A Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures, II: Networking or “Relationship-Building” on the Road. Literally.

This post is part of the “Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures” series, a collaborative endeavor by NGSC bloggers Deven Parker, Grace Rexroth, and Conny Fasshauer, all Romanticist graduate students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drawing on our collective experiences organizing guest lectures at our university, our aim for this series is to offer advice and tips for NGSC readers hosting visitors at their institutions or attending one of these events.

“Networking” is a word I dread more than laundry day.

Because I wandered through the corporate world for several years before finally deciding to go to grad school, the term “networking” conjures up myriad awkward experiences – themed cocktail parties, company logos, uncomfortable seminars where strangers assess the grip of your handshake…it’s not my idea of a fun Friday night.

…and yet…

With English department sizes shrinking, enrollment numbers dropping, and an ever diminishing job market (thanks NY Times op-ed), networking is arguably a skill we need now more than ever. So, in addition to preparing for comps and formulating a prospectus, “networking” has joined the inner sanctum of my PhD goal list. Practically speaking, this means that, in addition to attending conferences (those hallowed networking meccas), I actively seek opportunities for building relationships in the field. “But how does one go about ‘networking’ outside of a conference?” you may ask. The glib answer: become a chauffeur.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles…Creating Opportunities to Network

Networking opportunities don’t often just fall into grad students’ laps. Luckily, as a contributing organizer for a Romanticist lecture series at CU Boulder, I have the unique opportunity to help plan and coordinate the trips of our annual guest speakers. And one of those main tasks, as Deven Parker points out, is arranging their transportation. “Why would transportation concerns be important?” you ask. Well, if you’re asking, then you haven’t discovered the unique bonding experiences that arise during the hour long drive that links the airport to the University. Volunteering to be a visitor’s personal chauffeur actually has quite a few perks, the most important of which is that it guarantees you one-on-one time with a visiting scholar. Car rides, however, can be just as awkward as hokey corporate cocktail parties if you’re not prepared. So I’ve developed three basic ground rules:

1) Make a plan. Arrive Early. Denver International Airport is fairly large, so I usually try to contact speakers before they fly in to ask them if they would like me to park at the airport and meet them in the main terminal. Nine times out of ten, they say “no” and assure me that they’re more than happy to be picked up at the curb. But I still always ask and I always get to the airport early, even if I’m just waiting in the cell phone lot; there’s nothing worse than having to drive around the airport more than once as you exchange frantic calls that begin with “What floor are you on? What airline sign are you standing under?” Talk to them beforehand and make a plan.

2) Read their work. Prepare three questions. I don’t care how suave and charming you are, it’s almost impossible to be eloquent when you’re fighting your way through airport traffic trying to get back out to the main highway. This has happened to me more than once; as soon as I put the car in drive, the kind, well-meaning scholar that I have just picked up asks me to tell them my life story. The first time this happened, I found myself squinting into the sunlight, trying to merge lanes, and saying things like “Yeah, I really like Colorado – I just wish I skied more…is this lane ending?” One way to avoid this, is to read their work – their most recent book, a recent article, anything – and prepare three thoughtful questions for them in advance. Seriously. Memorize them. (This is also just good practice for participating in their seminars, as Conny Fasshauer mentions in the next post) Then, as you’re battling through airport traffic, you can put the initial burden of conversation on them. This both assures them that you’re a thoughtful scholar who’s taken the time to read their work and frees you up to drive safely. It’s a win/win. There’s plenty of time for you to give them your rehearsed “dissertation project” speech once you’re back on familiar roads. Plus, because you’ve shown an initial interest in their work, they’re more likely to give you thoughtful feedback on your project.

3) Bring snacks. If you don’t fly regularly, this might seem like silly advice. But in today’s age, flying can be a sad, lonely, hungry experience. On Frontier, for example, only the water is free – peanuts cost two dollars. So I always try to bring snacks – a pastry from the Armenian bakery by my house, a box of raisins, a bottle of water – just something tasteful and simple. It’s one of those almost effortless gestures that shows people you care about them, and puts them at ease. And hey, if they turn down the offer, you now have an extra snack to take to the library.

The payoff:
Building a relationship with someone is one of those enigmatic miracles that seem to catalyze through adventure. “Does an hour long car ride count as an adventure?” you ask. The answer might surprise you; in many ways driving someone from the airport is like sharing a miniature road trip (especially if you abide by rule number three). I’ve bonded with scholars over a shared love of jazz music, exchanged travel anecdotes during torturous traffic stalls, and sometimes even stopped to accommodate last minute errands (there’s nothing like standing in a liquor store with a visiting scholar as they debate which kind of top shelf tequila one of your other professors would prefer as a gift, to jump start the bonding process). I’m continually surprised by how a single car ride can turn a stranger into an ally – someone you see at conferences and think “hey, remember that one time we ate oatmeal cookies and listened to Miles Davis on the way to Boulder?” If you’re lucky, they’ll remember your name and even ask you an insightful question about your work or the paper you’re presenting. Maybe they’ll introduce you to the people standing next to them. Cultivating these kinds of small shared experiences matters and, at its best, almost takes the sting out of that daunting project we call “networking.”