Networking, or: How I Learned to Stop Fretting and Love the Challenge


Author: Ashley Reis

My first day as a graduate student, it became glaringly obvious to me that the education I would receive would have everything to do with learning to rise to meet challenges in various forms. The first challenge my cohort and I faced as new students at the University of Oregon was to locate a meeting we’d apparently been informed of via notices in mailboxes that we didn’t know we had. While the challenges continued, taking on greater significance—but rarely less confusion—my fellow graduate students and I learned how to navigate, overcome, or sometimes just cope with these challenges, sometimes more gracefully than others.

Most of us face such challenges throughout the course of our studies, as we move to new, far-away towns, cities, regions; join departments of strangers and eventually learn to call them “colleagues,” and maybe even, “friends”; find the right mentors who at once challenge our academic, analytical, and—if we’re lucky—human sensibilities; motivate classrooms of fresh(wo)men (and the occasional senior who’s put off taking composition until his or her final semester) to reconsider how they’ve come to know the world; and—hopefully—figure out how, by some miracle, to grade fifty papers and complete a seminar paper in a week’s time.

We ought to embrace these challenges, it seems, for above all we face the unwavering trials associated with entering “an unending conversation,” a la Kenneth Burke (The Philosophy of the Literary Form). While Burke, of course, uses the metaphor within the context of literary theory, it is applicable here, I think. After all, we graduate students, too, enter a similar conversation. That is, a conversation to which we’ve arrived late, about which no one has time to pause and catch us up, to which we must listen silently for a while until we get a feel for it, then “put in [our oars],” whether or not we know how to row. We sometimes row against the current of this conversation, sometimes with it. And one day we will leave the conversation with still so much left to say, and it flows on without us.

Conferences, what our professors and peers often refer to as “networking,” are an invaluable way to navigate this conversation and our newfound places within it. For many of us, these meetings make up multiple lines on our CVs. Unfortunately, they can be an intimidating experience. But becoming a part of this conversation by way of conferencing, reaching out to individuals throughout our fields of study, and sometimes to others outside of it, does not mean that we can’t fear putting our academic selves and ideas “out there,” but that perhaps we ought to use this fear to motivate ourselves.

We’re not the first to feel like imposters—see, for instance, Science’s article on “Imposter Syndrome.” Sometimes approaching and shaking hands with that pioneer in your field who you admire so much will lead to an amazing exchange of ideas—of course, sometimes it won’t and you’ll be disappointed. But, just maybe, you will walk away feeling like less of a fraud than you once did. Further, by sending an occasional email to an individual who may not have time to catch you up on the intellectual conversation you’ve joined, you may find them willing to point you to the right texts and mentors. Moreover, setting aside the competitive urges we often associate with academia to approach a fellow graduate student with similar interests, perhaps from a university other than your own, can lead to fruitful, collaborative work and newly cultivated camaraderie. And finally, when service opportunities arise, involve yourself in new aspects of your field—you can learn a great deal from administrative positions and behind-the-scenes work. Of course, like many things, you won’t know what suits you until you try, sometimes even a few times—with the exception of, for me, black licorice and olives, which no matter how many times I try them, I always correctly predict the outcome.

I did not begin to learn how to make the most of the space on my CV until I’d completed close to four years in graduate school. As a master’s student at University of Oregon, I didn’t understand the importance of investing time outside of my own department. And beyond this, I was apprehensive about venturing into the conversation on my own. My first visit to a national conference was back in 2007, when I attended the Western Literature Association’s annual conference, held that fall in Tacoma, Washington. The close proximity of the conference quelled my anxiety a bit—Tacoma is a mere four-hour drive from Eugene, where I completed my degree—and meant that I could go for the day, read my poems, attend the lovely reception at the Tacoma’s Museum of Glass that evening, and be back in my own bed just after midnight. I wouldn’t need to hang around awkwardly, watching the others milling about, shaking hands, conversing, sharing, learning from and with one another. What luck, I thought at the time.

Of course, with time we come to know better. So, given a few years of graduate school experience, when I attended my fourth WLA conference last fall, this time in Missoula, Montana, things were quite different. A Ph.D. student at the University of North Texas, I’ve been able to delve deeper into my study of literature and the environment than ever before. I attribute this mostly to setting aside my fears and venturing outside of the English department to engage professors in biology, anthropology, and philosophy, among others, in the conversation. The invaluable connections I made by doing interdisciplinary work has yielded incredible results, thus far. And this time around, I utilized the space of the WLA conference to share the connections I’ve made between literature, ecology, land use, and more.

Sure, I could attribute the success of this particular conference to being a fourth year graduate student, with more sophisticated ideas, more finely tuned rhetorical abilities, and stronger writing skills—or, so I’d like to think. I could even credit the success of my conference experience to having a few of these meetings under my belt. But what has come of this particular WLA meeting, I would argue, is a result of making the most of my conference experience. For instance, I was in attendance for the full length of the conference, participating thoroughly in all aspects of the gathering. I sat in on both creative and academic panels, asked many questions, introduced myself to noteworthy and interesting individuals, made new friends, and attended the association’s “business meeting” on the final day. Ultimately, I walked away from it all having been elected to serve as a graduate student representative on the executive council for the next two years.

My enthusiasm for the association, I believe, became clear over the course of the conference this year. And this enthusiasm is nothing new, but in previous years I had allowed my insecurities to overshadow my passion for what I do, what I want to do, and what I see others doing when it comes to the study of literature and the American west. Setting aside my self-doubt and allowing my earnest commitment to the field to influence my conduct over the course of the weekend made all the difference. After all, Burke tells us, as he continues to explicate his “unending conversation” metaphor, that verbal action is not “all there is to it.” We must also act symbolically as we assert ourselves in the conversation. That is, learning to let our passion drive our conduct instead of allowing our fears to paralyze us can make for a much more interesting conversation.