Cultivating an Online Presence: Leading the Academic into the Digital Realm

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by Jessica DeWitt,

Several months ago I wrote a piece for my department’s graduate student blog that addressed the need for Humanities students’ to expand their skill set in order adapt to the changing demands of both the academic and non-academic job markets and society at large. Sparked initially by the dialogue that took place during the ASEH 2013 graduate student luncheon panel on non-academic job opportunities, I focused in this post on the benefits of learning and integrating the methods of the digital humanities, specifically GIS analysis, into one’s research. Digital research methods are, however, just one facet of the technological realm with which scholars must grapple in today’s research and employment environment. In a culture where the influence of “googling” (or “binging,” if you prefer) is undeniable, the scholar, particularly the young upstart, is increasingly called upon to both cultivate and manage an online presence.

Last week, Jim Clifford, Jon Bath (Director of the Humanities and Fine Arts Digital Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan) and I were asked by the History Graduate Student Committee (HGSC) to speak at a workshop entitled “Online Presence Workshop: How History Grad Students Can Survive (and Thrive) in the Digital World.” As the main operator of the HGSC’s Twitter account, I have googled all of the graduate students in the department numerous times in order to publicize our student body’s latest accomplishments. I am repeatedly surprised by how many searches come up with nothing or an outdated snippet from 2007. While it is fortunate that a search of one’s self on the internet does not result in the potentially career-altering party photo montage, the absence of anything is not a keen alternative. Outsiders looking for a quick overview of an individual’s interest may see a blank result and not continue their search. It is of the upmost importance for the graduate student to take on the role of personal publicist because no one is going to take on the position for you: not your department, not your university, not your colleagues. Analytics Analytics

The first and most elemental step the graduate student should take is to take advantage of whatever profile and research descriptions one’s department may offer, making sure to keep this profile relatively informational and current. This small step does wonders for enabling others to know about one’s research and the work that one is doing, opening the door for future networking. Beyond this fundamental step, I highly encourage all graduate students to create an profile. A mix between Facebook and Linked-in, is a kind of online CV, which enables the individual to post their publications, conference presentation, etc. While the social aspect of is ever-so-slowly getting better, I find that there are two main uses for which the site is especially useful. Firstly, if one is googled, one’s profile will be one of the top search results. If your profile contains a relatively informational, but brief account of your research and accomplishments, this will be a one-stop-shop for most people searching for a concise description of you. Thus, by creating a profile, such as this one, you are taking direct control of your online persona. Secondly, provides an exact record of who is viewing your profile, googling you, and from where they are doing this searching (I find it much more straightforward than the statistics offered by Linked-in). You will be surprised to find that people are searching for you and you may notice jumps after getting on conference panels, winning an award, etc.

Presenting at the HGSC Workshop
Presenting at the HGSC Workshop

Both Jim and I spoke at the workshop about the benefits of Twitter. A relevantly recent Twitter convert (under a year), I have found the creation of a Twitter account to be one of the best decisions I have made. Recently, Joanne Bailey, wrote a fitting blog post, which discusses the three main ways in which Twitter and other social media is beneficial for the academic: it allows one to increase one’s research network exponentially, it enables one to interact with the public, and it allows one to publicize one’s own accomplishments and writing. One of the greatest hurdles, I find, to preaching the benefits of Twitter to the unconverted is to effectively communicate the utilitarian virtues of the hashtag. Despite the comedic musings of Jimmy Fallon and others, the hashtags like #twitterstorians, #envhist, #cdnhist, etc. provide a superbly effective mean by which to distribute the latest news pertaining to one’s field of study, as well as an easy way to connect with other researchers.

Using, The Otter, his personal blog, and the blogs of others as examples, Jim spoke to the attendees about the benefits of blogging. One of the key benefits of blogging is that it enables academics to communicate their research and experiences to a broader audience, which is not typically possible with an academic publication. Curating a personal website and writing for other blog’s like The Otter each have their advantages and disadvantages. Personal websites give you more control over your content and offer a useful place to present preliminary research, but they must be updated regularly or they risk appearing out of date. This content of these websites varies from an expanded CV to a full-on blog. One strategy is to use personal websites to chronicle pieces that you have written for other venues. The benefit for writing for larger blogs is that they typically get much more traffic than personal websites. Jon Bath emphasized the importance of making sure that one gets credit for the work that one puts into writing posts for other websites.

HGSC Workshop Participants
HGSC Workshop Participants

The workshop covered a wide array of topics relating to the academic’s digital presence and incited a number of interesting questions from the attendees, including how one should handle sensitive material that may clearly place one on one political side of a contemporary issue or how to manage the use of archival imagery in one’s online posts. The HGSC is contemplating holding another online presence workshop in the Fall to further explore these issues. It is almost certain that these issues pertaining to online presence will only continue to gain prominence in the lives of graduate students and established academics.

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is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, project manager, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor-in-chief, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). Additionally, she is the Managing Editor for the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon and a Coordinating Team member of Showing Up for Racial Justice Saskatoon-Treaty Six. A passionate social justice advocate, she focuses on developing digital techniques and communications that bridge the divide between academia and the general public in order to democratize knowledge access. You can find out more about her and her freelance services at


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