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V. Rethink Your Academic Network

Oct 08, 2015 by Carol Stack and Kathryn Betts Adams

It is high time to think about becoming a member of a brain trust. You’ve witnessed scholars who organize special symposia at annual meetings, who apply to foundations for funds to gather together at a retreat center to ponder age-old debates in their field, or to debate sticky political or policy issues. You may, indeed, have been invited as a junior scholar to observe these heady gatherings in action. Now is the time to become an actor, to set agendas of your own, and do the leg work to gather a working group of your choice. Beyond your own department or school, developing a network of colleagues outside is one of the best things you can do for yourself. There are at least five ways you can put this in motion.

Go Campus-Wide. Find a like-minded colleague or two on your campus and propose working together—perhaps scholars in related fields whose focus and concerns crisscross your own interests. It is easier to keep things local, especially when it comes to arranging meeting places, lodging, etc. This kind of joint commitment can keep your ideas buzzing with others with just a jaunt across campus.

Reach Out to Peers. Share networks and reach out to peers from graduate school or from professional meetings in your field. Make note of scholars who are working on issues, methodologies, or topics you care about. Write younger scholars whose work you admire and bring them on board. A few phone calls or emails can widen your network and help you assemble a group of scholars with whom you share your work, even if your work is in draft form. Chances are they will read and comment on your work, and there’s a good bet that they will begin sending you drafts of theirs. Pretty soon you will feel that you are “in the loop.” It is a good feeling to be connected. You may identify one or two scholars who would enjoy gathering for breakfast at the next professional meeting. That could lead to proposing a symposium for the next annual meeting, a small conference, an edited book, or a job. It might even lead to some fun with like-minded colleagues. It’s hit or miss, but when you hit the target you can forge lifelong colleagues.

Dialogue with the “Anointed.” Okay, so you’ve sent off a draft of a daring and innovative paper to a few of your peers. Good job! They are busy scholars and will take a bit of time to respond. But when they do, edit, ponder, make the changes you agree with, have a colleague at your home institution read it, perhaps revise again—and then what? Send it off as a draft to a couple of established scholars in your field. Ask for any suggestion or guidance they might provide to strengthen or broaden your argument. Of course, they won’t all respond. Busy folks they are. But all you are looking for is one senior scholar to chime in on your work. Even if that scholar disagrees or better yet, has a different take on the issue, you have that information ahead of time. Chances are you can use this feedback as you prepare your work for presentation and publication.

Take Interdisciplinary Action. Nothing is more intellectually emancipating than being in the presence of scholars from outside your university who share your concerns across a variety of disciplines. As an expert, you bring the analytical perspective of your field to the table, and, as an expert, you have the opportunity to poke holes in and refine the questions on the table from a particular vantage point. It is fun and, yes, it is reciprocal. You will be honored by the same treatment. But this only happens if you make it happen. So attend conferences outside your field of study, read interdisciplinary journals, and find partners to coauthor articles, organize conferences, and develop research agendas.  

Go Global. Have you noticed that your colleagues are flying to Amsterdam or Japan for an international conference? Have you sent your paper to a colleague you admire in Naples or London? Have you noticed that the focus of an international conference related to your field puts the puzzle together differently, asks different questions, or evokes a different logic? You want and need those perspectives in order to break out of the frames of analysis handed to you. All scholars fall into old habits and tunnel vision. International travel and activity may help open up new vistas and inject new energy into your work.

Rethink how you will create a network of your favorite scholars. In the next blog, we'll think more about how to set your own agenda for the path ahead.

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