Confidence and Confidentiality

I have a couple of tasks ahead of me which I am currently mulling over. The first is a talk I’m going to give to Newcastle University’s Women’s Network on Building Confidence, in which I’ve been asked to build on a couple of earlier blogposts (the one on Impostor Syndrome and the one on constantly feeling as if one is a novice); the second is a request from a new blogging site to write a piece about resilience, developing some ideas I originally wrote up in the Guardian. In this second case, I’ve been specifically asked to consider including something about ‘one of the times you felt like your life wasn’t going to plan – and how you pulled through.

I have no problem talking about feeling like an impostor, the more so as that earlier post demonstrated just how common that sensation is amongst all strands of professionals. I am not at all comfortable with the idea of spelling out specifics of when my surroundings appeared to become hostile. How can I do that without telling tales that are better not told, naming individuals with whom by now I might be in perfect charity though at an earlier point we had been at daggers drawn, or explaining just why I think some doyen or doyenne of the scientific field had behaved totally inappropriately and had landed me in the soup or caused me to explode in wrath? No, those are not the sort of things that should be committed to paper for the public eye. So, that particular blogpost – if it ever gets written – will have to be more bland and abstract. Sorry, no doubt less fun for the reader, but it is the drawback of choosing to write under my own name. Discretion is definitely the better part of my blogging repertoire.

A while back there was a debate on a couple of US blogs I read, written by female STEM professors, about whether it was appropriate to write about one’s students. Both bloggers concerned write anonymously, so in principle this means their students are not identified or identifiable, but it is a fine line to draw about disclosure.  Academic Jungle described in some detail an ‘unpleasant altercation’ with a member of her group, but Proflikesubstance took exception, feeling that such public denunciation can hardly be guaranteed to be unidentifiable and so it is unacceptable. Her position was ‘I avoid topics where I criticize anyone who works for me’. I am with Proflikesubstance on this one (although for myself I’d include a rather wider circle of unmentionable classes of individuals and topics). Furthermore I don’t even have the invisibility cloak of anonymity to hide behind: if I said a student had messed up, or lost the plot or anything else, that student would be immediately identifiable. Even if I put it in the past tense and described something that happened a number of years ago, the individual would almost certainly still be identifiable. So I don’t go there; in my book it isn’t on to do that.

So, if you’ve been following this blog you will find plenty of references to Professor X and friends, but never a mention of a student (or only the merest reference in passing). Just occasionally I find that frustrating. Mainly, it is so obviously inappropriate that the anecdotes never surface as my fingers hover over the keyboard. I’ve had fun writing about the foibles of fellow committee members, chairs and professors I’ve known (even though different characters have been merged, stretched and pounded into new creations rather than actual individuals being described in depth). It would be entertaining but inappropriate to create a comparable cast of student characters to grace these pages. Despite how much the cartoon world of PhDcomics and the like points a finger of fun at how supervisors treat their students, I cannot see that I can do the same in reverse. So I won’t.

More recently, there is a new group of people about whom I feel unable to comment, those in a more political sphere. In my various roles both within and outside the University, I get to attend meetings with policy-makers of various hues; these too I must eschew in my blog posts. A wonderful bon mot falling from the lips of an MP, whose inhibitions may have been temporarily lulled by some alcoholic beverage, can’t be passed on; such a waste!

So, dear reader, while I’m willing to confess to some of my own weaknesses, I must continue to resist the temptation to spill the beans about identifiable individuals. Professor Charming, Drs Jobsworth and Ogle and their many colleagues will continue to grace these pages as distorted amalgams of the numerous people whose paths have crossed mine over my entire career, but do not attempt to attach the names of any individuals you may know to any of these epithets. Policy-makers and students, on the other hand, will barely make an appearance in any shape or form.  They may feel safe.

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