

11:59 PM  
apsc said...

Can you please explain what 'setting back your tenure clock' means? Is it that a person who has a child will take longer to get tenure? How can that be anybody's business?

7:41 AM  
Amardeep said...

Ennis, I'm not quite sure I follow. You mean, she's not acknowledging people who do want to observe a strict separation of their personal and professional lives?

And APSC, many universities have exemptions in place that allow junior faculty to request an extension of their tenure clocks because of children (see this Google Search). The argument has been that this affects women disproportionately, and works against them. I think the measure that is being proposed is designed to take any measure of discrimination out of the system.

I personally think it's too rigid.

1:09 PM  
bitchphd said...

not acknowledging people who do want to observe a strict separation of their personal and professional lives?

Interestingly, this came up after the talk: the idea that we *want* to maintain a distinction between our professional and personal lives. I think that's true--but I think there's a distinction that's not being made between the *truly* personal (e.g., not feeling well on a particular day, hating a particular student, disliking a colleague) and things that get labelled as "personal" when, in fact, they aren't (academics and depression, recalcitrant students, departmental politics). I also think, of course, that the right to keep some things personal is something that individuals should exercise, rather than something that institutions should declare. If I want my geographic discontent to be my own private business, that's up to me; if "academia" as a profession wants to declare geography irrelevant to people's career decisions, then that's problematic, no?

8:00 PM  

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