How to Maintain Your Digital Identity As An Academic (CHE)

January 9, 2015

In 2009, anyone who searched my name on the web would first encounter the opinions of a disgruntled Midwestern undergraduate who lambasted me for being an unfair, unprofessional, and essentially ignorant professor.

Oddly enough, the student was angry because I had begun incorporating Twitter into the classroom. I was among the early advocates of using the social-media site in teaching, especially in large lecture-based courses. While many of the 120 students in my introductory film course embraced the Twitter assignments I devised, a handful revolted, including this particular student. He took to the Internet to express his belief that social media had no place in the college classroom, and any professor who thought otherwise was not only oblivious to Twitter’s intent (It’s for socializing, not learning!), but also graded her students unreasonably. In his diatribe, he called out my name, school affiliation, and the classes I taught.

Because I attended a graduate school focused on technology and digital media (even for those of us in the humanities), I’ve had an Internet presence since 1999. Teaching assistants in my Ph.D. program were required to, at the very least, post their syllabi online. Our advisers also encouraged us to have our own websites (or pages), which we rudimentarily made via software like Microsoft FrontPage (1996) and Netscape Composer (1997). So I’ve been aware of the need to shape one’s digital identity or online persona for quite a while now.

But of course, the Internet changed significantly between when I left graduate school in 1999 and my student’s public critique of me in 2009—see, for example: Google rankings, social media, sitemaps, shifts in search algorithms, robots, crawlers, and search-engine optimization in general. The Internet has changed even from 2009 to today. Suffice it to say, that undergraduate’s tirade is now buried deep in the web. Nowadays, the first item to appear when anyone plugs my name into a search engine is my personal website, followed by my social-media presence, and then direct links to the mainstream publications for which I’ve written.

So how might academics—particularly those without tenure, published books, or established freelance gigs—avoid having their digital identities taken over by the negative or the uncharacteristic?

After all, no one wants to be associated almost exclusively with blogs of disgruntled students, Tumblr and Twitter hashtags like #IHateMyProfessor, Facebook hate groups such as “I No Longer Fear Hell, I Took a Course With Aruna Mitra,” and other potentially contentious sites like Rate My Professors. As an academic or would-be academic, you need to take control of your public persona and then take steps to build and maintain it. With drag-and-drop websites, automatic publishing tools like IFTTT (short for “If this, then that”), and social-media sharing, this task is not necessarily as time-consuming as it seems.

[Full article here.]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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