11 (On Professional Websites)

In the comments to #13, Aimee-Marie asked:

I was considering putting together a simple website with some of my stuff (vita, pubs, etc) on it, but was given advice that this might lead to my information being “out of my control.” Since you’ve gone the other direction completely, I’m wondering if you had any energy to philosophize on this for a moment?

Yes, I have gone 100% the opposite direction. If I was an assistant prof on the market, I probably wouldn’t go into such detail about my cancer experience under my own name, but I certainly would have done it pseudonymously. I’ve written a bit about the experience of blogging and of being “out” so I won’t repeat that part, but then there’s the question about the professional website.

In general, I am totally in favor of a professional website for all academics looking to advance their careers. This is a preferable option to a website hosted by the department because you are in complete control of not only content and style but frequency of update. Departmental pages have a way of looking stale, and as the career develops, information proliferates on the web and it’s hard to keep track of. (In fact, I’ve got about five different sites all asking me for information right now, which I haven’t provided since I haven’t had a chance to even update my own site and have some other more urgent work priorities at the moment.) Of course, the downside is that you are are completely responsible for those things on your site, and you can’t really let it slip too much.

I’ll leave aside the how-to logistics (short answer: rent a domain name, and if it’s going to be a serious thing, rent hosted space; if not, use free space like wordpress provides). I recommend a simple and non-esoteric content management system, like WordPress, and a simple theme that looks good. The more flashy or complicated your site, the more dated it will look and the less compatible it will be. Set up pages with a CV that is updated once a year (don’t forget to remove your home address and phone if they’re on there, though anyone can find them if they want), links to your publications, a statement about ongoing research or forthcoming work, an “about” page, and a teaching page with philosophy and course syllabi. Do you give a lot of talks or travel a lot? Then add a section with that information so people can come see you. Then, make sure it’s part of your annual routine in August to update the thing.*

Anyway, do NOT add any content that will need extremely regular updating, or that will be a big hassle to update. The worst-looking site is one that has been dormant for a couple years.

A good example of a free, wordpress-based professional site would be that of my colleague, Becky Lentz. That path might be a good way to start, since you can always upgrade to something more expensive and elaborate (like the two-headed beast I’ve got going) if you get into it.

I cannot imagine a downside to having such a site in this day and age except for a neglected site, which is the internet equivalent of showing up to work in the clothes you slept in. As for the kind of personal blogging I do, or big confessions on Facebook, well, that’s a whole other thing. It does change the dynamic at work when everybody knows what’s up with your illness, but since it’s been 99% awesome and 1% annoying, I would definitely do it again.

That said, whoever said that the content on your site is “out of your control” is 100% correct in the sense that like all published material, it circulates freely and without your direction or permission, so you must exercise some caution in terms of what you put up. This blog has the air of full confession to it, which is fun, but I do leave things out. And for my five years as an administrator, there were many aspects of my daily life that simply could not be discussed here. So in part, it’s all an illusion.

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* In fact, this more or less describes the site I had as an assistant professor, though the section that’s now “academe” did exist in some form as well. I did host it on University of Pittsburgh’s server; I no longer recommend hosting on a university’s site. This blog didn’t start until 2004, after I’d arrived at McGill and set up shop independently of the university. And yes, Sterneworks is more or less a tweak on a 10-year-old design. I hired someone to transform the back end from plain html (that I worked up in Dreamweaver with “frames” and everything in 1998 or so) to a proper content management system in 2005. It worked out okay, but I think it’s probably time to update things a bit. I’ll try out some new looks and functionality over my sabbatical year. I’m running WordPress on Super Bon, and will probably switch Sterneworks to WordPress as well, just so I don’t have to keep track of the inner workings of two different Content Management Systems.

3 thoughts on “11 (On Professional Websites)

  1. Thanks Jonathan–that directly contradicts what I’ve been told, but affirms my own beliefs/assumptions about these issues. Onward!

  2. As with all advice, you need to consider where it’s coming from and what model of academe is behind it. I don’t understand why it is a bad idea for people to be able to find you easily and look through a well organized portfolio of your work, but maybe there’s something to that.

  3. Well, you can have a university-hosted website as long as you have control of the server and can install things like wordpress on it… The one drawback of a university website in the US is that you can’t link to commercial sites that sell your book (like Amazon). Not sure if it’s the same in Canada though.

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