Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Academics "branding" themselves, their books, and their research topics on the web

A student of mine sent me a link to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Master (or Mistress) of Your Domain," by Michael J. Bugeja (I'd link to it, but viewing requires either a subscription or an emailed invitation). Anyway, the article details advice from the director of a journalism school at Iowa State University on how faculty can use the web to "brand" themselves, their research output (books), and even their research topics. Why engage in such marketing? To gain notice of peers that can translate into letters of recommendation for tenure and promotion committees.

Faculty web sites are common, but range widely in the amount of information provided and the level of effort invested (my own web site takes up way too much of my time -- but I feel it does get noticed, especially by my students). Sites for faculty books -- stand-alone sites with their own catchy domain names, not simply listings on publisher catalogs -- are less common. The third category, branding a research topic, is most interesting to me:

This year I set up a research site with an assistant professor [...] who shares my concern about the Internet's dynamic but unstable features. In such an environment, footnotes often disappear in online documents and databases, threatening scholarship as we know it.

Our research has been featured in The Chronicle and other publications and journals, and all of that is accessible via our site, whose domain name -- -- suggests our contribution to the discipline: "the half-life of Internet footnotes," or the time it takes for one half of footnotes to decay in an online document.

Whereas the objective of a book site is to sell the text, the goal of a research site is to provide access to scholarly work, establishing that narrow niche necessary to document "the potential for national distinction" and "contributions to the discipline."

Such a site should explain why your work makes that contribution. We do so with links explaining how our research began, where it has taken us, and where we intend to take it. The site also contains downloadable pictures and vitas along with book recommendations and reprints. Other links go to my book site and [my colleague's] Web site.

So when editors or colleagues query us about our research, we answer briefly via e-mail and then send them to, which we update whenever we publish new data.

True, maintaining such a research site is one more chore in our digital day, but that simple upkeep also serves to accumulate the history of our scholarship and our contribution to the discipline.

It's interesting to me how such efforts seem to fit in with recent moves by universities to "brand" the research coming from their professors -- for private universities, a way of demonstrating value and prestige, and for public universities, a necessary strategic response to hostile legislatures who don't understand the kind of research produced by their state employees. But both sets of practices -- individual branding and institutional branding based on research topic -- carry a risk, I think. With the practice of "branding" comes an implicit assertion of "ownership." And research at the academic level isn't about taking personal, private, and protected control over a particular resarch topic, method, or twist -- it's about engaging a global community of scholars on a particular set of research questions.

I think the three types of "branding" discussed here -- having your own site as a faculty member, creating a site for a book you are trying to sell, and creating a site based on the research you claim to do (or to own?) -- differ significantly in degree and in the interests they serve. Personally, I'm extremely comfortable with having a personal website, and I readily acknowledge that it serves a personal career-building function for me. Not only do I list all my publications on my site, making it a virtual "cv," but I automatically repost my latest blog rambling there and even reveal my salary and employment history to interested readers. I think all of those things, while serving my personal interests, serve the academic interests of information openness and contextualization of scholarship and teaching as well (which is why I feel justified in placing them on university-sponsored resources).

Although I provide information on my own books (which are for sale in the marketplace and which, for one, I earn nearly a 50-cent royalty per copy), I feel less comfortable with creating a book website with its own domain, disconnected from the rest of my research, teaching, and biography. My publisher should promote my book in this way if they desire; they're reaping the bulk of the profits, if any, from my books, not me (or my university).

Finally, I'm of mixed opion about claiming jurisdiction over a whole area of research with a web site. I have my own weblog -- the one you're reading now -- to illustrate and work through my own research interests, but consider it a conversation rather than a manifesto ... engaging with a terrain of scholarship rather than staking out that terrain and claiming that I alone serve it best. I intentionally host this weblog outside of my university, to allow for the inevitable crossover of political-economic and academic conversation which is increasingly prohibited in state university settings (while, I might add, the advocates of so-called "Academic Bill of Rights" claim that "conservative" speech by students in the classroom is somehow trampled by "liberal" professors on a regular basis). But it's still less than I want it to be.

I'm frustrated that I haven't figured out how to turn this weblog into a more collaborative experience. There are other researchers at my own university who do work on topics similar to my own, from very different points of view or research methods or sets of expectations, and we've found that engaging with each other on the web is difficult. I think part of this -- on my end at least -- does come from the fact that, as cooperative as we'd like to think we are in academia (and we are EXTREMELY cooperative compared to just about any knowledge-producing process in the private sector) we nevertheless find ourselves in a artificially competitive labor market -- not only within single departments, but within single universities and across different universities -- where the culture we learn from Day One is "distinguish yourself!"

Perhaps the moral here is that, as in so many other aspects of modern life, the traces we leave on the web serve to highlight and magnify both the best and the worst of the social processes we engage in. I guess I just hope that new social practices of "branding" researchers, research universities, and that research itself, leads in the end to wider public understanding and appreciation of all three, rather than the narrow interests of individual or group privatization, accumulation, and hoarding of knowledge and the benefits which accrue from it.

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