Advice

How Do You Teach Networking?

Brian Taylor

April 07, 2011

At the end of the fall semester my wife and I went out to our favorite restaurant, where we found ourselves in a polite scrum with a man and his teenage son for the one seat available at the crowded bar. Although they probably had arrived at the seat just before us, the man generously ceded it to my wife, and we struck up a conversation.

It turned out that they were visiting from Florida, and were in New England for a tour of a nearby university, a larger and more research-oriented institution than the liberal-arts college where I teach. Since I direct the honors program at my college, I told them about it and encouraged the son to consider applying. The father and son both seemed interested, so I gave them my business card, and then a table opened up for them and we parted company.

As they were walking away, I saw the man wave my business card in his son's face, and say: "Networking: This is how business gets done about 90 percent of the time."

I nudged my wife and rolled my eyes, and I'm guessing the son probably rolled his, too, neither of us believing that barroom networking could really make a difference in the universe of higher education.

And at the time I believed that. I have a wealthy brother-in-law who once told me, late one evening in a (different) bar, that he would get me a job at his alma mater, where he made a sizable annual donation. I rolled my eyes at him, too.

"Academia doesn't work like that," I said. "Now buy me another drink."

The first half of that sentence reflected my instinctive distaste for the very idea of networking—a distaste, and perhaps mistrust, that I know is shared by many of my fellow academics. Networking, for me, has always called to mind images of unctuous sales reps glad-handing one another at conventions, everyone acting as friendly as possible because, at bottom, they all want something from each other.

Last month, however, after witnessing an expert networker in action at an academic conference, I was forced to re-evaluate my half-baked notion of networking as a polite term for slimy self-promotion. The change of heart came about more easily because the expert in question happened to be my older brother Tony.

A political scientist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and a scholar of ethics in international relations, Tony told me a few months ago that he would be in Montreal in March for the annual convention of the International Studies Association. Since we live an ocean apart, and I don't get to see him much, I decided to drive up from Massachusetts and spend a day or two with him at the conference.

"I'll clear my calendar on Saturday for you," he said, "but you could even come on up on Friday, as long as you don't mind going out to dinner with a bunch of political scientists."

So I showed up in Montreal at around 3 p.m., on Friday. He was still chairing a panel, so I sat down by the concierge's desk to wait for him. A few minutes later I spotted him coming across the hotel lobby, and stood up to greet him. Just before he reached me, someone stopped him and shook his hand. He disengaged himself, we hugged, and then I turned to pick up my bags. During the five seconds it took me to gather up my things, someone else came up and greeted him.

"I just have to talk this person for a few minutes," he said to me, "while you get settled in upstairs. Meet me down here in a half-hour."

A half-hour later, we sat down in the hotel bar to catch up. Before I had three words out of my mouth, someone walked up and put a hand on Tony's shoulder, and asked if he had plans for breakfast the next morning. Another small group of people walked by, all of whom stopped and greeted Tony by name. Anyone who stayed for more than a minute or two was dutifully introduced to his younger brother, the English professor, before they moved on to their next panel, drink, or dinner plans.

Over the course of the next 48 hours, that same scenario happened countless times. Whether we were in the lobby, browsing at the book exhibit, or walking around the streets of Montreal, we could not go more than five or 10 minutes without running into someone who greeted Tony by name, and who wanted either to catch up with him briefly or talk a quick little bit of shop—their plans for a forthcoming conference, comments on a recent controversial publication, questions about the editorial board of some new journal.

Sometimes, after the person had moved on, Tony would explain the association. "He's a former Ph.D. student," he would say, "and he's teaching in England now." Or: "I wrote him a letter of support for his tenure case." Or: "We're planning a panel together for a conference I'll be at this summer."

None of it ever struck me as unctuous, self-promotional, or even directed toward a specific goal. It looked to me like the way the business of his discipline was getting done, as he made and reaffirmed contacts with a host of people who were all invested in the enterprise of conducting research and teaching in international relations.

As the weekend wore on, I found myself returning again and again to my obviously mistaken notion that networking was unimportant to academics. Here was some of the most effective networking I have ever seen, and the environment was about as academic as it comes.

It struck me all the more powerfully because, in comparison, I began to see myself as the worst networker in the world. The last Modern Language Association meeting I went to was in Philadelphia. I took the train down from Massachusetts on the morning of my panel, and came home the next day. Over the course of that 24-hour period, I spoke to about five people—at least four of whom were the other participants on my panel. I spent the rest of my time trudging alone through the streets of the frozen city or reading in the hotel bar.

The first conclusion I drew from watching my brother was for myself: I need to do more networking—a lot more. The next time you see me at an academic conference, the chances are pretty good that I'm going to walk up and introduce myself, shake your hand, and see if you want to have a breakfast meeting.

The second thought that occurred to me, though, was a question: Is the lesson that I learned one that I should be teaching my students?

If business happens through networking, then what should I be doing to help my students understand both why, and how, to network? Do I have an obligation to teach the importance of networking to students in my English courses, or can I safely leave that lesson to my colleagues in the business department?

I am guessing that those of you who teach at research universities, and have graduate students under your care, probably do take the time to impress upon your charges the importance of networking, and perhaps even nudge them out into networks you have already established. The kind of one-on-one interaction that professors have with doctoral students seems like it would lend itself well to career lessons.

But what about those of us who teach primarily, or exclusively, undergraduates, and are in fields where networking would be unlikely to find itself on the curriculum? Should I raise the topic in the senior capstone seminars I teach in the English department? Or should our department offer workshops or co-curricular events that will either teach students about networking or help them get started on it?

This all might seem pretty far afield from what I was trained to do in my English Ph.D. program. But with each passing year of my life as a tenured professor, I gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the way in which faculty members can, and should, contribute to their institutions outside of the classroom.

Before I had tenure, I used to scoff when the admissions office would send out requests for faculty members to contact prospective students, or appear at admissions events. You do your job, I would think to myself, and I'll do mine.

I have a better view of the larger picture now, and understand that if every constituency at the institution doesn't help in attracting new students, we won't have an institution to which to attract them. So these days you'll find me, several times a year, giving a talk or participating in events for prospective students.

By the same token, I have come to understand that helping students get into graduate school or get jobs is part of my responsibility, too. They didn't pay all of that tuition money to come to a small, liberal-arts college only to be kicked out the door at the end of my seminar without a second thought for their futures. And I do my share of advising students about graduate school, writing letters of recommendation, and responding to any requests for help from graduating seniors or recent graduates.

But if the lessons I learned about networking last month in Montreal are correct, then I am not doing nearly as much as I could to help them understand the importance of this basic skill.

Acknowledging that doesn't help me come up with any concrete steps I could take in or out of the classroom, though. Even if I can see how helpful it would be to teach my senior majors the importance of career networking, and help them get started on it, I don't have a clear vision of what that lesson would look like.

If you do, help get the conversation started below. I invite readers to share their reflections and experiences on this issue, and especially to help those of us who are not in business fields to think about how—and perhaps whether—we might help our students learn the lesson I learned from tagging along behind my big brother.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is http://www.jamesmlang.com. He welcomes mail from readers sent to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.