Three-D Issue 21: Personal academic websites in precarious times

Anna FAnna Feigenbaum
Bournemouth University

The Crisis Generation

Like thousands of other early career scholars, I earned my PhD as the economy collapsed. Already trending toward precarity, academic jobs became even more part-time and non-permanent. In the UK, the post-16 education sector is now the second most casualised workforce, falling one ranking behind the hospitality industry.

In the six months surrounding my pending post-doctorate unemployment I applied for upwards of 50 academic posts. I created an alternative career route in event planning, and I took money from my 21 year old brother to help with his flat-hunt. Yet compared to England’s 2014 graduates projected to leave university with an average of £21,500 in debt, I broke even on my education and couldn’t complain.

Conditioned to embrace any employment as ‘good fortune,’ I eventually became one of the ‘lucky ones.’ Application 52 secured me a year long, maybe or maybe not, renewable contract. That job kicked off five years of university hopping. Since 2008, I have worked at four different universities, in three countries, across two disciplines.  During this time I acquired an impressive array of file-totting suitcases and a job application archive large enough to run big data analyses on.

With each move I watched as my email address expired, course material disappeared, and staff profile faded into a dead link. As every institutional trace of my labour vanished, I began to question, who was all this innovation and output for?

Why I made my own website

I decided it was time to ‘take control’ of my digital production. With no training, skills or experience beyond the clunky WebCT or Moodle uploads work required; I set off to see what all these social media were about.

I experimented with wikis, prezis, tumblr, googledocs and slideshare.  I moved copies of all of my teaching materials and curriculum design onto wordpress.com sites. I created blogs for my collaborative research project on creative resistance and later, on protest camps. I built myself  LinkedIn, researchgate and academia.edu profiles. And eventually, influenced by the digital transformations AHRC workshops, I entered the twitterverse.

I had gone digital. I was connected, open, share-able– fragmented, exhausted and left without the attention span to monitor my own online media presence, let alone socialise with anyone else’s. I would write something, but not know which blog to post it on. I had teaching materials to send someone, but couldn’t remember the urls of my own module sites. I had reached oversaturation, drowning in mix of self-inflicted enthusiasm and the internalisation of a career-minded duty to be online, everywhere, at once.

But at least I wasn’t alone. Along with the proliferation of social media, in the past ten years we have come to work more closely with collaborators scattered across several countries. It is now not only our output, but our scholarship itself that is entangled in the digital. Exemplar of this, in June I finished co-writing an entire book using skype, google docs, email exchanges and the occasional ‘where R U – we meant GMT’ text message. In the two and half years it will have taken for our book to go from proposal to print, Fabian, Patrick and I will have only spent a total of four days together in the same room.

With this level of online saturation, turning back now seems out of the question. The only answer I could come up with to counter the fragmented frenzy of my digital academic life, was to aggregate. I needed to filter the half dozen course pages, three project blogs, scattered professional profiles and twitter account, into one accessible, aesthetically pleasing and not too difficult to manage personal website. And thus, annafeigenbaum.com took shape in the online world. 

Between Mindfulness and Self-marketing

Anna F websiteWill my personal website lessen my social media burden? Only time can tell. But the process of building the website has already proved valuable. Rather than severing my work from its context into cut and paste textboxes, I could design this site around how my outputs are embedded in a commitment to social change.

Designing your own site means selecting a presentation style that fits your work, rather than forcing it into someone else’s system. On your own website there is no one to tell you that publications should go above teaching, or that zine-making isn’t a research output. It offers you a chance to envision what you do beyond the pre-programmed layout of staff profiles, institutional intranet repositories, and job application templates.

Of course, at the same time that a personal website is a platform for public engagement, it is predominantly self-promotional. Focused on sharing resources in a user-friendly format, it is both narcissistic and empathetic. It is full of copyright and copyleft.  Likewise, while offering a response to our precarious labour conditions, the increase in doctoral candidates and early career academics’ self-marketing emblemises the celebration of entrepreneurialism that is often encouraged to distract us from demanding alternative working conditions together.

In other words, personal websites showcase the contradictions that occupy academic life today. They exhibit our love-hate relationship to a job that is increasingly entangled in the digital and its demands that we are always plugged in. They highlight the savvy social media gluttony of my crisis generation as we try to carve out a liveable career path in today’s HE marketplace. That, and they’re a lot lighter than a file-totting suitcase.

How to Design a Personal Academic Website

I designed my website with freelance designer Daniel Sun who specialises in academic sites. Dan is also a trainer who knows the weird world of academic websites and the weirder world of trying to communicated with academics. Daniel worked with me like a techy collaborator, rather than a service provider, explaining each step of the way what he was doing and why.

Based on a balance of my limited budget and my desire to support mindful initiatives, we began at Gandi.net for the domain name. With the tagline ‘no bullshit’ Gandi.net places honest customer relations as its core company value.

For hosting we decided on mayfirst/people link, a self-described, “politically progressive member-run and controlled organization that redefines the concept of “Internet Service Provider” in a collective and collaborative way.” Quickly living up to this commitment, after registering they sent through a personal note expressing support for my social justice work and opening the possibility for future collaborations.

We stuck with wordpress.org for content management and upon opening the dashboard, I was relieved to find that managing a wordpress website is very similar to managing a wordpress blog. Like many beginners, my main attraction to wordpress is the forums. As I don’t even know offhand what html or CSS stand for, the forums offer cut and paste code solutions that can fix the majority of obstacles you encounter. Most of the time typing up the problem: ‘Why has sidebar disappeared wordpress’- does the trick.

Making it Look Good

As for making a website look good, one nice thing about being an academic is that it doesn’t take much to make your site stand out. While not quite as bad as conspiracy theory platforms or online amish clothes outlets, academics often make odd colour choices and go wild on fonts like they’re free wine at a conference reception.

To figure out how I wanted my website to look, I started by browsing through other colleagues websites with good design. I read best practice articles, and then I went through wordpress themes to scout for a shortlist.

The task of choosing the right way to visually layout your content is perhaps the biggest part of the entire design process.  This is what allows you to align the material you have to share, with the user’s experience of your site. When deciding on your display, think about how you interact with a new website—where do you click? What do you look at? How do you read the pages?

I chose the theme gadgetry. With its visual frontpage display and clear menu system it seemed well suited to my task of aggregating diffuse content and showcasing different research and teaching areas. I also knew I wanted my twitter feed to be featured and for images to be bold and tell their own stories.

I created a mock-up of my site by taking a screenshot of the demo theme. I pasted that into power point slides and then added notes on how I wanted my site to look. After Daniel Sun laid out the basic framework, a friend introduced me to CSS colour guides to help customise the site’s look. A few tweaks and glitch-fixes later, the site went live.

Posted by Einar Thorsen