Why I write with my own name


This post was written in concert with four others on the same topic, which can be found at this link on Hope Jahren’s site.

When you click on “about,” you see my unveiled face and my real name. Some of my credibility – and the lack thereof – comes from who I am and what I have done. It’s self-evident that the identity of the messenger affects how the message is received.

It is my hope that my identity gives more credence to my words. If I talk the talk, then I’d like to show that I walk the walk. If I write about research productivity, then I need to show that I actually, you know, publish. If I write about mentorship, then a cranky person can track down my students. Of course, any writer should be judged by one’s words and not by one’s credentials. So, the credence that I might get from my identity would only be temporarily bought, from the population that is unfamiliar with the mores of the pseudonymous science “blogosphere.” That turns out to be most people.

Before I started blogging, I did a little bit of amateur sociological fieldwork. I learned that most people don’t read blogs on a regular basis. I learned that a visit to a blog can be like arriving at an intimate party where you don’t know anybody. In contrast, I want my blog to be approachable to everybody. I want to be the guy who walks over to the front door, says “Hi, I’m Terry. Come on in. Can I get you something to drink? Let me introduce you to these folks.” I want every single blog post to be able to stand on its own, and to not make any references to other people or other blogs that aren’t fully understandable to a novice.

And I want people to know who is addressing them. It’s more approachable to guests who just put their foot through the front door. I’ve written more here about my approach to running my site so that it is transparent, professional, and inclusive. I’m not claiming that my approach is better than others, but I try to be different in a way that, I hope, broadens the audience.

Compared to most other bloggers, it’s easy for me to be public: I represent the trifecta of privilege as a tenured white man. And I’m straight. I don’t have to worry about the job market anymore, and I won’t be attacked because of my gender or ethnicity, like some of my colleagues.

It’s my duty to use this relative comfort to agitate for change. It’s the best and most important part of my job.

I am the great grandchild of wops and micks who immigrated into a low-income ethnic enclave of New York City. I fight a similar battle as my great grandparents, not for myself but on behalf of my students. My lab is mostly composed of students from traditionally underrepresented groups, from low-income backgrounds, who are often the first in their families to attend college. Every day, I work to ameliorate the mountain of prejudice and disadvantage facing my students.

I can stick my neck out on occasion. I can press for student rights, call out bias, and encourage practices that make sure that the future generation of scientists looks like the American populace. My privilege doesn’t come without minor challenges. I need to be clear about my awareness of power differentials and where privilege lies. While I have been working very hard to declare myself as an ally and advocate, I’ve heard far too often that I’m not the right person to advocate for my students. But I won’t shut up, and it’s a challenge that I’m up to, because these things matter.

It’s rare that people accuse me of being out of touch because of my tenured-white-dudeness, but it happens. The last time I touched on the topic of my pseudonymity, I got burned. A formerly-pseudonymous colleague posted my name and picture, right next to a picture of herself with a black eye from a vicious assault, suggesting that attitudes like mine were partly to blame. One commenter remarked that I am a danger to children. My crime was ignorance of the fact that some people have good reasons to use pseudonyms. Like I didn’t know that or something. I was also guilty of not doing a literature search on the history of writing about pseudonymity in the “blogosphere.” You know you’re been shamed when the author has to write a caveat that you’re not actually being shamed.

I’m okay with the occasional potshot because risks are necessary to make change. The real risk is that I am a highly flawed model for the change I wish to see. I write about being an effective professor, but I was denied tenure. I push for more and better mentorship of minority students and women, but I’m a white guy. I write a regular set of posts on efficient teaching but I’m not winning any teaching awards. I write about time management and how to do research with a heavy teaching load, but lately I’ve been in the classroom much less than my departmentmates.

I’d like to help change the environment so that more people find it possible and worthwhile to write with their own names. For some, that environment already, tenuously, exists. This post by tressiemc about her choice to use her own identity is powerful and inspirational. I applaud her courage, and I believe we all stand to gain from it.

Based on the volume of what I’ve written, there is no shortage of people who consider me to be a rube, buffoon, blowhard, or a narcissist. That’s a chance I’ve taken. But these challenges and worries are infinitesimal compared to the truckloads of bunk that my students, and many of my junior colleagues, have to face every day. Because I am capable of using my own name while writing on their behalf, I am.

9 thoughts on “Why I write with my own name

  1. Oh Terry. Really? REALLY? If this is how you listen to your students, I’m a bit worried. Let me repeat what I said, in an attempt to soften it so you might be able to process it:

    “I’m not mentioning him as an example to shame him, but to show how easy it is even for the good guys to forget that their experiences are not representative.”

    We work in the same crowd of researchers. I…. happen to know that listening is an area of personal development for you, shall we say. I do believe you are trying. But dude, FAIL. Sometimes it’s not about you.

    I’m not sure why you thought it was important to single me out, rather than any of the *other* women that wrote responses pieces to your initial post. (You know, people who have actual jobs, and that haven’t been unemployed for over a year. Freudian slip you picked the most vulnerable target, amitrite?)

    • I’ve got lots of areas ripe for personal development. Thanks for the reminder. It’s weird to think that my poor listening skills are a topic of conversation among entomologists who I don’t know. I must be a really horrible listener, to have missed out on all of these conversations.

      I agree with you, that sometimes it isn’t about me, or about you. In this case, this post isn’t about you. It’s about how I got real-life burned with my real-life identity online. Of course your post wasn’t about me. But it was prompted by a discussion with me, and if I recall correctly the only images in the post are of yourself and me. Your words wrote that I was a well-meaning but ignorant good guy. But the take-home message, at least in the views of the commenters, was that dudes like me are a part of the problem. That I don’t understand even though I’m a good guy. It’s not a something I’d proudly share with my dean, or my chair. Clearly, the comments that mentioned me weren’t exactly positive. That wasn’t a good day for me online.

      Even though that post wasn’t about me, it made me look really really bad. That’s mighty obvious. And that’s why I brought it up in this post, addressing the real risks that I take by using my real name online. I didn’t name anybody else, and I didn’t put anybody else picture or twitter quotes in my post. I just linked to a story that made me look bad. The fact that you had to point out that I wasn’t being singled out for shaming suggests that such an explanation was needed, because it walked like a shame and talked like a shame. You didn’t call me a bad guy, but I was painted as an ignorant person who didn’t understand some really basic things. In academia, one of the best ways to shame someone is to call them ignorant.

      I didn’t intend that my mention of your post would make you look bad, but because it’s the only illustration that I have that whatever I say online, with my own name, can come back to bite me in the butt. My point is that I did look bad in your post. And I highlighted exactly how I looked bad. It clearly looked worse for me than you intended.

      I took a risk by writing about a topic, and then engaging in a twitter conversation with someone who I don’t know. I’m now wiser and I tend not to engage in these conversations as often, and I quadruple-think my words instead of triple-thinking them.

      • Ok, let me try this again. I was so gobsmacked this morning that I don’t think I was able to get across what I was saying. I ended up just lashing out at you in my pain, for which I apologize.

        Your comment above is encouraging, but it seems like you are not quite getting it. You “want to be aware of your power differential”? Think about how this looks from where I am.

        You used a post where I discussed how using a pseudonym helped me talk about my disability (I have epilepsy), my past employment (state employee gag rule) and MY RAPE as somehow a post about…. how bad you looked.

        I embedded a tweet of yours. Your avatar is on the Tweet. Your face is your avatar.
        That is why there is a photo of you in the post.

        My avatar, and my comment here, are still Bug Girl. Why?
        Because I still try to keep comments about my rape separate from my real name. Why was I concerned that you used my real name in the comments on my initial post? That’s why.
        My mom knows how to Google. 33 years later, now she knows what happened to me.

        It’s not about “looking bad.” Honestly, at this point, I have a giant trail of burning bridges and documentation of me looking bad all over the internet.
        We all do. Because we are human.

        I keep torching things (this comment: Exhibit A) because I think that being able to talk about some subjects are important enough to take risks.

        Your post was part of an organized group post. The other people in this series managed to make their case about why they use their real names without taking a swipe at anyone else. Or, for that matter, implying that pseudonyms are “less than.”

        Think about the power differential, and how using a post about my sexual assault to make the point that you, tenured white dude, looked bad once….looks.
        And that you picked ME, and that moment of my life, to make your point, rather than several other people (male and female) who you had similar conversations with at the same time.

        • Your remarks are valid and heartfelt and genuine. Thanks for being generous in your open perspective. This might sound like sarcasm to some, but I really mean it. You’re are now working to see things from my view, and really you have been from the start.

          I can’t hold anybody to a higher standard than that which I apply to myself. Using that criterion, you’re the tops. You had a greater point about online identity in which I was an illustrative point. I didn’t like that. To do the same thing, to make essentially the same (or the opposite?) point in an equivalent fashion was unwise, or at least didn’t meet the standard of the golden rule. If placed I face a similar decision again, I have a model for responding with the same degree if forbearance.

          I was faced with a situation in which I was compelled to show negative consequences of the risk of using my own identity online. Compelled with this task, I inadvertently showcased the risks taken by another, in which my involvement was only collateral damage. If I am truly willing to take the occasional potshot, as I wrote, then letting that earlier post pass without remark would have been truer to my word. If strength comes from letting defenses down, I need to be stronger.

  2. Terry, I appreciate your willingness to talk about this and I am very pleased that you are invested in working to change our environment. Your work is important, and I find your stories to be powerful and persuasive. In fact, I can safely say I would find your words to be powerful and persuasive under any name you gave. It is your words and your experiences that make your writing important. Not your name, your credentials, or anything else. I am very glad that you are devoted to using your position of relative power to make the world a better place.

    But I am rather concerned at your approach, here. I mean, “A formerly-pseudonymous colleague posted my name and picture, right next to a picture of herself with a black eye from a vicious assault, suggesting that attitudes like mine were partly to blame.”

    Seriously? It’s quite clear that that’s not what she was suggesting at all. Rather she was noting that, for her, writing under her own name might result in some serious and damaging consequences. Observe: “Pseudonyms include voices of people living in fear who are reaching out to others. We have very good reasons to not want a full record of our lives online under our real name. I include here people that are not at risk of physical harm, but economic and professional harm; graduate students that don’t want to be viewed as trouble makers, and postdocs that don’t want to hurt their grant chances, for example.”

    This quite clearly does not implicate an attitude like yours contributing to her hurts. Rather, it is pointing out that pseudonyms are sometimes necessary. Her recounting of this was not an attack aimed at you, instead it is a recounting of her own experiences.

    I am also interested that you seem only to remember this particular “attack”, and not the many other discussions on the topic. For example, the one we had.

    So while I appreciate your point of view, I am rather disturbed that you used this post to basically lash out at someone who has clearly had difficulties under her real name. What is the point of that?

    • We did have some good discussions, and I really appreciated your post at the time. I appreciated it, in part, because there were fewer assumptions about the post which I had made. I also appreciated that you didn’t include a picture of me in the post. Foremost, I liked the discussion in the comments. I didn’t mention your post, because it wasn’t a negative consequence of using my identity in a blog. I chose the post by BugGirl because it was a negative real-life consequence of using my real-life identity.

      I didn’t write this post to lash out, and it’s clearly partly an error of tone on my part that it was seen this way. I was asked to write a post to reflect on why I chose to blog with the same identity that I use in my personal and professional life, and the consequences of that decision. To do full justice to that topic, I picked out the most negative consequence of which I’m aware — the post to which I linked.

      I am not sure if I exaggerated the negative consequences of the post for me, though if I did, I didn’t intend to. I wanted to show how a far more established and more well-respected writer highlighted me as an example of an ignorant entitled dude, whose attitudes are complicit in negative stuff that happens to people with less privilege.

      Compared to some others, I realize that this isn’t too harsh of a consequence for having a blog, unlike the ugly stuff of the past week. However, that seems to be as bad as it’s gotten for me, shows how I’ve gotten off relatively easy. (I bet there are other negative consequences of which I’m not yet aware, I imagine.) On the other hand, I am trying hard to not create any ill will, and if I’m agitating for change, then I want to do this by identifying common ground. I’ve botched that search for common ground with you and BugGirl, I realize. Then again, by all indicators we are entirely on the same team. I’m working to reach people who don’t share the same values, and part of that is communicating that what I’m doing is genuinely risky on my behalf.

      I don’t know if you caught my posts last year about the story when I was denied tenure. I originally wrote about that under a pseudonym, and the reason that I came out was because I wanted to make sure the story had the biggest potential positive impact for others. I didn’t have to say that those posts were from me, but I did. If someone thinks that wasn’t a risky move on my part is more than a little naïve.

      I didn’t imagine roses and happy smiles when the post came out, but I thought it was important to include that example to illustrate the point that using my own identity can have a personal and professional cost. I did not intend to embarrass, and I imagined that other people are comfortable standing behind their own words. As I wrote, I’m running the risk that some consider me to be a buffoon or a blowhard or ignorant or whatever. Or, a bad listener.

  3. “In fact, I can safely say I would find your words to be powerful and persuasive under any name you gave.”

    I disagree and fully appreciate that you are so transparent. I’ve heard a lot of talk about how it should only be the words that matter — from the same folks who used to dismiss my comments when my screen name made it obvious that I was a grad student! I found that by not advertising this fact, I got a very different reaction. I *do not* regard pseudonymous advice in the same light that I view that from someone whose history I can verify. I mean, if you want to talk shoes all day long, fine. If you’re going to dish out advice on mentoring, publishing, grant-writing: I want to know your track record. Most people outside the blogosphere, I think, have no trouble comprehending this stance.

  4. See current post at campusreports dot com about the danger of using your own name as a byline, tenured or not. Having a been a writer/journalist for over 30 years, I know the third person has a place as does a pen name. Writers have used the latter for centuries, because the truth does annoy the powerful, and the powerful do seek revenge. BTW: I am human, and we’re all African.

  5. Hey it’s Hope with some background. I started inviting people to the group post to discuss IRL-identity after the University of Kansas thing blew up & the KS BOR came down on that poor prof for his tweets. Right afterwards the media started freaking out with this, “all professors must tweet/blog with pseuds! It’s the only sane thing to do!” This left me with a bad taste as I think it’s bunk for media/individuals to fear-monger people’s choices about how they write. So I started inviting and I started writing. Each of the people invited had recently been through some stuff as IRL-id – Karen with #ripplesofdoubt, DNLee with ofek/SciAm & Jeremy recently did a piece on LGBT&STEM which I thought was quite landmark. While writing, I of course didn’t anticipate that the pseud issue would blow up around outing, etc., but it did, so there’s that. Anyway, I had specifically invited Terry because of his writing around not getting tenure was probably the BEST and most RAW academic writing that I saw during 2013. Late in the year, he also “came out” about this writing that had started out anonymous. I wanted his perspective because he’s clearly someone who has thought hard about the pros/cons of real-life id, and because his tenure denial posts got to what is arguably the very most vulnerable issue within academia (i.e., under what circumstances is tenure denied and what are the personal ramifications). If you haven’t seen his post on tenure, it is well worth a read: https://smallpondscience.com/2013/12/16/coming-out-of-the-closet-tenure-denial-edition/ Also Jeremy’s QueerSTEM contributions can be found here: http://www.queerstem.org Ok-roger-hope-out.

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