Archive for November, 2012

On professionalism and the social academic…

Posted in Professional on November 4, 2012 by Diana S-V

I want to start off this blog post with a disclaimer. Or, to be more accurate, just a regular claim in which I vigorously and enthusiastically state how wonderful the conference that prompted this post was. Every single speaker offered something incredibly valuable, with a handful of presentations that directly tied into my own research and subsequently prompted a flurry of hastily scribbled (but hopefully important, in the long run) notes. More than that, however, I met several gracious, intelligent, and, yes, straight-up cool academics whose work has had a great deal of influence on how I approach scholarship and writing critically. What I hope to talk about in this post has everything to do with graduate school at the most general and macrostructural level, as well as with my own anxieties, and nothing to do with the quality of my experience, or the character of the people with whom I engaged this weekend.

That said, here we go.

The intersection of social, professional, and intellectual dynamics in graduate school is fucked up. That’s not to say that, like other things that are fucked up—the way you feel when you’ve had three too many glasses of wine or the satisfaction we get from a particularly effective session on the toilet, for example—that this is not immensely pleasurable on some level. There are very few other spaces and circles in which you can experience the variety of relationships that academia can, and will, offer you as a graduate student. But it’s precisely because of the sheer variety, and the degrees of intimacy and professional distance that are available to people in graduate school, that I often experience the worst bouts of a combination of imposter syndrome and the kind of social anxiety that I truly believed was going to stay locked in my memories of high school.

The thing is, there are no rules for how we’re supposed to conduct ourselves at places like conferences, or in other circumstances where those dynamics I mentioned all come together. Department parties and official functions, receptions for guest speakers, all manner of presentations, and even meetings with your mentors or instructors all present opportunities to learn how to master—well, whatever the hell it is I’m supposed to be mastering as part of my experience as a grad student. This weekend was one of those times when I realized how difficult it was to make up your own rules in terms of what that kind of thing, that balance of sociability and making a name for oneself as a professional academic, looks like, and how to put it into practice.

As for me, there are a couple of things that I’m pretty sure I have down. Not having sexual relations with your instructors or mentors has always been a no-brainer for me, though I would never judge any colleague or faculty member who decided that that is something they want to do. Actually, that’s a lie. I’d find it weird. The idea that you can fool around with someone and not have it affect your working relationship with them at all is foolish, and I don’t know many people that would be willing to risk the consequences of those effects for good (even fantastic) sex.  But that’s for other people, not me, so that’s one thing down, at least.

But what about other intimate relations? Is there a difference in intimacy between having lunch with your supervisor on campus and being invited to their home for dinner? How do we decide what we’re comfortable with, and how do we communicate with our mentors and instructors what kind of relationship we’d like to have with them? How do we handle our feelings about how other people in our departments conduct their relationships, or is it really none of our business at the end of the day even if we feel that our professional lives are being affected by the actions of others? What is the appropriate way to approach someone at a conference, or to establish contact with someone without seeming like a brown-noser, or a bumbling idiot? How do you market yourself without coming off as cheap, and how do you establish a reputation for professional conduct without coming off as stodgy?

These are the kinds of questions that I find myself repeating in my head over and over, and I know that it’s going to look different for everyone. But I am having a hard time figuring out what the answers look like for me. I work within a fantastic department that is not only full of incredible colleagues, but genuinely excellent faculty, in every sense of the word. I suppose that what I am most anxious about is finding a balance between being a good networker (without overstepping the bounds of conduct that I set for myself) and being professional (without missing out on those social opportunities that are, as it turns out, also crucial to your success).

At first I was pissed off when I found out that, yes, your social life can and does play a part in the number and quality of opportunities that open up for you as an academic. That’s a fact. And that’s not to say that you can get by on the social aspect alone. All of what I’m speaking to is taking into account the fact that you should always be trying to achieve excellence as a researcher and build up your CV one nifty project at a time, whatever that look like for you. But I’ve noticed that when two academics, both equally strong in research, grades, and potential for future success are at the same function, the difference in who they talk to and how they are treated by the people with which they speak comes down to both social and professional elements. I didn’t sign up for popularity contests. That’s why I wanted to go into academia in the first place. I wanted to go to a place where, if I worked hard and learned how to be a professional in my field and was kind and supportive to my colleagues and superiors, I would have a good shot at a job I could be happy with, even if it wasn’t tenure-track. Of course, there’s more to it than that. But I sure as hell didn’t want to wind up in, say, something like business school or law school, where schmoozing is legitimately part of the curriculum. I suck at schmoozing. I just like books.

But now that I’ve found myself in a position where I do need to figure out how to be social and professional at the same time, how the hell do I pull it off? In addition to wanting to absorb as much information as humanly possible from this conference, I wanted to meet and get to know some of the individuals whose work had been shaping my ideas about what great scholarship looked like. One of those individuals, who I only had a brief encounter with, was warm, endearing, and seemed genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say. I felt great, and didn’t feel like I made a fool out of myself. But I also didn’t say much about my own research and fields of interest, either. It was small talk. In other encounters, my attempt to be professional and, in the course of a conversation, briefly sketch out my dissertation proposal to demonstrate the common ground that I had with other scholars felt flat and out of place (not to mention that they looked bored as hell), but I didn’t want to disrespect them by acting overly familiar. Granted, I’m pretty friendly, but I always maintain a distance to ensure that I don’t sound like a sycophant (I see this happen, and it’s gross) or offend them. Meanwhile, all around me were colleagues making connections, asking questions with reckless abandon, exchanging email addresses, and joking around about their personal lives. Why wasn’t I better at this? How does one learn to be a better social academic?

I don’t know if I just need to get over the preconceptions about what professional conduct looks like. I know graduate students who are constantly socializing with professors in ways I feel I can’t, who have been invited for hot-tub parties and engage in extremely frequent social networking and generally close the distance between the professional and the social so that the instructor becomes, to others who see the relationship, just another colleague. These individuals do, in many ways, have more opportunities and are better situated professionally by being less traditionally professional. But that’s always felt so wrong to me, and I can’t really put my finger on why. I could just be a dinosaur with archaic and outdated notions. But the questions still stand, and at the risk of sounding like Carrie Bradshaw (if I point it out, it’s ironic, and thus acceptable), in a world where the social and the professional intersect constantly, how do you find a balance between professionalism and approachability?