Ask a Stupid Question: Why is there so much anonymity when it comes to the practices of academic discourse?

The first in a series of stupid questions I'm asking because I don't know the answers.

April 19, 2012

While I have been teaching college for over ten years, I’ve never been a part of academia. After grad school, as much as I enjoyed my TA’ing, I had no intention to continue teaching, and only returned to the classroom when my wife’s desire for further training in her field (Veterinary Medicine) led me to leave a stable and good paying corporate job in Chicago, for a series of non-tenure teaching positions at now four different schools.

Because of this, I am stone ignorant about many of the ways and whys of academic culture, which is why I’m starting a series called, “Here’s a stupid question…”

By “stupid,” I suppose I mean that the answer is “obvious,” at least to the people who live inside the particular culture, academia in this case.

But the answers to these questions are not obvious to me, so I’m crowdsourcing the explanation in order to aid in my own edification.

Today’s stupid question: Why is there so much anonymity when it comes to the practices of academic discourse?

In a recent article at the Chronicle of Higher Education I was introduced to a practice that I did not know existed, the “anonymous peer review.” The article is a series of tips and pointers about writing a good one, and judging from the reader comments, they’re good ones.

But when I read the article, I couldn’t stop wondering about why these things were anonymous. My guess is that anonymity is supposed to free the commenters to speak honestly to power, but in a culture that is supposed to value open and honest discourse, why do we need anonymity to speak our truths?

The article got me thinking about how often essays at the Chronicle are published with pseudonyms, and the very low percentage of commenters at my temporary home here who post under their own names. It reminded me of a survey sent to me by my current employer, College of Charleston, asking for opinions on the current status and treatment of non-tenure faculty and the multiple promises to keep our opinions separate from identifying information. My understanding is that outside tenure reviewers are often (if not usually) anonymous. Votes for departmental positions are anonymous, I think. Is the same true of hiring decisions?

I do not know, so I must ask my stupid question.

In my freshman composition course, I ask … nay, demand, that my students express their opinions directly, tactfully, and honestly, and therefore they need to make sure they can stand behind what they’re saying before they say it, but we don’t seem to hold ourselves to our own standards.

I’m guessing there’s good reasons. I’m curious to hear them.


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