Guest Post: Why and How You Should Build a Web Presence

Today’s guest post is by Lindsay M. Chervinsky. She is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis and is completing her manuscript, “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”

As the new school year starts, many departments are offering seminars for their graduate students on skills and approaches to find a job in this difficult market. Editorials on ChronicleVitae and the American Historical Association mission to document where historians work demonstrate that the history community is beginning to welcome “non-traditional” employment opportunities. While these efforts represent a great first step to introducing students to jobs in editing, public history, and teaching, I would argue that there should be a broader conversation about learning to create a public voice and building a web presence.

Recent events, whether it be the public’s fascination with the Hamilton musical or engagement over the historical meaning of Confederate monuments, suggest that the American public is eager and clamoring for sophisticated historical analysis. Historians should not wait for tenure to begin this process, but should instead begin to build a web presence in graduate school.

I am not alone in this thinking. A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to graduate students at Southern Methodist’s history department and to make a sales pitch for why they should participate in their department’s new blog and invest in building a web presence as part of their career-development. Recognizing that I am still a very junior scholar, I solicited input from successful historians on Twitter and received a deluge of tips and excitement about this topic. I have summarized the advice and my talk in the hopes it might help other graduate students beyond my local community.

To use an example from my period of study, too many graduate students (and historians) think they ought to act like eighteenth-century political candidates—disinterested, ambivalent, and deeply opposed to campaigning for a position. Instead, think of your career like a business. You are the Chief Executive Officer. Your primary job is to ensure that the company produces a good product. But it is also your responsibility to define that product, find an audience, and market your product to the largest possible number of consumers. Scholarship should be no different. Why spend years producing work and hope that people stumble on to it?

There are countless benefits to online engagement. If you are a graduate student, writing guest blog posts is a helpful way to build your C.V. in a lower stress environment than a peer-reviewed journal. Blog posts are also a great resource to help work through a tricky section of your research and stake an unofficial claim to a project. If you are interested in pursuing a public history career, demonstrating your ability to write for a public audience through posts or opinion pieces is attractive to editors and employers. Getting your name out there, whether it be on Twitter, through posts, or a personal website often brings new and exciting offers for future opportunities.

Perhaps most importantly, building a web presence—whether it be a website, guest blog posts, a robust Twitter feed, or opinion pieces—means nothing without a dissertation. A good dissertation is a done dissertation. Engaging online should be a way to enhance and supplement your scholarship, not replace it. There are 168 hours in a week and you must decide if these extra activities will help you reach your final goal. If so, here are the lessons I wish I knew earlier.

Define your brand. Purchase a URL based on your name and build yourself a website. It does not have to be fancy. Both Squarespace or WordPress offer inexpensive URLs and templates that are user friendly (read: no coding expertise required). Consider it an investment in your future. A website allows you to describe your work in your preferred language. A website gives you an opportunity to post an updated CV with links to your recent projects. And it gives editors, readers, and potential bosses a way to find and contact you. Ideally your website should be up and running before you hit the job market. Give yourself time to create it and time for search engines to find it. I would recommend that you aim to have your website running six months before your first job application.

Network. Twitter has a bad reputation for being a black hole of the internet, but the academic Twitter universe can be an amazing asset. It is a great way to learn about other scholars, grants, publications, and teaching skills. Twitter can help graduate students find other students and scholars that might be interested in joining a panel for a conference. Finally, many graduate students struggle to introduce themselves to strangers at events. Twitter can facilitate those conversations. Once you have interacted with someone online, your name and face are familiar and at the very least you can begin the conversation by mentioning your previous communications.

SelfPromotion. A business does not expect that someone else will promote their product and neither should you. Be proactive. People cannot read your awesome work if they do not know it exists. Think about which platforms you want to use for each piece. Promoting an article on Twitter is going to reach a different demographic than Facebook. That being said, be generous and humble. Promote other historians’ work too. Share interesting articles. A high tide raises all ships! Try to follow the 80-20 rule: 80% of your posts or tweets should be about someone or something else, 20% can be about your work.

Don’t Be a Jerk. We all know that person that tries to make a name for themselves or prove their intelligence by punching down at a younger student or attacking a senior scholar. It never looks good. The historical community is also a small one and you never know when someone will remember your name for the wrong reasons. Tone can be hard to convey online, especially in 140 characters, so always think twice about posting something critical or controversial. If you are worried about a post, have a friend read it first.

As a graduate student, it often seems like there is a never-ending list of things to complete before finishing your dissertation. While building a web presence requires an initial time investment, it is also a great way to celebrate what you have already accomplished. For more advice and to see the online conversation, see the storify thread here.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared at Lindsay Chervinsky’s personal blog.

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3 comments on “Guest Post: Why and How You Should Build a Web Presence

  1. Tom Cutterham says:

    Imagine a world where CEO’s really believed that their primary job was to make sure their company produced a good product…

  2. This is an important topic and I’m glad that Lindsay wrote this post. The advice offered here seems particularly relevant and promising for those pursuing the non-academic track. I accept the point that we must promote our work to get it out there and that there are dos and don’ts to developing an online presence. What makes me a bit uncomfortable, however, is that this type of self-promotion is now *expected* of us, thus, adding to an already heavy workload and forcing us to engage in activities that our twentieth-century forebears were not obligated to do. Even the word “self-promotion,” italicized above, gives me a very uneasy feeling. Publishing companies now list “alt-metrics” and Google Scholar seems to judge the intellectual worth of a piece merely by the number of times it is cited and viewed [in my own field there are a couple of books that are cited all the time but have MAJOR flaws in them] From my own personal experience, I have developed a personal website, a twitter profile, and all that stuff, not because I wanted to jump head-first, enthusiastically, into some sort of exciting new phenomenon, but because it seems like that’s what everyone else was doing and I did not want to be at a disadvantage compared to my peers. I guess I was extremely naive, upon entering graduate school, to presume that academia was some idyllic life of the mind, a safe refuge from the most pernicious and vicious forms of capitalism that I wanted to reject. No one should deliberately be a jerk on social media, but I also wonder if there is an implicit self-censorship in this current emphasis on developing our brands, where we avoid saying anything that might be considered controversial for fear of losing followers. Would we ultimately like an academy where each professor developed an individualized brand name and pitched their research as if it was a commodity? No doubt our own maniacal, deranged president* became a household name, at least in part, because he smeared his brand on steaks, casinos, hotels, etc. I can imagine a reality in which many budding scholars followed Lindsay’s sound advice and got jobs, almost in the way that hiring committees are now noticing the widespread use of the Karen Kelsky’s language. If that is the case, I would worry that this model might foster a certain homogeneity and conformity in the academy. I also wonder if giving others a hard sell on the intrinsic importance of our projects runs counter to some of the most cherished values of academia. Sorry for the long reply. I guess these types of questions have often been on my mind.

  3. […] Why and How Grad Students Should Build a Web Presence […]

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