Dual Identities

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This week’s guest blogger has chosen to remain anonymous, for reasons that I think this post makes clear.  I’ll admit that it has prompted me to reflect on my own published digital presence.  But, more pressingly, it makes me wonder about asking students to blog or write for public audiences.  Could there be issues we have not yet addressed in such a practice?

I made two honest attempts at this blog post. But each time I wrote, I found that what I had written could potentially compromise my role as an instructor. What do I mean by that? I mean that in the future, when students Google me, this blog post will probably pop up, and when they read what I have written they will think differently about me. So what’s the harm in that? Well, for one thing, by then I will probably have changed my ideas about what I have written. And for another, whatever information I post online can be tied back to me for a very, very long time.

In the past, I have had zero anxiety about posting content online. I have published short stories and poems in online journals, and yes, some of these pieces embarrass me now, but I don’t mind that so much. They reflect who I was when I wrote them, and I can deal with that. It was only when I became an instructor that I began to consider my online identity. (In fact, I first wrote ‘online persona,’ but that sounded funny to me, and so I changed it to identity. In other words, I had no term for this kind of thing before today.) 

When I teach, I have to be careful about what I say to my students. For example, I don’t want to present my own political beliefs, nor do I wish to offer my opinions on the essays we read for the course. My goal, at least inside the classroom, is to remain as neutral as possible. So why couldn’t I write a blog that also stayed neutral? For whatever reason, I was unable to do this. Each time I wrote about teaching I felt I had to insert my opinion, and that is where things got dicey (or could get dicey, if my name and photo were attached to those opinions). When writing outside the classroom, I could not access the person I am inside the classroom, the person who aims to remain as impartial as possible, never revealing just how he feels about a particular topic. 

Because many of my students spend so much of their lives online, I am quite certain they are able to retrieve any information about me that is floating around on the internet. Already, a few of my students have commented on short fiction I published years ago in some obscure online journal (my own friends can’t even find this stuff). This made for slight embarrassment, but it did not compromise my role as their teacher. A little embarrassment is okay, I thought, maybe even good for me. But I am talking about something beyond embarrassment. I am talking about your online identity tying to the person you used to be and, as a consequence, being unable to redefine yourself inside the classroom.

Right now I am a first year teacher, and my perspectives on teaching are bound to change as I gain experience. And it might happen that one day I find myself in front of a class, explaining opinions I held years ago but that now contradict my methods and beliefs. In that instance, my online identity will have come back to redefine or distort my in-class identity. The two identities, in other words, suddenly converge and trap me. And this, I realize (after two failed blog attempts), is something I would like to avoid.

I’ve also experienced students locating arcane information about me online.  It seems to me that online writing presents questions worth considering for both us as instructors and for our students when we ask them to write online. How have you dealt with this?

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.