Kelli Marshall

Instructor at DePaul University

Branding Yourself As An Academic

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Image: 50th Anniversary "Art Of Soup" Campbell's Tomato Soup cans / Thomas Altfather Good, photographer

Every day, I interact online with dozens of media-studies scholars. Based almost entirely on their digital profiles and activity, I can tell you what they research and/or teach. You need to speak with someone who studies the horror film? Race and casting? Soap operas? Doctor Who? Video-game design? Netflix? Reality television? Onscreen representations of war? Media industries?

No problem. I can direct you to those folks immediately. And I can do that not because I know them personally — in fact, some of them I’ve never met face to face — but because of how they’ve branded themselves online, whether they want to call it that or not.

That dirty word. To many academics, branding is a dirty word. It’s associated with the business world. It connotes ideas of superficiality. Some argue it’s narcissistic even. But perhaps most notably, branding and marketing seem to conflict with one of the jobs of academics: to teach students about the tricks of persuasion and to give them the language to discover what’s real.

The reality is: Brands are everywhere and “penetrate almost every aspect of our life — economic, social, cultural, sporting, even religion.” What’s more, in case you haven’t noticed, colleges and universities exist in a competitive environment and are brands themselves. “Whether you like it or not, universities have a brand,” says the president of the University of Toronto. “It’s an image people associate with us.”

The same may go for academics, although most, I suppose, will continue to prefer descriptors like “expert” and “specialist.”

When I think of academic branding, Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist), Doris Kearns Goodwin (presidential historian), Henry Louis Gates, Jr.(social historian/genealogist/literary critic of African and African-American studies), and Stephanie Coontz (historian of marriage and family) come to mind. Via their research, public appearances, and online presences — indeed, each has relatively active social media accounts and/or websites — these public Ph.D.s brand themselves according to their fields of study.

For instance, Tyson tweets about the expanding sun, Pluto, and the universe in general. Kearns Goodwin shares tidbits about James Buchanan and LBJ while Gates offers links on desegregation in the U.S .military and discussions of race in the classroom. Over on Facebook, Coontz posts about falling divorce rates and the sex lives of Millennials. Each piece of shared information supports their scholarly work.

Online, these academics also reveal (parts of) themselves personally. For example, Coontz is an avid surfer who enjoys spending time with her New Orleans-based son. Tyson quips about his hypothetical album covers and a visit from his nephew. Kearns Goodwin commends her son for the courageous way he has handled an MS diagnosis.

Such details — sprinkled throughout their more “academic” comments — humanize the public scholar. OK so you are not as well known as Tyson, Goodwin, Gates, or Coontz, but there are many good reasons to consider following their lead.

Why brand yourself? First, if you present (i.e., brand) yourself online in accordance with your field of study, new opportunities may come your way.

As you likely know, unless you’re publishing in open-access journals or with nonacademic presses who have the budget to promote your books, most people will never see your work, which means few will know your expertise. Movements like #icanhazpdf, Pirate University, or aaaaarg— where academics freely share their copyrighted papers — may help matters, but many scholars, it seems, don't know about those hashtags and websites.

Because I have branded myself online as “a Gene Kelly fan/scholar” as well as someone who teaches a semester-long class on Seinfeld, opportunities have come my way that probably would not have otherwise — interviews, publications, podcasts, guest-speaker talks, and local TV spots. I was even asked to contribute to a documentary on Gene Kelly alongside his daughter as well as Dancing with the Stars’ Len Goodman and Glee’s Michael Morrison.

That said, if you’re an academic who prefers anonymity and is uninterested in occasional bouts of online drama, then branding yourself in this manner may not be right for you. In the current environment — with professors being added to "watch lists" because of “threatening” office door posters, lectures criticizing Donald Trump or the U.S. military, (apparently) satirical tweets about “white genocide,” or simply because of the subject matter they teach — that concern is understandable.

Extending your reach. Another benefit of creating an online brand is that you can extend your classroom and your scholarship. For example, by embedding research-related links, sharing photos of your archival findings, or explaining a difficult concept in plain language via a Facebook Note, you are teaching those who follow your feed. And in the long run, that can make a considerable difference in a person’s life.

Consider the widely circulated tweet: “RT [retweet] if a Black Feminist improved your worldview.” While that statement doesn’t immediately suggest “academia,” several reactions to it are grounded in higher education and came from scholars who’ve branded themselves accordingly on social media. Such online exchanges outside the classroom mean that you are broadening other people’s world views. Critical thinking, the cornerstone of higher ed, has occurred.

Finally, from those who’ve gone through the branding process as academics, here are three other benefits:

  • It encourages you to think through who you are and how you want to be represented “out there.
  • Branding forces you to decide on a consistent name, tagline (yes, create one), and communication style as well as which personal photos and videos to share.
  • It gives you credibility.

A personal brand “is not achieved in cookbook fashion,” a 2014 opinion essay in Forbes proclaimed, with a note of exasperation. “There is no system of absolutes, no cookie-cutter methodology.”

So I won’t include a point-by-point list on how to brand yourself as an academic, but I do encourage those interested to give it the ol’ college try.

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