Friday, June 4, 2010


I used to think that academic work was a solitary endeavor: that professors shut themselves away with their sources, thought long and hard about them, and emerged years later with masterly tomes. In fact, it is highly collaborative. I always read the "Acknowledgments" section of books because I love visualizing the network of archivists, editors, colleagues, mentors, and family members who have become invested in a project and helped it succeed.

After reading a particularly rich set of acknowledgments last week, I started thinking about how one builds the networks that are so vital to good academic work. I did a little research on the AHA website and came upon a resource titled "How to Be a Good Graduate Student," by Marie desJardins (University of Maryland, Baltimore County). Amidst the funding and publishing advice was a section on networking. I'm re-posting some of it here with my comments so that legal history graduate students can profit from it and so that more senior scholars can chime in.

desJardins' first point is that networking is a skill: although it comes naturally to some people, most of us have to learn. So where do you start? desJardins suggests conferences -- and adds, for the introverts out there, that "[j]ust going . . . and standing in the corner isn't enough." I confess that I did exactly that for part of my first ASLH meeting. I knew only a few people, and I was nervous about approaching established scholars, even at this remarkably friendly conference. I remember going up to my hotel room during that first lunch break and eating a bagel (which, in true graduate student fashion, I hoarded at the free continental breakfast) because I was too shy to tag along with another group.

Fortunately, a few circumstances helped me make the most out of the meeting: (1) I presented a paper, and (2) I connected with a few graduate student acquaintances. Presenting a paper is useful because usually people in the audience will ask you questions or approach you afterward to chat. These conversations are a way to get to know scholars from other institutions who are interested in similar ideas or methodologies. Connecting with other graduate students is helpful because they will be able to introduce you to the handful of people they know.

desJardins also suggests "[i]ntroducing yourself to people whose presentations you found interesting, and asking a relevant question or describing related research you're doing." I concur. At the same time, I would urge graduate students to not be discouraged if the opportunity doesn't arise. I've found that emailing people after a conference has been just as useful and has given me a chance to organize my thoughts.

"[T]alk about your research interests every chance you get," desJardins urges. I agree in theory, but I also think that conferences offer valuable opportunities for other types of professional conversations, so I wouldn't urge people to continually steer discussions toward their own scholarship. I think you can gain just as much by, as desJardins also suggests, having summaries of your work "mentally prepared." That way, when someone asks what you work on, you can provide a clear and concise answer. (I now say something like "welfare rights before the movement.") You can follow up with a more detailed explanation if the person is genuinely interested.

If all of this seems daunting, start with smaller gatherings. I've felt lost at Law and Society, for example, but I've formed enduring friendships at the one-day legal history conferences that my home institution occasionally hosts.

Other suggestions from this helpful guide include maintaining relationships via e-mail, volunteering for program committees, and sending your resume to book review editors. Do you agree that networking is an important skill? If so, what other tips would you offer aspiring legal historians?

Image: Peter Hoffer "networking" with Justice Scalia.