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New Weblog: "PhDInHistory"

May 21, 2007

Late last week I received a notice on a new weblog titled “PhDinHistory.” I scanned several of its posts from April and May, and it seems to be a legitimate endeavor.

My problem with it is its anonymity. If the effort were discursive or narrative, then I wouldn’t be as suspicious. But this one offers a number of numerical analyses. When dealing with statistics, it seems to me that a concrete source of authorship is in order. Because of the potential for malignant manipulation involved in data analysis, trust is paramount.

Thoughts? Do you agree that a site like PhDinHistory needs a forthright author? Does anonymity matter more when numbers are at stake? – TL

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9 Comments
  1. PhDinHistory permalink

    This is a great question. I appreciate you asking it. I will be interested to see what others have to say.


    Here
    is blog post that people might want to read since it contains debates on the subject of anonymous blogging.

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  2. Alexis permalink

    It creates a greater burden for the reader, because we are used to using shortcuts to determine the quality and trustworthiness of a source.

    For instance, the author's name – if they are a well-respected author, or prestigious, or widely published, the reader can (or…at any rate…does) often bypass the difficult step of verifying the claims they make. “Well, X said it, so it is safe to assume it is true.” On the other hand, it makes it easy to discount an argument out of hand, without further effort. “Well, Y said it, so it must be a load of bollocks.”

    The real question, of course, is whether these shortcuts are as useful or as wise as we rely on them to be? Using them is common because of the large amount of information we are expected to process every day, but it leads to dangerous assumptions. Obviously, one cannot track down the source of every statement of fact nor the entire intellectual lineage of every person who gives an opinion. But nonetheless, it is unwise to place our entire faith in nothing but a name.

    To that end, I have no problem with anonymous blogging, even when done “academically.” However, I DO have a problem with anonymous facts and figures. If a figure, statistic, or non-widely known fact is used, I want a source so that I can verify the integrity of the data myself. If the author is the source, then (and only then) would that anonymity be truly inappropriate.

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  3. Anonymous permalink

    Well, she or he could have used a name-like pseudonym instead, like Mark Twain. If the author didn't identify that name as a pseudonym, and if it looked like a real name, would you have thought twice about it?

    “Evil HR Lady” doesn't give her name, does she? How about “Dean Dad?” They both write successful, credible blogs without giving a name, no?

    I also like the points “Alexis” made regarding anonymous data vs. anonymous bloggers. So I think it's OK, “Tim Lacy” – if that is your real name.

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  4. I have to admit, I am constantly skeptical of the “pseudonymic” bloggers that the Chronicle has write about their experiences. Anonymity is one thing, but I really think that it tend to lead to a loss of accountability.

    signed,

    Dr. Christopher Miller, PhD

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  5. Dear Anon (& Others),

    Again, my concern about PhDinHistory is her/his numerical data. Has she/she been trained in statistics? Why should we trust her/his analyses? Both Dean Dad and Evil HR Lady stick to narrative answers for the most part.

    To go to Alexis' concern, at least PhDinHistory's sources of data are ~not~ anonymous. In fact, so much of her/his data come from AHA's Perspectives and/or other professional orgs/institutions (i.e. OAH, DOE), that I get the feeling that he/she is an employee of one of them. Only someone intimately familiar with those statistics could cite and interpret them comfortably. The rest of us read it, but I don't see any of us analyzing it from other angles.

    If he/she ~is~ a member of one of those societies, it would seem even more important for PhDinHistory to blog without pseudonym. Why blog anonymously unless your motivated by something other than the message of your boss or organization? What's to fear?

    While relying on someone's prestige or “name” is admittedly a shortcut, at least the rest of us can be assured that the disseminator is willing to stand behind his/her work. That person can be held accountable, to Christopher's point, for mistakes.

    As for Anon's reference to me as “Tim Lacy,” I don't post anonymously precisely because I want everyone to know that I stand behind my work. All you have to do is write me through my contributor link. So long as you're not a creep or a salesperson, you'll likely get my cell phone and maybe even my address.

    [Aside: Surprisingly few people do this. In fact, all my contact info is easily available here.

    – TL

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  6. PhDinHistory permalink

    Nobody has pointed out yet that I am just a graduate student. I do not work for any of the organizations listed. However, you will find that the AHA's Robert Townsend has commented on my blog, and he has been kind enough to answer my e-mail queries. Even though I taught myself to use the educational statistics databases I cite, I am willing to teach others how to use them. So far nobody has shown any interest, so my sources remain partially inaccessible, even through I always cite them.

    I think some of the analysis I do raises uncomfortable questions about the profession. For instance, the piece I did on ethnic fraud had the potential to expose and offend a lot of people. What if these people wanted to retaliate against me? It seems possible they could prevent me from getting a job once I graduate. The post I put together on the dissertation dilemma would probably upset my own department if my identity was revealed. I depend on them for funding and other support as I finish my degree.

    Maybe I worry too much. At the same time, though, it seems like I am at the most vulnerable time in my career. I guess it is up to readers to decide if my anonymity is justified.

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  7. Dear PhDinHistory (& Others),

    Aha, a graduate student! I scanned, at least briefly, all of your posts and didn't figure that out. That's probably good thing! And, your pseudonym – PhD in history (implied completion) – of course throws people off.

    Understanding your position in the academy helps. I really do understand your reluctance.

    Still, I wonder if – by the time you finish – institutions will be amenable to candidates with blogs that are objective like yours? I hope this doesn't sound patronizing, but unless you plan crazy rants against your advisors, fellow graduate students, department, school, or other members of the history profession at large, I doubt you have anything to fear. Of course I would also avoid political rants – they offend universally.

    Tenured Radical recently debated the pros and cons of blogging pseudonymity. She decided to “come out.” Of course her circumstances are different: to wit, she has tenure. Still you might check out her arguments with herself.

    – TL

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  8. Tim:

    Thanks for sending PhDinHistory to my post — I do think it raises ethical and practical issues that everyone at all ranks of the profession ought to think about, not just the untenured. When I now reflect on my blogging life prior to my decision to give up anonymity, several things come to mind:

    I do think that we publish things anonymously that are incautious, and that there can be consequences. There's the equivalent of the flaming email phenomenon — putting up a post in a fit of rage, or self-righteousness, or humor — that doesn't engage your 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 was potentially hurtful. And I do think you need to ask yourself, before publishing something that is critical of others, would I stand up for this in public? If you aren't, or don't want to address your own critics publicly, you probably shouldn't put it up.

    I personally don't feel critical of anonymous bloggers, but you run a couple risks, one being that some people will discover who you are eventually, and if you have been hiding your identity to avoid consequences or retaliation, that will be over in a flash. And things could get really ugly — people might know for months before you have any kind of tipoff and have re-thought your blogging ethic.

    Another is that whether what you have been posting is truthful or not, some people will think you have been dishonest in spirit if perhaps not in fact by recording and publishing things without their permission or without attribution. That really is damaging to a reputation, and you can't control the damage, because the people who will think that don't necessarily know you. The ones who do know you may feel betrayed — and this is drawn from my experience of discovery: a variety of people who knew me and thought I was a decent person felt puzzled and hurt when they thought I was blogging about them (when in fact I was not.) And that required a lot of straighteniing out — from friends to casual acquaintences. Now if someone is offended or thinks they have been written about, they just drop me an email and we straighten it out. Or someone will look at me in a meeting and say, “I hope you aren't going to blog about this.” And I can reassure them that I won't — even if I want to!

    This may seem unfair or irrational, but I also have to warn you that there are many people — if you are using your blog as a p[lace to critique and expose — who will simply think anonymity is cowardly. I certainly thought all the racist and anti-semitic stuff I got from the “anonymous” commenters in relation to the Duke lacrosse affair, in addition to being offensive, was deeply cowardly. And I continue to think that the historian who turned these people loose on me by posting my email address on his website, behaved in a deeply uncollegial way by exposing me to what was not critique or criticism — it was just crazy abuse, where anonymity became a weapon that he deployed through other people to punish someone whose views he dislikes.

    This is all a way of saying yes, having tenure protects me from getting fired for what I wrote on the blog, but this is an unlikely scenario anyway. The question of one's reputation, and the reputation of others, is a very serious one indeed that has many dimensions.

    I don't want to be hard on you or any other anonymous blogger, because I'm not against anonymity in principle, but in no way should you feel that you are protected from retaliation because your name isn't on the blog, nor should you think you are immune from people making judgements about you that may be really unfair. It simply isn't so, and you need to write as if you were not anonymous. That said — remaining anonymous could be useful because it makes it harder for people to google you and come up with your blog……

    Good luck,

    TR

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  9. PhDinHistory permalink

    I appreciate the words of wisdom from Tenured Radical. It certainly gives me reasons to question why I am doing what I am doing. I have been fortunate enough to receive positive feedback so far, even if I was deserving of some criticism.

    Part of me hopes that there are history PhDs out there who are savvy enough to figure out who I am. At least one well-known figure in the history blogosphere already knows who I am.

    Like

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