Usernames, Identity, Bard, and Grinnell

Gowellja. It’s the username I was given when I first arrived at Grinnell, their default (tied, I’ve learned, to an old Unix format style/restriction, though I may be wrong about this). JGowell may have been more convenient, and more standardized. I wasn’t in a frame of mind to protest, or to consider this something worth making a fuss about, though I know at least one other student in my class did for reasons associated with an unfortunate outcome from the default, so it was possible. But not for me. Not then. And since, I’ve come to like my username. In a way, it’s almost like a parent giving their child a name. Grinnell gave me the moniker that has become synonymous with my online presence across Reddit, Metafilter,, Gmail (and by proxy anything tied to my email address), Facebook, WordPress, and and and… These letters in this combination have been absorbed into my identity. They are the key to the map of the digital footprint that will outlive me. I didn’t choose gowellja. And yet, I did make an enquiry upon arrival at Bard:


Is it possible to request a different username? A hope of mine is to be consistent across institutions, continuing to use the “gowellja” prefix.

And here was the response:

Hi Jakob,

Bard student emails come in only one format. First letter of FN, First letter of LN and a 4 numbers.
Only faculty and staff get to use last names.

I felt rankled. To be clear (which belies some fear that this may be seen in a negative light), I don’t ascribe the feeling to the response I received or the administrator who sent it. It comes from the belief that we* should say yes to requests when we can, and that this is an instance of a time when I believe a yes costs and risks little to nothing.

Reading into the implication of the email, my mind focuses on a few details. One, the claim that student emails come in only one format. The alpha-numericality of it is distasteful to me in a way that gowellja wasn’t. Perhaps because it seems largely arbitrary. My Bard username is jg9414. The “jg” is obvious. The 9414 has nothing to do with anything, I presume. The second thing that caught my attention was the line, “Only faculty and staff get to use last names,” which at once undermines the first claim and frames username choice (or format) as a matter of privilege. In a subsequent discussion with another Bard employee, someone in the library, I believe, I was told one intention was to create a marker of studenthood vs. professorship. A professor can look at the “from” line and immediately gauge the classification of the sender. I can imagine this to be useful, and I wonder what other effects it might have. This is a separation between the faculty (and staff, but I imagine most emails are flying back and forth between students and professors) and students. I don’t like it.

How big of a deal is this? Realistically, not much. Primarily I’m still using my Gmail account anyway. I care because it’s in the constellation of things I would call indicators about how the school approaches relationships. Another would be the college’s alcohol policy. And here I care more than I would otherwise because I see many indicators that speak of effective practice and relationship.

Is it fair to compare Grinnell to Bard? Writ large, no. On email username policy, I think so. It’s worth saying that, although more professors at Grinnell have usernames that diverge from the convention than students, many Grinnell professors have the default, the same as most students. And it’s also worth saying that Grinnell, for a short window (2013) changed their format to add a class year tag, but this was quickly abandoned in part because of the politics of it: students who took more than four years to graduate had a semi-permanent mark in the form of their username, creating an opportunity for shame.

Right now I’m in a class about identity. Its central question is how can I, as a future teacher, be sensitive to the dynamics at play, especially as relates to which labels students subscribe to. Well, at a fundamental level a username is an instance of a label. Something¬†addressed to me via email equates me with that username. I make no demands, and I want to choose what that label is.


*As educators, mentors, coaches, administrators, parents, any persons in authority, really.


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