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!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in brand, personal webpage, profile, university webpage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to manufacturing the academic ‘self’ on university home pages

  1. You’ve raised an important point about branding and profiling, but my experience in university systems suggests web pages are very rarely attended to, particularly Academic pages. There are also institutional rules about what goes on the page (my husband will attest to the nonsense irregularly posted on his behalf without his say so). Also, peripatetic and sessional staff don’t get a look in as a rule. This is where social media is so important. I’m not an FB user anymore, but I DO use LinkedIn, which I update on a weekly basis, and I’m pretty easy to find on the interwebs if someone types my name into a search engine. And, being a professional performer, I do have my old profile pics still available. Sadly, though, I might have to get these updated!


  2. pat thomson says:

    I can see some of the dfferences in institutional templates already, various degrees of control and uniformity. Some people DO keep their pages right up to date and this may be important given how they are used eg background briefing notes for all kinds of events, invitations etc. I’ve been asking around about Linked In and, like Facebook, it seems, you either find it useful or you hate it. I’m sure there’s a big bit of research to do here…


  3. Even when I had a university web page it was never anywhere near the top of the Google search pile for a search on my name. The university wouldn’t let me link from there to my personal page. Now I am merely academic related, so I don’t have a university page, and it has made no difference whatsoever to the number of offers of work, or other personal and professional contacts that come from the web.


    • pat thomson says:

      That’s interesting too. I get “found” by a lot of prospective PhD people from my uni webpage but maybe that would happen anyway. Another dimension to consider!


    • Charles Knight says:

      A lot of this comes down to how savvy the person controlling the pages are at SEO (which admittedly a large part snake oil) – so there might be no meta-data and the like. Another fact as you allude to is how much control you have over the page – at some places it is controlled centrally, in others, individual staff control but someone has to approve before it appears.


  4. Charles Knight says:

    Surely you’ve missed 5) The Blank – no photo (because they refused to have one taken), nothing more than title and contact details which in itself is a title of self-presentation when you notice all the other profiles in the school are 1-4 (or at least the majority of them are).


    • pat thomson says:

      Yep. Good call. I didn’t look at those but I know they exist.


      • Charles Knight says:

        In some respects they are the most interesting because it’s difficult to work out *why* they are a blank – possible reasons might lnclude:

        * Academic hermit (which can overlap significantly with the ‘it’s just a job’ crowd)
        * Personal security reasons


      • s klein says:

        Or, like my minimalist web page, I do not care for, or look kindly on, self-promotion. I list my recent publications, and if someone wishes they can check them. there is a sad unbalance in today’s academia between careerism and the joy of knowing.


  5. Great stuff Pat! One thing I have noticed over my 20 or so years as an academic is the greater emphasis placed on professional pics of academics now. I personally have been in two lengthy professional shoots recently for the uni to use for publicity. The last one even involved a ‘concept’ and specially made-props to denote my research. It involved 1.5 hours of my time having to sit while the props were arranged around me and then posing in various ways for the camera!


  6. Ella says:

    Our uni won’t allow any descriptions of courses that don’t come directly from the course database (in case they misrepresent or go out of date). Hence the linking (at best)


  7. You missed a real treat: Prof. Gerard ‘t Hooft, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Utrecht University in the Netherlands. And, oh yeah, Nobel Prize winner.

    His academic home page is a graphic design nightmare, but if you’re patient and careful, you can find, not only a picture (I believe it was professionally taken, but not by a professional portrait photographer…) and numerous highly intimidating academic publications and credentials (and pictures of grandkids), but links to:

    The Manual for the Universe;
    A Wager on Supersymmetry;
    The Future of Evolution;
    and my personal favorite: Constitution for Asteroid 9491 THOOFT (the asteroid was named for him, since he was the discoverer, but the IAU could not handle the apostrophe in his name (or, apparently, the space) so his Constitution for the asteroid prohibits the use of apostrophes. Sublinks to visa requirements (don’t forget your Swimming Certificate and proof of no prior meteorite-related trauma) are included.

    Maybe they do things differently in the Netherlands. Or maybe, once you win a Nobel prize, you earn the right to do whatever you want on your home page.


  8. Thanks for the insights again Pat. As a sessional not-really-employed person I realised that I needed to update and ‘manage’ my profile myself as I have no affiliated profile managed by the institution that employs me. It is all part of a game that I resent having to play. Academia, Linked In, WordPress, Research Gate – and what next? Get that profile going, keep it updated, get noticed, raise your profile, maintain your profile, keep doing your job… round and around we go…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. pat thomson says:

    I have noticed two universities that have pages for “casual permanent” teaching staff … But these are the exception. Otherwise it’s as you say, all down to you on top of all else.
    And there are quite a lot of lists of PhD people and their topics. I’ve also been told about PhDers who’ve written things for uNiversity webpages only for them never to appear. I’m hoping to do a separate post on this particular set of issue but happy to have a guest post on it!! 🙂 .


  10. Peteinblack says:

    What I find depressing and absurd is the mania for University webpages to be dominated by corporate nonsense about their ‘Governance Structure’, membership of their ‘Executvie Board’, the University”s ‘Business Plan’, ‘Mission Statement’ and ‘Vision (to be in the world’s top 20 of this and top 15% of that by 2020)’.

    Does anyone really care one iota about any of this ‘information’ – how is it of any use or value to anyone?


  11. SheriO says:

    This blog and its comments raise so many interesting questions. There is research and a career for any number of persons who could start a trade in academic and university branding and self-promotion. For all those Ph D students searching for a research interest; here is data, here is theory, here is university as corporate identity, here is academic identity, here is consumption, here is production, here is visual communication, here is university politics with any number of research approaches.
    I laughed out loud when I read about the university page of the Dutch Nobel Laureate…


    • “There is research and a career for any number of persons who could start a trade in academic and university branding and self-promotion.”

      Haven’t we already seen this – there is a whole raft of ‘Door openers’ which are akin to the ‘independent consultants’ you see floating about at business networking meetings looking for work – CV coaches, writing coaches, interview coaches etc. Maybe they have always existed in the academy but the digital economy and social media has certainly made them more visible.


      • SheriO says:

        Yeah maybe brand consultants have always existed in the academy or at least self-promotion. I was just reading about the history of the first scholarly journal (1655)(Philosophical Transactions) and learned about the jockeying to get published so as to self-promote and get attention, early on. By 1752, the solution was to define the brand of communication the first journal offered so that self-promo got left out. No consultants needed.
        Maybe Ph D early researchers should also learn about or study (digital) self-promotion, and representation of the digital academic identity in order to stake out an academic career in the future.
        Digital presence will only become more important and research will help to shed light on its many facets. It would be an interesting case study to see if business consultants made any difference to promotion, business, reputation etc., in academia.


  12. Great post Pat. I used to be a web contributor and managed or wrote a great number of these profile pages in conjunction with the academics and general staff they represented. Very few linked out anywhere, partly due to a policy position of not wanting to endorse non-university controlled profiles, etc. I always took it as not trusting the staff.


  13. Tony Bellows says:

    I immediately went off to look at Mark Goodacre, an academic whom I’m occasionally in touch with. His photo is clearly a professional one. There’s not a lot on courses he runs, but lots of links, articles and information associated even if not directly. The page is relatively uncluttered and easy to find information– but interestingly he keeps a linked and much more personal separate blog, and also a podcast page related to his course. His page seems much more modest than his colleagues.


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  15. Weekademia says:

    Interesting post. I suspect most are light on teaching activities because of a heavy focus and pressure on research and a lack of incentive and time to truly develop ones teaching.


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