I have just returned from Charleston, juiced up from one of the most thoughtfully constructed conferences I’ve attended in a long while. It was one of those conferences that attracts both academics and people with a wider range of career experience: I met clergy, museum workers and historic interpreters, archivists, librarians, web developers, K-12 teachers, project managers, both fiction and non-fiction writers, community organizers, and probably more I can’t recall just now. We were all there in our shared interest of the ways in which the history of African-Americans is constructed, presented, preserved, and consumed.
Many things stuck out for me in the duration of this conference as extraordinary. We got to hear from Rex Ellis, one of the curators at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his thoughts on the person who left that noose in the exhibit on segregation last month. We got to attend a welcoming talk at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, whose congregation lost 9 members two years ago this week in a white supremacist domestic terrorist attack. It was humbling beyond belief to see some of their family members greet and welcome us at the door. Afterward, we moved to a reception (catered by one of Charleston’s Top Chef contestants) and participated in a vodun ceremony for the ancestors, and then heard from intrepid park rangers about the ways in which they help Charleston fight the hoopskirts narrative in order to come to terms with its history as America’s largest import-city of enslaved Africans.
The next day, a panel about teaching African-American history in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the current POTUS got incredibly real as black public historians and activists did the emotional labor of sharing some of the most humiliating and painful stories of degradation they had experienced in their careers, and the ways in which they work to support others with the same experiences. The emotional power and conviction of everyone at this conference floored me, because I too am passionate about history specifically because of how it can illuminate the injustices of the past and transform the present.
Something that really struck me in this type of intimate space, was the ways in which attendees approached networking. If you asked them, I doubt anyone would have used that word to describe what was going on. You see, the people at this conference were each passionate beyond belief about finding ways for public history to affirm the humanity of black people, both of the past and in the present. All of the conversations around panels and receptions and plenary talks were held with utmost enthusiasm and the spirit of “What you are doing is so incredibly awesome, how can I help or be part of it?” People forged connections, planned collaborations, and shared skills organically, all coming from the same desire and passion.
So what does that tell me about networking? It tells me that enthusiasm and passion are really the keys. Writers, teachers, and academics might be pretty introverted, but we also are by and large people-people. We care about humanity, we are sensitive and hate anything that feels fake. Networking just to increase contacts and opportunities feels disingenuous, like you’re only talking to someone to get something for yourself. And the people you are talking to at events like this aren’t stupid- they know what you’re doing. That can make it so awkward.
I think the earlier in your career you are, the worse this can feel. Whenever you are starting in a career, you are mostly in the position to receive mentorship and help, and rarely to give it. That can make you feel like you are imposing on people, or forging a relationship specifically in order to help your career.
That can be a gross feeling. As it should be, because it is gross to think about other people as stepping-stones on the way to your success, and mentors who have tried to get you to do that are doing our professions a disservice.
What if you re-oriented yourself and the way you think of networking?
No one else in the world is exactly like you. It is your difference, and not your achievements, that gives you something to contribute. As a beginner in any career, you still have life experience to offer others. The way you grew up, your previous jobs, etc., even if unrelated to writing/teaching/academia, all help you understand people and give you a wealth of skills from which to draw. So take stock of your skills: what makes you different from the people in whose work you are interested? Could any of that help them in some way?
For example, I grew up working class in a bilingual household, while the majority of my colleagues grew up middle-class. They also teach in a University that has a high proportion of students from the middle class and the 1%. This means that my experiences as an undergrad are incredibly helpful to the colleagues of mine who aim to teach as inclusively as possible, and who want to ensure our scholarship students are receiving what they need to succeed. I am more than happy to help anyone who wants to help working class and first-generation students fit in and do their best.
Never be afraid to call on your life to help your work. There will be many people who tell you “it’s just a job,” but when you are writer, teacher, or academic, your life and your work are not separate. You are one whole being with a lot of amazing experience that may not obviously fit anywhere, but could one day be useful for someone. That’s the key there- how can you be of use to your profession and how can you support the passionate people who genuinely deserve to be there and make it better?
And yes, often it will not be reciprocal, but it will be communal. Instead of helping someone and being helped by them in return, give indiscriminately, and trust that you will be given in turn. Don’t worry that you’re giving more than you will get in return, and stop worrying about those people who seem to be taking more from the pot than they put in. In the humanities and arts, people like that tend to not get very far, because giving provides more long-term rewards than does receiving. People who don’t understand that process tend to rely on the gifts of receiving, and never experience the gifts of giving. Their career boosts come from external sources, and they never learn how to tap their own internal resources. Ironically, those you can only tap by giving them away first.
This sort of generous behavior, in which you seek out ways to help the people who do the most good for your line of passion, enriches your profession in ways that will come back to you, often at times you expected it the least, but need it most. Think about the top people in your field: are they not usually the most generous and helpful? Aren’t they always so much more humble and amazing in person? That is not a coincidence. In the arts and humanities, generosity and success go hand in hand.
So, as John F. Kennedy would have said had he been a writer, teacher, or academic: Ask not what your profession can do for you, but what you can do for your profession. The rest will follow.