Monday, January 08, 2007

What's wrong with networking.

This from Dr. Crazy got me thinking about networking and the academy. I know perfectly well that networking is pretty much do-or-die in the corporate world. (One of the many reasons I have for avoiding said world.) I also know perfectly well that humans, being humans, will always favour those they know over those they don't. No matter how good you look on paper, you always have to have that little personal edge: either you know the person you're talking to, or you know someone they know. Without the personal connections, things just don't happen. That's people.

So, in short, people rely on social connections and the academy is a garden of roses. The former is basically Dr. Crazy's point, with a healthy dollop of "and if you don't do it, you're committing professional suicide".

The problem, of course, is that this acceptance of the "necessity" of networking ignores how utterly inefficient and negative the process really is. I'll deal with these in turn. The inefficiency should be relatively obvious. Getting to know people takes a lot of time; getting to know them well enough that they'll do you a professional favour takes even longer. The academy is actually advantageous in this regard, in part, because you can get to know more senior members of the profession by attending grad school with them, taking their classes, or attending their conference talks. But it still takes a significant chunk of one's day, time which could be spent actually, say, doing the job: that is, preparing for classes or doing research (either or both of which allegedly being the purposes of an academic). Wouldn't it waste less of everyone's time to squelch the reliance on networking and rely instead on what we at least pretend to be relying on, i.e., strength of publication record, teaching evaluations, job talk, and interview?

Furthermore, the networking process actually negatively impacts on the quality of the profession. Being well-connected is a good measure of one's gregariousness, but is at best a poor correlate for one's academic aptitude. (I'm actually having a hard time thinking of a profession where it's a good correlate for a relevant attribute. Escort, maybe?) A good publication record, good teaching evaluations, an interesting and engaging job talk, and a solid interview performance are, by contrast, better correlates for the skills that a successful and talented academic should have. So, then, being well-connected is one of the last things one should look for when considering a potential hire (or conference participant or book chapter contributor or whatever). To be sure, it does matter whether a person can function within the organization they are being brought into. A new lecturer needs to get along with the others in the department; a contributor to a book needs to work well with the authors. And networking may be able to measure this. But, two things. First, this is only one factor. Most people who have been through a university have a story of the weird but brilliant prof who didn't get along with the rest of the department but was kept around because he was simply good. So, looking for those who are well-connected runs a deep risk of missing the brilliant misfits, which is detrimental to the profession as a whole. Second, the only real way to test whether someone fits within an organization is to bring them in and see. I'm sure everyone has a story like this as well, wherein a promising new employee has some bizarre or offensive habit that didn't get caught in the interview process which makes them an utterly inappropriate fit for the social group.

So, on the whole, while the academy certainly does function on networking, and humans do as well, it strikes me that this is both a waste of time and energy and a horribly misdirected expenditure of same. Thus, while it may be necessa ry, it is unquestionably a necessary bad, and not a necessary good.

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