Becoming Tenured Radical: A Historian in the Blogosphere

An identification card for Claire Potter, identifying them as a Tenured Radical

 Photo by Chris Hartman ( Published under a Creative Commons 2.0 License ( Cropped and altered for publication.

Claire Bond Potter

On October 17, 2006, having never done anything more complex on my computer than send an e-mail (I wasn’t even on Facebook yet), I opened an account on Blogger. It didn’t take me long to pick the pseudonym “Tenured Radical” as my blog persona, and like many academics on social media, I initially withheld my actual name. I imagined that I had built a firewall between my academic self and the Wild West of blogging, so that I could write what I wanted to write without being criticized for my views or for being unscholarly.

That fell apart in less than six months.

Having made a very poor choice—publishing a comic post about something a student had said in class—I learned to my dismay that many people on campus were already following my blog. They knew that the Tenured Radical was me and, while some students and faculty at my college (which I called Zenith in my blog) were enjoying Claire Potter unplugged and uncensored, I was also regarded by a select few (including the student, to whom I offered profuse apologies) as my own Evil Twin.

The online academic celebrity, the me and not me who is Tenured Radical, is nearly ten years old. I am older, wiser, and far less likely to step in it than I was then. I am also far better known as a commenter on history, digital humanities, and All Things Higher Ed. In fact, I’ve been Tenured Radical longer than Steve Allen, Jack Paar, or Conan O’Brien hosted The Tonight Show.

While I am only well known as a writer in certain circles, nearly all of them academic, the idea of celebrity captures the spirit of what it has meant to develop an online persona. That is not because being the Tenured Radical has made me rich or even more than modestly visible outside higher education, but because blogging is a performance, and one in which I reveal only a part of myself. I think this is true of most bloggers and many scholars. We are often shyer than we seem online (OK, I’m not, but other people are), and we are capable of taking risks on social media that we know would never be appropriate in a work of scholarship. In a blog, the dreary routines of academic life that support research and writing (or undermine them, depending on your point of view) drop away. As Anne Lamott writes, when she first learned to make “the story happen,” exaggerating some things and diminishing others, it wasn’t life at all. It was “vivid and funny . . . the people involved seem larger, and there was a sense of larger significance, of meaning” (1).

Those of you who follow Tenured Radical know that in addition to writing about history, I get to be a cultural critic, an essayist, an unrepentant goad to right-wingers, and a faux Dear Abby for early career academics. Eclectic cultural work on the Internet is considered highly suspect by many scholars because there are virtually no rules that govern blogging, and the university world is obsessed with rules and the respectability that comes with following the rules. When I began writing online, social media was also associated with the young, which made a middle-aged scholar-blogger even more suspect. In these early years, some of my colleagues would have been less concerned if I had taken up competitive skateboarding at the age of fifty.

The good news is that nearly every academic I know who has launched a blog persona believes that he or she is a better writer for having done so. If you blog well, and are persistent, you will not only have an opportunity to comment on one of our most urgent social issues—the future of education—but you will begin to get to the larger significance of what we do every day as scholars, teachers, and researchers. You will write better sentences.

And shorter, punchier paragraphs that break grammatical rules effectively.

You—and by this I mean the “you” who is, and is not, the blogger on the masthead—will also become a more public person. The question for any scholar to think about is: Do you want this? Does it serve you?

Blogging has a range of advantages for scholars who aspire to make a difference with their work. Most of us have little experience in, or access to, mass media platforms, and scant training about how to write effectively for a general audience. Through blogging, scholars like myself have learned that we have a great deal to say to each other, and we have learned how to refine our blogging personas through repetition and practice. Inevitably, blogging can lead to becoming known as a “thought leader,” a term often bandied by public relations professionals. Short, punchy essays, wherever they are published, lead others to be curious about other things you are writing and thinking about—and this can include your historical scholarship.

A compelling blog performance requires thinking about tone and style, beginning with the design you choose for your page, the name you adopt, the illustrations you use, and the topics you write about. Choosing the identity Tenured Radical seemed like a no-brainer when I began blogging in 2006. The culture wars of the 1990s had become a permanent part of the educational landscape, and the phrase was frequently used by liberal and left-wing faculty as a way of putting a thumb in the eye of critics. As I explained to my then-unknown audience in my first post, I was one of those “‘tenured radicals’ who were indoctrinating the youth of America.” In reality I was doing no such thing, and I knew it. In retrospect, however, it set the stage for a certain kind of stance toward my other self: the things I took most seriously—teaching, scholarship, and being a good colleague—would also be my first targets.

It hasn’t always made me popular. Those who dislike my views for their own political reasons persistently argue that I could not believe the things I do if I actually knew the “facts.” This then leads to the assertion that Tenured Radical and Claire Potter are one and the same, and that a blogger “proven” not to be in charge of the facts, or who is of a certain political bent that prevents her from perceiving the facts, is also not fit to be teaching history. Presuming that all people are, or should be, understood as fully integrated beings has been a theme in U.S. political culture for some time. For example, Bill Clinton the adulterer was said to be unfit to be Bill Clinton the president, and Jane Fonda the former antiwar activist is still regarded by some as unfit to be Jane Fonda the actress.

We don’t have to look to celebrities to make this point: the difference between academic and non-academic identities has begun to collapse. Over the past five years, scholars on social media have had their employment threatened by forces as diverse as the National Rifle Association, their own university administrations or trustees, and their state legislatures. Among the important, and unresolved, questions that emerged from the University of Illinois’s retraction of a tenured job offer to literature scholar Steven Salaita in the summer of 2014 was whether his vividly angry social media utterances about Israel’s attacks on civilians in Gaza were constitutionally protected speech, covered by the principles of academic freedom, and/or hate speech. Was the Steven Salaita who tweeted about Gaza the same Steven Salaita who would walk into the classroom to teach an audience of undergraduates that included students of the Jewish faith?

In other words, establishing an online presence is not for the faint of heart. Over time, I have learned that maintaining emotional health depends on reminding myself that, when a post draws fire, it is Tenured Radical who is being attacked—not me. This may be a false distinction, but it is an important layer of protection not unlike the knowledge that vicious, personal criticisms in teaching evaluations do not reflect the overall quality of the class. There is a whole cadre of people of varied political persuasions known as trolls who pepper the comments sections of blogs with insults. Another group of Internet rowdies, known as hashtag activists and named after the # that organizes social media themes, deliver their insults exclusively on Twitter. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, these online warriors pick quarrels for the fun of it, fight at the drop of a hat, and shower bloggers who refuse to fight with taunts.

Trolls on the left and the right tend to have one thing in common: the belief that the Internet is a radical free-speech zone governed by a complex set of principles about democracy and truth. While controversial bloggers are often accused by their critics of “truthiness,” a term coined by The Colbert Report‘s Stephen Colbert in 2005 to describe “facts one wishes or believes to be true rather than concepts or facts known to be true,” it is also the case that the vast majority of them are guilty of it too (2). As an example, in 2008 the blogger Right Wing Professor wrote a prolonged rant in my comments section that claimed that Bill Ayers, the tenured education professor, Obama fundraiser, and former Weather Underground member, had “confessed to multiple murders” in his memoir Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist (2001). That this is not true, but a moral extension of the truth—setting off bombs in public places might kill people—should give you a sense of what “truthiness” is, and why it plays such a prominent role in the contemporary political imaginary.

So, given the dangers, why blog? Blogging is, first and foremost, about writing, and writing in a way that foregrounds play as well as intellect. This makes blogging fundamentally different from how we were trained in graduate school, which was to regard writing as “our work,” and not an act of pleasure or creativity. Think about it: one of the earliest conventions we learn as graduate students is to greet a person we don’t know not by asking “What are you writing?” but “What are you working on?”

Yet the best historical writing hides its work from the reader: it reads easily, promotes empathy, and is driven by human characters that historians know intimately through research but do not identify with themselves. Blogging as the Tenured Radical not only allowed me to think seriously and productively about what brought me to this profession in the first place—it also gave me practice in inhabiting and developing another character entirely. Because of blogging, I now write every day, either as Tenured Radical or as myself, experimenting with voice, with failure, and with learning to be misunderstood and criticized. All of this makes it possible to be a writer all the time, not just on weekends or on sabbatical—because one of us is always urging the other one on.

Claire Bond Potter is professor of history and the co-director of the Humanities Action Lab at The New School for Public Engagement.  She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. After 1,116 blog posts, she retired her Tenured Radical blog in May.

(1) Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995), xix.
(2) Michael C. Munger, “Blogging and Political Information: Truth or Truthiness?” Public Choice, 134 (Jan. 2008), 125.