In many philosophy departments and in many universities, it looks like much of academic life for the foreseeable future will remain digital. This has already happened with non-optional events such as teaching, job searches, meetings and thesis supervision. But now, as people are coming to terms with the idea that we will be continuing to spend a lot of our time online, even into the next academic year, the slightly more optional things like conferences and research talks are also taking place virtually. In one regard this is great, online life makes talks more accessible, meaning people who might not otherwise be able to attend in person can now participate. But it also means that we’ll lose out on a very important part of face-to-face academic events, what we might call, for want of a better word “networking”. This is a term usually associated with business, brown-nosing, and people who you wouldn’t want to spend too much time around. But – as I said – for want of a better word. This got me thinking about the idea of “networking” (vom) in an academic context, what it means, and why it’s important.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not sure I really know what “networking” is in an academic context. I get the idea that it’s important for people to know who you are and know your work, but the idea of orchestrating some kind of meet up in order to make this happen has always struck me as very odd. Even as older academics advised us during our graduate studies to invite X for a coffee during conference Y, or send Z an email, myself and my graduate cohort puzzled as to what exactly we were supposed to do in these interactions. And so, we went on, knowing that “networking” was something we should be doing, and seeing other people introduce themselves to “important academics” and “stars of the discipline”, whilst remaining rather at sea with the whole concept.
During my graduate studies, I organised a series of talks on approaches to philosophy. As well as attending the talks, we also took the speaker out to dinner. Looking back, this was presumably a chance for “networking” – impressing these speakers with our philosophical insights and showing how our work related to theirs in the hope that they might remember us, or invite us to share our work with them. What happened in practice though, was on more than one occasion, myself and my fellow graduate students ended up explaining our notion of “meataphysics”, yes you read that right, to the visiting speaker: the doctrine that there are four elementary meat particles: chicken, fish, beef and pork (and the animating principle of gravy) that make up all other mammalian life forms. So, for example, a crab is 50% fish, 50% chicken, whilst a cow is not 100% beef as you might think, but actually 90% beef and 10% pork (bison is 100% beef). We genuinely explained this theory in quite some detail to at least two or three visiting speakers, with mixed results. It is unclear how I still have an academic career.
As much as the idea of “networking” turns my stomach, and the idea of being an “operator” is something I know I would self-sabotage, like Gianina on Love is Blind, the minute I even attempted to go down that route, it is nevertheless very important. This is true, not just career-wise – academia is no more free of the old boys networks than any other profession; but also for one’s academic work: even if you’re a fairly solitary worker, it’s incredibly helpful to have other people who are willing to read your work and give you feedback. But often interacting with people in that grey-zone between friendship and a formal academic relationship can feel like asking for a favour, especially when such interactions get a label like “networking”.
Reticence to put yourself out there or an uncomfortableness about marching up to a veritable stranger and introducing yourself, is something that I think is particularly common for those belonging to underrepresented groups in philosophy, whether on the basis of gender, race, (dis)ability, or class. It is common, I think, to feel that you’re not really entitled to be there (even if only on an unconscious level), and so any connections you try to make might feel like you’re trying to grasp something that’s not really yours. Talking about your work earnestly or even at all might feel like you’re taking up space, so instead you sit back, you listen, perhaps you make small talk. (I’m not saying that’s the explanation for meataphysics, we were just really into that, and spending too much time together in a windowless basement trying to write our various theses).
Moreover, the people who are good at “networking”, especially in its most brown-nosy form, are invariably those who don’t suffer so much from that feeling of a lack of entitlement, or what is often called “imposter syndrome”, and those people are, more often than not, white men. Often the privately educated and/or those from elite universities who are continually told they are the best. If you’ve been told your whole life you are special, that your views are important, your work is great, if you are constantly surrounded by people who look like you, who have the same background as you, who you see succeeding at every level of your profession, then surely it’s only natural to think that someday that will be you too. Maybe it doesn’t even feel like “networking” when you go up and talk to the most well-known philosopher at the conference. Why wouldn’t they want to talk to you? You’re great. Maybe they’ll even learn something from you, or have a project they might like your help with.
But in practice what does this difference in attitude mean? What are the consequences of feeling at home or not feeling at home in these informal academic environs? Does it really matter if you don’t put yourself out there, if you don’t get a chance to chat and “make an impression”? Well yes, I think it does. What it means is that a certain set of people end up making all the connections, getting themselves known, getting remembered in job searches or in recruiting people for special issues or edited collections, and for those who are not so good at self-promotion, whether face to face or, as is becoming increasingly important, on social media, they get left behind, and not because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of confidence and a lack of entitlement. So what can be done?
Firstly, we can properly recognise the importance of informal academic contexts, where these kinds of connections get made, and try and make them more inclusive. This can be achieved by doing really simple things, like including a lunch at your conference where everyone’s invited. Or, if you don’t have the budget, organising drinks for the whole conference so people can get to know each other. Even if you can’t afford to pay for them, just explicitly inviting everyone and encouraging them to join in makes a big difference to those feelings of entitlement and worries about not really belonging. As individuals, we can also make a difference. Senior academics can make the effort to talk to the student or the early career researcher who doesn’t put themselves forward. Even just a passing smile, an acknowledgement that you’re there and it’s ok for people to come and talk to you, makes it so much easier for graduate students and early career researchers who might vomit in their own mouths at the idea of “networking”, feel more able to strike up a conversation. I’ve seen this done a few times and it makes a huge difference.
So although these sorts of things might be on hold for now, when we return to normal life, we should do so with a greater reflection on our practices and how we can make them more inclusive. This is especially important in informal academic contexts, which are often overlooked in formal “diversity and inclusion initiatives”, but they are some of the places where exclusion can really flourish, even if unwittingly. And hey, if you ultimately end up talking about meataphysics, no worries, at least you’re talking, and that’s the first step.