Networks and friendships in academia

Recently, I came across an unwelcome reminder of my time as a graduate student and my early-career days. It had the shape of a conference announcement that carries all the signs of a performative contradiction: it invites you by exclusion. What can we learn from such contradictions?

The announcement invites early-career people to attend seminars that run alongside a conference whose line-up is already fixed and seems to consist mainly of a circle of quite established philosophers who have been collaborating closely ever since. Since the invitation is not presented as a “call”, it’s hard to feel invited in the first place. Worse still, you’re not asked to present at the actual conference but to attend “seminars” that are designed “to motivate students and young scholars from all over the world to do research in the field of medieval philosophy and to help them learn new scientific methodology and develop communication skills.” If you’re still interested in attending, you’ll look in vain for time slots dedicated to such seminars. Instead, there is a round table on the last day, scheduled for the same time the organising body holds their annual meeting, thus probably without the established scholars.* You might say there is a sufficient amount of events, so just go somewhere else. But something like the work on the “Dionysian Traditions” is rarely presented. In fact, medieval philosophy is often treated as a niche unto itself, so the choice is not as vast as for, say, analytic metaphysics.

If you think this is problematic, I’ll have to disappoint you. There is no scandal lurking here. Alongside all the great efforts within a growingly inclusive infrastructure of early career support, things like that happen all the time, and since my time as a professor I have been accused of organising events that do at least sound “clubby” myself. Of course, I’m not saying that the actual event announced is clubby like that; it’s just that part of the description triggers old memories. When I was a graduate student, in the years before 2000, at least the academic culture in Germany seemed to be structured in a clubby fashion. By “structured” I mean that academic philosophy often seemed to function as a simple two-class system, established and not-established, and the not-established people had the status of onlookers. They were, it seemed, invited to kind of watch the bigger figures and learn by exposure to greatness. But make no mistake; this culture did not (or not immediately) come across as exclusionary. The onlookers could feel privileged for being around. For firstly, even if this didn’t feel like proper participation, it still felt like the result of a meritocratic selection. Secondly, the onlookers could feel elated, for there was an invisible third class, i.e. the class of all those who either were not selected or didn’t care to watch. The upshot is that part of the attraction of academia worked by exclusion. As an early career person, you felt like you might belong, but you were not yet ready to participate properly.

Although this might come across as a bit negative, it is not meant that way. Academia never was an utopian place outside the structures that apply in the rest of the world. More to the point, the whole idea of what is now called “research-led teaching” grew out of the assumption that certain skills cannot be taught explicitly but have to be picked up by watching others, preferably advanced professionals, at work. Now my point is not to call out traditions of instructing scholars. Rather, this memory triggers a question that keeps coming back to me when advising graduate students. I doubt that research-led teaching requires the old class system. These days, we have a rich infrastructure that, at least on the surface, seems to counter exclusion. But have we overcome this two-class system, and if not, what lesson could it teach us?

Early career people are constantly advised to advance their networking skills and their network. On the whole, I think this is good advice. However, I also fear that one can spend a quarter of a lifetime with proper networking without realising that a network as such does not help. Networks are part of a professionalised academic environment. But while they might help exchanging ideas and even offer frameworks for collaborative projects, they are not functional as such. They need some sort of glue that keeps them together. Some people believe that networks are selective by being meritocratic. But while merit or at least prestige might often belong to the necessary conditions of getting in, it’s probably not sufficient. My hunch is that this glue comes in the shape of friendship. By that I don’t necessarily mean deeply personal friendships but “academic friendships”: people like and trust each other to some degree, and build on that professionally. If true, this might be an unwelcome fact because it runs counter to our policies of inclusion and diversity. But people need to trust each other and thus also need something stronger than policies.

Therefore, the lesson is twofold: On the one hand, people need to see that sustainable networks require trust. On the other hand, we need functional institutional structures to both to sustain such networks and to counterbalance the threat of nepotism that might come with friendship. We have or should have such structures in the shape of laws, universities, academic societies and a growing practice of mentoring. To be sure, saying that networks are not meritocratic does not mean that there is no such thing as merit. Thus, such institutions need to ensure that processes of reviewing are transparent and in keeping with commitments to democratic values as well as to the support of those still underrepresented. No matter whether this concerns written work, conferences or hiring. But the idea that networks as such are meritocratic makes their reliance on friendships invisible.

Now while friendships cannot be forced, they can be cultivated. If we wish to counter the pernicious class system and stabilise institutional remedies against it, we should advise people to extend (academic) friendships rather than competition. Competition fosters the false idea that getting into a network depends on merit. The idea of extending and cultivating academic friendship rests on the idea that merit in philosophy is a collective effort to begin with and that it needs all the people interested to keep weaving the web of knowledge. If at all, it is this way that meritocratic practices can be promoted; not by exclusion. You might object that we are operating with limited resources, but if the demand is on the rise, we have to demand more resources rather than competing for less and less. That said, cultivating academic friendships needs to be counterbalanced by transparency. Yet while we continue to fail, friendships are not only the glue of networks, but might be what keeps you sane when academia seems to fall apart.

Postscriptum I: So what about the conference referred to above? The event is a follow-up from a conference in 1999, and quite some of the former participants are present again. If it was, as it seems, based on academic friendships, isn’t that a reason to praise it? As I said and wish to emphasise again, academic friendships without institutional control do not foster the kinds of inclusive environments we should want. For neither can there be meritocratic procedures without the inclusion of underrepresented groups, nor can a two-class separation of established and not-established scholars lead to the desired extension of academic friendships. In addition to the memories triggered, one might note other issues. Given that there are comparatively many women working in this field, it is surprising that only three women are among the invited speakers. That said, the gendered conference campaign has of course identified understandable reasons for such imbalances. A further point is the fact that early career people wishing to attend have roughly two weeks after the announcement to register and apply. There is no reimbursement of costs, but one can apply for financial support after committing oneself to participate. – In view of these critical remarks, it should be noted again that this conference rather represents the status quo than the exception. The idea is not to criticise that academic friendships lead to such events, but rather to stress the need for rethinking how these can be joined with institutional mechanisms that counterbalance the downsides in tightening our networks.

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* Postscriptum II (14 March 2019): Yes. Before writing this post, I sent a mail to S.I.E.M.P. inquiring about the nature of the seminars for early career people. I asked:

(1) Are there any time slots reserved for this or are the seminars held parallel to the colloquium?
(2) What is the “new scientific methodology” referred to in the call?
(3) And is there any sort of application procedure?

The mail was forwarded to the local organisers and prompted the following reply:

“Thank you for interest in the colloquium on the Dionysian Traditions!

The time for the seminars is Friday morning. The papers should not be longer than 20 minutes. You should send us a list with titles, and preferably – with abstracts too. We have a strict time limit and not everyone may have the opportunity to present. Travel and accommodation costs are to be covered by the participants.

The new scientific methodology is the methodology you deem commensurate with the current knowledge about the Corpus.”

Apart from the fact that the event runs from a Monday to a Wednesday, the main question about the integration and audience of these seminars remains unanswered. Assuming that “Friday” is Wednesday, the seminars conicide with the announced round table, to be held at the same time at which the bureau of S.I.E.P.M. holds their meeting. (This was confirmed by a further exchange of mails.) But unlike the announcement itself, the mail now speaks of “papers” that the attendees may present.

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