Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bricks-and-Mortar Academia v. Virtual Blogosphere: A Two-Tiered Approach to Academic Networking

Great post by Christine Hurt at The Glom on Academic Conferences and Gender:

I have often defended blogging as the great academic equalizer by noting that women law professors (or I should say parenting law professors) may find it easier to balance blogging with home life than traveling for conferences. I have responded to critics of time-intensive blogging that networking through blogging may be a
substitute for networking through conferences, which can be costly in terms of time and money.

Perhaps because of the demographics of my field (corporate law), I often go to conferences where women law professors are in the minority. Last year in fact I was the sole female panelist at a day-long conference with 10 or so speakers. I've really gotten to where I don't notice much any more. I was talking about this with some other female corporate law professors, who have decided that when asked to speak at a conference, they also make suggestions of other possible female speakers to be invited (to counteract any network effects similar to the ones that Eugene discussed). However, I know at my almost all-male conference, many speakers suggested two other female professors who wrote in the field, and they declined. So, my question to readers is whether women law professors feel that they must pick and choose their conferences more so than their counterparts due to child care responsibilities or other work/life issues.

Obviously, pregnancy takes a female law professor out of conference rotation for at least a month or so before the birth and several afterwards, depending on nursing decisions, etc....However, blogging is much easier, and more invisible than attending conferences. Why I could be eight months pregnant right now, and you would never know.

Really interesting post. I agree with Christine that blogging is an important but underrated networking tool. The year between the J.D. and the LL.M I spent helping take care of my aged parents and being the Glorified Unpaid Nanny for my nine nephews and nieces definitely drove home the physical (and in my case, intellectual as I wasn't in an academic environment) isolation that comes with family care.

Blogging has certainly brought me in contact with scholars in my field and more widely. I've become aware of real-life networking conferences through blogs (Legal Theory Blog is the best clearinghouse for this). This doesn't mitigate the costliness of conference travel--something that is all the worse when you're a student classified as a professional student and your school doesn't help pay for conferences at all. Even if I were classified in the graduate division, I wouldn't get much funding. So blogging is a good networking tool for family care providers and grad students alike.

Regarding the gender gap, I often think about how blogging has helped circulate my name and work in ways that are very difficult through bricks-and-mortar ways such as conferences. My main field, employment discrimination law--where there is a better balancing of genders--isn't my reason for the gender gap. The gap I see is endemic to the academic environment. It takes a lot of legwork to get your name out! I remember my Las Posadas like approach to introducing myself to various faculty at my school. Setting up appointments, actually going up to the doors and knocking, and a lot of handshaking. And even then, I wouldn't say that brought particularly deep and sustained interaction (now that I'm basically in the writing phase, it's far better that I write and circulate than keep taking classes or go to office hours). Meeting someone does not a draft-reader make. My school suggets being a research assistant. Great! But that takes too much time away from writing, and that would bring me into deeper contact with just one faculty member. Because my recommendation letters should speak to my strengths as an academic, I think I'd rather build that relationship with my dissertation advisor--whom I should be showing my own work, rather than doing theirs. I'm not discounting RA-ships. I'm just saying that I think it's better to go for depth rather than breadth in terms of the people you get to go to bat for you from your actual home institution. In social network theory terms, this is called "the strength of ties"--you want deep mentoring relationships, and you should have one with the person supervising your written work.

For breadth, blogs are awesome. Blogs will circulate your name and work far more widely across the nation. Never underestimate the strength of weak ties for alerting you to conference opportunities or job openings, or just advice. Most of my readers aren't even from my geographic location, but they are in my field. I would have to say that blogging has been more effective than just posting abstracts and drafts on SSRN in terms of getting feedback and "meeting" people. There's something about the inherently conversational space of the blog and comments section. I think regular blog readers invest more time and solicitude in the blogs they frequent. I honestly believe that to some of my readers, I am their mentee, and thus I have had several professors offer me (or rather, Belle) advice and support via private email. That then led to much fuller and deeper mentoring relationships. When I post a question, the commenters come in with useful advice--the quick, low-investment way to help. When I have more private concerns or don't wish to appear that I am conducting my life by poll (what classes should I take? is a question I love to ask), my email mentors come in. Email is a very low-cost, on-your-own-time way to be a mentor or mentee.

I'm telling you, don't discount this digital age. But chug away at the bricks-and-mortar way of networking too. Just have a two-tiered approach to how much interaction, responsiveness, and strength of tie you can pursuse in each medium.

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