Recently came across an article by Phil Agre on the significance, process and morality of networking in an academic setting. I’ve found it to be substantial, convincing and helpful. Here’s some quotes I found particularly inspiring.
The most important project, once the discussion turns to matters of professional and intellectual substance, is the articulation of shared values, for example, “we both believe in using research to change the world”, or “we both believe in using both qualitative and quantitative methods judiciously, without any a priori bias against either”. Shared values make for stronger professional bonds than shared ideas or shared interests alone. Don’t rush into this, but do keep the conversation focused on the concrete professional topics that will provide raw materials for it. On the other hand, if the conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, that’s not your fault. Don’t force it. Don’t set enormous expectations for a single conversation. It’s a long-term process. Just say “nice chatting with you” in a pleasant way and let it go. If the interaction went well, you can end the conversation by saying, “do you have a business card?” in a mildly enthusiastic way (assuming you have one yourself); if they don’t have a card then shrug and let it go. If the interaction leaves you feeling bad, go get some fresh air, acknowledge the feelings, and be nice to yourself. Talk it out with someone if you need to. Then carry on.
It helps if you understand the structural reasons why graduate school can be so difficult. In passing through graduate school and joining the research community, you are making a transition from one social identity to another, and from one professional persona to another. In a sense you are becoming a new person. But you face an irreducible chicken-and-egg problem: you can’t do research without being a member of a research community, and you can’t be a member of a research community without doing research. This chicken-and-egg problem is typically at its worst in the middle phase of graduate school, after you finish your required coursework but before you narrow down a dissertation topic. During that middle period, the whole world can seem chaotic. All of your candidate topics will seem impossibly gigantic. It might feel like you are pretending to do research rather than really doing it. You might be seized by paranoia about people who will persecute you publicly as soon as you try to present your work. You might be seized by the delusion that someone else has already done your project. These are common feelings; understand that they result from the structural situation you are in, and not from your own personal failings or (necessarily) the failings of other people around you.
“Mass of junk”
In writing a dissertation, and especially when writing a talk about the dissertation research, one often encounters points that need to be stuck in the introduction or conclusion. Terms need to be defined, methodology needs to be explained, objections need to be anticipated, patterns need to be identified, distinctions need to be made, and unanswered questions need to be acknowledged and posed as problems for future work. Of course, everyone tries to assign these points to a suitable place when preparing an outline. But many students find that the points just keep coming, as if a volcano were continually erupting in the middle of the thesis, causing a disorderly mass of troublesome junk to flow out toward the edges. The sheer mass of this junk can be overwhelming, and it can seem as though the whole thesis is going to turn into a hypertrophied introduction and (to a lesser extent) conclusion, with the actual substance of the work left as an afterthought. You should plan for this process, and realize that it is crucial for the formation of your professional voice. What’s happening, believe it or not, is that your mind is reorganizing itself. You are integrating all of the many voices that will lay claim to your topic, and you are sorting out a conceptual framework for your research program that addresses all of those many voices in a coherent way. You may not think that you are engaging with other people’s voices, since the depths of thesis-writing are a very personal, even isolating process. But if you are at the point of writing a thesis then you have already done a great deal of reading, and so you are familiar with established patterns of thinking on many subjects. Those are the voices that you are integrating at this point of the process.
Now, many people do not get excited at the prospect of articulating research agendas and conversing with funding agencies. They do not see themselves as leaders, and they would rather stay in their labs and libraries doing their work. I say fine. It’s a free country. Nonetheless, you have to understand how these things work. Money for your research does not materialize from the clouds, and you don’t want to be stranded when the agenda-setting process strays away from the topics that interest you. Participating in the process, if only at a basic maintenance level, means that you retain a degree of control over your life, as well as an early-warning system that prevents you from getting stuck later on. But more fundamentally, as I have emphasized throughout, the networking process is good for your own thinking. Networking serves many functions, but the most important is as a process of collective cognition. When you talk to everyone and listen to their research agendas, and when you write all their agendas down in front of you and look for the emerging theme that brings order to them, you are stimulating the most crucial functionality of your mind: the largely unconscious ability to synthesize fragments into coherent wholes. Down deep, everyone has a drive toward wholeness. This is the force that makes you a more or less integrated human being and not a schizophrenic mess, and it is also the force by which like-minded individuals cohere their thinking and form movements that are intellectually and institutionally stronger than the separate individuals that make them up. In a sense, then, deliberately talking things through with everyone in your network simply amplifies a force toward wholeness that is already operating in everyone’s personality. The difference is that it’s now a force for the collective good, as well as your own.
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If the serious scholars don’t do their networking, then a vacuum opens up, and operators will seize the opportunity. That’s one more reason why serious scholars should build networks. Even so, the line between serious scholars and operators is not always clear, and as you get involved in intellectual leadership, you will definitely feel the temptation to operate. You will find yourself saying things because they mobilize people and not because you really believe them. And it’s hard to tell the difference, given that being socialized into a new profession inevitably means learning a new language. You will probably sound fake to yourself much of the time, as you learn how to speak this language, and so it’s easy to slip into manipulation instead of real leadership. From that kind of manipulation, it is a short step to the sorts of aggressive empire-building that I described above: encouraging others to talk your own language rather than coming up with their own. That is the deepest moral question that you will face as you engage in professional networking, and you might be surprised how quickly you have to face it.
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