Blog Post

Online identity and openness in academia

I've just finished reading all the ideas and comments shared to date in the Openness in Academia forum, and i want to use this blog post as a place to help put all my ideas together in the hopes of having a coherent response, one with a clear point. Because at the moment I have many thoughts, and many observations and comments, but no "So What". (As a composition teacher, the "so What" of any paper is vital!)

There was much talk about different types of openness in academia, but the strand of ideas that caught my attention was the one that dealt with issues of online identity and openness: professional vs personal identity, the impact the online identity we create for ourselves has on our research, our tenure, our collaboration with others, on whether or not we even get a job! The discussion seemed to cover just about every aspect of openness in academia and out online identity except one: the online identity others create for us, and the subsequent impact this has on us as (primarily) professionals and (for this conversation, secondarily) as private individuals.

A few comments came close to talking about this issue but intriguingly danced around and ultimately away from my specific question. Violafaithe90 talked about how she googled her name and the things she found that she had posted under her own name and under pseudonyms. jdamish and jenna had an interesting discussion about being open teachers and whether or not to allow students to tweet about class and/or course content. David Shepard brought up the case of a UCLA professor who felt some of his colleagues were being too liberal and offering $100 to students who gave him the syllabus from the various teachers he was criticizing. Still another thread had to do with grad students requesting to be Facebook or Twitter friends with their professors, and the impact this had on potential job hires from the perspective of a professor/hiring committee member. But my question is, what impact does the online identity others create for us have on how we are seem in academia as potential hire-es, as researchers, as (potential) colleges, as human beings?

I'm thinking about sites like Rate My Teacher and Rate My Professor.  There's even one called Teacher Complaints a site aimed at students and devoted to posting complaints and grievances about their teachers. I haven't found a site yet for students that is devoted to praising their teachers! And what about those people other than our students who post comments about us like family, friends, or friends of friends, etc, who tag us on Facebook, who reference us in tweets, etc. Not all of those tags and references are positive or professional. I'm not necessarily talking about those references that paint us as fallible human beings, or as lovable goofballs, or as the (insert-fandom-here) geek that we are. I'm talking about the potentially damaging ones, the student who didn't like a final grade, or the student who thought that learning/thinking about computers, technology and "digital stuff" wasn't appropriate in a writing class.

You can't tell me that hiring committees don't look google potential candidates. I've even had it on good authority from several different individuals that yes, there are hiring committees that do take into consideration how many chili peppers you have and what rating you get from Rate my Professor. After all, aren't we required by the universities we teach at to furnish students with evaluation forms at the end of every semester, forms that you can't even touch let alone look at before turning in student's final grades for the course.  It's part of the established process for potential candidates to furnish academic hiring committees with several sets of student evaluation comments as part of the first round screening of candidates. Why would your score on Rate My Professor be any different from these evaluations?

I guess what is at the heart of my long-winded rant here is that the online identity created for us by students, peers, colleges, does play a part in how others perceive us. Questions like "does it have an impact" or "should it have an impact" are kind simplistic, or at least from my perspective, don't really get to the heart of my concern. That's the power of rhetoric, isn't it? That even when we are aware that such comments are manufactured or only one side of the picture, still they have an impact. Our impressions have already been colored against us. Now, I wouldn't want to work for a department where I was hired solely based on how many chili peppers I had. I equally wouldn't want to work for a department that is oblivious to our digital identity either.

Perhaps my question (Concern? Interest? Fascination? Fear?) has to do with one of control. In our examination and discussion of openness in academia in regards to online identity, how to we handle/react to/take account of the online identity that we have no control over? The identity that others create for us?


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