Anonymity and Professionalism: Teacher Voice in a Time of High Anxiety

Briefly on the National Council of Teachers of English‘s Connected Community, members could post on forums anonymously, spurring a few discussions and debates about anonymity and professionalism (as well as attribution of ideas and accountability during a thread about plagiarism).

When I first moved to higher education, my current university had an online platform that included a discussion feature, one that also allowed students (or anyone in the university community) to post anonymously with screen names.

One particular group of students connected with a powerful and controversial (also highly politicized and well funded from outside sources) student organization often posted anonymously and tended toward personal attacks of university professors—xenophobic and homophobic slurs included.

Several professors also participated in these online debates, but with their names openly displayed.

This situation was a subset of a larger campus tension between very conservative students and a much more moderate faculty. Ultimately, that forum was closed and never resurrected; however, a key element of the situation was the debate over whether or not anonymous posting was appropriate—notably in the context of an institution of higher learning.

Then and during the recent NCTE Connected Community discussion, I have always maintained that a key element of professionalism is the relationship between a professional’s name and her/his stances, claims.

In my professional scholarship and my public work, my name and even access to my email are prominent always.

As a writer and career educator, I see my scholarship and public work as extensions of teaching—and believe all teachers must be authoritative, earning the trust of those they serve as teachers. The who and what of teaching and making claims, for me, is inextricable.

However, there is a long and powerful history of pen names/pseudonyms in traditional writing as well as the more recent world of blogging.

Anonymous voices have risen out of oppression in the name of overcoming that oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.

So if we return to the anonymous posting on NCTE’s Connected Community and place that in the context of students posting anonymously at my university, we should not trivialize the power imbalances that drive the legitimate need for anonymous voices.

Students feared grade and course retaliations for posting under their names in the same way K-12 teachers in the U.S. fear speaking publicly because educators’ job security has deteriorated significantly in recent decades.

Educators at all levels are also under a powerful norm to avoid being political, to resist activism—much of which is about the cultural silencing of women.

Nonetheless, anonymous public and forum commentary often emboldens people to be reckless and unprofessional—personal attacks, trolling, etc.

As I noted above, all of my professional and public writing and commentary are under my very public name; therefore, that forces me to hold myself to an incredibly high standard—primarily to make only warranted claims.

Especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, I seek ways to model the same sort of standard for making claims in public contexts that I make in scholarship. Even my Op-Ed and commentary work in journalism is meticulously cited (through hyperlinks)—although some online publications still resist including them.

Further, as a teacher 24/7, I believe I am a model for my students who need to embrace a way of being in a democracy that includes their voices and their ethical acts of rewriting the world.

My students are unlikely to be writers or scholars, but they certainly should be living by and making warranted stances. And possibly more than ever, they must be able to read and re-read the world in order to know when others are being credible or petty and vile.

Let us not trivialize the urge to raise anonymous voices, but also, let us not ignore that the most vicious among us are empowered by anonymity: the terror and power of the KKK were intensified by the white hoods and gowns.

A free and just society in which there is no need for anonymity is a wonderful ideal, but I am certain we have yet to reach that situation.

Those of us who have levels of privilege that allow us to model the ideal must continue to do so. Using those privileges to silence others with legitimate concerns about their own imbalances of power is inexcusable.

In any and all connected communities, then, it becomes more about the nature of the conversations than professional or personal accountability.

Anonymous or not, public or professional, we teachers must always resist being petty, and those who need the veil of anonymity would serve their own causes well to have high standards for that context in the same way linking professionalism and our names should.

5 comments

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Donald Trump is a troll, but he is a troll who has come out into the open. He is also an obvious psycho narcissist, fraud, conman, serial liar.

    The Donald doesn’t hide his racism (etc.), ignorance and hate, and because he is an open Troll and liar, and he is getting away with it and climbing in the polls, he has now become a role model making it okay to be a troll (anonymous or not), and for trolls to think that whatever they think and/or say is true, because the Donald refuses to admit anything he says is a lie no matter what the evidence is that proves him wrong.

    That is why all private sector forums on the internet have to censor the anonymous, or not, Donald Trumps of this world when they resort to hate and ad hominem attacks, especially when there is no valid evidence that what they say is true. I think we must not forget that the 1st Amendment is there to protect us from our own govenrment but that protection does not apply to the private sector where any Blogger or any internet forum has the right to block obvious troll attacks.

  2. edifiedlistener

    Once again you have hit upon a topic that is complex and fraught. I especially appreciate the acknowledgement of how and when anonymity can offer needed protection and sense of safety: “we should not trivialize the power imbalances that drive the legitimate need for anonymous voices.” Precisely – the power imbalances are key to our understanding of what is really at play. Lloyd’s example of the Republican candidate’s clear status as a public troll highlights a whole other level of the power imbalances of which you speak.
    I also agree with you that as educators who enjoy the privilege of being out in the open and using our names in representing our work, we do carry a responsibility to model behaviors we most wish to see from others – students, colleagues, and even the strangers we meet in our online encounters. Currently, with a certain loose cannon who is in a bid to become the next president of the US, many now have a prominent example of how NOT to be online, although we must also be honest and acknowledge that this unfiltered brashness is quite attractive and amusing to a significant segment of the population, which, of necessity must include our students and even some of our colleagues.
    Thank you for delving into this question and offering the spectrum of perspectives which truly aid our understanding of the difficulties rather than cloud it.

  3. Elisa Waingort

    I have been thinking a lot about the ideas that you blog about here. I have been trying to find a way to write about these ideas in a way that doesn’t put me at risk professionally or personally in any way. It is hard! I support the need for anonymity to protect oneself when it’s dangerous to come out publicly with those ideas. I agree that using that anonymity to bash others is unacceptable. Maybe soon I will figure out how to write about this so that it’s heard without putting myself on the line.

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