By Maria Seger
This year, the Connected Academics fellows have frequently discussed how and why to network—to develop contacts and interact with professionals in industries where we might want to work. During our conversations, fellows articulate a general aversion to networking, citing the risk of appearing awkward, parasitic, or too much like a “suit.” In many ways, the culture of academia—and of graduate school more specifically—causes these reactions to the concept of networking. However, if we take a closer look at the professionalization we undergo in graduate school, we may come to realize that we’re already networking and equipped to network successfully. Thus, we may overcome our distaste for networking by changing our frame of reference.
During our sessions this fall, most fellows expressed anxieties about networking. Some of these fears seem to stem from our current cultural immersion in academia and graduate school, where clear power dynamics are normally always at play. As graduate students, we have “advisers” and “dissertation directors”; as teachers, we command our classrooms. The reality of overextended faculty and the tendency to privilege research over teaching and service lead to our hesitance to ask for anything from anyone. But in some ways graduate students experience a significant double bind: while we’re taught to be independent early in our graduate careers, we’re also subject to an apprentice model of education, which necessitates our dependence on those who are considered legitimate experts. Our sense that networking is uncomfortable, opportunistic, or nepotistic, then, seems to result from our present position in the academic hierarchy and from the limits of the current model of graduate education.
But networking need not validate these concerns. Unable to escape my academic training, I investigated the history of the word networking in the Oxford English Dictionary. Defined as “the action or process of making use of a network of people for the exchange of information, etc., or for professional or other advantage,” it appears around 1976—perhaps a reaction to the stagflation of the 1973–75 recession. This historical context and the idea of “making use of a network … for professional … advantage” speaks to some of our apprehensions, but the main concept of “exchang[ing] … information” sounds quite like what we do every day as scholars and teachers. If we were to think about networking as a symbiotic process—as an exchange of information, where each party has an opportunity to learn something—would it become less intimidating?
Our academic training has, in many ways, already prepared us to network, which includes handling potential rejection. For example, many of us have presented on or chaired panels at academic conferences, where we’ve connected with scholars with similar interests. We’ve also enrolled in seminars and attended talks in other departments at our home universities, where we’re regularly expected to introduce ourselves and our work to new audiences. Most significantly, graduate school necessitates learning to manage countless forms of rejection, whether of article submissions or fellowship applications. The often continual crisis state that is many people’s experience of graduate school means that we regularly think in worst-case scenarios. The good news is that a fleeting moment of polite rejection is the worst-case scenario of a failed attempt to network.
I’m not a networking expert, but in adjusting my expectations of networking—thinking of it as an opportunity to exchange information—I plan to draw on my natural intellectual curiosity, my openness to new ideas, and my desire to share the value of the humanities with a broader audience, all of which I’ve significantly developed in graduate school. From this perspective, networking seems less like a daunting task and more like an opportunity to learn and to grow.
“Networking, N.” Def. 4. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
Maria Seger is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Connecticut. In her dissertation, “At All Costs: Property and Extralegal Violence in American Literature and Culture,” she argues that as the United States economy became increasingly market-based over the course of the nineteenth century, literary portrayals of extralegal violence articulated, challenged, and transformed notions of property and ownership grounded in hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Her article “Ekphrasis and the Postmodern Slave Narrative: Reading the Maps of Edward P. Jones’s The Known World” appears in Callaloo. She is a former assistant editor of MELUS: Multi-ethnic Literature of the United States and a founding organizer of the Graduate Employee Union–United Auto Workers Local 6950.