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Do You Need Your Own Website While On The Job Market?

Suppressing a Lacanian joke . . . [This is a guest post by Jentery Sayers, who recently completed his PhD at the University of Washington and is now an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria. He previously wrote on "Integrating Digital Audio Composition into Humanities Courses." He is @jenterysayers on Twitter.--@jbj]

Over at Crooked Timber back in June 2008, Eszter Hargittai wrote: “I’ve been continually surprised over the years about how many academics fail to take advantage of the Web as a medium for disseminating their work. This seems especially important in the case of those actively seeking a job in the near future.” Hargittai’s post has drawn fifty comments, which exhibit a spectrum of opinions on how academics might develop a professional (or is it personal?) website. Dreamweaver, Blogger, Netscape Composer, Kompozer, copying someone else’s HTML, and—wait for it, wait for it—Microsoft Word are included in the possibilities.

Of course, since 2008, various user-friendly avenues (e.g., Google profiles, Academia.edu, LinkedIn, RSS, and Twitter) have gained traction in the academic community, with many people relying quite heavily on them to share and learn about new research. In February, Miriam Posner, Stewart Varner, and Brian Croxall published an incredibly helpful ProfHacker piece, titled “Creating Your Web Presence,” on pursuing those avenues. They preface that piece with an echo of Hargittai: “Chances are . . . that if you’re reading ProfHacker, you understand that being visible on the Internet can benefit your scholarship, pedagogy, and even service. And if you’re going on the job market soon, you can reasonably assume that the search committees will put your name into Google (or Bing?) to see what they can learn about you.”

Here, I do not want to repeat the advice Hargittai, Posner, Varner, and Croxall already provided. Instead, this piece is intended primarily for graduate students who are now preparing for the job market and asking themselves whether creating a website, with its own domain, is worthwhile.

My answer is yes and no.

Why You Might Not Bother

If you are applying for academic or alt-academic jobs, then your life will be consumed with everything else involved in the process. Things such as cover letters, CVs, writing samples, and teaching portfolios take a long time to draft. Adding a new website to this mix could indeed be stressful or an unproductive use of your time, especially if you have never created your own site.

If you are just beginning to consider the web for scholarly communication, then I again recommend “Creating Your Web Presence.” Many of the options mentioned there will suffice for circulating, say, your CV, bio, and teaching philosophy. An academic forum like HASTAC is another route. And yet two other options are: (1) About.me, described by ProfHacker’s own Jason B. Jones in a piece from back in November, and (2) the dossier and credential management service, Interfolio, which Julie Meloni recommended and detailed in a May 2010 ProfHacker piece. None of these requires knowledge of HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, or the like.

You might also review popular modes of scholarly communication in your field and then determine whether having a dedicated academic website is commonplace. Generally, a faculty member profile on a department’s site will suffice. Or positions in a lab, library, or center will include space for a bio on a university or college website. Professional sites with their own domain (and often with a blog or some other form of frequently updated content) are more common in fields (e.g., digital humanities, media studies, design studies, and information studies) where new technologies are objects of inquiry or technological literacies are expected.

But the best reason not to bother with your own website just before or during a job search is that your advisory committee does not recommend it. So ask them about the relationship between your web presence and the job search before you spend too much time considering yournamehere.net.

Why You Might Bother

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had my own website since 2003, about a year or so before I started graduate school in 2004. As I was preparing for the job market, I decided to revise the content of my site from its status as an occasionally updated blog to a more professional academic site, including my bio, CV, teaching philosophy, and portfolio. As such, many of the perks mentioned below emerge from my own experiences and biases in the humanities. I should also mention that I have never served on an academic job search committee.

When people ask me why bother with a dedicated site, my first response is usually that it allows me to document and exhibit the work—or better yet, the processes—involved in what’s ultimately presented as my CV. That is, a website is not only less formal (or less standardized) than a CV; it can also be a portfolio for “middle-state publishing,” described by The New Everyday MediaCommons project as “a web publication that exists ‘between a blog and a journal.’” (Thank you, Kari Kraus, for drawing my attention to this term.) For example, you may be working on a digital project, a static glimpse of which you want to share without offering audiences full access. In your portfolio, you could provide a screenshot of the project, together with an abstract and/or a development timeline. As another example, you might wish to include photos, videos, or audio recordings of you teaching a course or a workshop. Such use of evidence could reinforce claims made in the teaching philosophy you send to search committees.

As Hargittai mentions in her Crooked Timber piece, another convincing reason to have your own site is so that people can easily discover your work before, during, or after conferences (or while you are on the job market). True, they could do the same through venues such as Academia.edu; however, you might not find yourself content with the design or interface of such sites, especially when they shape your professional identity. In other words, having your own site can do more than make your work discoverable. With a little effort, it can make what you do visible through a design that corresponds with your own interests and investments. After all, design is an argument, and it influences inquiry.

Related to design, a professional site can also offer your audiences opportunities to navigate through your materials in a non-linear fashion not easily afforded by print materials, PDFs, or DOCs. Perhaps a committee member or someone at another institution wants to quickly determine whether you’ve written about a particular author or topic. Or maybe someone wants to see what keywords are most common in your writing. Or maybe you want to present your work through an approach that does not mirror the research, teaching, and service framework of most CVs. Maybe you prefer an approach that blends those otherwise distinct sections. The list goes on, with the point being that a website (especially when viewed as a portfolio in process) can function as a meaningful correspondence with the materials typically expected in your application. It can expand those materials, remediate them (e.g., through video, audio, maps, or images), reorganize them (e.g., outside of the research-service-teaching triad), or simply make them more accessible (e.g., as searchable text).

Quite practically, creating your own site can also become an opportunity to learn more about, or keep attuned to, how the web works. If you have the time and interest, then many platforms (see below), as well as the W3Schools, make learning markup, styling, and scripting languages accessible and somewhat easy to learn. In the ideal case, such learning feeds back into your research and teaching, sparking ideas for new forms of scholarly communication (rather than being relegated to, say, “merely technical work”).

You can also learn more about web analytics if you integrate a service such as Google Analytics into your site. For more on Google Analytics, see Stéfan Sinclair’s May 2011 ProfHacker piece. In the context of job applications, Google Analytics can (among other things) tell you how people are finding your site, from what locations, and through what search terms. You can also see what portions of a given page are the most popular and how long people stay on the site (or how quickly they bounce). Of course, you can imagine how such analytics can easily feed job search paranoia. Reading too much into the numbers can be misleading; nevertheless, analytics can give you some hints as to whether, for example, people from the schools to which you are applying are visiting your site (before or after you have received a response).

Some other perks to having your own site during the job search include:

  • Sharing your work with audiences you may not expect (e.g., those who stumble upon your site through Google or Bing),
  • Constructing a well-organized database of your work that exceeds your own memory, or a database that can be searched when you cannot recall dates, titles, locations, and other details,
  • Learning enough about e-portfolios and websites that you can help students and colleagues do the same,
  • Sending a URL (instead of DVD or CD) when a portfolio or evidence of digital research is requested, and
  • Letting the site grow with your career, or adding material after the job search is finished, in order to keep colleagues up-to-date about your work.

A Checklist
If you have decided to create your own site, then here are some additional questions to consider early in the process:

  • What platform will you use? WordPress and Drupal are two convenient options. For more on WordPress, see Brian Croxall’s video-recorded workshop on web presence. Also consider portfolio themes (free or low-cost) available for each platform. Often, they are industry-oriented, but they can be easily modified (without knowledge of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, or PHP). If possible, then look for accessible, standards-compliant themes.
  • What content should you include? Most common elements are a CV, bio, and teaching philosophy. But should you make your dissertation abstract available on the web? Or should you provide complete drafts of works in progress? Do you want to provide syllabi from previous courses? Image, audio, or video files that were not in your print or PDF application? When answering these questions, seek advice from various people, including those who are not academics.
  • What is the best domain name for you? Think ahead.
  • If you are not using your university’s servers, then who will be your host? See “Website Hosting 101,” a 2009 ProfHacker piece by Julie Meloni.
  • Should the site include a blog? Or how will it be different from a blog? Do you want to allow and moderate comments / spam?
  • How can you time-stamp the content in such a way that clearly states when you last updated it? A date in the footer? Elsewhere?
  • How does writing intended for print (or PDF) differ from writing for the web?
  • In what ways could you incorporate reflective elements (e.g., “What I Learned from Teaching …”) into a portfolio?
  • In terms of both the content and design, how will the site grow with you? If you get a job, then could you continue to use it as is (or with only a few modifications)?
  • In your application materials, how will you (if at all) direct audiences to the site? One issue here is avoiding over-referencing, not only because URLs consume precious space. They are also off-putting to some readers. Including the URL in your contact information is one approach.
  • Without the URL, how will people find the site? Try searching yourself (using various engines, browsers, and computers). Also conduct informal usability tests. Watch friends, family, or colleagues navigate your site.
  • How will the site be licensed? On Creative Commons licensing, see Bethany Nowviskie.

What did I miss? Where am I wrong? And what are some of your favorite academic websites? Why?

Photo by Flickr user Craig A. Rodway / Creative Commons licensed

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