On the importance of networking

It’s a cruel paradox that some of the most antisocial people become academics, because this is a very social industry.

Yes, yes, we all hate networking. It’s so superficial and we all feel dirty doing it. That’s because if you’re only goal each time you talk to someone is to squeeze them for their connections, you’re not really networking, you’re just using people. The truth is that scholarship is collaborative, even if in History we don’t often see that collaboration reflected in published work. But look past the by line to the acknowledgments or really read the footnotes and an entire world opens up – historians constantly rely on one another to locate resources, help translate documents, edit their work, and, yes, put them in touch with other people who can give them new opportunities. Networking in academia isn’t just a game we all play – it’s participation in a shared knowledge community, and when you do it right, it even makes you feel a little less lonely.

I’ve said before that the cure to imposter syndrome is being open about it with other people, and in that same vein, networking helps me gain confidence in my ability to do my work. It’s not just that it’s nice to get your anxieties off your chest – when you tell people what you’re worried about, they can help you solve your problems (novel thought!). I think about this whenever I talk to my cohort – rather than just trying to commiserate about how terrible something like language exams is, I try to reflect on what I did that made it easier and hope that my experience can pave the way for someone else. Providing that for other people has reminded me that I can ask for it myself, and that’s exactly what I’m doing right now. Even though I’ve received funding for my dissertation research, there are some aspects of my project that I barely know how to start on. People outside of academia are under some strange misconception that archives and archaeological sites are just these neatly laid out, perfectly documented little packages just waiting to be unwrapped. But if that were the case, there really would be no questions left to answer, because someone else would have already thought of both the question and how to answer it when they organized archival resources. Instead, places that hold raw historical “data” are often a mess, and the historians who do research there are doing as much to organize the place as they are to answer their own questions, which is why sometimes I read an entire book on a subject I don’t care about just to get an explanation of the source the author used.

For my own research, the piece that’s giving me major heartburn right now is my research into copper objects in Sicily. I’ve set out for myself the potentially huge task of traveling around the island visiting archaeological storerooms (which could be in tiny, underfunded regional museums or maybe in church basements, who knows?) and cataloging the copper objects I find there, including measurements, any contextual information we know about the object, and the chemical makeup of the copper alloy. Why am I doing this? Well, this is where my dissertation started – I theorized that I could learn what medieval Sicilians knew about alchemy (the science of metalworking) by looking at the things they made out of metal, like copper alloys. I wrote a Master’s thesis that became an article (forthcoming in the Haskins Society Journal) as a proof of concept for this theory, based on copper doors in Sicily (there are a bunch). But even as I was writing those things, I knew that I was looking at a really small, specific subset of the larger category I’d outlined for myself. I started to expand it a little – I looked at other people’s research on coins and aquamanilia (hand-washing vessels), and I knew from the dig I participated in that there are other kinds of tiny odds and ends made out of copper that no one publishes on – but I basically left a pin in the whole issue. And so now it’s coming back around – if I really want to make this claim about Sicilian copper, I need a much broader source base, and since no one else cares about this (even people like Ittai Weinryb, who claims to write about medieval bronze really only cares about big things like doors and statues) I have to find all the information about it myself. So, here I am, having received the promise of a large sum of money to send me to Sicily so I can find out more things about copper, and I have no idea where to start.

So that last bit isn’t true, and it’s not true because of networking. No one else may have written about this specific topic (that I know of), but other people may have incidentally written things about copper objects in Sicily, and tons of people have done research based on archaeological finds in Sicily (even if they’ve ignored the medieval stuff almost entirely). And what’s even better is I actually know people who can tell me how to find this! I’ve started to get over the hump of this anxiety about not knowing where to start because it seems like help is coming to me, but in reality I’ve already started to lay the groundwork and my chickens are just coming home to roost. First is the technical aspect: I want to record what copper objects are made of using a nifty little device called a handheld XRF scanner. I spent several days about two months ago calling up the handful of companies that make these devices to get information on how to get one and how much they cost (a lot, it turns out). Since then, I’ve been sitting on what I found out, waiting to work up the courage to start talking to Italian distributors. And out of the blue, an archaeologist at Columbia contacted me to tell me she’s hosting a demo of one of these devices, would I like to come, and while we’re at it, let’s talk about my project! A lifeline! Someone who knows how these things work and can connect me with people who have used them in the field, and therefore can hopefully give me advice on how to get one in Italy. This connection is also key because I have been struggling for 2+ years to get a foothold in the archaeology department – I even got a grant from them to go on a dig, which required me to give a talk about my experience, and they never asked me to give the talk! I’m trained as an archaeologist, but to actually do archaeological work, I need to have people who can vouch for me! But this connection also reminded me that I’ve been sitting on the contact information of a Sicilian archaeologist for more than a year now. Which also reminded me that I have a friend who did research in Sicily from exactly the kind of janky storeroom collections I’m anticipating. Which further reminded me that when I move to the Bay Area there are two major universities with huge archaeology programs that send a lot of people to Sicily every year, and those people probably have a lot of advice for dealing with local eccentricities and regulations. So now I’m chipping away at contacting these groups, and my uncertainty about this project seems a little less scary. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know how to do this yet – if I did, I’d already have that PhD – it matters that I know how to figure out how to do it, and that along the way I tap into the network of people who do similar things. Because when this dissertation finally becomes a piece of writing that hopefully gets published, these people are the only ones who are going to care enough to read it.

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