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Creating and Maintaining a Professional Presence Online: A Roundup and Reflection

As with my post last week about the job market, today’s post emerged from a workshop I put together for grad students here at Northeastern. This one focused on “Creating and Maintaining a Professional Presence Online,” and the post rounds up many useful articles from ProfHacker and elsewhere on the topic. As before, my Twitter community helped greatly in putting this together. The Storify at the end proved particularly interesting to the students in the workshop.

Before moving into the post itself, I should note that I started this workshop by asking participants to Google themselves and reflect on the “person” that emerged from the search—whether the results that emerged were actually about them or not. This exercise proved very useful for thinking about how online identity might shape the perceptions of job search committees, conference panel attendees, or even new students—all people very likely to Google junior scholars. I highly recommend this as a starting point if you’re planning to run a similar session. Okay: on to the post.

I recently ran a workshop for students in Northeastern University’s English Graduate Program on “Creating and Maintaining a Professional Presence Online.” This is an essential topic for scholars entering the field today, but it’s rarely addressed in any formal way by departments. The decision to take one’s scholarship online (or the decision not to) both have real consequences on the job market and beyond.

As I did before our job market session a few weeks ago, I turned to colleagues online for help finding useful articles or blog posts on the subject. Here are the links I’ll be passing on today:

  1. If you read only one post, I would recommend Jentery Sayer’s “Do You Need Your Own Website While On the Job Market?” post at ProfHacker. It’s a thorough piece that discusses the pros and cons of maintaining a professional website, while also providing some guidance about how to get started.
  2. Phil Agre’s decade-old “Networking on the Network” remains well worth a read—indeed, the points he makes about email are only amplified by the growth of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter in academia. Here’s a particularly salient paragraph:

    The first thing to realize is that Internet-world is part of reality. The people you correspond with on the network are real people with lives and careers and habits and feelings of their own. Things you say on the net can make you friends or enemies, famous or notorious, included or ostracized. You need to take the electronic part of your life seriously. In particular, you need to think about and consciously choose how you wish to use the network. Regard electronic mail as part of a larger ecology of communication media and genres — telephone conversations, archival journals and newsletters, professional meetings, paper mail, voice mail, chatting in the hallway, lectures and colloquia, job interviews, visits to other research sites, and so forth — each with its own attributes and strengths. The relationships among media will probably change and new genres will probably emerge as the technologies evolve, but make sure that you don’t harbor the all-too-common fantasy that someday we will live our lives entirely through electronic channels. It’s not true.

    I would only add to Prof. Agre’s comments that it’s now also untrue that electronic channels can be safely ignored. It’s increasingly untenable for junior scholars to not have any kind of electronic professional presence. Junior scholars must, as Prof. Agre urged a decade ago, “take the electronic part of [their lives] seriously.”

  3. Miriam Posner, Stewart Varner, and Brian Croxall’s “Creating Your Web Presence: A Primer for Academics” overviews a number of practical options for carving out a space online for a professional presence. If you’re looking for some dead-simple, “out of the box” platforms for building a web presence, review their suggestions.
  4. Kim Barbour and David Marshall’s First Monday article “The Academic Online: Constructing Persona through the World Wide Web” argues that “the construction of online identities or persona is now an essential activity for the academic both from the perspective of university value and individual/career value.” The article discusses a range of online academic persona, thus making it a useful resource for junior scholars looking for different models of online professional engagement.
  5. In “How to Start Tweeting (and Why You Might Want To)”, I argue that participating one specific social network—namely, Twitter—can pay significant dividends for junior scholars—particularly if they’re interested in the digital humanities. Twitter has changed a bit in the two years since I published this piece, and some scholars are moving to alternate services like App.net, but I still find Twitter one of the easiest points-of-entry for young scholars into live, dynamic, ongoing scholarly conversations.
  6. In “Your Digital Calling Card: About.me”, Jason Jones looks at a service for giving folks a quick peek into your online presence.
  7. In “On Professional Websites”, Jonathan Stern advocates for professional websites “for all academics looking to advance their careers,” while in Blogging 101 for Academics, he offers both tips and cautions for those taking that advice.
  8. Terry Brock’s GradHacker piece “Publishing Your Presentations Online” argues that open, online publishing can help young scholars find readers and improve their scholarship beyond the confines of the academic conference.

I sometimes outline the following scenario when colleagues or students ask why I believe a professional presence online is important. In some ways this is a “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” scenario: the details aren’t all that important, and you can change them in your mind as you see fit. It’s the principle at the end that matters. So: Let’s say you’re a graduate student and you’re giving a paper from your dissertation at a mid-sized conference in your field. You’re on a panel with a very prominent scholar—someone you quote frequently in said dissertation—and an up-and-coming Assistant Professor. Attendance is decent (for a humanities conference)—there are 15 people in the audience. You probably don’t know who most of those people are, but they could be very important. They could be on search committees, or helping to write a job ad, or publishers looking for an exciting new author. Less dramatically, but just as importantly, they could be important voices in the field you’re seeking to join who will one day review your work, or invite you to give a guest lecture, or mention your name in a conversation with another colleague who’s on a search committee…. You get the idea—making connections matters a great deal in academia. If any of those people like what you have to say, they might introduce themselves after the panel. But in today’s academy they might just as easily Google you—perhaps from their iPad while they listen to you speak. And if one of those people takes the time to Google you, you want them to find something that piques their interest in your work even more. You don’t want them to find embarrassing Facebook photos—true—but I would argue that you also don’t want them to find nothing. Instead, you want them to find a site that fleshes out their picture of your work and gives them a clear sense of how you’re developing as a scholar and teacher.

That focus on development is important. Though it can seem risky, increasingly scholars are using the web to publish their work as it develops, using feedback from colleagues online to hone their ideas, perhaps toward more polished presentation at a later date. Indeed, in many ways publishing in-progress scholarship online can serve the function that conference presentations once did, giving scholars the chance to experiment with ideas and benefit from their colleagues’ input. In his contribution to this panel on “The Future of Digital Publishing”, Dan Cohen notes the “democratizing” potential of personal research blogs or websites—what he calls “personal publishing platforms”—for junior scholars. Similarly in “Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values, Cohen notes,

The dirty little secret about open access publishing is that despite the fact that although you may give up a line in your CV (although not necessarily), your work can be discovered much more easily by other scholars (and the general public), can be fully indexed by search engines, and can be easily linked to from other websites and social media (rather than producing the dreaded “Sorry, this is behind a paywall”).

In other words, the web can allow junior scholars to get good ideas into the world (and to the attention of their fields) in unprecedented ways. For me that’s a net good, and a powerful argument for junior scholars to engage with their research online.

In my personal experience—and I bold that phrase because, as always, your mileage may vary—the more open I have been with my scholarship online, the more professional doors have opened to me. If you’re a junior scholar with no online presence, there are at least reasons to reconsider that choice.

As I was preparing for the workshop, I asked my professional community on Twitter to chime in with their “tweetable” advice on this subject. A really incredible conversation ensued:

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Gideon Burton.]

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