Make contact - accost the great and the good

April 30, 2004

Interacting with our peers often clarifies our thinking and improves our work, observes Nicholas Saunders.

Networking is one of those terms that elicits strong reactions.

It seems we either use it ourselves, or look away in embarrassment when others do so. Maybe it's our national dislike of creating verbs out of nouns, a practice so beloved of our US cousins, or maybe it's because it is a term that just sounds more at home in the world of commerce.

Perhaps we just don't like giving a name to an activity that most of us do as an integral part of our professional lives. In other words, is this activity so natural that giving it a label serves only to call unwarranted attention to it? By singling it out, do we make ourselves feel pompous or uncomfortable? Some disciplines are more at home with using the term than others. Those who teach business studies and media studies probably have no qualms about it, for the good reason that it is part of the technical language of their subjects. For others, say English or archaeology, while "network" is common, "networking" is not. However, we are talking here not of technical usages by individual disciplines, but of "social nets", of catching people and adding them to a "contacts list" for the PDA generation.

Networking is at least a term that says what it means. And it is as old as civilisation. Academics share with other professionals the interpersonal skills that make us good communicators - in our case, of knowledge rather than business deals and financial reward. In this sense, we network all the time. We go to conferences, exhibitions, lectures and seminars - sometimes to listen, sometimes to speak, but always to participate. This is the heart of it - to forge professional relationships with personality as well as intellect.

The internet and email have expanded infinitely the range of our potential networks, and in an often unpredictable manner. In the "good old days", a half-remembered title of an academic paper or scholar might for ever remain beyond recall - today a Google search not only retrieves every detail but can serendipitously lead us to others as well. But the internet supplements rather than replaces our professional contact-making activities. We still attend conferences and workshops - less to give papers that might well be published anyway than to meet, discuss and argue with specialist groups of our peers. It is the intensity of personal interaction that often clarifies our thinking and improves our work.

While networking is something we do all our professional lives, there is, of course, the added imperative for younger scholars in search of a postdoctoral or full-time position. In Britain, this is nowhere near as developed as it is in the US (and thank God, many who have attended juggernaut US conferences might say). For those starting out, a good conference paper might catch the ear of an influential person as well as like-minded colleagues, and if not there is always the opportunity to accost the great and the good in person during the social aftermath.

Intellectual agility and research potential can be assessed from a different perspective in informal situations.

Whether or not we like the term, networking makes sense and is good academic practice, especially in a shrinking and increasingly fast-paced world. It is one of the terms we use to describe our behaviour as social creatures. In effect, we all use networking skills all the time - with friends, family and acquaintances - though we would never conceptualise such relationships this way. Networking is a skill that we hone as we mature - the more we do it, the easier it becomes. Locating the right colleague for collaboration or critique might not be as important as finding the right partner in our personal lives, but both depend on well-developed communication skills.

Nicholas Saunders is lecturer in material culture in the department of anthropology, University College London.

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