Informal networking and how to meet people on campus

Belonging is not just a result of being in a place – nor it is the sole preserve of students. For university faculty, it comes from chance encounters, small gestures and stepping outside your comfort zone, writes Glenn Fosbraey

Glenn Fosbraey 's avatar
University of Winchester
17 Jun 2024
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Young Asian woman greeting friend at cafe
image credit: iStock/Farknot_Architect.

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Armed with coffee, I find a spare table in the university café, pull my laptop from my bag, log in and start working on the book I’m writing. My reverie is interrupted when two colleagues from our student recruitment department pass by. We chat for five minutes or so, setting the world to rights. 

After they wave goodbye, I return to my writing significantly happier than I had been before our conversation. Over the next hour, I have similar interactions with colleagues from internationalisation, from sport and exercise, from the executive leadership team, from digital services, history and timetabling, and an MA student who gives me an update on both their dissertation and Easter holiday exploits.

These small gestures make a big difference to my well-being as an academic. It’s rare for me to walk from one building to the next without at least one “hi”, wave or conspiratorial roll of the eyes. The me who wrote a Campus article on procrastination might disapprove of such distractions, but they give me a tremendous sense of being part of something. Of being supported. Of belonging. 

Step outside your comfort zone

I’ve worked at the same university for 15 years, but I don’t think my sense of belonging is solely down to longevity. For starters, staff and students come and go on a regular basis. Sure, I’ve known a handful of people since I started, but I’ve got to know many more in the past couple of years. I put this down to often working in communal areas as well as my office

As a dedicated introvert, I do have to fight the urge to be the academic cliché, holed up alone, books and paper everywhere, blinds down and the outside world closed off behind my fire door. But I make the effort because it’s worth it. Not only does it lead to that lovely sense of belonging, it also makes me a better teacher. 

Allow me to elaborate. Working in communal areas, such as the library, lets me interact with people from all over the university. This keeps me tuned in to the wider workings of the institution, which in turn exposes me to new initiatives and ways of working. These inform my teaching practices in a way that staying in my bubble cannot, and that makes me a better informed and more thoughtful and flexible teacher. 

How the other half teach

Alongside my daily detours into campus cafés, I’ve also been involved with a couple of projects this semester that have helped to foster more of a sense of community among staff. 

First, my faculty has tweaked its peer-observation process, so that staff are required to observe lectures from colleagues outside their own departments. This allows us to meet lecturers we may not have encountered before, while also giving us a window into how other disciplines work. Having observed classes in philosophy and religious studies in the past couple of months, I have not only learned a great deal in terms of teaching techniques, class management and research dissemination, I have also created connections with the lecturers I observed. That makes two more people to chat with as they pass my table in the café.

The second project, designed purely for fun, was created to bring together staff from all over the university. The Winch Olympics (whose name started as a stopgap and then stuck) is a competition among faculties and professional departments in three events: five-a-side football, a quiz and a bake-off. The reaction to this event has been a perfect blend of competitiveness and bonding. With the bake-off round still to come, about 60 colleagues have taken part so far. 

From a personal perspective, the competition has required me to resist the introvert’s urge to flee for the proverbial hills at the prospect of organised fun. My footballing abilities aren’t what they were, my trivia knowledge is niche, and the only thing I can bake is a potato, but my faculty colleagues needed me, if only to make up the numbers, and if people are relying on you, disengaging becomes that much harder. A Yale University paper on personal relationships found that people felt closer and more connected to one another after engaging in shared experiences, and this has certainly been the case for me. I’ve forged deeper bonds with my own staff-mates – finding we can now talk more freely and openly after sharing a football pitch – and have created new ones with faculties and departments I’d previously had little to no contact with. If we wanted to, we could call it networking, although it neither looks nor feels like it. 

Anyway, my coffee is drained and it’s time to head off to another meeting (which I can’t say I’m looking forward to). But it does give me another opportunity to “network” en route and experience that precious feeling of belonging. 

Glenn Fosbraey is the associate dean of humanities and social sciences and the head of the English and creative writing department at the University of Winchester.

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