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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Academic Anonymity

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I blogged recently about some of the cosmetic changes I've made to The Pequod over the summer. However, one of the more significant changes is that I am no longer publishing here under a pseudonym. My real identity, Alistair Brown, now graces the banner of every page.

When I first started The Pequod, I was a fresh-faced graduate. The site began as a whimsical little project to try to sustain my writing skills whilst I did a "normal" job for a year, before returning to study. I was conscious that much of the material that was on here was what literary historians might classify as "juvenalia," the early jottings and experiments of a young writer, before they enter the adult world of paper publication. Thus it seemed right to publish under the pseudonym Ishmael, in keeping with the site's general Moby Dick theme, in order to acknowledge - partly to others, more importantly to myself - that nothing here represented my writing as I wanted it to be remembered. Work that would once have been kept in dusty boxes in the attic might in the twenty-first century be made publically available on the internet, but it should still be somewhat concealed by a pen name.

As I later became a postgraduate, first taught and then researching for a PhD, this distinction between my real self and my Pequod self became even more important. Partly I wanted my real self to be judged as an aspiring academic only on the basis of work that was my best (such as my thesis or journal articles) not anything I happened to churn out on a whim. Even at that not-so-distant time, academic bloggers were a rarity, with most forms of online publishing seen as a diversion from "proper" academic work which was published in paper journals. To present a carefully researched paper at a conference, and then to have an esteemed professor read about my views on fish and chips in Whitby, might have been counterproductive.

Additionally, as I took on some teaching duties, and began to blog about my early experiences as a way of reflecting on my development, I was conscious of the need to maintain a barrier between myself and my students. One controversial statement about a student (even if not named) that they subsequently found and complained about, could have had serious consequences for my fledgling career.

However, as time has passed and The Pequod has expanded, these two have become less significant issues. 

Firstly, much of the work that is now on here has been previously published elsewhere, in academic journals or on edited review sites. Rather than being an attic of juvenalia, The Pequod is now more of an academic archive. Whilst respecting copyright principles, it seems logical that I should use this site to collect together anything I have published, along with material that may be not quite in publishable form, but still worthy of distributing amongst the academic community.

Secondly, on reflection, most of my posts on teaching and higher education are not in any way controversial or scandalous. As my recent posts on the tuition fees issue show, I hold very strong and forthright views - but these are views with which the majority of my academic colleagues would probably agree. Recently, the Open University, for which I work part-time, updated its terms of employment to include its lecturers' usage of social networks. The contract explicitly states that:
You are free to publish material in any space which is not related to the OU and does not bring the OU into disrepute 
And that:
You are free to post your thoughts or comments about the OU. However you should take care to avoid activity that enables or promotes plagiarism, infringes another person's privacy (e.g. by posting their contact details without permission), makes untrue statements about the OU or OU material, infringes the OU's copyright or intellectual property.
Looking back on the various blog posts I have published about my OU and other university experiences, I am happy that nothing I have said in the past breaks the OU's own guidance. Most of it is, in fact, highly complimentary, both about the OU itself and its (my) students.

To hide behind my pseudonym therefore seems to suggest that I have no conviction in the legitimacy of my own views, arguments and ideas - which seems entirely anathema to the way in which an academic should work and behave.

The final thing which caused me to come out into the open was the advent of Twitter. Of all the social networks, it is Twitter that has most radically changed the ways in which public voices channel their private views. Politicians express opinions on Twitter with a forthrightness that would be unbecoming if heard within the chambers of Parliament. BBC correspondents are happy to tweet their own attitudes on current affairs, whilst retaining their impartiality in their formal reports under the institutional banner. There is a growing chorus of academics on Twitter who complain about their students or make fiery statements that they would temper if lecturing within the university walls. Most make clear on their online profiles that their ephemeral tweets are wholly personal, and that they do not necessarily reflect the views of their institutions. And, a few high-profile cases aside, most readers seem able to understand that the voice of someone on Twitter is not necessarily identical to their voice when they put on the suit of the newsreader or the gown of the don.

When I joined Twitter, I decided to tweet under my own name rather than my pseudonym. Partly, this is because many of my Twitter friends are colleagues and acquaintances who are relevant to my research and teaching. For them to receive Tweets from some Ishmael from a novel would have been confusing and affected. Partly, using Twitter to post links and updates related to my work, higher education and, yes, to trivial issues about what I had for breakfast, might help to boost my profile amongst the milieu of academics also on there. 

I also decided that as tweeting is a form of regular but abbreviated blogging, it made sense to link this blog to my Twitter account and vice versa, through posting my Twitter feed in the sidebar of The Pequod. This led to the bizarre scenario in which some of my tweets under my own name linked back to my blog posts which were published pseudonymously, whilst anyone happening upon my pseudonym on my website could easily find my real identity by following me on Twitter.

It has become a cliché that the internet is changing the ecosystem of publishing in rapid and unanticipated ways. When I started publishing The Pequod, it seemed that relatively few academics bothered with blogging or tweeting. Today, though, the virtual ivory towers ring with tweets and blogs, opinions and ideas, inane chatter and informed comment. Indeed, publishers have come to expect that academics will have some form of online presence and that they will be willing to build their book-buying audience through social networks. 

As The Pequod rides this turbulent sea, with its captain hoping to arrive at the destination of a full-time academic job and book deal, it therefore seems antiquated and foolhardy not to toss Ishmael overboard, and to let Alistair Brown take the helm.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:44 pm


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