It was that situation some of us dread: sitting in a pub surrounded by academics deep in conversation about a topic about which I knew nothing and could contribute little.
On this occasion, the topic was the relative merits of various men’s football teams, and it occupied the editorial collective of a journal for the best part of an hour. It wasn’t just that I was the only female editor, but I was also clearly the only one who was not a football fan. And yet nobody saw fit to change the conversation.
Building informal relationships with academics can be crucial to our careers. The importance of networking is drilled in to us during our PhDs, and getting an academic job is increasingly reliant on personal contacts and recommendations. Informal socialising at conferences is often the most valuable way to get to know our peers and build connections, yet we rarely discuss the rights and wrongs of how this typically proceeds.
As a PhD student I was encouraged to simply hang out at drinks receptions and tag along with senior staff to impromptu meals. I thought that feeling awkward, having nothing to say and being drunk were just part of the process. More recently, I had to abstain from alcohol and I realised quite how ingrained drinking is in British academic socialising. At one weekend workshop I requested that we not spend all evening in the pub, and was told that I was being difficult. I wanted to enjoy meeting new academics and collectively reflect on the day’s events, but there are only so many soft drinks one needs and after a while being the only sober one in a noisy, crowded pub gets tiresome.
If we want a more diverse and inclusive academia, which I would hope at least some of us do, then we need to reflect on how we socialise and network. Of course I am not suggesting that academics cannot go to the pub and talk about football. But I am talking about those moments after conferences, seminars and workshops when the formal proceedings have ended and we are entering social time, and how we can best make use of them.
For starters, we need to think more carefully about the spaces that we choose to extend into. At one conference, we went on to a local community cafe that was spacious, quiet and conducive to informal conversation. After another weekend workshop we sat around a campfire in the Derbyshire hills. Restaurants or non-academic meeting rooms can also be more welcoming and productive spaces than pubs, and they have the additional advantages of not being dominated by alcohol and working just as well during the day as at night.
The presumption that academics are available to socialise in the evenings also needs to be challenged. If all networking happens after events, then this adds to the exclusion of those with other interests and responsibilities. Even though I do not have children, I have other things I want to spend my evenings doing.
We also need to think more carefully about our conversation topics. A few months after my football experience, I found myself subjected, after a workshop, to a conversation focusing solely on men’s cricket. Small talk is sometimes necessary, especially after a long day of conference sessions, but there are many more inclusive subjects than sports teams. I have enjoyed random conversations with academic strangers about food, travel, films and children, for instance. Most of us have some experience of each of these, and even if we have no children ourselves, we have all been one. Listening to others’ experiences is engaging even if we haven’t seen the particular film, visited the particular place or tasted the particular meal they are talking about.
Some may see these complaints as incidental, but unless we become better at creating open, inclusive and informal networking opportunities, some scholars will continue to miss out on the leg-ups that social networks can provide in areas such as peer review and job opportunities. And if there is one sporting concept we all need to grasp, it is the importance of a level playing field.
Jenny Pickerill is professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield.