Open to the Public: Developing Scholarly Presence and Identity Online

© Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons license CC BY SA

Within the academic world, “publication” has long been the gold standard for validating scholarly activity and providing evidence of one’s original thinking and creativity. The term, of course, assumes a “publicness” to one’s work. But while that publicness has traditionally been associated with the “final product” of research and thought, today’s era of digital networked communication involves newly emerging possibilities and, increasingly, expectations for being a public thinker, learner, and creator. Or, to use the more prevalent term, to do one’s thinking, learning, and knowledge creation in a space that is “open.”

This week in our Digital Pedagogy workshop, we explore the practices and rationale for building a professional academic presence and identity in an open, public, online space. We follow up on last week’s theme of creating a “home on the web” with a program such as a Domain of One’s Own. Now, to be sure, you can develop a fairly robust web presence without your own personal domain, with free or low-cost solutions such as, Wix, Weebly, Tumblr, and other services that will host your content. But in terms of complete ownership of your data, the most control of your digital identity, and the fullest realization of the possibilities of the open web, a personal domain is the way to go. And it is also low-cost and technically accessible to boot.

There are many dimensions to the concept of “open,” both online in general and with respect to education in particular. There is a flourishing movement around “open educational resources,” or OER, learning materials that may be freely used, modified, remixed, and republished. Some of you may be familiar with open textbook initiatives such as OpenStax. “Open source” and “open access” content, materials, and journals are reshaping the scholarly landscape for both teaching and research. “Open notebooks” brings a public dimension to the process of research in both the sciences and the humanities. “Open courses,” whether massive or not, have proliferated to broaden access to learning opportunities. And “open pedagogy” represents an approach to teaching and learning that consciously embraces the values of working in visible spaces with open materials.

We’ll return to these themes in the weeks ahead, but this week we’ll focus on “open presence and identity,” both for faculty and for students. This is the foundation for all the other senses of open referred to above. One of the most ardent proponents of these principles is Chris Long, professor of philosophy and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. In a recent post entitled, “Going Viral With Your Scholarship,” Chris explains the idea of a domain as a “digital CV,” not simply as a digitized version of a paper document, but as the hub of a vibrant online presence:

Your digital CV is the beating heart of your online presence. It is a repository for your work; it’s a place to think and write and research in public with others. It feeds your social media sites and offers others a place to comment and engage with you. It is an archive and a space to make your scholarship openly accessible to others.

Often when I talk to faculty and students about cultivating a public online scholarly presence, I am met with trepidation. They worry that going public with their work too early will put them at a disadvantage, will expose their work before it is ready for public consumption. While I do not deny the need for quiet, private time for thoughts and reflection, those who keep their work locked down in private even at the early stages miss opportunities for insights and collaborations that become open to them when they share their work more broadly even in its inchoate stages….

Young faculty and graduate students have long been advised to carefully guard how their work appears in public. Here I am not arguing for less care, but for the benefits of curated exposure at early stages so that by the time the work is ready for publication, a community of interested readers has already been cultivated.

And in this short video clip Chris makes the case at his own university for building an online scholarly presence:

The theme of “working out loud,” “observable work,” and “narrating your work” has been percolating for some time, now that the Web has made it possible for knowledge workers to communicate, write, and create in a public space. Internet pioneers such as Dave Winer and Jon Udell have been prominent champions of this practice.  In some ways, this goes against the ethos of what “school” and “academia” have long promoted, at least implicitly: that you don’t show your work until you think it’s your final, best product, that you only share rough drafts and tentative ideas with a few close colleagues, if at all. But as Chris Long and others point out, the very act of exposing our work at early stages can make possible the kind of constructive conversation and criticism that more quickly leads to refinements and improvements. The ultimate benefit of openness, even at the early stage of our projects, is to create a community of interest around our work, which often leads to unanticipated discoveries and spontaneous collaborations.

A growing number of colleges and university are providing resources and guidance to help faculty and students build their online presence in a thoughtful manner. Another example comes from Cal State University Channel Islands, which Maris Ballesteros-Sola references in “Digital or Die–Building Our Academic Digital Identity.” Maria provides some helpful reflections for a young scholar, not only about technical options for digital presence–domains, open course platforms, academic publishing sites, social media–but also about the prior questions for reflection:

  • Goals, Message & Audience: What are my ultimate goals? Career advancement? Get a first academic job? Engage in conversations with scholars in my discipline? Post-doc opportunities? Entice students to register for my classes? Support promotion and tenure reviews? Solidify my big grant/fellowship application? Attract a potential book publisher?
  • What are the top scholars in my field actually doing? What can I learn from their approach?
  • What other scholars’ approach to DI do I respect and I admire? What can I learn from them?
  • How much time can I honestly dedicate to build and maintain these efforts?
  • How can I find and communicate my inner-voice in a consistent and uniform way across such a multitude of platforms?

This week, we’ll continue to investigate about steps that you can take to move toward the kind of digital scholarly presence that Chris and Maria refer to. And really, it’s not just about you…it’s about modeling for our students how to craft their own professional academic presence and to begin building their own digital portfolios and personal learning networks.

Our sessions this week will take place as usual, at 4:30 pm Tuesday and 1:30 pm Friday, in Abell 102. We hope you can join us.