Manufacturing the academic ‘self’ on university home pages



Ive been interested in academic branding and profiling for a while. I’ve begun to do a much-less-than-systematic trawl through university home pages. You know, the official pages where university staff have to describe themselves. I’m up to about fifty webpages now. They’re spread across random disciplines and institutions, and even countries. I started with people I knew reasonably well and have now moved on to people I know about. I guess at some point I’ll have to decide whether to make this systematic, but for now it’s absolutely scattergun. So a health warning – take what is said from here-on-in as impressions only. It’s pretty clear that there are common elements to university staff pages. They are a specific little sub-genre that share some clear family characteristics:

(1) There’s usually, but not always, a picture of the person. The photos range from ‘me with my bicycle’ ‘me with my cat’, ‘me on holidays’ to the formal shot that has been taken by a designated staff person (presumably someone who seems to know something about photography and has a better camera than everyone else). These photos are inevitably against a plain background – the subject often gives off an impression of tense stillness. Perhaps that’s reluctance. (My own webpage snap appears somewhat rakish – I have a beret – but the truth is that I didn’t want to be photographed and couldn’t take the beret off as it would have exposed a bad case of ‘hat hair’.) I was recently told of one institution that requires a professionally taken photograph that staff have to pay for themselves – shades of school photographs and the contact sheet home perhaps.

(2) The person’s contact details are generally given. But not always. I know of some universities who have a policy of not giving out staff email addresses, presumably as some kind of privacy practice. I’m not sure that this actually stops the notifications of one million dollar prize money you can collect by just contacting Dr. Tomorrow in Angola, or the endless chain of requests to update your university email/facebook/paypal/twitter accounts by clicking on the toxic link below. My guess is that the absence of contact details just makes it hard for more innocuous connections to take place.

(3) There’s usually a designated place for a list of publications and research projects. Some people have these as downloadable cvs particularly, it seems from my thoroughly random search, in North America. I’ve noticed that the webpage publication lists are often sadly out of date. I’ve found webpages that hadn’t been updated since 2012, probably from a time when the university insisted that everything was audit ready. I’m not sure why this neglect – perhaps it indicates that the named owner doesn’t see their university webpage as particularly important or useful.

(4) A personal statement also generally features. This is the place where the academic can tailor-make their web ‘self’. There are clearly conventions that operate here too, and I haven’t yet found a webpage that doesn’t list the person’s current position within their university. Most people also list their qualifications, although not all do. I’ve identified a typology of self-presentations. Ive found some of each of these, with the rest all having elements of them:

The good academic citizen. The good citizen does a lot of institutional work, holds positions in learned societies, and does an inordinate amount of (free) work for journal publishers. This labour is not entirely altruistic as there is clearly some prestige attached to listing good institutional deeds.

The academic star. The academic star lists: awards; indicators of the high esteem they enjoy in their own and other countries; a host of big international competitively-funded research projects; and extensive networks around the world. They have written hundreds of chapters and refereed journal articles and are not shy of telling the reader the precise number. Some academic stars list supporting data such as their citations and H Index numbers.

The serious intellectual. The serious intellectual discusses their research agenda and the various innovative and influential contributions they have made to their discipline and beyond. Publications are indications of the consolidation of stages in their thinking processes.

The contributor to knowledge. Unlike the academic star and the serious intellectual, the contributor to knowledge presents themselves as making key contributions to specific knowledge communities that operate through doctoral programmes, journals and learned societies. The same elements found in each of the previous three profiles can be seen but arranged differently to suggest that the academy and this person’s academic work have a more collective flavour.

Of course, as I suggested earlier, there are a lot of people who can’t present themselves as any one of these four types, and they offer approximations and combinations of all of the above. So there are plenty of webpages, mine included, that are a peculiar amalgam of all four.
But one thing that can be said about these four crude types of academic webpage is that they are pretty individualistic. Rarely are co-authors mentioned outside of publication lists, even co-researchers are not particularly prominent. It is as if the academic exists in their own little university bubble. Only the contributor to knowledge positions themselves in a collective academic context.

And all of the four types are pretty light on any details about teaching, the exception being doctoral supervision. Lists of people being supervised sometimes appear on academic staff pages. But your bog-standard under and postgraduate taught courses rarely appear in any great detail. Taught courses might be listed separately but they are just linked through to award details. The academic self is rarely presented as much beyond writer, researcher and good academic citizen.

Finally, I’ve noticed that many of the web-pages don’t connect with any other web presence. There might be a link to a research project website but not much else. It is a minority of academic staff who appear have a personal webpage, offer a twitter name or a connection to a repository or net-working site. In my random selection, younger academics were more likely to have this than anyone else, but I’m not confident enough of my sample to yet suggest that there might be a generational element to the way webpages are constructed.

So what do I make of all this? Well it’s made me think about my own university webpage. I haven’t revised it yet, but I am going to. I’m just not sure how. And I can see that some people I know and know of don’t really get the growing importance of academic self representations on the web. Perhaps it’s because keeping the webpage up to date feels like an institutional requirement, I don’t know. I wonder if I should tell them. It has however made me think about whether I have the time for a more formal look at the various ways in which academics text their ‘self’… I just have to work out the basis on which I’d even begin to think about a sample!