Publication Date

September 14, 2018

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Professional Life

All of us need colleagues for collaborations and conversations, but such colleagues rarely reside in our own departments, because universities usually do not have more than one or, at most, two specialists in any given field. The acknowledgments sections of books let authors thank many but commonly do not explain how the author met or came to know them. Academic networks are important, but the process by which they grow can be mysterious.

I first began to ponder the topic at a relatively early stage of my career, when a sociology graduate student at Cornell interviewed me for her dissertation, a study of academic network formation. I realized I had met many of those I regarded as my most important colleagues at libraries or archives while researching my dissertation or engaged in subsequent work on related topics. Some of those people are still among my closest academic acquaintances, but I would add to the list others I have met more recently, primarily at conferences and especially through the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians—not the large triennial conferences but gatherings of the smaller sponsoring organization.

In light of those patterns in my own life, I wondered about others’ experiences and any changes over time that might have influenced their network formation. With increasing amounts of material online, do historians continue to meet at libraries and archives? With more historians employed at institutions that have reduced support for conference travel, can they still attend such meetings as those that proved important to me? And so, in the last question in the unscientific survey I recently conducted, I asked acquaintances to tell me about the formation of their networks.

As departments reduce the number of admitted graduate students, those students’ networks may be stunted even before they have a chance to develop.

One spoke for many when he wrote, “Grad school was hugely important to me.” Older and younger scholars, men and women alike, offered similar accounts. Some had met their spouses in graduate school and collaborated during their careers. Several senior scholars commented that their networks had evolved as their careers changed. One woman tellingly described the process serially: “early career: grad school friends, the cohort of assistant professors I started with at two different jobs,” she wrote. Her mid-career contacts remained the same, plus others she met through conferences, research fellowships, and “other professional situations.” Now, she said, her “grad school and early career cohort [is still] very important,” but so are younger colleagues encountered first through social media.

For some, networks included advisers, former undergraduate professors, or additional senior mentors. Some older members of my personal network said former graduate students played key roles in their networks, keeping them in touch with recent scholarship outside their specialization. As one man said, “Personal connections through my former students have, on the whole, been the most important in replacing contacts eroded by retirements, by changes in professional identity, and—of late, all too often—by death.”

Second only to graduate school in the initiation of personal networks were friendships forged at conferences. Some respondents mentioned the annual meetings of the AHA or other associations. Smaller conferences—some organized regionally, some topically, some attended by the same people year after year—were significant, too. As one acquaintance said, “Some of my closest friends come from grad school, but I’d say that the greater number by far have developed from experiences at conferences.” Others agreed: “conferences, definitely, and in some measure, social media”; “about 9 or 10 [of a network of 20] I met at various conferences, from major to small and cozy . . . especially repeat conferences.”

As I did, some listed meetings at archives and libraries, especially in the context of long-term residential research endeavors. One woman wrote that “the most fruitful times for building these relationships were months-long or full-year stretches when I was on fellowships.” Surely because of the early modernists in my own network, several responses singled out the Newberry or Huntington Libraries or the McNeil Center in Philadelphia as key places where networks were created or solidified.

Some respondents listed collaborators, whether from their own or different institutions, from other humanistic or social-science disciplines as key members of their networks. This was especially true of historians in fields that stretched across disciplines or had relatively few historians as members. One created several “mini-networks” in different areas as her interests evolved. And one who changed her scholarly emphasis several times said, “Every time I shifted topics . . . I had to shift people for support,” and in return, “I always offer to share materials with people, and to read their work.”

Some meetings that led to the creation of networks were by chance, but others were deliberate. Occasionally, my acquaintances contacted people whose work they admired. “I cold-called a couple of people who have become close friends,” one told me. Others got in touch with favorable reviewers of their books or articles or emailed people whose work seemed especially relevant to their own, leading to ongoing relationships. A man summarized his network this way: “My most important professional contacts have come about through a combination of personal relations, web presence, and my initiative to contact scholars whose work interested me.” He and the few others who also mentioned social media in their replies were among my younger friends, whereas one of the oldest described himself as “old-fashioned,” saying that he did not devote much time to reading blogs or using “social media at all.”

“My most important professional contacts have come about through a combination of personal relations, web presence, and my initiative to contact scholars.”

Two observations unique to women deserve separate attention. Two women, both finding themselves intellectually isolated, deliberately sought activity in organizations—in one case, a group related to her field; in the other, groups of female historians. No men revealed adopting a similar strategy. And two other women, having listed the information about their networks, found themselves brought up short by the same revelation: “My most important professional relationships are all with other women!” wrote one. “I see that all but one of these ‘close’ network friends is female,” noted the other. I see neither of these patterns as entirely the result of chance.

A friend who began her career as an adjunct had an especially pertinent comment: “Finding networks outside my university was the essential step that enabled me to pursue significant research without support from my institution. . . .When evaluations for continued employment focus only on teaching, it’s people outside the home institution who can provide recognition for research, encouragement for publication, and recommendations for grants and fellowships.” For her, “specialized conferences” proved the key to making those contacts—in particular, collaborations she pursued with full professors, which she described as “a lifeline for adjuncts, new faculty, and graduate students.” She concluded with the hope that universities and the AHA would begin to place more value on collaboration.

I draw the following conclusions from these accounts. First, graduate school contacts remain important to one’s endeavors throughout a career. As departments reduce the number of admitted students, such networks may be stunted even before they have a chance to develop fully. Second, time away from one’s home institution, at libraries or research centers, or even at short conferences, is critical in bringing historians in touch with each other; financial support for travel, from whatever source it might come, is crucial. Third, historians have found very clever means of creating their own scholarly networks and will surely continue to do so.

In completing this series of three columns, I thank the colleagues who took the time to reply to my queries, always thoughtfully and sometimes at length. Several remarked that they had enjoyed thinking about these questions, many for the first time. I know I certainly enjoyed thinking about their answers and contemplating what they might mean for the historical profession—past, present, and future.

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Mary Beth Norton
Mary Beth Norton

Cornell University