Previously I have been thinking about Personal Identity Online (PIO) in terms of how a consultant might shape or influence how he or she is perceived. I took that as a straightforward communications challenge and put forward suggestions on setting up a consultancy website, blogging, tweeting, and more. Now I want to turn to a couple of thorny issues for academics who are thinking about their PIOs. I want to describe two cases: (1) a well-published academic currently unaffiliated with a university, and (2) a tenured faculty member who uses a non-academic email address and/or domain name for his or her academic web page.
The days of completing your Ph.D. and walking directly into a tenured faculty position are long gone (and maybe they were only ever a myth). The norm for the academic career path in the Humanities tends to be Ph.D., post-doctoral research (if you are lucky), sessional or contract teaching (sometimes, sadly, referred to as “casual” staff), a mad scramble for publications, and then (if you are very lucky) landing a tenure-track assistant professorship, followed by another mad scramble for additional publications, high teaching-evaluations, and “service” (which includes administrative duties as well as contributions to one’s profession such as peer reviewing submissions for publication). Finally, if all goes well, you achieve tenure. And now you can set out on the longer journey toward becoming a full professor. (NB. these are terms for the progression in North America; in the UK and elsewhere the terminology and the progression varies somewhat.)
Between completing your Ph.D. at one institution and securing tenure at another, the young academic may find himself or herself employed, at one time or another, by a surprising number of academic institutions. They might even temporarily be employed by two or more institutions at the same time, for example if they were contract teaching individual courses at different institutions. There may even be times, despite one’s stellar publishing record and high teaching-evaluations, when one finds oneself between institutional employers. In that situation, how does the young academic self-identify online?
There are complications, naturally. Over the years, the young academic may have been given, temporarily, an institutional email address and quite possibly webspace for hosting teaching and other academic information relevant to one’s department. These persist as links on web pages or email addresses in colleagues’ email clients long after one has moved on. What is the half-life of an institutionally hosted academic web page? And how long will it continue to skew search engine results years after it has become inaccessible to the person who originally set it up?
The self-identification question is one on which I do not have a settled opinion. Recently there has been a move to recognise that a substantial portion of our tertiary teaching population is in some stage of the progression described above. One term mooted for such individuals is “independent scholar”. There is even now a Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars. (I think there is still work to be done on thinking this through since one benefit of “full membership” – a library card for Simon Fraser University – requires the scholar to appear “in person” in order to pick up their new library card.) Is independent scholar the best self-describer available? I have also seen individuals self-ascribe by the name of their academic group, e.g. Historian, Philosopher, Physicist, etc. That might not work so well for all groups. How would the researcher in comparative literature self-ascribe in this way?
The second case I mentioned – the tenured faculty member using a non-academic email address – could easily arise out of the academic progression I described. The itinerant academician might have found that a non-academic email address (and also a non-academic domain name for a personal academic web page) is simpler. It saves the need to request an update to one’s friends and colleagues’ email address books each time one moves on. Even once tenured the academic may find that it is easier to stay with the non-institutional email address and/or web page. (There are also cases where some institutions have less than fully reliable email infrastructure, unlike the rock solid email infrastructure we used to have at the University of Oxford. In such a case, the academic may feel it safer to give out his or her non-institutional email address.)
Again, I do not have, as yet, a settled opinion on this. Clearly, however, the two cases I am describing are related. Here all I have managed, if at all, is to describe the communications challenge. I’ll need to do a bit more thinking in order to come up with my preferred solution. But I welcome suggestions. With our universities expanding dramatically, but without a consequent expansion in the numbers of tenured faculty, my suspicion is that the above situations will be faced by increasing numbers of scholars, independent or otherwise.