Wednesday, September 23, 2009

So for next time, read this fascinating article by Dr. Me!

ISW reader Gwen Bradford wrote me about something that was discussed, albeit indirectly, in the third ever post at ISW, (now over two years ago, if you can believe it!). Here's Gwen:

I'm a graduate student, and I'm teaching an undergraduate seminar on a particular issue in value theory - the value of achievements, to be specific. There isn't a great deal of literature that deals directly with the issues. In fact, this is precisely why it's the subject of my dissertation! I wasn't planning on assigning anything of my own for the class to read and discuss, but the directions that our discussions have been taking suggest that it would be interesting and useful for the students to read.

Here's the issue. I would really prefer it if the student didn't know that I am the author. I would like them to feel totally uninhibited and free to criticize my arguments, and I think they will definitely be hampered in their critical engagement if they know they're reading something of mine. The paper that I want to assign (a chapter of my dissertation), isn't yet published anywhere. Would it be wrong if I assign the reading, but under a pseudonym?
I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts about this, but here a few ideas to get things started: Gwen's clearly worried that students will be less critically engaged with her own work than they would with the work of others — hence, her suggestion of assigning it under a pseudonym. A small wrinkle is that pseudonymity probably wouldn't work for published work. But putting that aside, on the few occasions when I've assigned my own research, I didn't use a pseudonym because, in my estimation, students are more likely to mirror you, i.e., the engagement you manifest in your own research will engage them. I wrote this in the comments to the post I mention earlier:

An analogy: I often think of teaching as being a tour guide in an exotic city. I help the students navigate the intellectual terrain, pointing out the landmarks, explaining why they're landmarks, etc. This has the advantage (if you're a good guide) that students get a fair and reasonably thorough picture of the city. On the other hand, it conceals the fact that as a researcher, you're contributing to this growing city and that you care enough about the city to want to contribute to it. So what effects would students knowing the latter have on their conception of the instructor? Will they mirror the instructor by becoming less dispassionate and more engaged (since your research indicates you care, they might care more also) -- or are those gains offset by students' perceiving the instructor as less objective, as an interested party with an agenda?

Over time, I've begun to think that whatever the downside, it's outweighed by showing students that you're not just teaching material for the sake of teaching it — that you (and they!) are parties to a conversation, not just observers of it. But Gwen's concerns still strike me as entirely legitimate.


  1. I see nothing wrong with giving the assignment under a pseudonym. I don't think students care much what you contribute to "the city", and I think they're less likely to treat the assignment objectively (sucking up to the prof) and more likely to make personal judgements about you (as though this article were the extent of your contribution to life) if you make the assignment non-pseudonymously.

  2. I have one reading by me that I give them under a pseudoname. I do this since it deals with a "controversial" issue and I try to do what I can to lessen any possible sense that I am "forcing" them to believe something or whatever. Although they often ask my views on issues, I tend to tell them that although I know they all want to be just like me, I want them to think for themselves, so I don't want to influence them in the wrong ways: if they know what I think or do, they'll just think and do that but perhaps without good reasons!

    I am surprised, however, that no student has ever realized that this paper was written by me, especially since it's done in the exact style and methodology I present throughout the entire semester.

    It's amusing that in their papers about this paper they sometimes write things like, "The world renowned and much respected Professor _(pseudoname)___ argues that____".

    Anyway, pseudonyms are fine I think. Alastair Norcross at least used to give his students his puppies paper under a pseudoname and said they never figured out it was him either.

  3. In one class I have students read a paper I wrote. It's a short paper, a one day discussion on a timely topic that they have a lot to say about.

    I don't assign it under a pseudonym, though I can understand the reasons for wanting to do this. I've never had any problem generating a ton of opposition to my thinking in that paper during class, and students don't seem to be bothered or intimidated by reading my own work and feeling free to say what they think.

    Part of that might stem from the fact that by the time we read it, we're 3/4 into the course, and they know me very well by that point. I'd like to think that they are aware that I'm about as far from discouraging alternative viewpoints than my own as you can get. So they are very comfortable with me in that respect by the time we read the piece.

    Still, thinking about it for a minute, if I assigned that paper in week two, I might feel differently about them knowing it was mine.

    I should also add that I don't include essay/test questions oriented around my paper, nor do I ask them to write any papers on its specific issue. I only use it to spark discussion. I think I might feel odd about using it in a way that had grade implications.

  4. Why not give the students the benefit of being able to see themselves as trusted fellow-investigators by introducing the piece as your own but in a skeptical way? E.g.: "This is a piece I wrote a while ago but I have some second thoughts about it because [give sketch of best reasons for doubt here]. I want to know whether I should now renounce this view in print, or stick to it. What do you think?"

    This strikes me as less ethically questionable than assigning your paper under a pseudonym, at least for many of us, since we generally do continue to wonder about the truth of what we've written.

  5. Assigning the article under a pseudonym so students feel more comfortable criticizing it really isn't fair to them. After all, you are not super-human. There is a chance you will find students who are harsh with the article less impressive than those who like it. So you are withholding information from them that could affect the way you perceive and grade them.


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