Academic Cowards and Why I Don’t Write Anonymously

The short answer is that when I started writing publicly I was too stupid to choose to do so anonymously.

The longer answer takes a little back fill.

There is a lot to be angry about these days. I think there’s even an official book of all the things we should be angry about at any given moment of the day. Anger is useful. It reminds us we are alive and we still give a damn about that fact.

Academics are really angry these days. The prescription for poverty — educational attainment — has for many of the highest attainers become a condition for poverty. That is all kinds of fucked up. It’s fucked up for a lot of people and has been fucked up longer for some people than for others. A lot of them should be angrier and should have been angrier long before now. But perhaps that is a different post. For this post, the point is that some anger is directed at those who resist silently, who write anonymously, who do not put enough on the line to upend adjunctification and maybe even the State.

There is a lot people can do with anger. There is a lot people have done, specifically in academia, with that anger. There are the student protests at Columbia in 1968 and the devastating violence against student protestors at Kent State, of course. But there is a lesser known history of campus labor protests that gets lost in the mix with the privileged academic elites narrative.

In 1968, black students at the University of North Carolina forged an alliance with the campus’ food workers to demand better wages, job security and benefits. Mind you, at the time, the black student population at UNC was small and barely allowed to be on campus themselves. The most marginal students stood with the most marginal university workers and all it takes is a google search to discover their names.

And people didn’t magically stop raising hell in 1971. In 1988 the black student union at University of WBascom_slave_protest2isconsin organized against a planned slave auction fundraiser on campus.

In 2002 students protested at UIC where only two percent of the tenured faculty is black.

Faculty haven’t exactly been silent, even if some of chosen to be anonymous. Of course, the trick is one I teach my sociology undergraduates: unpack the nouns.

In 1984 black faculty at Harvard publicly demanded that the University increase minority hiring. And not just faculty hiring, but hiring across the board at every level of the university. There’s the near mythical story of Derrick Bell’s insistence that Harvard Law School increase its ranks of tenured black women from its baseline of zero. In 2011, University of Maryland’s Black Faculty and Staff Association lobbied for the mostly black and Hispanic University staff. And those are the stories that were reported. Like many of my colleagues, I know stories of black faculty and students resisting at every level of prestige and precarity that have gone undocumented.

So, there’s some history of faculty and students raising hell. There are some models, if folks read history’s footnotes. It does depend mightily on which faculty and students you are talking about.

But this was about writing anonymously being an act of cowardice. It certainly could be true that too many academics and wanna-be academics are big punks. I actually do not doubt that is true some of the time. But, again, let’s unpack some nouns.

The penalty for raising hell is not the same for everyone.

Historically, some of us have taken that on out of necessity or conviction. But it is foolish to think that black women, for instance, who are already far too angry and sassy just when standing still, risk the same sanctions as a white woman or an Asian male or any other number of interventions at “faculty” and “students” classifications.

I do not know if academics who write under pseudonyms are cowards but I have a few ideas about black women academics who write out loud.

When they ask me if they should do this, these things I have done, I tell them hell to the no.

I tell them that expanded social networks weigh heaviest at the intersections of multiple oppressions.

I tell them that if this career in which they’ve invested seven, eight, nine years of training goes bust, the alternative avenues for them are far fewer than if they were white. I tell them that the class revolution never came for them so donning their cape for the revolution might not be the best of ideas if they have kids to feed and parents to take care of.

I tell them their work will be ripped off, their feelings aggressed, and their time and training disrespected.

I tell them that there was no master plan and my calculation of how much I can and will risk to do what I do is not a universal equation. I also tell them that I was too stupid to know better and once I did it was too late to fix it.

I tell them all of this and if they still want to do it, then I talk to them about how that might be done.

I start by giving them permission to write as anonymously or small as they need to feel safe because there are few havens of safety for black women anywhere and the Internet is just Anywhere with a keyboard. And I would double dog dare anyone to call them cowards for doing so. Double. Dog. Dare.

Their safety isn’t just about protecting their privilege but their well-being. In addition to the daily work almost all black women do to manage microaggressions and shifting contexts in their public and private lives I have had my address posted to unsavory websites and not-so-subtle threats to everything from my person to my career. One dude’s note about how he needs to know if I’m attending an academic conference so he can “send his homeboy” to handle me lingers.

Outliers, sure, but those are some of the more extreme responses to me…and I write about higher education, sociology and Miley Cyrus once. Not exactly hot button stuff.  I cannot imagine if I were calling my administrators and colleagues out on structural inequality, racism, classism, and sexism. That’s not to say it doesn’t need to be done or that it shouldn’t be done by faculty, academics and grad students but let’s be crystal clear: not everyone has the same amount of skin in the game.

If some people do not want to sign up for that, I think that is more than okay given the reasons some people have for not wanting to do so.

For sure, this moment in time is woefully thin on leaders. I hope they emerge soon. And in numbers plentiful and intersectional enough that it ends highered’s history of the most marginalized risking the most for the benefit of the many.

20 thoughts on “Academic Cowards and Why I Don’t Write Anonymously

  1. Wonderful post! This rings true for me because I have also been “in trouble” in the past for speaking the truth. It seems as if we are supposed to teach it — just not practice it. We are to teach ethics, not expect them from our colleagues. I’m afraid I have concluded that higher education is far too (FAR TOO) full of cowards, of passive aggressive weaklings who speak of tradition and longevity to hide behind their lack of ability.

    Yes, I’m a little wound up these days. Very frustrated with the status quo.

  2. Brava! Thank you so much for this piece. I am an African-American woman studying Sociology at a predominantly Anglo (and rural) university. I am struggling with finishing a master’s thesis on family factors and their influence on the juvenile justice system, and I have sensed that I am making suggestions ‘beyond my station’…I have fear that I will either not be taken seriously (so I have probably over-referenced) and disregarded OR politically marginalized due to my progressive views. I have experienced soul-crushing self-doubt that NONE of my non-AA, male colleagues have admitted to feeling (of this magnitude, anyway). I’ve asked for help from very sympathetic professors, and there has been very very little ability to offer sound advice to overcome my recurrent thoughts and feelings, much less relate to my situation. I don’t feel like I’m a pioneer, nor am I what could be truly considered an activist, but I have felt extremely alone, philosophically disconnected, and thus UNSAFE, in my academic environment. Just seeing your words and processing your message in the post above has emboldened me to, indeed, stand on the shoulders of those who took a stand before me; even if I wear the mask of anonymity while trembling behind it. I appreciate the perspective and courage with which you write. Thanks so much again.

  3. Horrid to have to give this advice to young Black women scholars, but I can verify that many older & whiter women and more than a few men have been kicked to the curbs of academe for being too bright/capable/honest/outspoken/etc. Academe is not utopia–it is a culture-bound bureaucracy, much like any other, as Max Weber would, I am sure, attest!

  4. @..”Their safety isn’t just about protecting their privilege but their well-being. In addition to the daily work almost all black women do to manage microaggressions and shifting contexts in their public and private lives I have had my address posted to unsavory websites and not-so-subtle threats to everything from my person to my career. One dude’s note about how he needs to know if I’m attending an academic conference so he can “send his homeboy” to handle me lingers…”

    >>Dear God please be careful young Sista! Heavy topic indeed..I always stop in to read your thoughts..And I will always.

  5. When I first started blogging, all the blogs I read were by people who used pseudonyms, so I think for many of us, it’s a blogging convention. I do think that it makes sense for a lot of people, especially women, to keep their real names hidden, but that’s not so much because I think being outspoken will incur professional damage as because I know women who have been stalked and threatened. Protecting yourself from real threats is just smart.

    Having said that, I hate sock puppets and think they are cowards. But there is a difference between using a pseudonym or trying to remain anonymous to avoid taking responsibility for one’s words, and using a nom de blog. A lot of people know who I am: in fact, I am pretty sure my real name has come up in a couple of publications. ADM and I have a lot in common, but ADM tries to write for a broader audience, and to take into account how particular issues might affect people in different fields at different sorts of institutions. Writing under a different name forces me to write at a greater distance and with more forethought than I might if I wrote under my own name.

  6. Tressie I always check in to read you because I can count on at least a couple of things from you: 1. You will always courageously tell the truth and 2. You’ve counted the cost of being a truthteller. My prayers are with you.

  7. “I tell them that expanded social networks weigh heaviest at the intersections of multiple oppressions.” What a great– powerful– line. Social networks are tools and supports, but they can so quickly become double-edged and turn against their ‘owner.’ There is such privilege implicit in the idea that we can shape our own public, social network persona.

  8. oh. my. gosh. this is why I love your blog. Every post just drips with truth, truth that not many people are willing to admit. I wish I were in grad school at Emory so that I could meet you and have a conversation with you.

  9. I have just discovered your blog & like a good I have not been able to put my tablet down, I’m not sure what or if the family will eat tonight, because I cannot peel myself away from your blog, lol but seriously, I love your bluntness & accuracy, it is so refreshing & the family will eat….pizza!

  10. Never posted here before, but read regularly, just to say (selfishly) I’m very thankful you do blog. This is one of the best places I’ve found to gain genuinely new insights and consistently thougtful analysis.
    So a genuine thank you for sharing your knowledge and I hope the b******s never drive you off line

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