Tagged Identity Workspaces

Online Discussion Boards as Identity Workspaces: Building Professional Identities in Online Writing Classes

Patricia Boyd, Arizona State University


This article analyzes the ways that online business writing courses can provide effective opportunities for students to learn to professionalize themselves.  Arguing that business writing classes should emphasize critical identity production and reflection, I describe two assignments I give students that ask them to engage the course material as professionals practicing business writing rather than as students learning how to write like professionals.  I draw on G. Petriglieri and J. Petriglieri’s (2010) concept of identity workspaces to argue that online writing courses should become these kinds of spaces in order to best prepare students to be professionals in their fields.


Business writing textbooks do not often discuss constructing and reflecting on professional identities. Nor, based on the kind of assignments typically given in business writing courses, are these concerns foregrounded in many assignments. Students are told to imagine themselves as HR representatives, CEO’s, business managers, but they are not taught how to enact professional identities in various business scenarios; instead, even in problem-based learning, the main focus—sometimes the only focus—is still on the communication process (if not genres of business communication), and not on reflecting on what it means to be a professional writing for colleagues or clients. Yet this sort of reflection not only helps students become better students and learn the material more deeply, but also helps them transition successfully into their future professions. Making identity construction an explicit part of the curriculum, then, should be an important goal for faculty, as it facilitates our students’ critical understanding of not only what activities they will engage in as professionals, but also how they may make sense of those experiences within the context of their professional development (Ibarra, 2004). Doing so prepares them to take on professional roles by trying out identities in a safe environment in order to learn the principles of and processes for identity construction that they will need on an ongoing basis in their professional careers, especially when they are transitioning into their professional careers (Ibarra & J. Petriglieri 2010; G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010; Sutherland & Markauskaite 2012).

Online discussion boards in writing classes can help achieve these goals.  Although discussion boards are not new technologies in writing classrooms (or in educational spaces in general), in this article I argue that we can put them to a new use, rather than just having them replace in-class discussions. I explore how instructors can deliberately structure online business writing classes not only to facilitate student engagement with the kind of writing they will need to do in order to be successful in business environments, but to practice creating new professional identities and reflect on the ongoing creation of these identities. Drawing on G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri’s (2010) concept of identity workspaces, I contend that business writing faculty should make critical identity production and reflection essential components of our course goals, and I show how discussion boards can help us accomplish those goals. Through ongoing public, threaded engagement, discussion boards provide a unique space where students can learn the process of identity construction and receive feedback on their rhetorical moves. Thus, we can use discussion boards in ways that make identity production a central part of our curriculum.

In order to build my argument, I analyze two course assignments that I use in my business writing classes to illustrate how online discussion boards can be important and effective identity workspaces. The two assignments I describe help teachers by showing them how to determine what knowledge about professionalization / professional identities students already have and also help teachers create student-centered classes that will help students learn from each other about how to become professionals. Further, the assignments also allow teachers to help students learn the digital literacies that will be important in their construction of professional personas. As we shall see, what is unique about these assignments is, first, my approach to the content in the discussion boards, because I draw on the core components of identity workspaces and, second, the use to which students then put the information. Instead of the discussion boards ending with the online conversation, they lead to the creation of documents that require students to try out the professional identities. These two components make discussion boards less a replacement for class discussion and more a space for the enactment of the complex process of identity construction. 

Production of Professional Identities: Identity Workspaces Online

It is widely accepted that professional identities are based on “the various meanings attached to oneself by self and others” in professional arenas (Ibarra & J. Petriglieri 2010, 11). These identities are constructed in relationship to the “social roles and group memberships a person holds (social identities) as well as the personal and character traits they display and others attribute to them, based on their conduct (personal identities)” (Ibarra and J. Petriglieri 2010, 11). Identity work is “people’s engagement in forming, repairing, maintaining, and strengthening or revising their identities” (Ibarra & J. Petriglieri 2010, 10). It helps people understand what is expected of them in the professional role, thus a “primary goal of identity work . . . is acting and looking the part, so as to be granted the claimed identity” (Ibarra & Petriglieri 2010 12). While identity work is important at all times because it helps to sustain “one’s sense of personal agency, continuity, and self-esteem” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 45), it is particularly important at times of transition—between school and a job, between one position and the next, or between one company and the next. When individuals are required to perform new identities in order to be successful in their new roles, understanding the principles of and reflecting on the process of identity construction are crucial for an individual’s long-term success (Ibarra & J. Petriglieri 2010; G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010; Eliot & Turns 2011).

While workplaces do sometimes help employees adopt the necessary identities required to be successful in their particular jobs, they do so only for the specifics of their organization. Further, G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri (2010) argue that for business employees, the process of how to successfully do identity work was once taught by corporations, but with the changing business climate, employees are often no longer learning how to successfully adapt their identities in companies (52). Educational institutions also seem to be lacking in providing students with the general principles about how to create professional identities. For example, Eliot & Turns (2011) show that engineering programs do not provide explicit opportunities for helping students connect their learning to their sense of themselves as engineers. Based on their studies of engineering programs, Eliot & Turns (2011) found that those schools focus on professional activities and networking and less on understanding what it means to think and work as an engineer. “Sense-making,” a term they take from Ibarra (2004) which involves connecting assignments and learning to develop their sense of themselves as professionals, rarely happened in any explicit way in the engineering curriculum they studied. In a similar vein, G. Petriglieri and J. Petriglieri (2010) found that business schools rarely teach these transitional skills. These schools tend to focus on teaching what to know (i.e. the knowledge and inquiry that is important to the field), not on how to be a professional, showing a belief that identity work is not seen as an important part of business school curriculum. They contend that if business schools—and we can extend their argument to other types of departments and units—were to make identity work more explicit, students could learn the principles of how to become professionals and professionalize themselves on an ongoing basis throughout their careers, which could help them be more successful in their careers.

Creating identity workspaces can help to make identity work more explicit for students and help teach them the necessary principles they will need to be successful in their professions. G. Petriglieri and J. Petriglieri (2010) contend that identity work helps students “present a polished, decisive narrative of where they came from, where they are, and where they want to go” (56). They argue that identity workspaces provide students with a “coherent set of reliable social defenses, sentient communities and vital rites of passages” (44, italics added). Social defenses are a set of collective agreements, familiar habits/practices, and common discourses that provide a sense of security, and like personal defenses, help individuals and organizations adapt to change.  Because they make the strange familiar, social defenses alleviate the anxiety associated with new situations and help students “develop through their work” (47). Although social defenses can limit possibilities for the future because they sometimes encourage people to resist change, “they help individuals to organize their experiences coherently in a way that is tolerable and socially legitimized” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 47). The second aspect of identity workspaces, sentient communities, are systems that focus on meeting the emotional needs of members as they make transitions, thus working to create a sense of connectedness and belongingness which is, they claim, important in the process of identity work. Sentient communities can be either macro- or micro-level social networks that last short-term or long-term in which individuals try out being a professional before they are actually a full member of the professional community: “This fantasized belonging reassures such students that they have a future identity, even though they are far from acquiring it fully” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 48). In sentient communities, individuals can receive support from others who are in the same position as they navigate the tricky process of transitioning into new identities. The third aspect of effective identity workspaces is rites of passage. As mythic, universal processes, rites of passages enact the transition from the familiar to the new. Rites of passage are “spaces in which individuals, with the assistance of elders and peers, can shape and discover who they are—or, better yet, who they are becoming” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 48). Instead of just reflecting on or imagining the role of the professional, individuals actually transition into the role of the professional through well-marked, socially accepted tasks/events that serve as evidence of the transition. “Rites of passages are enactments of a social systems’ current mythology (Campbell 1972), ideologies and values (Trice & Beyer 1984). Through them initiates do not just learn the cultural narratives that sustain the social group they are about to enter; they become part of those narratives” (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010, 49). Through rites of passage, individuals develop into professionals and are recognized as such by others through their performances. While there is certainly a consolidation/coherence found at this stage, this is not the end of the process, since there will always be further adaptations that will be made and future transitions that will need to be made. Thus, it is crucial for individuals to continually reflect on the transitions, even after coherence has been found again. When individuals experiences all three of these features—social defenses, sentient communities, and rites of passages in their environments–they can effectively negotiate and reflect on the identity work that helps them actively create and reflect on professional identities rather than just completing assignments (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010). These three aspects teach students the principles of identity work that they can use on an ongoing basis in times of professional transition.

Online course environments can be constructed as identity workspaces. As I show in the next section, online discussion boards can provide students with a space to practice the identity work that is an important part of their professionalization. I outline and analyze two assignments I give students in my online business writing classes. These assignments ask them to use online discussion boards to reflect on the process of professionalization, ultimately producing documents that require them to present themselves as professionals and making the process of identity construction a more central part of their learning.

Comparison of Academic Writing, Writers & Identity to Professional Writing, Writers & Identity:

Overview of Assignment:

This discussion board assignment occurs in the third week of the semester of my upper division business writing courses, which are mostly taken by juniors and seniors from the business college at my university. Students are asked to compare the writing they have done in their other, more traditionally “academic” writing classes (e.g., history or first-year writing courses) to the kinds of writing they have done in business courses or business situations, and the writing they imagine that professionals in their chosen future professions might do. This assignment not only asks them to compare the kinds of writing in terms of generic conventions (e.g., research paper versus business plan), but also asks them to consider the different audiences writers address and the strategies they must use to most effectively reach those audiences. As the discussion progresses, students begin to discuss the identities associated with the various writing tasks, comparing what it means to write as a student and what it means to write as a business professional.  At the end of the discussion, students are asked to write a formal email to a novice in their profession about the differences between traditional academic writing and writing done in the career for which they are preparing. In this email, students position themselves as professionals, drawing on what they learned from the discussion board interactions.

Social Defenses:

This discussion board assignment aligns with G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri’s (2010) concept of social defenses because it provides students with a sense of security, starting with a topic that they are familiar with—writing they have already done. The type of thinking they are asked to do is familiar as well—comparing and contrasting two types of situations. This type of assignment is particularly suited for a discussion board because as students make their ideas public they can see others’ interpretations of the different kinds of, and different approaches to, writing. In a final course reflection, Allison commented that it was useful to see other students’ views of academic writing because “I have never been all that good at it, so reading other people’s thoughts gave me different ideas about what good writing is. I learned things from them. And I also saw that other people struggled like I did.” Thus, she had her perspective socially legitimized, which is an important part of social defenses. Further, discussion board assignments like these can establish a common language that sets the tone for the class. All of the students had participated in first-year composition and could relate, to some extent, to the kind of assignments and experiences that their peers had had in those courses. Susan wrote: “I particularly liked the personal autobio paper we wrote in 101 because I got to write about myself.” Alex agreed with her: “we wrote one of those, and it was my best paper in the course because I really enjoyed writing it.”

G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri (2010) argue that an important part of social defenses is to help students “organize their experience coherently in a way that is tolerable and socially legitimized” (47). The discussions helped students accomplish this goal. For example, in a discussion about citing sources, Lucy writes, “I don’t think I will need to cite sources in business writing. People will ask for sources if they want them, so what I learned in English 102 isn’t applicable.” Steve countered this by writing that in his workplace “we have to cite where we got our info and document the info with statistics, so Eng 102 did help me.” And Marilyn wrote: “I think it depends on the job you work at.” In this discussion, the students tried to connect what they learned in ENG 102 (the research paper class) to the new material they are faced with in the business writing class and might face in their future careers. Steve drew on his work experiences in order to make sense of the two types of writing, trying to build a sense of coherence, while the two other students drew on their academic writing and speculation about possible workplace needs. The discussion shows that students tried to adapt to the change by organizing their experiences into a coherent framework that made sense to them and their peers.

While this type of discussion could be done in a face-to-face classroom, completing it online means that students can engage with more perspectives than they could in a traditional classroom. They can also guide the online discussion more easily than an in-class one, thus making the class more learner-centered, which can encourage students to take more responsibility for their part in the discussion (Hall & Davison 2007). Also, reflection, which can often deepen students’ understanding of the subject matter (Hall & Davison 2007, 167), is facilitated by the discussions being online. Reflection is not just about “mere description of events and experiences” (Ahmad & Lutters 2011, 4); students should be able to synthesize the new experience and knowledge and be able to relate with previous knowledge, forming a current perspective towards an issue or phenomenon” (Ahman & Lutters 2011, 4). Online spaces like discussion boards can encourage this kind of reflection because they are more student-centered and because students can take more time to think about their posts and responses (Rollag 2010, 502).

Sentient Communities:

Although it is difficult to achieve a great depth of community in one semester (Ma & Yuen 2011), discussion board assignments like the one I describe here can help build sentient communities, ones that through collaborative interaction can create a sense of belongingness and connectedness. Andrea, who had taken a different version of this same course taught by another instructor but had dropped it, wrote about the importance of feeling a sense of connectedness:

In the other course, what was seriously lacking was a connection with my professor and fellow students. In my personal opinion, I feel the only way you succeed in an English class (and it certainly helps in other fields as well) is feeling comfortable enough to speak freely with your professor (and your peers). There were times when I felt overwhelmed but everyone spoke to me like I was a person, rather than simply text on a computer monitor. That I sincerely appreciate. And that was a key reason why I was successful in this class. Usually I prefer to take English classes in person because of a lack of human communication, but connection through things like the discussion boards helped me.

Clearly, Andrea felt that a connection to and a sense of belongingness in the class was an important part of her success in the class. And she was not alone in feeling a greater sense of connection. In their final course reflections, other students in several of my courses reported feeling that they knew their peers in their business writing course better than they knew their peers in their face-to-face classes because they got to engage with each other on an ongoing basis in the discussion boards.

The specific topic of the academic versus professional discussion board played a significant role in the students’ feeling of connectedness. Not only did they discuss the kind of writing they did, they shared the way they felt about it, thus creating a space to have their emotional needs met, a central feature of sentient communities. For example, in one of his discussion board posts, Victor wrote, “I get frustrated because I never know how to start when I’m writing a paper, but when we wrote the first report in here, it was easy to start.” One of his peers responded by asking, “Why do you think it was easier? Did you understand the assignment better or was the assignment easier? Or did you like it more?” to which Victor replied, “Not easier . . . I just felt more comfortable writing it and liked it more.” In a similar vein, Jeremy described his frustration with writing reports to his manager: “Oftentimes I don’t feel I can fit what I need to say into the space he wants, but still he wants an extremely small and concise report at the end of the night.” Nancy empathizes with him, asking, “Can’t you ask him if the reports can be longer? It sounds like he’s being unreasonable.” Both Victor and Jeremy shared their feelings about writing situations and interacted with their peers about their emotions, which can help build a sense of connectedness between peers—a connection that can be relied upon later when they work on more complex identity tasks, when feeling part of a community is particularly important in helping each other develop, reflect on, and receive feedback about identities (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010).

Further, in the email assignment that follows and is based on the discussion board , students are provided with an opportunity to begin to imagine themselves in new roles by acting as professionals writing to novices. By providing a description of what professional writing is and how to become a professional to a newcomer to the field, students are testing out or ”fantasizing about” a new identity (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010); they are practicing being an expert. For example, part of Jack’s statement to a novice explains how documents are written in the financial field:

When writing as a business professional, you will have to write financial statements that a company produces yearly. These statements include footnotes and summaries about the information the company is putting out to stockholders. The footnotes are less than a page long, even though they are talking about millions of dollars and thousands of hours of company time. This is one type of professional writing you will have to learn to be successful in the field.

In his description in which he provides insider information, he positions himself as a professional who has full knowledge of the genre conventions and thus clearly shows he has begun to negotiate a transition from student to professional.

Again, these discussions could be had in a face-to-face environment, but online discussions provide students with an opportunity to engage with a greater number of peers and have their experiences validated and shared, a move that helps build an important sense of community. Online discussion boards are excellent places to build this sense of community because they can provide a higher level of interactivity and collaboration than face-to-face discussions (Brindley et al. 2009). Slagter van Tryon & Bishop (2009) found that online discussions were important to students because they can experience multiple perspectives of others which helps them develop their own views more thoroughly. This engagement can help students’ success. Gallagher-Lepak et al. (2009) point out that “evidence is accumulating in support of a positive correlation between sense of community and student engagement and persistence, course satisfaction, and perceived learning” (133-134). Further, Zhan et al. (2011) found in their comparison study that students who participated in online discussions performed better in the course overall than students who did not engage in discussion boards in the classes because they had deeper engagement with the material on an ongoing basis. Online communities, therefore, can play an important role in students’ success in courses and can have a significant impact in helping students create professional identities.

Both of these assignments—the discussion board and the email to the novice—can help teachers create an online environment that helps students thoughtfully create professional identities. The discussion board provides teachers with a fairly simple technological framework that helps them determine students’ current perceptions of professional identities and knowledge of the process of professionalization. While teachers could get some insights into this information through in-class discussions, the online discussions are unique because the teacher witnesses how the students’ conceptions develop in an in-depth way as they engage with each other, since the discussion happens over time, across more than one class period. A discussion board also readily lends itself to the construction of a student-centered learning framework. If teachers emphasize students’ conversations as the heart of the discussions, then students learn from each other, rather than through the traditional instructor initiated and led discussions that are all too prevalent in face-to-face classes. Discussion boards constructed in this way can lead students to help each other learn and expand their understandings about professionals and professionalization.  This set-up lends itself to a more learner-centered classroom environment that encourages students to take more responsibility for their learning and become professionals as they engage with their peers and write to the novices in their fields.

Personal Brand Assignment:

Overview of Assignment:

For this assignment, students are asked to create a personal brand statement that they then post in the “Background” section of their LinkedIn page. Before and after creating this statement, they interact with their peers in discussion boards in which they reflect on the process of creating a coherent professional identity for themselves. In the first discussion board, they reflect on the purpose of personal brand statements and experiment with possible ways of presenting themselves; in the second discussion board (held after their personal brand statement has been written), they analyze the effects of their rhetorical choices on creating a particular professional image. In both discussion boards, they receive feedback from multiple peers who, through their comments and discussion, help the authors negotiate the transition from student to professional.

Rites of Passage:

This personal branding assignment is a potential way for students to integrate different experiences in their lives in order to create a coherent professional identity. This practice of creating their identities online is a form of rites of passage. G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri (2010) identify three phases of the rites of passage:

  • isolation from the old way of life;
  • introduction into a liminal, unfamiliar space; and
  • re-integration into society as a new identity.

Asking students to engage with each other in the discussion boards with the ultimate purpose of producing a document for a social network engages them in the rites of passage by moving them away from the known—i.e. the classroom situation and the role of student. Then, the discussion boards and the multiple drafts of the personal brand statements provide them with the opportunity to exist in the liminal space that comprises the second part of the rites of passage, and that requires experimenting with multiple representations of their identities. Doing so online means that they have ready access to experts (teacher) and fellow travelers (peers). After experimenting by writing multiple versions of the branding statement and receiving feedback (along with seeing multiple versions of their peers’ statements), they then consolidate their experiences into a coherent identity and present it in a public online social networking site (LinkedIn), thus re-integrating as a new professional who is not just observing or imagining being a professional but is actually acting and being acknowledged by others as a professional. The personal brand statement, then, as a concise yet comprehensive statement that presents a summary of the person as a professional, helps change the individual’s presentation of self from student to professional. Posting their personal brand statement online helps them move their professional identities into a virtual arena, a rite of passage into the professional Web 2.0 generation (Greenhow et al. 2009).

For example, Ted’s original personal branding statement gave specific instances in which he solved complex problems while working with his brother on construction sites. He also told personal stories about school projects he completed and listed academic achievements that involved using the same skills. In his original statement, he even chose to include that he played competitive piano and violin. In his reflections on his personal brand statement, he wrote that he was trying to overcome the fact that he was so young by emphasizing all he had achieved. However, in his final personal brand statement, he realized that he did not have to justify his age. He chose to find the commonality amongst all of those experiences, draw them together and use them to present himself as a professional. His second personal branding statement was as follows: “I am strong at solving complex problems, simplifying situations in order to understand how to successfully move forward in them.” His revised statement, which he posted on his fledging LinkedIn page, condensed those individual experiences into a professional identity that he then used to create a public professional persona for himself.

Further, in Laurie’s original personal branding statement, she described specific work situations she found herself in and what she had done in them. However, she did not situate herself as a professional, but as a college student who was working part-time jobs. For instance, describing her experience at one part-time retail job, she wrote, “I completed all the tasks that my supervisor told me to while I worked my shift.” This statement suggests that she did her job, but did not take any initiative and did not necessarily see herself as a professional in that environment. The more she progressed through the business writing course, received feedback from her peers, and wrote documents that encouraged her to position herself as a professional, the more she shifted from seeing herself as just a worker to seeing herself as a professional. In comments about her personal brand statement, several of her peers commented that she was selling herself short by presenting her experiences in a limiting way and suggested that she emphasize how she contributed to the company. Drawing on her peers’ comments, she consolidated her retail experiences and foregrounded what she could bring to a company: “I am a young professional looking to bring new and innovative business products and strategies into being in order to benefit the company and its customers.” Her statement presents her as a professional who has much to contribute rather than just a part-time employee. In the final course reflections, Laurie wrote that “at first, I saw myself as a student, but as the class progressed, I started seeing myself as more of a professional.” This shift becomes evident in the changes in her personal brand statement.

Online discussion boards can also be an important part of rites of passage because they are effective places for students to receive feedback from fellow travelers as the unfamiliar is explored (G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri 2010). When the student leaves the familiar—student—and ventures into the unknown—professional—and enters into that liminal space, it is important to have ongoing supportive feedback about one’s forays into the unknown. As Labrecque et al. (2011) show, all too often one’s own interpretation of a personal branding statement differs from others’ perceptions of the branding statement, so it is crucial to receive feedback from others before posting their brands online. Online discussions are useful because students receive feedback from multiple fellow travelers who are negotiating the same task and are familiar with the goals and challenges of creating a digital identity. The online spaces help students learn more strategies for building successful identities that will help them in the future when they find themselves in transition (Eliot & Turns 2011).

For example, in Michael’s original personal branding statement, his “personal mantra,” as he called it, was the statement “conquer the grind,” which he told his audience was based on a quote from a high school football coach. Comments from his fellow students suggested that recruiters and future employers would not care about his high school experiences and might, in fact, see a reference like this (and especially a quote from a coach) as immature. One peer stated that “an inspirational quote from someone else isn’t what a personal brand statement is about.” After reading the feedback, Michael revised his statement to “I will conquer whatever the day brings to me, no matter what the challenge,” without stating where he derived the idea from. In his reflections in the second discussion board, he stated, “I kept the ‘conquer’ part, but took out the quote to sound more professional since my peers said it didn’t sound right. I really didn’t think about how a quote from my coach would seem unprofessional.” In his description, he transitioned from presenting himself as a student to positioning himself more professionally, based on the comments from his peers.

Another example comes from Rose’s personal brand statement. Her first one was short: “I am a creative, reliable worker with a passion to lead.” Her peers commented that the word “passion” did not seem professional and that her description was too short and generic, suggesting that it did not give a good sense of how she stood out from others. One student asked, “what do you mean when you say ‘reliable?’ How are you more reliable than others?” In her revisions, Rose took some of their suggestions, expanding her descriptions and directly addressing their questions about what made her stand out: “I am a strategic, problem-solving person who is dedicated to leading my team to success. I stand out from the rest because I am consistent in my work, and I always strive to be better than the rest. I am a creative, reliable worker with a passion to lead.” However, she still included her original statement. In the second discussion board, she reflected: “I felt my first statement captured who I am and did sound professional. I would stand behind it and send it out. That’s why I didn’t change it.” Both Michael’s and Rose’s examples show that students reflected upon their peers’ comments and used them in their own work to consider how to professionalize themselves.

While the personal brand assignment could be turned in to the teacher and/or given to one or two peers, discussing it on the discussion board, receiving feedback from multiple peers, and then presenting it on LinkedIn with the possibility of reaching a wide audience helps students transition from apprentices to professionals by not just completing an assignment but by assuming professional roles in professional arenas. The discussion boards provide a starting point for the more complex identity work and digital literacy skills students will need in order to create successful professional online personas. Completing this work online is beneficial because students get to join a professional community and publish their new professional identity in a very public and socially valued way. Online representations of self have become increasingly important:

The creation of online personal Web sites and social media profiles have flourished as the Web 2.0 environment offers tools that simplify these processes and encourages user generated content . . . With technological barriers crumbling and its increasing ubiquity, the Web has become the perfect platform for personal branding. (Labrecque et al. 2011, 38)

LinkedIn is becoming a highly used social networking tool for job searching and networking, so creating a digital presence there is crucial to a professional identity in the Web 2.0 generation (O’Murchu, et al. 2004; Skeels & Grudin 2009; Thew 2008). Through this assignment, students learn digital literacy skills that they will need to create a successful online persona. An important part of a rite of passage is that newcomers are actually a part of the “cultural narratives” that sustain a community and there are expert witnesses to attest to their transition into the body of these narratives. Posting digital profiles onto LinkedIn and building a network there publicly achieves this goal in an online environment.

These two assignments—the discussion boards and the LinkedIn Personal Brand statement—provide teachers with the opportunity to encourage students to carefully and responsibly construct online professional identities. The discussion boards lead to the production of another more public, higher risk document. This process makes the set-up of the discussion boards crucial because it uses discussion boards to help students explore professional identities.  Teachers can use these two-part assignments to help students learn the digital literacies they will need as they progress in their careers. Starting with the discussion board is a good jumping off point because the readership is confined to the membership of the class, making it a safer environment where they can try out multiple approaches without fear of negative impacts on their future careers. Then, once students have honed their self-presentation  in the space of the class, they can feel comfortable making that presentation of themselves available to a wider public. Structuring the assignments to move from a limited-audience class discussion board to a public-audience social media space, therefore, helps teachers facilitate students’ careful and responsible production of a professional online identity.


Discussion boards can be constructed to be identity workspaces that allow students to practice the important processes of identity construction that they will need in order to transition into new roles in their careers. As I have shown here, making identity work an explicit part of our curriculum can be a useful way to help students learn to professionalize themselves. In my business writing courses, my discussion board assignments ask students to enact and reflect on the creation of professional identities in order to learn not only the material that professionals write but also to learn how professionals create themselves as professionals. Doing this identity work online in identity workspaces like the ones G. Petriglieri & J. Petriglieri (2010) describe provides students with many benefits, such as engaging with multiple perspectives, receiving ongoing feedback, and practicing needed digital literacies. They give and receive useful feedback about their experimentations with professionalizing themselves, and they are provided with a public arena in which to post their newly developed professional identities. When we use discussion forums and other online spaces in this way, we teach them skills they will need now as they transition from students to professionals and in the future as they transition to different roles in their careers.



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About the Author

Patricia Boyd is an Associate Professor at Arizona State University.  Her recent work includes research on blogging in the writing classroom, encouraging students to create themselves as “writers,” and analyzing the role that celebrity endorsements shape the identity of the celebrity, not just the consumer.

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