The digital academic as autobiographical actor

There’s a wonderful discussion by Ann Oakley on loc 562-567 of her Father and Daughter, taking the production of the academic c.v. seriously as an autobiographical act:

A c.v. is an autobiographical act, a life composed and presented according to certain conventions, a story designed to hide, exaggerate, downplay or boast about aspects selected from the immense and muddled curriculum of one’s whole life. Because I’ve mostly made my living as an academic, my c.v. is dominated by publications, presentations, lists of research grants, committees and so on. It doesn’t tell the story behind these lists. For example, behind each of the books is a story of why it came to be written and how, in what order its chapters got themselves assembled and juggled about, how much agonising and rethinking and reworking went on, whose advice was taken (or not taken) on the path to its final form.

For those who make their living as digital academics, unavoidable autobiographical actions multiply. There are ‘about’ pages, social media bios and profile pictures to be chosen across the whole range of platforms. This is often talked about as ‘branding’, with all the off-putting connotations that phrase has, framing the action in narrow terms of instrumentality and impression management. Whereas I’d much prefer to think of these as autobiographical acts, albeit ones which are peculiarly brief, fragmented and dispersed.

The challenge which the digital academic faces as an autobiographical actor is how to transcend this fragmentation, building up these micro-acts of autobiography across platforms into a sustained and substantial account of oneself and one’s work. One important way to do this is to use social media to reveal “the story behind these lists”, conveying how these individual outcomes are expressions of underlying preoccupations and long-standing projects.

There can be a certain conceit buried behind dismissals of this process, as securely tenured academics with identity-conferring positions look scornfully upon these forms of autobiographical action as narcissistic fiddling by self-involved millennials. But if we take the framing of autobiography seriously, we can see ‘online identity’ as a way to begin to reclaim the agency of those who are systemically denied the security which previous generations could take as a given.

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