Pseudonymity and all the cuss words

From Michael Tomasson’s blog:

A senior scientist mentioned googling a potential faculty recruit and found the person’s blog describing the trials and tribulations of a life in science. The faculty member said the blog, while it was to be commended for its forthright tone, was so informal and laced with profanity that the professor could not help but hold the blog against the potential faculty member. A second senior scientist nodded in agreement. It was the consensus that aspiring young scientists should steer clear of such activities.

I thought Michael Tomasson as well as my correspondents on twitter were too quick to judge these “fusty old pricks” to the blog. Faculty are hired to improve the reputation of a university. The hiring faculty have a job to do too — to ensure that whoever they hire will reflect well on the university in the eyes of students, funding agencies, the public, and especially in the US, wealthy donors. Is it unimaginable that a rich old donor with hundreds of millions to throw around would view profanity-laced blog authored by a faculty member negatively? Perhaps the hiring faculty were just doing their job to protect the university’s reputation in the eyes of its donors. It’s hard to know for sure; we don’t have a lot of details to go on. And without more information it’s premature to conclude that they were acting inappropriately.

Secondly a writer’s register affects readers’ perceptions of gravity. This shouldn’t be controversial. If you want to be taken seriously by an audience wider than those who know you personally, steer clear of too much informality — and definitely avoid profanity. Politicians don’t swear in speeches, lawyers don’t swear in briefs, scientists don’t swear in journal articles, and the most widely-read journalists don’t swear in magazine articles. The same applies to academics blogging. Neil Armstrong’s carefully chosen first words on the moon were not “This shit is the fucking bomb!”, and for good reason.

Thirdly, it’s far from clear to me that aspiring academics should adhere to a blanket policy of pseudonymity in blogging until tenure. Many untenured academics blog in their own name. A few examples off the top of my head include Chembark, most entries at the Open Flask, and John Hawks (before he was tenured in 2008). All those blogs are well-written and reflect well on their authors — and by extension, the institutions that support them. I should say that there are many pseudonymous bloggers I admire, for example Chemjobber, Female Science Professor, See Arr Oh, and others. Of course I don’t know for sure, but I think most of them are pseudonymous for reasons other than wanting to write “informally”.

Despite typing all that out, somehow I doubt I’ll be persuasive to too many folks on the twitter scene. My final sentiments are — not for the first time — nicely encapsulated by a scene from the Big Lebowski.

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4 responses to “Pseudonymity and all the cuss words

  1. I think you’ve managed to make it sound worse that just fusty old pricks. That’s one thing. The idea of “protect the university’s reputation in the eyes of its donors” doesn’t sound great to me. Give the history of how that has been done, keeping the right sort of folk out, you know to protect the reputation of the good folks who are in the university.

  2. Thanks for the comment Bashir. I have no idea what was motivating the two faculty that Michael Tomasson’s blog post described, but it doesn’t seem far-fetched to suppose that they were merely trying to ensure that anyone they hired would write with civility and propriety. I’m sure its also possible they had more sinister motivations, but it seems uncharitable to assume that without further information.

  3. I am not assuming sinister motivations. I’m sure their *intentions* are well meaning. It is important, very important to differentiate explicit intentions, and possible effects. Even good intentions to hire “nice polite people that we’d get along with” easily ends up having skewed results. There is literally a ton of research on hiring looking at who tends to get hired (or not) with these sorts of subjective (non-job related) standards. Even if well intentioned.

    The whole thing smells very country-club-ish. It is not a good look, regardless of intent.

    • Bashir, thanks for the reply. I think what you call “country-club-ish” is what most would call collegiality. It’s an explicit value of most academic departments that I’m familiar with, although I’m sure in the hands of rash or malign faculty the concept can be abused. And anyway, for me a bright side of the story is that rightly or wrongly, faculty on judging applicants on *what the applicant writes*, instead of just relying on h indices, what other people write about the candidate in rec letters, etc. Now if only the faculty would read the applicants’ papers as well as their blogs…

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