Professional identity, professionalizing into a discipline, and the acquisition of a professional self have been on my mind since I began an MA TESOL program back in 2009. I felt that to be successful I would have to be aware of the ways of being that were valued by my disciplinary community. I would need to learn how to do those things. Now, some may debate the degree to which I have been successful in doing this. Yes, I have a growing list of publications with increasingly more competitive outlets. But, I haven’t secured a coveted tenure-track job where I’d get to train new TESOL professionals. Yes, I have been recognized for my expertise in an area and invited to speak about it to others. But, it’s on a topic that has fallen from mainstream focus in writing centers—although it may be gaining interest in EFL contexts. So, have I branded myself successfully? Or, at all?
Today’s blog post is going to respond to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by Scott Talan, an assistant professor of communication at American University. In this article, “Is Professorial Branding for You? Yes, it is“, Professor Talan argues that all of us professionals, whether we like or not, are now a brand—our own personal brand. Fortunately, he doesn’t do the trite thing of discussing how to become a powerhouse brand—a Kaplan or a Chomsky or a Pinkert. But, he does give some crucial advice on how to build your professional brand. Much of this is tied to the vital role that the internet plays in finding and consuming information. So, he recommends carving out and carefully curating a brand presence online through a faculty bio page, a Twitter, a blog, an Academia.edu account, etc. All well and good, although I would point out a bit biased towards Western academics as there is little account for globally accessible platforms—keeping in mind things like Twitter and some blogging platforms are blocked in some parts of the world. Also, it doesn’t account for alternative, regional platforms. Wouldn’t it be wise for someone interested in global China studies to be on Sina-Weibo? Likewise, shouldn’t a scholar interested in language learning in Taiwan maintain some presence on Line? I suppose this would be part of the brand analysis that he recommends doing, but not even making a passing reference to this creates some issues for me as a critical reader.
Another thing he suggests is that you create a web of links to resources online to better control public perception. So, if someone videos your plenary address, link to it on your professional profile or faculty page. If your grad students snap photos of you at a conference, tweet them out to your followers. Now, a possible issue here is that it shuts out those of us who want to be professionals but fiercely guard our privacy. While this isn’t me—if anything I overshare, even before the first glass of wine—I do know junior professionals the fiercely guard their personal and online privacy. What are they to do? Are they to be left behind in this new age of the professional brand? It is possible that their CVs and local works will begin to speak for them. But, if the first thing a search committee does is google you, will they be left out?
He also encourages you to consider what emotion you evoke in others, which is all well and good. But, it’s his admonition to find what value you add that is troubling. In the modern university, faculty of all levels from adjuncts to full professors are being bled dry of their value. We perform countless service hours that don’t bring professional recognition or institutional reward—frankly, they don’t count for a hill of beans. And, if you sold the hill of beans, you’d at least turn a profit. Perhaps enough to buy a cold Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb. We also are bled of our “additional” value through the publication process. Yes, we must publish for promotion, for tenure, for professional development. But, we see little-to-no compensation for this labor. Those on the tenure-track may say that their publication work is part of their total compensation package. But, for those of us off the tenure-track, it’s a labor of love. So, the advice to start thinking about additional value-added leaves a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. My professional activities are the value I bring with me. But, they are also me. They are the performances of professional self that I offload onto the world and the world wide web. To encourage me to find more value that I add to the system is frankly an insulting over application of a capitalist metaphor. It invites predatory views of academics and their labor that can lead to further exploitation and marginalization. Honestly, it gives us words like teacherprenuer—suggesting it’s not enough to be a teacher, you have to find ways to monetize that teaching, even if it’s only the school system that benefits.
Now, there is a certain dissonance here. Despite how he framed his advice, I’m afraid I have to agree with some of it. I know that I certainly attempt to have a brand, although I don’t call it that. I share my publications and my presentations as widely as I can—on this blog, on Twitter, on Academia.edu—frankly, my friends get sick of the seemingly shameless self-promotion and naval gazing. But, I know that when I’m on the job market, or when people are considering if they want me to come give a talk, they’re looking me up online and I want to control the impression that I give them. I want to control, to the best of my abilities, that digital performance of professional self. So, what’s the middle ground here? How do we crack open this advice so that more can participate? How do we problematize this advice, and the professional environment in which it operates, so that we recognize as valid and valuable other ways of participating?