Can you verify who you are?

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Textbook companies often provide a variety of resources for faculty members who use their textbooks – exam questions, digital versions of charts from the book, pre-made powerpoint slides, outlines and lecture notes.  Their quality varies, but they can be useful.  Most companies require that one get a password so that the banks of exam questions don’t start circulating on the internet. Aside from human-error (my failure to remember the password from semester to semester), I’m usually able to gain access quickly and easily.

Until today, which is already a few days after I began seeking access at a textbook company I had not used before.

I received an e-mail pointing out that this company puts all of its testbanks into one library, and therefore wants to guard it carefully.  Then the company rep wrote, “would you send me some way to verify your teaching position with Col Of St Scholastica 1200 Kenwood Ave?”

Of course, I sent her the link to our departmental web page, the faculty listing for the School of Sciences, and the general college directory.  Only the latter lists any information other than my name; it does include my e-mail address.  As anyone who has received phishing e-mail knows, however, it would be a cinch for a computer-savvy student to create a mock-up of any of those pages and ship those along.  A student willing to impersonate a faculty member to get a testbank wouldn’t think twice about creating a fake webpage.

It made me realize that identity theft is not the only fall-out of the digital age.  What we really have is identity ambiguity.  People assume alternate names on various social networking sites – whether real-appearing names or personae such as “Catholic Mom” or a fellow sociologist who blogs as “Gruntled” at “Gruntled Center” and refers to his wife as “Mrs. Gruntled.”  People have friendships on Second Life and other sites with people whose legal identity they do not even know.

The corporate representative only wanted me to verify my teaching position – but how would I do that? Send a lecture? Ask a difficult question? Invite her to class?  Send her the phone number of the chair of the department (or the person I say is the chair of our department)?   Her question certainly sparks a post-modern dilemma.

The great sociologist Max Weber studied bureaucracies in detail.  With efficiency and productivity the keys, relationships were based on position, not person.  On an assembly line, or at a fast food restaurant, it doesn’t matter which particular person does the job, so long as it gets done – and his work traced out the alienation that can occur when personal identity is subsumed into one’s position in a system.  I haven’t yet seen a theory that encapsulates our current situation, in which all linkages between persons and positions are called into question.

I don’t think I should think about this much longer, or I might not be able to figure out for myself who I am.

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