Stuff That’s Been on My Mind of Late

  • Man, I hate the new editing environment in WordPress. But, we must adapt.
  • There are a bunch of topics I’ve wanted to blog about, but the time hasn’t been there. For now, some nuggets:

I’ve been writing fiction since 2017, which kind of blows my mind. Since I started, a lot has happened in my relationship to fiction, writing, and everything else (talk about a nondestructive outlet for midlife ennui!). One thing I’ve been mulling recently is the importance of having a trusted critique partner (or a few). You don’t send out anything for publication before it’s been vetted by another pair (or pairs) of eyeballs. This is quite important, because you, as the original author, become blind to some relatively obvious slips in wording, punctuation, but also more damning ones, in the story structure, pacing, characterization, etc. You need someone who gets your writing to figure out what you were after and tell you when/where/how you failed to achieve the goal. It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, you need critique partners.

Then I look at my technical work and this type of peer feedback is completely absent. Sure, if you write a collaborative paper there’s built-in feedback, but what if you’re writing a solo proposal? Or even smaller nuggets of text, like biosketches for this and that? I often wish there were someone who would do a once-over on some of the stuff I write by myself, but as senior academics we are not supposed to ask for help or feedback, even though my guess is that more people would benefit from it than are willing to admit.

Someone somewhere said something mildly negative/disparaging (implying cowardice) toward tenured academics writing under pseudonyms. People are free to think what they want, obviously; below is my take. By the way, I also write fiction under yet another pseudonym (pen name). I try hard to keep both activities decoupled from my job. Why? 

My job is my family’s livelihood. I have a right to keep working and providing for my family. This right trumps pretty much any other obligation anyone might think I have.

Tenure is a protection against being fired at will, but if a department/college/institution wants to get rid of you, they will get rid of you. I have seen numerous cases (not necessarily at my institution) where a faculty member’s life was made very unpleasant on purpose. They weren’t fired, but they were very effectively pushed out. My college leadership is such that I have no doubt they would work hard to make my life difficult if I gave them enough reason to want to get rid of me. I do not doubt for a second that most institutions are the same.

Even if we put job security aside, I don’t want my blogging or my fiction writing to interfere with my work duties. I need to be able to apply for grants and write papers without everything nontechnical that I have ever published (some widely read blog posts; some widely read  stories) coming up when I am googled. I am a woman in a field that remains stubbornly male-dominated and pretty “square” in many ways, and I don’t need colleagues/competitors to be given any more ammunition for not considering me seriously or passing me up for funding or high-profile publications.

Similar holds for students and student parents. Let’s say some very uptight parent or some very conservative student finds some of my fiction writing (I am a member of the Horror Writers Association, FFS); who’s to say they wouldn’t go to my department chair or dean and demand that I be reprimanded or fired? It is a sad fact that a shocking number of people are unable to decouple fictional characters and their actions from those of the writer. I personally know writers who are also teachers and who have had these exact grievances filed against them by concerned parents (i.e., supposedly someone who writes “that” must be a violent miscreant and should not be teaching college students).

Pen names have been used for centuries, and I don’t think that using one (or a few) as a person employed in academia is disingenuous. If I worked in industry, people would presumably understand that I couldn’t write or say things that would be at odds with the company’s mission or brand. Academia is a bit different because of the protection of tenure, but not that different (especially the modern, highly corporatized flavor of the research university), and tenure is not an indestructible armor. Even without losing one’s job, one can easily lose the ability to perform multiple aspects of said job. Working in a (conservative, male-dominated) STEM field, yet publishing nontechnical stuff under the real name as a woman in the day and age of easy googlability and lightning-fast cancellations/firings over social-media activities  would be dangerously naïve.

What’s been on your mind of late, blogosphere? 


  1. I think one reason we don’t get as many critiques of our academic writing as fiction writing is that academic writing is less about the particulars of the paper as a piece of writing and more about the overall methods and findings. The reader is expected to do a certain amount of work, and if a particular passage flows poorly or seems obscure, well, go decode the diagram and check a reference.

    But most people read fiction for pleasure rather than professional duty. (Literature professors are a separate case, of course.) If the writing isn’t providing the right experience then that’s on the author.

    Also, you’ve spent decades immersed in science writing, both as an author and reader. You’ve obviously read fiction for a while, but until recently it wasn’t with the eye of a practicioner. You’ve done a lot as a fiction writer, but you’re not as far along in that journey as you are in your science sojourn. It makes sense that you’d need more critiques there than in your science writing.

    As far as tenure, it means a lot less than it used to. If somebody feels like they won’t get a fair shake from the professor, either because she’s some SJW Feminazi or some Right Wing Karen, the administration will not hesitate to throw you under the bus. They can replace you with a cheaper assistant professor, or an adjunct if they just want some classes covered.

  2. Wow, I just teach middle school and I write under a pseudonym for the same reasons (well mostly so students don’t find me and creepily cyberstalk me, as has happened to various colleagues – this is also why I have almost no social media presence under my real name). I can only imagine how much more necessary it would feel if I taught at a university. I’m trying to think if any of the blogs I read by academics are written under their real names. I can’t think of any, but I’d have to check. Anyway, just wanted to share that I find the idea of writing a blog or fiction (when it’s not your primary vocation) under your real name the exception, not what most people do. It’s so much harder to write honestly when you’re worried about judgement from your real life. I tried it briefly and I felt so restricted by it that I stopped.

  3. As you say pen names have a long-standing tradition and you have your own (very good) reasons for claiming your right to them. As a scholar of women’s writing traditions, I am fascinated by this subject and hope that at some point (post-retirement?) you’ll be able to reveal and connect your writing personae. How amazing it would be if we could see that sort of wholeness through the entirety of literary history!

  4. @noemi, most of the academic blogs I read are written under their real names, with a few (like mine) as pen names that are easily uncovered. Most of the blogs are fairly bland, but a few (like PZ Myers’s blog Pharyngula) are quite combative. Of course, PZ Myers is still trying to raise funds to finish paying the lawyer who defended him against one of his adversaries—being correct on the internet can still be expensive.

    I agree with xykademiqz’s choice to use pen names, but (like pocomaya) I hope she connects the dots when she retires.

  5. And whose culture is the “cancel” culture? Not the male-dominated conservatives – and I want to stress it. Not really to say “you wanted it, George Dundin” – but the so called woke perpetuating said cancellations are squarely on the Left’s flange. Before 2020 I would say – Far Left – but things change. Eat, own, medicine, all that.
    Anyway – what I wanted to suggest, is a look at the life and pseudonyms’ policy of a British writer of Scottish descent, born Elizabeth McKintosh. For her playwright persona, she assumed the name of Gordon Daviot – so unquestionably male, that her publishers and critics were shocked when finally , after many years, met her in person. For her crime fiction (which brought her the biggest, lasting fame) she was known as Josephine Tey. These personas were very distinct, and almost never the signature interchange.
    A food for thought!

  6. ETaT, Nikole Hannah Jones would like a word with you. As would all the foreign-born professors who have had to deal with angry parents because they “don’t speak English good.”

    Xyk, can I make a request for a post? On fiction recommendations? I’m dying for a good summer read.

  7. Anon, you’re too subtle for me (and for your own good). Is that an attempted poke in my ribs because English is Most Definitely Not My First Language? And should I know who that Nicole person is? Apparently, I didn’t do my homework, herr professor.
    I was always told by my English teachers that a goal for someone like me – who learned second language after 30yo – is to able to express myself so I am understood, not to “speak as a native”. I think I achieve this goal – unlike you, supposedly a native American English user.

  8. ETat, since you are new in the comments here: Please try to keep it friendly and do not assume the worst intentions in your fellow commenters, OK? And let’s go light on politics. My original post didn’t discuss anyone’s political leanings.

    I didn’t get anywhere in Anon’s comment that Anon referred to your English at all, rather that Anon speaks for all the foreign-born professors (of whom Anon might be one) who have gotten terrible teaching evaluations or gotten dragged with department chair or dean or maybe even lost their teaching post because some disgruntled parent couldn’t tolerate their kid being taught by people with accents. These parents usually don’t lean left.

    Nikole Hannah Jones is easily googlable. She is a recent and very prominent example of someone accomplished (she received a McArthur Genius grant) who got cancelled (had her tenured job offer rescinded) because of the influences from the right. I believe Anon brought this case up as a counterexample to your claim that it is only the left and never the right that cancels people.

    Again, going forwards, please try to keep it friendly and light on politics, and absolutely no ad hominem jabs at other commenters.

  9. >>Xyk, can I make a request for a post? On fiction recommendations? I’m dying for a good summer read.

    Will do. Not sure these will be summer reads per se, but I can share what I’ve liked recently and what I plan on reading soon. Fair warning: It’s mostly speculative (sci-fi and such) and often dark.

  10. Self-moderating Prof X!

    I write under pen names right now for one reason: I complain about people and don’t want to hurt feelings. I never considered that grant reviewers could judge me, but now I’m even more glad about the pen name. When I was in industry I was looking to leave my current job so a pen name was critical to keep my job if I didn’t land a position.

    The pen name is a critical thing to use; it frees one to write without fear of retribution. And if we had to bite our tongues I’m afraid we wouldn’t say the things necessary to change the system. Or at a minimum we wouldn’t air our grievances and they would heat up like a soda in the sun.

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