I’ve been meaning to post a link to Ethan Watrall’s April article Building an Interdisciplinary Identity in a (Mostly) Non-Interdisciplinary Academic World. It includes a number of tips for branding yourself as an academic when working outside of or in-between traditional fields.

I know that many academics, particularly those straggler pinko humanists, sometimes writhe at the idea of “marketing” themselves or of thinking of the public face of their scholarly persona as “branding.” Fine, call it something else if you must. The point is, you must find a way of presenting yourself, your work, and your field succinctly and coherently. Here’s the most important part of Watrall’s column:

Give your “discipline” a name: If you were at a cocktail party (do people really have cocktail parties anymore?) filled with other academics and were asked what you did, you would want to be able to bust out a 2-3 word name for your “discipline” at the drop of a hat (n.b. this is really part of the “branding process,” I just thought it should stand alone because of its importance). You don’t want to be fumbling around trying to explain what you do. You could be the smartest person in the room, but if you can’t tell people what you do (quickly and succinctly), then no one is gonna take you that seriously. So, give your “discipline” a name, and become practiced at describing it whenever prompted. For me, its “Cultural Heritage Informatics.”

I know what you’re going to say: “What the fuck? Cultural Heritage Informatics? That’s an awful name.” It is. So is “Computational Media,” which is my best take on my own field. Perhaps one could say the same of “Object-Oriented Ontology” for that matter. Nobody knows what these things are.

But that’s just the point. At one time, nobody knew what Volvo or Wii or Band-Aid were. For that matter, there was a time when Computer Science and Cultural Studies and Anthropology were neologisms that had to be defended against accusations of absurdity or mere unfamiliarity. So it is for new areas of interest today, which require determined effort on the part of their proponents to lend them coherence and definition.

That said, Watrall doesn’t take it far enough. The cocktail party test has to work for anybody, not just academics (who would want to be at a cocktail party full of academics anyway?). And when you’re an academic at a cocktail party, it always goes something like this:

Normal Person: So what do you do?
You: I’m a university professor.
NP: Oh, what do you teach?

At this point, it would be convenient to be able to say something like “chemistry” or “philosophy,” because then your interlocutor will probably say something empathetic, e.g.,

You: Philosophy.
NP: Oh, I took some philosophy classes in college. I really enjoyed them! But man, that German Enlightenment shit was over my head.
You: [Chuckling] Yeah, those Germans are something else.

At this point you’re on your way to a normal conversation, probably transitioning to different or more interesting fare, like talking about the other person’s work or gossiping about the marital problems of your party’s hosts. But now imagine that instead, you mention some crazy outlandish field like “Cultural Heritage Informatics” or “Computational Media.” Let’s take it from the top:

Normal Person: So what do you do?
You: I’m a university professor.
NP: Oh, what do you teach?
You: Computational Media.
NP: Oh. What’s that?

Seems harmless, but at this point your interlocutor is or should be angry, because you’ve told him or her that you’re a fancy-pants PhD professor, but rather than dampen the hoity-toity with some down-to-earth, you’ve implicitly reiterated that you are better and smarter than this other person. This is probably the point at which he or she will find a reason to work the room. Worse, if ever that interlocutor hears the name of your “field” again, she’ll remember: “Oh yeah, I met a guy once who taught that. He was a real self-important asshole.”

A bit of humble pie is in order in these situations. Explain yourself. If you’re as smart as the job title “professor” means to most people, then you should be able to help them understand what the hell it is that you do. As Watrall puts it, “You could be the smartest person in the room, but if you can’t tell people what you do (quickly and succinctly), then no one is gonna take you that seriously.”

Normal Person: So what do you do?
You: I’m a university professor.
NP: Oh, what do you teach?
You: It’s a sort of new field we call Computational Media. Think of it as the lovechild of computer science and the arts. I focus on studying and making videogames.
NP: Wow, that’s awesome. My son is really into videogames, but I guess I never thought about it being a viable career.

This is an informal example, but you can imagine less flip replies. Adjust seasoning for your particular cocktail party. In any event, once more, you’re now having a conversation, one that is in part evangelizing what you do. You’ve not only diverted the conversation from a failure in which you came off as a self-important douchebag, but also you’ve planted a seed for your field.

Watrall’s article offers a number of good ideas for making one’s weird fringe discipline get more respect. But what it really comes down to is quite simple: frame what you do in a way that deserves respect in the first place. And then carry out your work such that you can talk about specific examples. In short, do something that matters.

published June 4, 2010


  1. anxiousmodernman

    Killer party. Where the Zeitgeist at?

  2. Stephen Jacobs

    Funny, I just tell folks I’m a video game prof and most of them say “Cool, how do I get your job?”

  3. Ian Bogost

    Stephen, yeah, that’s an easy answer, more like philosophy or chemistry. I sometimes use the same answer, but this post was meant to deal with squirrelier fields. And besides, it benefits videogame scholarship to have recognition of a bigger computational media field around it anyway.

  4. Ernest Adams

    I tell them, with a rueful look, “You’re not going to believe it, but I teach people how to make video games.” This causes 75% of the women and 50% of the men to disengage their attention immediately and look for someone else to talk to.

    Of the remainder, 22% of the women tell me about how their kid or the kid down the block is wildly into games, and 25% of the men ditto. The remaining 3% of the women and 25% of the men express wary interest. Then I start talking about interactive storytelling and how games are being used for medical rehabilitation and cognitive therapy, in a desperate attempt justify my existence.

    The flip side of this occurs when I manage to persuade a parent to participate in one of my workshops that they have brought their kid to. It’s gratifying to have them come up afterward and say, “I had no idea making games involved so much work!”

  5. Chris Lewis

    The “My son is really into videogames,” drives me absolutely crazy.

    I had this conversation with my dentist once.

    Him: “You go to school here?”

    Me: “Yeah”

    Him: “What do you do?”

    Me: “Well, it’s called Computer Science, but I mostly research video games.”

    Him: “Ohhhh, I have two 8-year old boys who could tell you a lot about video games!”

    The “my son is into videogames” response is not one of enthusiasm, it’s one of “Oh, you spend your life doing simple, childish things, that my kids probably know more about than you, huh?”

    I apparently talk to the wrong people. Anyone over 35 is almost guaranteed to offer that response to me. Anyone under seems to go “Oh hey, that’s cool! Have you played [random game that may or may not be recent/good]? I really liked that one.”

  6. Ian Bogost

    Chris, I think the “my son is into videogames” isn’t as derogatory as you think. People, probably over 35, don’t know what to make of videogames. They’re expressing anxiety and when they do, you have the opportunity to alleviate some of it. It’s a moment to say something else, something that shifts the conversation toward more “adult” or at least more sophisticated notions of videogames (or any other topic).

    For example, here’s where I’d probably say something like “Actually, videogames are probably being used in ways you wouldn’t have thought of. For example, I just finished a book about using games in journalism.” And at the doctor, you have the perfect opportunity to say something like “Did you know some surgeons use videogames to hone fine-motor action?” You don’t have to believe in any of this stuff deeply (the laparoscopic surgery studies are skin deep, as it were); the point is to move the conversation forward.

  7. Mark N.

    I suppose it depends on what kinds of cocktail parties you’re at, but I’d worry that inventing a field name besides one of the widely recognized ones sometimes serves as a sort of anti-branding, perhaps worse than just using a more informal English gloss on what you do, without giving it a Capitalized Brand Name. It’s already a stereotype that academics like to make up fake-discipline names for their personal research agenda (i.e. a discipline consisting of one person), like Deleuzian Ethics of Postcolonial Masonry or something, so seems likely to send at least some people into eyerolling mode.

  8. Ian Bogost

    Mark, doesn’t that rather miss the point of the branding exercise? Repetition and confidence and consistency are the ways brands of all kinds develop. It does feel a bit artificial at first, and this is probably one reason that academics are so resistant to the very idea of marketing. But there are things to learn from it. (Just not from Seth Godin 😉

    You’re right that academics have a lot to overcome in terms of our reputation for bullshit. But note that advertisers are also full of bullshit, yet they seem to have less to overcome. Perhaps there’s an aristotelian mean to be found.

  9. Liz Losh

    Hear! Hear! But it needs to be instituted within academia as well.

    1) Pass the cabdriver test to get an actual PhD.

    2) Pass the cocktail party test to get an academic job.

    So much less paperwork and so much better practice for teaching and writing books!

  10. Ian Bogost

    I should have mentioned your cabdriver test, Liz.

    Probably readers can intuit what it is: if you can’t have an effective conversation about what you do with a cab driver, then you fail the test.

  11. andrew

    Interesting topic. I agree with what you’re saying, but I also see Mark’s point: one of the ways you inspire confidence is by linking to a established community. So, back in grad school, I used to invent all kinds of fantastically complicated ways of describing my work: something at the intersection of contemporary aesthetics, Continental philosophy, critical theory, media archeology, film theory, time-based media, screen cultures, blah blah blah.

    Now I just say “art history.” If they want specificity, “modern & contemporary: my current research is in film and video installation, but I also teach the history of photography.”

    People both know and don’t know what Art History is about – so I gain familiarity (both real and illusory) while introducing some novelty. Mainly, I just try to avoid putting people off with a bunch of technical jargon for the reasons you stated.

    I guess I don’t see the problem with ‘computational media.’ Seems straightforward enough: something like computer science + media studies. Or, a ‘humanistic branch of computer science.’

    Part of the question seems to be whether you’re actually trying to forge a new disciplinary configuration, or just trying to sell what you do. If it’s genuinely the former, it seems to me you have to have some kind of substantive community behind you, or else it risks being mere grandstanding. Of course, disciplinary configurations can become so rigid as to feel oppressive, and at that point, I guess it’s incumbent upon people to set up entirely new configurations. Academic institutions, like all institutions, are about structured communities – not everyone can be one of Foucault’s “Founders of Discursivity” 😉

  12. Mark N.

    Ian: I suppose I’m a bit worried that when every academic is doing this sort of branding, with a separate brand, it just leads to confusing brand proliferation, which isn’t really good for either scholarship or marketing (sort of what GM was criticized for, with its incoherent label-soup of product lines). Maybe I’m ultra-sensitized to it because GT’s CoC is, as you probably know, really big on branding, to the point where there are about as many research brands in the department as professors.

    It does seem like it might be less of a risk when talking to people who only occasionally encounter academics, in which case your brand might be one of very few they’ve heard. I worry that it doesn’t take much exposure to get to the eyerolling phase, though. Even casual observers at Kotaku have occasionally made sarcastic comments about the brand proliferation in game studies and related areas: we’ve got game studies, ludology, serious games, persuasive games, games for change, software studies, critical code studies, and probably a half-dozen more.

  13. Ian Bogost

    Art history is definitely one of the chemistry/philosophy sorts of brands. But both of you (Andrew and Mark) are right that the point of an academic “branding” exercise has to be communal to some extent otherwise it just devolves into factionalism at best, incoherence at worst.

    Computational media is probably an easier sell than some, but trust me when I say it is hardly a universally understood idea. We academics tend to overestimate what counts as clarity.

    Mark, you bring up a good point too: when every faculty member has a different research lab with its own ridiculous and inscrutable brand, then no progress gets made. I abhor this sort of thing and cannot stand it in the Georgia Tech CoC or anywhere else. The GM label-soup comparison is apt.

  14. Ian Bogost

    Also, NO ACRYONYMS. Ever. Ok?

  15. Erik Marshall

    A film scholar I know who works in an English department once told me that, when he wants to continue a conversation with someone, he says he teaches film. When he wants to end it, he says he’s an English professor.

  16. Garnet Hertz

    I’d also like to introduce the “schoolyard test.” In this test, a kid (5 to 12 years old) tries to explain to another kid what an adult does for a living. (This is related to the “my dad can beat up your dad” test – but we won’t discuss that here.)

    In these situations, I’ve been termed as “a video game doctor” – which I don’t mind. Here are some results from one such test:


    Even if you doesn’t have kids, it’s a worthwhile exercise: how would a kid explain to other kids what you do?