Facebooking for the Tenure Track

September 04, 2009

If you're a young academic, what you say on Facebook can come back to hurt you. In last month's column, "Facebooking Your Way Out of Tenure," I offered a set of cautions for doctoral students and probationary faculty members plunging into the world of online social networks. This month I want to propose some ideas for using Facebook and other social-media sites to advance your career.

Professionalize your page. The simplest way to make online social networks work for you in promotion and tenure is to restrict your use of them to professional content: Blog about research and teaching in your field, or use Facebook to share updates on publications and speeches. Flickr or Picasa pictures of you presenting at a conference or posing with students at graduation might show off positive promotion-and-tenure moments. Take advantage of sites like YouTube to augment your teaching with blog-enabled interactive assignments.

The only major problem with maintaining a purely professional social-media presence is that it's no fun. Certainly, there is intellectual satisfaction in blogging about a research finding, ego satisfaction in sharing news about a publication on Facebook, and emotional satisfaction in tweeting about your pride in your students at commencement. But getting personal with friends about your life and theirs is what social networking is all about. I've got to have some outlet for showing off the acrobatics of my cats.

You have two options. Plan A is to tone down your blog or Facebook page, censoring yourself to avoid the overly personal. You must certainly not release comments ("My dean has onion breath") or pictures (of yourself or others in any state of dishabille or inebriation) that will cause the P&T committee to believe you are not a serious colleague.

Plan B is more drastic: Create an alter ego. A few years ago, while doing research for a book on political blogging, I guest-blogged under a nom de guerre at two sites. I learned quickly that I didn't enjoy the ferocity of the venue, but those academics who do can certainly find ways to hide their true identities. In fact, a number of well-known pseudonymous bloggers have "come out" after receiving tenure.

If you must vent online about your colleagues or students, find out first how to create the hardest-to-trace Web identity. Blogging under a pseudonym is not guaranteed to give you cover. It is possible for someone to out you either by a process of deduction—especially if you are referring to events on your campus—or with a little bit of Web-based sleuth work. I was almost unmasked during one of my pseudonymous blogging stints. One commenter figured out my university from a reference I made even though I was not blogging about academe at all. Luckily, he kindly warned me about a potential leak.

Flood Google with positives. Many people at different stages of life and career are worried about what is lurking in cyberspace about them. I met a young professor who served as faculty adviser to a sorority who told me that she and the membership committee regularly denied entry to candidates who appeared on Flickr or elsewhere on the Web naked, drunk, or both. Last year I spoke about blogs to a group of high-school teachers and found that their No. 1 fear was being "YouTubed"—that is, losing their temper in class and then being recorded via cellphone for the world to mock.

Then, an older professor I know did a Google search of his own name for the first time and was horrified to find himself the focus of a nasty attack on a disgruntled student's blog. Forty years of scholarship and teaching, he lamented, and he gets defamed by "one guy who didn't get an A."

Attempts to remove offensive items are rarely successful: Something you put up is always stored somewhere and may very well have been passed along.

There is, however, a simple expedient. We know that few people search beyond the "super 10"—that is, the first 10 hits of a search term on Google. The savvy academic should try to insert professional items—opinion essays, blog posts, and interviews that deal with research or teaching—into the Web stream. Try to crowd out the bad on Google with the good.

Proofread your prose. Social-media sites are spontaneous, from the heart, sometimes quirky and vivacious—almost the opposite of academe's deliberate, jargon-filled, lengthy journal articles. Even the most antediluvian senior professor understands that difference, and you won't get in trouble because one of your blog posts is inadequately footnoted or too breathless in tone.

Still, while what you post on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, or your blog probably won't count toward your publications, it may end up scrutinized as a reflection of the quality of your research, teaching, and service. If your blog posts are consistently filled with misspellings and grammar mistakes, you undermine readers' impression of you as a professional and a scholar. So post and tweet away, but keep up a good standard of prose for the masses … and the P&T committee.

Weigh the difference between Facebooking and publishing. The online revolution is sweeping through academe, and the meaning of publication will be forever changed. But for many editors and publishers of traditional material, such as books and journal articles, prior publication remains a significant issue.

You may be tempted to write up your insight as a Facebook post, or make the data from your experiment available online as an open source. Both actions might cost you promotion-advancing publications when a journal or book editor asks whether the material has appeared "in print or online" before. The best solution is to self-publish only summaries and observations rather than complete treatises. Restrict full posts of articles for co-editing and commenting to password-protected venues like Google Docs.

Network. For assistant professors, the most obvious use of online social sites is to discover new and old friends and collaborate with colleagues. If I wonder whatever happened to those bright students from a certain graduating class, invariably I find them on Facebook. I know more than a few tenure-track faculty members who are using Google Docs to co-write research papers, Facebook to comment on developments in their fields, Ning groups to discuss the latest research, and Twitter to keep up with friends on a busy conference schedule.

Inculcate the seniors. It is a stereotype based on a high degree of reality that social networking, at first anyway, was a platform and a form of expression for the young. Teenagers notoriously text message several (hundred) times a day; few grandparents do.

For the assistant professor, the social-media gap is a golden opportunity to (a) show what a good colleague you are, (b) demonstrate the professional utility of new media to senior colleagues (such as those on the promotion-and-tenure committee!), and (c) be seen as a leader in the innovation of research and teaching.

Case in point: An assistant professor in a language department at a liberal-arts college found herself in the following conversation with a colleague who is near retirement. He claimed that students were spending so much time interacting via new technologies that he was concerned that his lectures didn't reach them anymore. Was his information-delivery system outmoded, he wondered.

She argued, to the contrary, that talking passionately about compelling subjects is still an effective communication tool. But she tactfully suggested that he might augment his teaching with some social media. She helped him set up a class blog on which he could post general comments on readings and assignments and engage in discussion with the students. It was a good deed that paid off for everyone, as the senior professor told her that his undergraduates seemed to be more interested in the class and looked upon him as less of a dinosaur than they had before.

Marry new technology with old principles. What students think of you affects your morale, your sense of belonging in the profession, and your progress on the tenure track. Although universities and departments assert that student evaluations are not the sole measure of pedagogical worthiness, that 1 to 5 rating, especially weighed over six years, is an influential indicator of your teaching performance. Using social media in the classroom will not magically improve your skills or scores, but they may help you connect with students and enliven your material.

Investigate—via the research in educational technology and on teaching blogs and essays—what people have tried and perfected. Experiment, innovate, and even pioneer ways to marry new technology and old principles. Students will be impressed not only with your modernity but also by—the key component in student evaluations—how much "she cares about us."

Modern tech-nimble academics will play a major role in shaping the definition and parameters of online interactivity to come. Smart young scholars will also grasp how such enterprising behavior can help their careers, as much as their online popularity, thrive.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. His latest book is "Blogwars: The New Political Battleground" (Oxford University Press).