Back when we all traveled regularly to conferences, we did so to share research, to learn from colleagues, and to form new relationships, even friendships, rooted in shared intellectual interests. Conferences help graduate students build skills—capturing complex arguments in short presentations, public speaking, asking helpful rather than grandstanding questions, connecting with fellow experts, and more.
In other words, conferences are for networking.
Scholars can find that word discomfiting—interpreting networking as mutual exploitation rather than mutual support. In our Humanities for the Public Good work, the 30 faculty, staff, and students who served as our very energetic Advisory Board and the hundreds of people who attended our workshops and webinars offered the very best kind of networking. Many of us made it through the loneliness of COVID in part due to our weekly HPG working group gatherings—as we became a kind of campus safety net—a caring web of like-minded, curious, creative, caring, transformative revisionists of graduate education.
In every other profession, networking is acknowledged and valued as relationship building. How, we asked, could we build stronger graduate programs by weaving departments, libraries and museums, and centers and administrative offices into our web? How could we use our internship program to stretch that net out into community organizations and nonprofits that share values with the humanities: understanding our world through language and image, gaining new understanding by looking at texts and problems through myriad frameworks, listening and learning from people whose experiences differ from our own, making-meaning of experience, valuing cultures, and attending to varied audiences.
Like teaching, approaching archives, marshalling arguments—networking is a practice requiring specific skills and experiences. What, we asked, are we doing to teach those skills and offer that experience?
We tackled that question head on by planning a networking event that matched 15 graduate students with 15 professionals—grant writers, foundation officers, community and campus leaders. After a crash course in…well…conversation, students spent an hour practicing how to have a purpose-driven conversation focused on learning about each other’s interests, skills, and connections. Then, our guests appeared—prepared to help students build confidence in their ability to gather information about diverse careers and to share stories that highlighted their own skills. In the process, students were often stunned to find that their talents as cultural critics, rigorous readers, interpreters, researchers, meaning-makers, teachers, and writers were translatable into meaningful careers across and outside higher education.
We also had the wonderful opportunity of meeting with networking pros in the humanities, including Dylan Ruediger, then at the American Historical Association. He explained that the Career Contacts program at AHA, “an informational interviewing network,” has connected hundreds of graduate students to leaders of cultural institutions and businesses. That kind of networking is also a goal of the summer Career Diversity Workshops hosted by another Mellon-funded project, in which the Obermann Center is a consortium partner, Humanities Without Walls. (Note that if you’re a graduate student you can apply to the Obermann Center to attend this summer’s Workshop in Minneapolis. Applications are due November 1.)
Going forward, the Obermann Center would be delighted to work with departments and our usual wonderful partners in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Grad Success wing of the Graduate College to plan future networking events. As we develop the HPG certificate, we’ll be building in ways to help both faculty and graduate students create career safety nets through courses, creative assignments, and through intentional convenings and conversations.
Learn more about meaningful networking for graduate students in this interview, as our former postdoc, Ashley Cheyemi McNeil, interviews Dylan Ruediger, now a senior analyst at Ithaka S+R.
Ashley: If you could insert a course into any graduate program, whether it’s like a Humanities for the Public Good program that we’re conceiving at UIowa right now, or it’s a well-established history PhD program, what would that course be in terms of what we just talked about in terms of cultivating empathy and being in service to multiple publics?
Dylan: That’s a tough one. This is one of those questions that depends a lot on the idiosyncrasies of particular departments. But I think I would start with courses that promote collaboration, and in particular collaboration with people who aren’t other students or faculty inside the department. Communicating and collaborating with people who are positioned differently in the world is such an important professional skill and it can help it be easier to see how many different careers offer opportunities to think historically and engage in meaningful, intellectually consequential work.
For advice about responsible, instructive networking, especially through individual or group informational interviews, see the resources we provide in this newsletter.