Mastering Your Domain

Aug 18 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last August, our 18-year-old cat finally succumbed to chronic kidney disease, the most common cause of death for pet cats in the US.

I am trying to turn the story of Denver (the cat) into a children's book about living with the trials and tribulations of chronic disease. Since I know nothing about non-academic publishing, I attended a workshop on the topic last spring (and blogged it here). Throughout my time in Boston, the instructors all hammered home the importance of platform. Not my usual platform; in this case, platform broadly means your credentials, and not merely in the academic sense. Do you get quoted in the media? Do you blog and twitter? Do you have a professional presence on facebook?  Do you control your domain? Seems that an appearance on Oprah is the current gold standard for platform.

Some of these I could answer affirmatively; others required some work on my part. I'm still trying to get 25 folks to "like" my professional facebook page so I can get the vanity URL, but things are going pretty well for platform. Increasing web visibility, among other things, has probably helped my consulting work as well.

Growing Trend!

Turns out many faculty pursue these options in a growing online trend reported August 19 at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk:

"Increasingly, academics are looking for a way to create a digital presence that is not dependent on their current place of employment and that can go beyond the stodgy faculty pages at department websites with their mugshots and lists of courses and CVs," says Larry Cebula, an associate professor of history at Eastern Washington University who has a personal interest in the topic.

Robert Levers, a  website designer in Boston, recently launched a special do-it-yourself website "package for professors"for $3,000. Last October Harvard announced a free website-creation package for academics called OpenScholar. Obviously, the trend must be strong.

Another advantage I see is a permanent presence online. Right now my email and website could be linked solely to my current employer. By purchasing my domain and building my own site, I have a permanent place of contact, regardless of where my career may lead. As long as I keep renewing my hosting and registration agreements, I can be found at pascalelane.net.

As with all things under the sun, some academic, somewhere is studying it:

One of the few scholars to have carried out research specifically on academics' websites is Mike Thelwall, professor of information science at the University of Wolverhampton.

In the five years since he has been examining the issue, he says, one of the biggest trends has been the move by university marketing departments to insist on standardisation for departmental and personal home pages. He isn't surprised, therefore, to have observed an increase in the number of academics opting to operate in a separate web space outside the institution's control.

But Thelwall puts his comments in context. While a scholar's home page is overall "still an important presence to have" - particularly to allow other academics to keep track of you - it is less essential than it once was, with increasingly important roles played by Facebook for personal connections and Google Scholar for the location of papers.

My own university "rebranded" last year. The new web design presents a host of difficulties aside from all the broken links that occurred with the initial roll-out. The colors and logo are ugly, and the site really cannot be browsed comfortably on a mobile device. The powers-that-be now have "standard templates" that we are told to use for brochures, research posters, and even PowerPoint slides. All of the fun and creativity gets sucked out of these things (if we follow the rules). No wonder I prefer to send people to my own site where I can choose the colors and organize materials as I see fit.

I worry less about personal and academic connections. I have a facebook profile visible only to friends, those who should be seeing my vacation photos. Academic colleagues can find me through professional organization directories, LinkedIn, or by using Google. I'm not exactly hiding online. I do ask myself, in these public locations, how I would feel about my patients or their relatives reading each and every post. Some editing occurs, but less than you might think.

Read the entire article. It includes tips for designing a website and links to faculty sites. Soon everyone may be master owner of their domain.

Good to be on the leading edge of a trend, for once.

Image courtesy of PhotoXpress.

8 responses so far

  • John Hawks says:

    Your penultimate paragraph raises the interesting issue, I think. Anybody who's moderately productive and not named "Smith" can probably get control of their "platform" easily enough. But what do you do to separate your public face from things you would rather not have first-time visitors (such as patients or potential employers) see? Anonymity is a drag, it would be nice to have a strategy that could be more subtle.

  • Miles says:

    I've heard that having your own domain is much more common in the Arts and Humanities. I recall some folks I know being aghast that I didn't have my own domain. The idea being that their professional identity is to some degree independent of what institution they happen to be working for.

  • Donna B. says:

    I'm interested in the book! Any publication schedule yet?

    • Pascale says:

      Still shopping for an agent and publisher. Soon, I hope - at least the rejections so far have been encouraging!
      Really, scientific grant and manuscript submission is great preparation for other forms of writing!

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    An issue that is sometimes behind uniform web page templates at a university (as well as uniform syllabus templates, etc.) is accessibility -- there are formatting lines (which you don't notice looking at a web page) that don't work as well with screen readers for people with visual impairments as the formatting you'd get from the official template you're supposed to use.

    Sometimes, though, the university just wants to control what everyone is doing.

  • NoNameToday says:

    I provide and maintain web content for my department at an academic medical center, and have been in the unenviable position of having to say 'no I can't do that any more' to the small but growing number of faculty members who are aware of and attempting to cultivate their web presence.

    I'm now constrained by a content management system that until recently was not even compliant with accessiblity standards or any browser but the most current version of IE. My comments to the developers about such issues were invariably met with "user stats say no one is accessing our site with a Mac." Because the pages wouldn't open and the navigation tools wouldn't show up, maybe?

    Our newest system offers some improvements, but is geared primarily toward patient care users. My department does provide diagnostic care but also includes several research sections and a number of graduate programs and fellowships. Faculty and programs who have "opted out" of the system in frustration and purchased their own domains and hired their own developers have been told to stop, and more recently even those who have set up Facebook accounts have been told that if they do not comply with the as-yet-unwritten institutional regulations they have to take them down. But in the meantime, nobody else start one.

    I am all about usability and a consistent message -- and even a unifying design, etc., but the control thing is a really serious obstacle; we are seriously behind the curve and it compromises our recruiting efforts as well as our communication overall.

    Anyway, thank you - this is a really useful post.

    • Pascale says:

      We feel your pain. And, OUCH!
      The University should actually encourage faculty to do stuff like this on their own time/dime IMHO. As long as it isn't a child porn site, any publicity your faculty generate will rub off on you in a favorable way!

      • NoNameToday says:

        Absolutely! That is my position, also. It is not widely shared by the folks here who set this sort of policy, although I feel slightly encouraged that they recently (i.e., earlier this month) hired someone to develop and implement an institution-wide social media policy. I hope they give it as much thought as they have to which shade of grey is warmer and more welcoming, and where on each page the logo must be placed.

        I'm afraid I have a reputation as a big old PITA with the PR folks. I have been trying to get moving on this for years, and it's so bizarre because we all have the same goal: to let the world know about the incredibly fabulous stuff going on here at this institution. We need to respond to -- and engage with -- community concerns about health care in the region, human and animal research issues, and how tax dollars are spent.

        A related concern, speaking of tax dollars, is that publicly funded research has to be transparent, data has to be shared, and people investigating similar research questions must have a way to communicate with each other. The tools exist to do all of this, and people who don't engage with these tools will be increasingly invisible and marginalized. And ultimately un-funded.

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