The Social Network: Or; Does Networking Really Matter To An Academic Career?

March 12, 2011, 1:08 pm

One of 17 ways to visualize Twitter.

Why do we tell young scholars to “network,” and what  do we mean by it?

As I was finishing up Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) last night, I came across this gem of a quote on p. 138:

I feel that my career benefits regularly from the results of my networking.  My ultimate take on networking is, however, this:  No single event in the course of my career that I can cite has been directly caused by networking.  Nevertheless, the results of networking have regularly smoothed, stabilized, and supported my career and made it more pleasant (there is that term again) than it would have been without it.

In general I would say (and I would say this to young writers particularly):  Rarely if ever can networking make a writing career when no career is to be made.

Delany, as many of you know, is a queer science fiction writer who has also written a fair amount about the sexual landscape of New York City.  To put this quote in context, Delany is writing about the redevelopment of the Times Square district in the 1980s and 1990s, and its consequences for human relationships.  In the second half of the book, he works out the distinction between the formalized set of connections that “networks” represent (in this case he is talking about writers’ conferences, and the science fiction events that are a part of his professional life), and what he calls “contacts.”  The latter category, he argues, are informal, unpredictable, and are produced through a spontaneous, democratic generosity that is far more likely to produce a significant change in one’s circumstances.

Delany’s view that cultivating connections did not make careers surprised me, to say the least, since I have always viewed the mainstream literary world as highly networked.  Those of us who fail to break in may not be writing what a larger audience wants to read, but we often don’t know (or command the respect of) the right people either.  When I was living in New York full time in the 1980s, the people who got published were also the people who were adept at getting invited to parties, meeting important people, and aggressively using those people to move up the chain.  Fran Lebowitz was, and still is, a classic example of such a person; but a great many other well-published authors, who are far less amusing, also fit that category.  Perhaps it’s just an outsider’s perspective, but I still see major book contracts being delivered into the hands of some people and not others because they are able to work their networks effectively and get in to see the right people. 

But what about the history world?  What role does networking play and should we counsel younger scholars to put time into it?  Has my own career benefited more from networking or “contacts”?

To answer the last question first, I would say that I would have to add a third category of connections that are neither contacts or networking, but something in between:  more dynamic and spontaneous than networking, and more durable and sustaining than contacts.  For example, I first met Historiann in a cab, a cab which she reminded me many years later when we sat down for lunch over beer and oysters, I paid for.  I was a professor with a travel budget, she a graduate student, and the cab cost the same regardless of how many people were riding in it.  I have no memory of paying for the cab, but it sounds like something I might do, as it fits my general philosophy of social welfare in which resources are redeployed to those who will, in turn, redeploy their own resources to others when they succeed. 

Fast-forward any number of years, I have become Tenured Radical, and I get an email from the author asking me to look over a new blog, Historiann, which quickly became one of the hottest history blogs around.  Since then, we have become friends and done three different projects together, none of which has probably changed our lives, but which have, nonetheless, been very pleasurable and satisfying.  So is this contact or networking?  Did the cab matter?  Would we have met in the blogosphere anyway?

Who knows.  I think the tougher question, since we are all free in the blogosphere to pursue the friendships and intellectual exchanges that we desire (and it would be interesting to hear more from Delaney about whether he thinks the Internet has altered his paradigm), is:  in the more constricted realm of the job market and academic publishing, does networking matter?

To this I would actually say no, it doesn’t.  This isn’t a reason not to go to conferences, of course, and I would urge all universities to fund conference attendance for graduate students and younger scholars to the fullest extent that they can.  I think it works against the stultifying tendency of the academy to keep untenured people in as subservient a state as possible for the longest possible time.  It encourages friendship rather than naked competition (many of my closest friends, and those who I still seek advice from, are women who I met through the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians as a graduate student.)  Finally, it encourages people to keep up in their own and related fields, to be challenged by others and respond to those challenges, and to become socialized.  These are all good things.

But I have never known anyone who could attribute their academic success to the fact that they were well-connected.  In fact (brace yourself for a downer):  some of the best connected people I know have suffered repeated setbacks, on the job market and in publishing, despite their ability to network and excellent reputations.  Networking is also different from having letters from influential people, whose opinion is respected by others and who testify to your excellence.  Such things count, as do the phone calls that people place before making a Big Hire, to the people they really trust (I’ve made those calls and received them.)  But there are simply too many people involved in any given decision for even the most influential people to have a decisive role in your future.  Paradoxically, it is not infrequent that when someone invested in your success is accidentally in a position to help you, s/he will recuse hirself from the decision entirely in order to ensure that the decision is perceived as just.   

I’m not saying that this makes academia the cradle of democracy.  I’m just saying it doesn’t work that way.  Delany’s best observation is:  “Rarely if ever can networking make a writing career when no career is to be made.”

Where I would<
/i> say that networking has helped me enormously is my ability to get things done.  The more people you know in your field, the more effective you are.  The more widely known you are as an honest person, or a fun person to work with, or someone who understands the principles of fairness and reciprocity, the more likely you are to make other people feel that you are worth spending their limited time and energy on.  In a more local sense, I find my networks among mid-level administrators at Zenith to be an invaluable resource for problem solving, information gathering, and getting channels unclogged.  If this post teaches you nothing else, it should be this:  administrative assistants hold the keys to your kingdom; information technology people are gods and goddesses; and the registrar’s office is a temple.

The ability to get things done not only makes life more pleasant, and far richer when you consider time consuming projects like program development and the hiring of new colleagues, but it frees up time to write.  It also brings interesting and novel projects — book series, journal articles, special issues, conferences, and Internet-based exchanges — to fruition.  This, I think, reveals the basic value of networking:  when it works, it isn’t about you.  It’s about you in relation to others.  Scholarship, at its most effective, is about exchange, not about the grandiosity of one person.

And that’s why it is worth paying attention to.

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