GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

The Branded Professor

In Guest Blogger on 2010/06/21 at 09:00

Guest blogger, Susan Currie Sivek, writing from Fresno, California, in the USA.

As a relatively new tenure-track professor in journalism and media, I teach students skills and critical thinking for a profession that is in a state of redefinition. One of the ways journalism educators are trying to increase their students’ job opportunities is by encouraging them to develop a “personal brand,” through which they establish themselves as a rising professional with a unique voice and style. They then publicize that personal brand through multimedia blogging and social media, in hopes of impressing prospective employers with their initiative and distinctive qualities.

I do think that this is an important strategy for my students, and I feel I’d do them a disservice not to discuss it with them and help them to establish themselves professionally online. This semester, I required students in my introductory media writing class to get involved with Twitter and also to set up individual blogs. I hope that those who excel in their online work will have opportunities to find jobs in their desired profession, and will be better situated to compete with students from larger, better-known programs. It seems unfair to not help them position themselves for their futures in this way.

I have struggled a bit with the implications of this approach, however. What does it mean to encourage my students to think of themselves as brands? I emphasized to them in class that they must be authentic and honest in their online writing and self-presentation, and that they had to prioritize their sense of personal integrity and ethics above all else. They could not be someone online who they weren’t in the real world. But still, the frighteningly corporate language of branding permeated the discussion.

As a faculty member in this field, I have also felt a need to “brand myself,” especially in these turbulent budgetary times. Not only do I want to shape a coherent public and scholarly identity, but I want to remain current with the changing norms of media and journalism practice, and so I practice what I preach to my students. I also have a blog and a Twitter account, and I focus these on professionally relevant topics – usually on changes in the magazine industry and the role of journalism in communities, which are also two of my research interests. However, these topics are not always organically arising creations of my soul, if you will. As an undergraduate English major and a lapsed poet, I am torn between desires to produce work that is professionally oriented and to create work that is more expressive of my experiences and emotions.

As a result of these conflicts, I identified with Mary Churchill’s recent UVenus post asking whether we as faculty are “merely playing the game[,] or have we become the game?” I am tentatively feeling my way through the challenges of equipping my students for a world where some degree of “playing the game” seems necessary, even for the chance to enter into such a potentially game-disrupting occupation as journalism. I also want to continue to use the online world to build my own public communication skills and engage in discussions of my field of study and my profession.

I think that this kind of engagement, through social media and other communication opportunities, is critical for someone who wants not only to teach about important societal issues in the classroom, but also to contribute to change on a larger scale. Attempting to establish myself online as someone with a voice and some expertise in my field gives me a bigger platform from which to speak.

Unlike my students, though, I have no one to remind me to remain true to myself and to monitor the integrity of what I do and say. That responsibility falls to me alone.

Susan Currie Sivek is an assistant professor and the graduate coordinator in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno, where she teaches courses in media studies, writing and qualitative research methods. She blogs at sivekmedia.com and is a knitter, triathlete and hiker when she can get away from the computer.

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  1. This is a really interesting problem for people in many professions, but perhaps especially acute for professors. I’ve thought about it a lot. I have some honey and some vinegar to throw in the pot. First, I think we should take solace that while the language of “branding” is definitely seeping in around all sorts of our practices, it seems that the practices themselves pre-date and even prefigure branding as a term of art. To some extent that kind of “coherent professional identity” has been an expectation in many lines of work for a long time, all bound up with specialization and bureaucratization and all that. So, I worry less about that. What I do worry about is this notion of integrity and authenticity and the implications for privacy. Do professors have any expectation of privacy? Do our lives have to be “seamless cloaks” of professional purpose and lived experience? How is that boundary to be managed? I would imagine that some professors, no less than other professionals, worry about issues of prejudice, discrimination, misunderstanding, or the like if they aren’t able to control what is “known” about them, be those issues of sexuality, religion, political affiliation, ethnicity, class, etc. Are professors a different kind of professional in relation to those sticky subjects? Should they be? I’d welcome any thoughts on the subject.

  2. Hey Chris – thanks for the great comments and questions. I think that the language of “branding” does matter, in that we are actually using a business term for something that is manufactured, sculpted and sold. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the statement “This fits the Chomsky brand”! “Coherent professional identity” is different from “brand” in more than semantics, I think.

    The privacy question is a great one, and not one I have an easy answer for. How do we unite being public intellectuals, if we want to be, with having a private life? I personally think that engaging in public discourse on the issues that matter to us does require a certain transparency. I suppose one can still try to be a “private” professor, speaking only in the classroom, with colleagues and at conferences; but venturing further into public with our thoughts seems to necessitate further disclosure of one’s “lived experience.” And frankly, I’m not sure anyone today is really able to fully “control what is ‘known’ about them” anyway. I think I myself am leaning toward more disclosure, more engagement, but I also have a specific social position that allows me to do so without the worries you mention.

  3. You can call it a coherent professional identity, but when young scholars are being advised not to tweet/blog/post on facebook about anything other than their research and professional life, then we’ve become about branding. Just look at insidehighered.com’s blogrole (http://www.insidehighered.com/around_the_web/2010/05/atw9): All junior faculty members/grad students = anonymous, which tenured profs can have the luxury of posting about whatever they want. My facebook page is as much “me,” as in my husband, my kids, my interests, my friends and my hobbies, as my professional interests and research. I got on facebook after college, so there are no embarrassing pics, unless you count the birth of my children as embarrassing. That so many scholars and would-be academics are forced to retreat into anonymity because of fear of reprisal (don’t get hired, don’t get tenure) is a clear indication that we no longer have real academic freedom as scholars. And that is a tragedy.

  4. Susan – thanks again for writing this post. I think the comments are fantastic and really bring to light some of the tough issues facing academic’s in today’s higher ed climate. Personally, I am torn on the branding/social media issue. Meg Palladino and I often go back and forth on this issue – see her post Social Distortion for her take on Twitter, FB, etc. On the one hand (the idealistic hand), I see social media and branding as selling out. On the other hand (the realistic hand), I see social media as the present and future of success within higher education. I see this as a way to succeed with students and peers. It is also a way to break out of the ivory tower and into the “real world” – to make connections and develop best practices that cut across sectors in a world that is becoming increasingly reliant on a knowledge-based economy. Recent PhDs are best poised to take advantage of social media and success in that arena does require a brand. I agree with Susan that this is where your values, morality, ethics really do matter – and they can really work to your advantage to distinguish you and to help you make connections to social movements, nonprofit organizations, and/or corporations. We live in a very political world and our brand is political and is being bought and sold on the market of capitalism – we should try to control that to the extent that we are able to.

  5. This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last week.
    I have been coming to this blog for a couple of days now and i’m very impressed with the content!

    thanks & regards
    avid – online university

  6. [...] Susan Currie Sivek (US) The most satisfying part of my job is when students tell me – unsolicited – about something they have seen outside of the classroom that relates to something we’ve discussed in class. It shows me that they are expanding their awareness of the issues we cover and are analyzing their everyday lives in new ways. That’s when I know that our time together has made a lasting impression! [...]

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