Liana Silva, writing from Kansas City, Kansas in the US.
This semester I signed up for the University of Venus Networking Challenge. The challenge asked readers to reach outside of their departments and meet people in other disciplines, in other institutions, and/or in other countries. Because of my current employment position, I find myself getting in touch with a lot of people from other departments. Thus, I thought it would be unfair to count that as part of the challenge. However, the U Venus challenge prompted me to think about my interactions with faculty and staff from other schools and offices differently.
As a teaching assistant and a graduate student, I met people mostly through classes or meetings. If we were taking a class together or worked for the same professor, chances are that we would eventually get to know each other. However, unless your department is an interdisciplinary one, or unless you work outside of the department or have connections with people outside of campus, it is possible that your experience as a graduate student is limited to the footprint of the school—and perhaps only to your department floor. In my case, I knew few people outside of campus until I met my significant other.
Once I was done with coursework, my interactions with my peers were even more limited. Field exams required me to immerse myself in reading, and the dissertation research was no different. Every new semester brought new students while old friends moved away. If I went to a department function I knew few of the students, and without the commonalities of sharing an office or taking classes together, we had little to go by—it got to the point where I had trouble remembering classes when new students would ask me about a professor. Hence, I retreated into my academic shell.
Adjunct teaching was no different; we all taught at different times and had different obligations that kept us away from the office. During that year I was an adjunct, I got to know well two other adjuncts in addition to two faculty members, and the only reason this happened was because we all spent so much time in the office. I would prep for my classes, then I would work on my dissertation, then I would pick up my daughter and drive home. However, this was not the case for most adjuncts.
These stories are not uncommon. We have been warned that our disciplines have become silos, and even with Twitter we might run the risk of listening only to the voices that sound like us or that think like us. It’s easy to follow someone on twitter, but how often do we follow someone from a different discipline or from a different career path?
In my new home town I have felt the urge to reach out and meet other fellow academics in part because I needed the scholarly interaction; the dissertation can become a black hole where you hear only yourself and forget what other voices sound like. In reaching out I have met some wonderful people from different universities (fortunately I live in a city that contains over a dozen universities and colleges within an hour of the city center), and this even helped me find my current job.
As part of the UVenus Challenge, I resolved not just to reach out to other academics but to keep alive the connections I already had. I made lunch appointments, I attended the TEDXWomen live streaming event in Kansas City, heard Gloria Steinem speak at UMKC—a highlight of my semester—and handed out my business card. (To think, I had to remind myself to hand out business cards! Something I had never done before.) But in the spirit of the challenge I pulled my gutsiest move yet: I contacted a Latino/Latina studies scholar whose work I admired and and who teaches where I work. We met for coffee in her office and talked about graduate school, my work, and academic writing. As I sat there, talking about my research and about the process of academic writing in general, I felt like I was shedding my graduate student shell.
As graduate students we immerse ourselves in our departments, and the deeper we go into our research, the less likely we are to connect with others. Making friends as an adult is hard enough without adding the layer of academia. It was not until I moved away from my school to a big city where I knew no one that I really reached out to people across departments and outside of my university. It gave me a real appreciation for the work others do at the same time that I developed new friendships and connections.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.