Tuesday, January 04, 2005

 

Schmoozing, Networking, and the Joys of Bizarre Hotel Parties

As far as I can tell, MLA is, at its best, all about the art of the schmooze. Yes, there are panels where people present papers about their research, about teaching, or about the profession generally (and I will post on this later in the week). But let's be clear: the point of MLA is not attending these panels or presenting on them. These panels exist not as the central point of MLA but rather as a way to secure funding for MLA attendees from their universities. Were I not giving a paper at this year's MLA, I might have gotten some money to attend - because my department chair is very generous about giving at least a little bit of funding even just to attend a conference - but given the expense of MLA, I probably wouldn't have been able reasonably to afford to attend. Or, I guess I could afford it, but I wouldn't spend my own pennies to go to that madhouse in between Christmas and the New Year. So, if one is not on a search committee, the way that one gets funded to go to MLA is to present on a panel. In other words, the panels are a means to an end - schmoozing - and not the end in itself.

Ok, so now to get to the meat of this post, which, I feel compelled to mention, reflects only my own experience and thus may not reflect what others experience at MLA. As far as I can tell, there are different categories of schmoozing/networking, and I think it's useful to break these down by Schmoozing Objects (SO). After identifying the SO, I will then attempt to outline the particular Schmoozing Objective to be Achieved (SOA) in terms of the SO.

SO #1 Grad School Peeps. This category includes anyone vaguely affiliated with one's graduate institution(s), including vague acquaintances, good friends, mentors, professors, advisers, people whom you never met or who arrived after you had finished or had finished before you arrived. SOA: While one may not necessarily like all of these people, it's important to touch base with them because it is through this network that one can a) get valuable information about publication/job opportunities b) professional advice that one might not be able to seek from colleagues in one's field of specialty and/or current colleagues at one's job. Also, sometimes these are old friends and it's just nice to see them and to renew contact. Oh, and also, in my case anyway, it was important to schmooze with my adviser because most of the time I think he hates me and thinks I'm stupid, and so I feel constantly under pressure to perform like a trained monkey in front of him to prove that a) he shouldn't hate me and b) I'm not stupid so that c) he'll continue to recommend me positively for things. This may just be my own weird adviser-psychodrama, though, so I doubt this applies for all.

SO #2 Random People in Common Areas. This category pretty much speaks for itself. SOA: I'm not sure there is a definite objective for this, other than that it's nice to be friendly to people and you never know when the wheel of karma will reward you for such. Also, I particularly like to be nice to people who are clearly on the market or who seem particularly frazzled and lonely because MLA can be a daunting place.

SO #3 People Whose Panels You Attend. But I think it's important that if one attempts to schmooze with these people that one has something real to say to them about their paper, and not just "I enjoyed your paper," because while that's nice to hear, I don't think it really registers with the person, which means that one doesn't achieve effective networking. Instead, I only go up to people after panels if a) I responded to something particular in the person's presentation b) if my work relates in some way to what the person presented on c) if I know the person's other work and wanted to mention something about it to them or d) if the person is somebody who falls on my "famous to geeks like me" list, because it's always good to make connections with people like that whenever possible. Just one of these reasons is enough, or they can work together in various combinations. Also, it's important to be fairly brief in this situation. SOA: The specific objectives for this generally depend upon which reason(s) above one chooses for speaking to the person, but the overall objective, to my mind, is to make enough of a connection with the person that it is decided that one or the other of you will get in touch regarding whatever it was you chatted about after the convention.

SO #4 Colleagues within One's Specific Specialization. In general, this means to going to any panels sponsored by allied organizations of the MLA that relate to one's research and to any social events sponsored by such groups. It also means making the effort to go see people from these smaller organizations speak if they are on the program elsewhere than on an allied-organization-panel (because others will probably go to hear them speak to, etc.). SOA: I'm kind of ambivalent about my objectives in this arena, in part because many of my good colleague-friends fall into this category and so part of the schmoozing is just about wanting to hang out with them. However, let's be honest, even when that is the case, one does this kind of schmoozing to make one's name in his/her subfield and to become "known" to people who will send opportunities one's way and who can serve as potential readers of manuscripts, recommenders for things, etc. etc. etc. I'm fairly sure that the fact that Fancy Journal wants to consider my MLA paper for publication has as much to do with my successes in this schmoozing category as it does with my oh-so-brilliant mind.

SO #5 Miscellaneous. This, for me, pretty much includes any random invitations to socialize that seem like they might be promising in some way. SOA: You never really know what may come of this sort of thing.

Ok, so the thing that I find weird about much of the schmoozing at MLA is that it takes place in hotel rooms. Prior to my foray into the world of MLA, the last time I went to a party in a hotel room I believe I was 16 years old and there was a pony-keg involved. Obviously, the MLA Hotel Party Culture (HPC) generally revolves around a meager (or not-so-meager, depending upon who's giving the party) spread of wine, cheese, and crackers. It consists of a bunch of people standing around - if lucky, in a suite, if unlucky, around a bed - and talking nonsense to one another while glugging wine. The rooms are always too small and don't have real seating, but this is perhaps one reason why these shindigs are a good place to network - people can't really stay in one place or get away from you if you try to introduce yourself. I went to four of these this year. Two of them were thrown by societies that I belong to. One was thrown by my adviser for people from my grad institution. The last was one thrown for Stanley Fish (apparently, though I didn't notice him there, but I was pretty much hammered by the time I arrived at that party so I might have had a conversation with him for all I know). In all cases, including the last, I accomplished good networking/schmoozing. I pretty much think that the HPC is where the real MLA happens. All of the other stuff is just window-dressing.

(Something to think about for another time: it's bizarre that the most important things that happen in my profession - first interviews for jobs, important parties for networking - happen in hotel rooms. Perhaps this has something to do with why I feel sometimes that I'm whoring myself in this profession?)

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