Professor Avatar

Christopher Conway considers the meanings and perceptions of faculty members' online representations of themselves.

October 16, 2007

Imagine this: Every week of the semester a professor invites all of his students to his home. He greets them at the door wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, holding a lime margarita in his right hand and a wrinkled, fat cigar in the other. He herds them all into his house, presents them to his pets (Pinky the Cat and Jumbo the Dachsund), shows them his collection of 70’s era Star Wars action figures and walks them past rows of framed pictures of him fishing, doing karate and camping with his wife and Jumbo. He takes them to a filing cabinet and shows them the separata of his scholarly articles and news clippings about himself from the college paper, as well as articles by other scholars that contain footnotes citing him. Later, as they all sit around in his living room, he goes on and on about loving Roman Polanski movies and pontificates endlessly about TV programs and politics.

Don’t worry loyal Inside Higher Ed readers, this hypothetical professor is not real. He’s just a metaphor for all the Professor Avatars among us, the men and women of academe who blur the lines between professional and personal identities by reproducing their image through Web sites, blogs and profiles on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. In their day jobs they may be scholars, teachers and mentors but at night, in the blue glow of their laptops, they either create excruciatingly rehearsed and posed personas for themselves or indulge in surprising displays of professional and personal narcissism on their Web sites (And, unfortunately for me, these include the professors who are most likely to read Inside Higher Ed and be interested in articles dealing with technology.)

Let me back up for a moment and provide some basic background information for the uninitiated. Put simply, an avatar is an virtual double or persona that is utilized to represent a person’s identity in a message board, a video game or a Web page. An avatar is usually a caricature, headshot or full body, and sometimes it is animated. The origins of the term can be traced to 1980’s era video games, which used the term to represent the presence of the player within the actual videogame view, and the Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash (1992), in which an Internet-like virtual reality called the “metaverse” plays a central role. Avatars are very much native to the Internet, and they are symbolic of the ways in which the medium encourages the people to misrepresent themselves online. The latest rage in avatar discourse are the recent articles in academic circles about Second Life, the “metaverse” in which people purchase penises for their avatars and go looking for anonymous avatar sex, or where, of course, technologically inclined faculty members have their avatars teach the avatars of their students.

If you stop and think about it, academic avatars are quite common. A faculty’s official bio page on a departmental Web site frames an academic avatar of that professor. Chances are it will be a formal, professional one, containing publications and courses taught and a generic photograph. But I’ve seen some glamour shots and funky self-revelations on those university-branded pages, so let’s not count the official bio page out. The more promiscuous academic avatars pop up in “home pages” and blogs, sites that are usually under the creative control of faculty members. Often, such pages flaunt a) publications; b) personal interests (both through text and photos) and c) personal information. It’s as if the faculty bio page had morphed into something else, something akin to those photocopied, family update newsletters that talk about who’s doing what where, and look at these pictures of our vacation in Colorado. But then again, many pages are too sexy and self-aware for such comparisons. They are jazzy and hip, creating personas that function like avant-garde art installations. Most importantly, the academic avatars show a hunger to be seen and consumed by colleagues and students. “Look at me,” they say, “know me, this is me. I am interesting. I am accomplished. This is what I want you to know about me.”

The academic avatar is inherently critical of the traditional, academic self. For one thing, it critiques professional detachment in self-presentation and replaces it with an intense quest for connection with colleagues, strangers and students. The avatar gives up traditional authority in favor of irony and intimacy. Gone is also the notion of the academic self as a specialist. Avatars refuse to be pigeon-holed by being “opinionators” (bear with me, I want to suggest automation with this word) that derive pleasure from blogging about random subjects. For example, it used to be that every time you saw Professor McMickelson he was talking to you about the Punic Wars, but now McMickelson tells you more about his morning jogs and kitchen wallpaper crisis than about anything academic. It used to be that a student might feel awkward about running into McMickelson in the cereal aisle at the Supermarket, feeling it was too quotidian and base a place for such a sage to be seen. But now McMickelson can be seen as a photographic avatar on his blog, in a bathrobe and holding up a box of Cap'n Crunch.

The other way in which academic avatars critique the traditional academic self is by replacing the figure of the intellectual with a brand. This is harder to describe but it is very important. Many academic avatars function as one-stop research depositories for faculty who want to disseminate their scholarship on the Web. The more accomplished ones have avatars of their books up on their Web pages with reviews and clickable links to places where such books can be bought. The academic avatar is a self-vendor of his/her scholarship, often presented in a creatively decorated, richly textured space, a scholarly boutique if you will. The avatar is not a native intellectual, but rather a native marketer, and what is being marketed is the name-brand of the avatar.

Anyone who has Googled “faculty homepage” and browsed results over lunch, knows that what I am describing is real. I have seen photos of faculty in hammocks, hazy glamour head shots, countless vacation photos, baby pictures, pontifications about everything under the sun and painfully self-obsessed manias like presenting multiple biographies of oneself from different academic conferences. The narcissism on display can be staggering. I know what I am talking about because I am a native informant when it comes to academic avatars. For reasons I won’t go into here, I was messing around on the Internet, even before it became a fact of our daily lives. As an undergraduate in the mid-80’s, I played virtual Star Trek games on the then prehistoric Internet, and created an online female avatar based on the British actress Helena Bonham Carter to seduce an unsuspecting classmate. (It worked beautifully.) In the 90’s, as an assistant professor, I used course Web pages before they such a thing really took off and I was an early user of Blackboard and WebCT. In more recent years I have been an anonymous blogger and then a blogger in my courses. I’ve also developed some distance dd classes and two weeks ago I started playing around with Facebook. In short, I’ve had many academic avatars and experienced them firsthand.

Not all avatars are the same, however. We may speak broadly of different types. For example, all those anonymous, stylized and sometimes unhinged academic bloggers may be termed Anonymous Avatars. They indulge in elaborate alternative lives full of flamboyant rants, public displays of sorrow and ultimately, solidarity and communion with the avatars that read, comfort and affirm them and their experiences. Now that I’m on Facebook, I also think that there is such a thing as a Relational Avatar, an avatar that is not only constructed through the bits and pieces of information that one wants to share, or fabricate for public consumption, but also through relationships with other avatars. These relationships, which can be tracked through the “writing on the wall” feature in Facebook, convey to people in one’s network what kind of relationship you have with other avatars. For example, my avatar likes to tease the avatar of my department chair, who is also on Facebook. Students in our network can see this and say to themselves “Hey, what a pair of charming cads!” (At least this is what I want to believe they will say.) Finally, to cite just one more type among many others, Teaching Avatars are those that are primarily used to foster classroom learning through self-youtube videos, audio recordings and other such message board participation.

In short, you cannot put yourself “on” the Internet for others to see without creating an avatar. So, as we do more with teaching technology, as we record and videotape ourselves, and make interactive C.V.’s and homepages, we become more and more avatar-ish. We make countless choices, conscious and otherwise, about what to reveal about ourselves and how to stylize ourselves. The end result is our avatar who speaks for us on the Web. We fundamentally change our relationship to our students, who become viewers and consumers of our avatars, and who may increasingly interact with us through avatars of their own, such as their Facebook and MySpace pages. We speak to students through instant messaging at 2:30 a.m. when we discover that we are both online on our course Web page at the same time. We discuss course material and issues through soundbites and dialogical fragments of text on class message boards. We e-mail more. And we insinuate ourselves into each other’s personal lives through facebook or myspace profiles, which also facilitate staying in touch with students when they leave our classes. True, sometimes the interactions feel less real or substantial in comparison to interacting in person, but other times I am surprised at how some students open up more in an internet environment than they do in person.

Academic avatars are also powerful teaching tools. Not in the sense that it is inherently good to substitute an authentic, teacherly self with a virtual one, but in the sense of allowing the live, teaching self to have more qualitative, spontaneous and fruitful interaction in the classroom. The Teaching Avatar, in his/her virtual environment, can be utilized to channel traditional pedagogies so that a live teacher can spend more time on dynamic activities like discussion and groupwork during the class period. My thinking here is informed by my own experience but also by a recent essay by José Bowen of Southern Methodist University titled Teaching Naked: Why Removing Technology from Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. In the essay, which has widely circulated on the Internet among teachers, Bowen writes that “The most obvious way to open up class time for those best ‘aha’ moments is to remove your recitation of content (the lecture) from the class room.... Most of your lectures (all of the ones covering 'content') can be turned into videos, but interactive discussion cannot.” In other words, take technology out of the physical act of teaching face-to-face and put it online. Become a Teaching Avatar so that you can be more authentic and receptive as a live teacher.

Indeed going virtual to free up class time for discussion has never been easier than it is now. I can record a lecture in audio on my laptop or even make a video of myself through the computer’s built-in webcam, export the media into easily accesible formats (such as .mpg for audio or quicktime for video), and post it on my course blog where students can acquire it. Programs such as Camtasia and Profcast, and free web productivity tools like Slideshare and Zoho Show, allow professors to marry their powerpoints with audio and preserve them for posting on websites. Some professors, like Veselin Jungic of Canada’s Simon Fraser University, have gone even further, producing original films for posting on youtube to aid student learning. Jungic has created cartoons starring an avatar called “Math Girl” for assisting students in first-year calculus.

In closing there is another way in which academic avatars may prove to be indispensable to faculty members from now on. At no other time in history have academics in specialized disciplines been able to get their work read around the world with so much ease. Faculty who avoid academic avatars and technology altogether are missing out. For example, the work I did as an assistant professor in Latin American studies was picked up from my research Web site by Civilization Magazine, a non-virtual publication of the Smithsonian Institution, and by several Chilean newspapers. The online version of the UK’s Guardian newspaper has linked my scholarship twice, three M.A. students from Europe are using my work because of my homepage and an editor at the Financial Times may or may not be thinking about quoting me in a major piece he is currently writing (but I know that he is reading me because he found me online and asked me for help procuring my scholarship.) Academic avatars may be problematic for many reasons, but they undoubtedly have great potential for making academic work connect.

All faculty now live in the age of academic avatars. As the professorate becomes younger, more Internet savvy and avatar-ish, professors who don’t use avatars may become marginalized. Students who shop for classes online may be drawn more to courses taught by faculty with avatars. Scholarship made available through avatars may garner some faculty more attention than others. Why turn down a chance to help your class make when it may typically have trouble with enrollments? Why turn down a chance to have your work read and disseminated? And why not take your lecture out of the classroom and put it on YouTube so that you can do something more creative in class? You don’t have to take pictures of yourself holding a martini and peering at your students like a creep in a bar, and post them on your faculty homepage right next to your publications, but you wouldn’t be the first if you did. And when and if you regret that sleazy avatar, you can discard it and start all over again, at the touch of a button.


Christopher Conway is director of the Spanish Program in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Texas at Arlington. A pathway to his avatars can be found here.


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