Creating and Recreating the Digital Self

The past few weeks have been active ones for my digital academic presence. While out of state – and for parts, out of country – to celebrate my sister’s graduation (Doctor of Physical Therapy, University of Miami), I had two pieces published online. The first was a multi-author journal article on civic engagement and service-learning perceptions at a large, research intensive university (I was one of four co-writers). The second was an essay on Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews for Smarthistory, my first essay for that site.

Although of two entirely different natures, both works are part of the same attempt to explore a variety of interests and build a fuller academic and professional identity. Doctoral dissertation work doesn’t allow for much in the way of outside interests unless you make time for it. And it is important to make time for it, since all that interesting stuff is what sets a job candidate, teaching or otherwise, apart from the crowd.

Once I finish my dissertation, I’ll be a guy with a PhD. There are a lot of them out there, with more topical subfields of study and from more well-regarded institutions. Publications and service set job candidates apart, and the ones on my CV – publishing on postcards, comic books, and educational pedagogy, serving on boards, organizing conferences and symposia – reflect a personality that’s not as grounded in the lofty ivory tower as may appear at first blush.

More importantly, doing the things I do keeps me sane. Some art historians find pleasure whiling their time away in the archives and publishing in-depth works on the same subjects. I prefer to be a generalist. British art is fantastic, but I can’t see myself focusing on Benjamin West for the next four decades of my life the same way my advisor did on the artist he examined in his dissertation. Nor can I see myself wanting to study comics for that long, even though I’m interested in them right now.

Spreading my time also allows me to hone skills like areas like conference organization and academic administration that aren’t part of the standard humanities PhD curriculum. In recent years I’ve recognized the ways in which graduate school doesn’t prepare you for the realities of the job market and of actually having a job, and things that would fall under a CV’s “Service” category – or not even find a place there, like working as a docent for Context Travel – are the ones which will make me most attractive to a potential employer.

Sometimes I do fear that this additional work is having a negative effect on my dissertation. There’s no question it’s slowed it down, but in the grand scheme of things I’m on a fairly fast track toward completion. If I were instead to spend eight hours a day, seven days a week doing nothing but researching and writing on one topic, I’d pull my hair out. This work is also largely unpaid. Such is the life of a graduate student. I don’t enjoy it, but at this stage of my career these activities are ways to get that crucial experience that employers are looking for. Sure, I haven’t been paid to organize conferences, but I’ve got two roundtables and a symposium series under my belt plus an unconference in the works. That’s more than any of my classmates can say.

Doing things like taking a few days to write an 800-word essay on one painting keeps things lively and enjoyable. There’s not a career in just writing Smarthistory essays, but as long as it gets my name out there and keeps my own work enjoyable, I’ll take it.

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