Help me to write an (anonymous?) blog about my life as a university lecturer.
October 28, 2006 5:46 PM   Subscribe

How to write a blog about my work (I am a senior lecturer in a university) without making myself exposed, and without breaching rules of confidentially?

I am a lecturer in one of England's 'new universities'. I would like to start a blog about the daily life at this uni.; the relationships between students and teachers, the bureaucracy, the policies. Almost every day I am witnessing events and situations that challenge many preconceived ideas people have about university life. Including the behavior of students and teachers, conversations, educational policies, paperwork, meetings, threats and bullying. There is a lot to tell about this kind of university life which has nothing in common with the widespread, romantic Cambridge/Oxford image of higher education.
The problem I have with putting it all in a blog is that I can not think of a way to make it specific enough and at the same time anonymous. I am no whistle blower and despite everything which goes in this place, I firmly believe that we are trying to do the right thing with our course and our students. The problem of anonymity is complicated because I teach a fairly unique course, with a very specific syllabus, if I write about any particulars of the course, it will be very easy to figure out which university and which course is it. At the same time, one of the things i want to write about is the challenge of teaching the specifics of my subject. In addition, I want to write about the kind of things that get discussed in our staff meetings, the lies we have to tell, the hypocrisy but also the small victories and the delights. I would like people to read this blog to better understand what is going on in a modern, new university and how New Labour policies affect education, but also to have a outlet for my own feelings.
My question is how can I do all of that (or some of that) without compromising my place of work, without exposing myself and without exposing anyone else? Am I right thinking that maintaining anonymity is important in this case? Does anyone have experience of writing this kind of blog while staying anonymous? And if it is not possible, which parts of my experience can I focus on without compromising my students and colleagues? I would love to hear from someone who has experience of blogging about their professional (preferably academic) life. Thanks for your help.
posted by slimeline to Education (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'd suggest deception. Sprinkle throughout the blog deceptive bits related to time and place that will defuse any link to you without falsifying the main content, and make people say "ah, look at this, I doubt that's him". Not only will this take heat off the school, but if there's a problem later, you can exhonorate yourself. Of course all bets are off if there's big trouble and a subpoena rolls out.

Of course a lot of this will stand on how careful you are about providing real details that would conclusively link you, but this would be the path I would take.
posted by rolypolyman at 6:14 PM on October 28, 2006

Here's a list of professors who blog.
They don't all blog about their work, and many are not anonymous, but there has to be something in there.
I also know of this blog by an anonymous female science prof about gender issues in academics.
There's also the group blog Academic Secret.
posted by easternblot at 6:16 PM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Another option is to maintain two different blogs, one of which is for the stuff you don't want to be tracked back to you and one of which is for stuff you wouldn't mind if people knew you wrote. Two blogs is the same amount of effort as one (modulo a little logging out and logging back in) and if you think your subject matter can partition that way it seems like a decent strategy to saying everything you want without pinning it to yourself.

Not that I've ever done anything like that.
posted by jacobm at 6:50 PM on October 28, 2006

You can't.

No, seriously you can't write this and expect to stay anonymous forever.

You MAY get away with it for a while. But eventually, some student, or some colleague will put two and two together. And it'll probably be the last person you want or it'll be someone who will take it in the worst way possible.

Your intentions are noble, but if you're going to do this, you HAVE to realize that you will be outed at some point and you should have a plan, from the very beginning, about what you're going to do when you're publicily humilated, fired and tarred and feathered.

Seriously. Take a look at this metatalk post and keep in mind that you'll be writing about public stuff, at a known known university and it will be in search engines FOREVER.

Look, you want to write about specific situations, some of them sticky sounding, and yet remain anonymous. Ain't gonna happen.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:01 PM on October 28, 2006

I think it would be prudent to see if your uni has any policies about blogging by staff, first, or if any other policies that they have regarding publication by staff might reasonably be extended to cover blogging. More and more institutions are creating electronic communications policies hat are binding on staff, in an effort to limit the institutions liability for misuse of network facilities, and damage to the institution that might result from public disclosure of confidential information.

Trying to write real stuff, while santizing it enough to remain reliably anonymous, over any length of time is very, very tough. And in point of fact, you are only as anonymous as the hosting company you use is willing to let you be, if faced with legal sanctions under which it would be compelled to provide your logged connection information [you could, perhaps, go to extraordinary lengths to obfuscate yourself, such as using blog tools that allow you to post from anonymous remailers in foriegn countries, but this is easier said than to actually set up and operate].

Furthermore, in terms of content, I think that if you err on the side of safety, it's hard to involve an audience in the reality of the situations you describe. Hypothetical and sanitized situations have little relevance to real life, and next to no natural dramatic interest. I also think that if you are writing about a moral or academic "wrong," in an attempt to change it, or at least create public knowledge and appreciation for the problem, you can't do that so easily from behind the cover of the anonymous curtain.

All in all, I think you can't fully meet your responsibilities as faculty member of a growing institution, and be a public, anonymous critic of that institution at the same time. The dichotomy between the roles is too great for their not to be a fundemental conflict of interest inherent in trying.
posted by paulsc at 7:04 PM on October 28, 2006

what if instead of blogging, you just wrote it up every day in the form of a blog, and then published it as a book once you were free and clear of Consequences?
posted by amethysts at 7:18 PM on October 28, 2006

I also think keeping a personal journal that could turn into a book sounds like a viable alternative.

Also, in lieu of keeping two blogs, why not just choose a blogging platform (Livejournal if you want hosted or Wordpress if you want to set up your own) that allows you to make some posts private or password-only.

Then leave a note on the main page saying that those who are interested and would like access to the protected posts request the password from you. That way you can filter out who reads what.
posted by Brittanie at 7:24 PM on October 28, 2006

Brandon Blatcher is so right here. You cannot write a public blog putting down your employer and get away with it forever (take it from somebody who got dooced before that was even a word). No way, no how. If you insist on writing it, I would lock it up and only give the passwords to people who sign over the lives of their newborn babies if they ever spread it around. The risk here is far too great. I agree with previous posters who encourage you to write a detailed, thought-provoking book- to be published AFTER you retire.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:12 PM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Either do as amethysts suggests and gradually write a book, or maintain several blogs:

Blog 1: Open to all, linked from your homepage, under your name. Subject: the positive aspects of developing this exciting new course. There's plenty that can go here that the uni cannot disapprove of, and that will help you professionally and be of interest to other academics working to develop similar courses. You can talk about the challenges of teaching your subject, so long as they are upbeat (solution-oriented), mention no personally identifiable info about anyone and don't actually reflect badly on any particular person, and don't reflect badly on the university. You can talk about the pros and cons of teaching the material in a certain way, why you've decided to set up assignments in the way you have, etc. "Small victories and delights" can go here. On this blog you can also talk about things like the weather where you are, how your kids are doing in rugby, and whatever other everyday topics you like. If it were me, I'd avoid political talk.

Blog 2: Anonymous, about how new labour policies affect education; in very general terms about the kinds of things that go on at a university like yours. Still no personally identifiable information. Nothing too specific about your program, or details about the town or your life that would let someone figure out who it is. You can look at other academic blogs to see how they draw this line. Certainly, if you do undertake the anonymous blog, you should write it with the expectation that someone will eventually find out who you are ... that is, even blogging it anonymously you should still write with discretion.

You say you want to talk about "the behavior of students and teachers, conversations, educational policies, paperwork, meetings, threats and bullying. ...the kind of things that get discussed in our staff meetings, the lies we have to tell, the hypocrisy". Some of this stuff is explicitly confidential. Some of it would be seriously risky to blog about. It does sound like something better kept for a memoir than posted for a worldwide audience on the day it happens. There is a place for privately bitching to your trusted friends.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:58 PM on October 28, 2006

Read How to Blog and Not Lose Your Job for excellent advice from someone who works for the London Ambulance Service.
posted by janecr at 4:25 AM on October 29, 2006

While academics_uk may not be the best or busiest community for academics out there, poking around on the journals of the members may give you some idea of how others are handling it.
posted by Lebannen at 4:59 AM on October 29, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for you suggestions so far, I start to think that writing a blog in a way I was planning it is not possible, at the same time I do not feel that making private notes with the aim of writing a book one day will work for me - if i had it in me to write a book I would probably do it already.
I will consider a blog on the 'positive' aspects of teaching my subject, but where is the therapeutic element in that?
janecer - thank you for this link, it is spot on.
I still find it hard to accept that so much of what is going on in the real world of education is completely obscured from the eyes of people who really should know, and I find it amazing that almost every profession is represented in the blogosphere, from teachers to police persons, but the academia is practicaly hidden from the public eye.
posted by slimeline at 5:31 AM on October 29, 2006

How about a group blog: A number of writers from different universities sharing a login. It might obscure the details some and would make it much harder to challenge one particular member with content. There are quite a few UK academic mefites and if you were to have a contact email in your profile, you might get some joiners.
posted by handee at 6:41 AM on October 29, 2006

I think you can do it. Change the names, change the observational context to be allegedly hypothetical, and it will be like a novel. Nobody can prove otherwise.
posted by Brian B. at 8:41 AM on October 29, 2006

Why do you want to blog? As others have stated that once you place material online the assumption is that you want people to read your material and have it reside on search engines and online archives for a good long while.

The true question then is why do you wish for this information to be in the public domain? Your desire that it be anonymous and that people NOT know it is you would imply some conflicted feelings about an online blog.

Carefully consider your reasons and ask whether a blog is a good idea or maybe the more traditional private journal/memoir would be better.

Seriously, there are people still living down their adolescent rantings from usenet. Once it is online it is public record.
posted by jadepearl at 10:57 AM on October 29, 2006

While you can worry endlessly about putting 2 and 2 together, so long as there is nothing that says "I am Lecturer Jones, and this is what I think," no one will be able to definitively prove that you are the blogger. The only trick is to never get yourself into a position where you'd have to lie about whether it's your blog.
posted by GarageWine at 1:08 PM on October 29, 2006

Request your university and/or department's policy and guidelines for staff blogging. If they do not have such a thing, request that one be drawn up and posted. Don't reveal the location of your blog (ef "I've haven't done any blogging - I need to see the official position on that stuff first"), and start out anonymously, will the knowledge, as pointed out above, that the anonyminity is highly penetrable and will likely only last if your blog is of no interest to anything.

Once you have guideslines in writing, you're in a very good position so long as you stick to them. However, if your blog rubs people the wrong way, the fact that it complies with guidelines will not be any incentive for them to not get back at you, by fair means or foul, if they're that kind of person.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:30 PM on October 29, 2006

Also, here's another list of academics who blog, which might be useful as a survey of how people in your field or in a similar situation to yours handle it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:59 PM on October 29, 2006

no one will be able to definitively prove that you are the blogger.

Hello, it's university politics! If anyone gets a wiff of something they can use against and/or something that might cause controversy, they'll tear you apart with smile.

And that's BEFORE the 9am daily meeting.

The only trick is to never get yourself into a position where you'd have to lie about whether it's your blog.

One of the first things they'll ask is "Did you write this, yes or no?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:57 AM on October 30, 2006

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