The History of the “Tenured Radical”
Most bloggers treat their blog as an online journal. Others use it to communicate with others about their pregnancy, eating habits, or their last trip to Spain. Claire Potter, professor of History and American Studies, has a different approach.
“The Tenured Radical is an alternate personality,” Potter said. “It’s kind of like me in drag, or something.”
Perhaps Wesleyan’s most famous blog, and certainly it’s most controversial, Claire Potter’s “The Tenured Radical” brims with sarcasm, criticism, and wit. The Tenured Radical was early to the blogosphere, as Potter began its first incarnation in 2007. It was immediately popular.
“Right off the bat, I was getting something like 200 hits a day,” Potter said.
Currently, the blog averages around 1,500 hits per day, largely because of her recent coverage of an Oklahoma transgender professor’s denial of tenure. However, more has changed since 2007 besides the size of the audience.
“I started as a pseudonymous blogger,” she said. “But somebody came to me and said, ‘You know, I know you’re blogging, but you should really know that all your students know that you’re blogging and all the faculty know that you’re blogging and they think you’re writing about them.’ I won’t be disingenuous and say I was never writing about them, and I did from time to time. But I was often not writing about them—and people thought I was. I realized this was one of the dangers of not having my name on the blog. People didn’t feel they could come up to me and say, ‘Why did you write about me?’”
In the spring of 2008, Potter revamped Tenured Radical, coming up with a new set of rules for herself. One of these was the inclusion of her real name and position at the top of the blog. Other experiences also informed her blogging ethic.
“I had written about something that had happened in class and a student was hurt by it,” Potter said. “I offered her a very sincere apology, but it happened. One of the things I needed to think about was how I could keep that from happening.”
Potter says that she now never writes about her students, or about anything that isn’t already public knowledge.
“Wesleyan doesn’t hire me to criticize them publicly, you know?” she said. “Every once in a while I am critical of University policy, but it’s always something that’s already public, that a lot of people are talking about, that my voice is now part of. I actually think that’s fine.”
Potter has lent her voice to several public debates, both inside and outside of the University. In addition to her highly controversial posts about the Oklahoma professor, she has recently written about adjunct labor forces in colleges and universities. In fact, the majority of her posts are about higher education in some form.
“I think we’re at a kind of tipping point with higher education now,” she said. “There are fewer and fewer tenure lines, faculty are more likely to be adjunct, there’s a bigger and bigger gap between private and public education and how education is made available to people. Most of us [educators] are very politicized, but we’re not very politically organized. And I think it’s really important for us to begin to sort out what some of the issues are, and what we’re willing to fight for. And I think that’s a really important conversation to be having, not just internally, but with your colleagues across the country. Blogging makes that possible.”
Potter’s posts on higher education involve a wide range of universities. She gets most of her news from Google Alerts, an online service that updates users when news appears about particular subjects.
“You get a lot of interesting stuff that’s not about the usual suspects that raises important issues outside of the northeastern corridor,” she said.
For the images that go along with the posts, she uses a different approach.
“I have locked on to the ‘I Can Has Cheezburger’ site,” she said. “That has real potential, I have to say.”
Potter also makes an effort to link to the websites she gets her information from.
“I think about [each post] as an essay that requires real accountability, and I learned very early on that it’s unwise to be casual about facts or attribution. I use a lot of hyperlinks so that people can check into the research themselves.”
Despite this attention to accuracy, Potter admits that she has made mistakes on her blog.
“There have been times that I have just realized that I brought up a topic that I haven’t engaged with seriously enough—something that has triggered a response that I didn’t anticipate. And that teaches me a great deal. I’m pretty careful now not to assert anything lightly.”
Though she has learned to be cautious, Potter also makes an effort to be prolific.
“I started the blog after reading Annie Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird,’” she said. “And one of the things Lamott talks about is that if you want to be a writer, you need to write every day. And I thought, well, maybe if I write every day it will be good for my scholarship too, and that’s been absolutely correct.”
Potter often gets up early to write, though she does not always write for the blog.
“One of the things that can get out of control is that blogging is so much fun,” she said. “You get so much great feedback that sometimes you end up spending more time on that than the writing for your academic publication. And so, some days I’ll get up and I’ll just work on an article or work on a book review and forego blogging for that day.”
Her blog gets a lot of hits from the Middletown area. However, reactions from the Wesleyan faculty have been mostly subdued.
“Almost nobody talks to me about it,” she said. “It’s kind of like, let’s just pretend this isn’t happening. But so many people do it nowadays that the fact of blogging itself is not such a big deal. However, Wesleyan is still very WASPy. People don’t like to talk about things that they think are going to make people uncomfortable. They would rather just sort of pretend it’s not happening.”
Students are also largely silent about the blog as far as Potter is aware.
“Students at Wesleyan are by and large such nice people,” she said. “I think students try to be courteous, to tell you the truth. And they want to be very sure that they’re not crossing some kind of a boundary.”
Despite the controversial nature of some of her posts, the administration has generally responded positively to the blog.
“Potter is a great writer and a very astute observer of American culture,” said David Pesci, Director of Media Relations at Wesleyan. “She also is a noted historian whose areas of specialty can often provide perspective on what is happening in current times.”
Pesci and Potter sometimes discuss the blog. Potter even credits Pesci with suggesting interesting blogging topics.
“He’s actually gotten me to do a bunch of stuff,” she said. “I actually like working with him because he has good ideas for stories and for putting stuff out there.”
Potter tries her best to keep her academic life and her blogging life separate.
“I’m only the Tenured Radical online, and it’s interesting because, you know, it’s often the persona rather than the substance of the posts themselves that people object to,” she said. “People will say, ‘You’re so condescending.’ Well, yeah, that’s what the Tenured Radical does. But if I walked into class, and you know, treated my students like garbage, boy would I hear about it. I would not get away with being the Tenured Radical at home, I guarantee you. Nor would I get away with it here. Academics are probably more opinionated than any group of people in the world, but you can’t just walk into a meeting and tell people bluntly what you think all the time, or be sarcastic, or nasty, or anything like that and expect them to like you. But many people actually like the Tenured Radical for being sarcastic and nasty. “
Potter says that she’s also considering teaching a course on blogging after she returns from sabbatical in the fall of 2013.
“You could teach a range of things by doing that, but also keep students writing in a way that actually made sense to them,” she said. “Anne Greene talks about this. She says that so much of what students write doesn’t have anything to do with what they care about, and they just do it and they just write papers because they’re told to. But they don’t really like them and they don’t really like doing it. We need to be thinking more as teachers about how to engage students more through new media. Because, frankly, that’s where a lot of students are now. And it doesn’t mean that we have to give up books, but it does mean that we need to take advantage of what students know and what they’re interested in learning, and have it mesh somewhat with our agenda as well.”