Socializing and the Academy

A few weeks ago, over a lunch in a lower Lonsdale eatery, my long-term friend gave me a shred look, a smile and said, “You are just a natural networker, aren’t you?”

I looked at her miffed for a moment.  Networker?  Me.  Surely not!

In the same visit, over dinner this time (meals seem to punctuate my visits) my supervisor and her lovely daughter informally “typed” me (aka Myerson Briggs) and started with E (i.e. Extrovert).  “What?!”  I protested, “I’m not an Extrovert!!”  In unison they replied:  “Oh, yes, you are!!”

And it struck me how little we know ourselves.  And how much of who we think we are is formed when we are young.  I was a very shy child.  New situations made me anxious, possibly because my father had been killed when I was four but more likely because that was my personality.  In elementary school, I would often play alone at lunch and recess or befriend the “special” children.  In high school, I had my small group of friends but was never “popular.”  I began to come out of my shell more in Grade 10 but when I made the leap to university I was a silent student.  I remember my keen anxiety in the classroom when I knew the answer to a question or could see where the prof was leading the discussion but was too shy to speak up.  I also remember the extreme distress I’d feel when I forced myself to speak:  my heart would pound, my face would get warm and I would end up muttering something incoherent.

When I returned to post-secondary studies in 1999, I had somehow overcome my stuttering insecurity.  I had no problem adding my opinion to classroom discussion and even arguing my point.  I’m not sure why or when the change occurred … perhaps from becoming a parent, working at a “real job” or just maturing.  But I gained the confidence I needed to be a successful student.  I’ve always said I would have been far more successful if I’d waited and gone to university after I’d travelled and worked for a bit.

The networking/extrovert stuff I never planned.  But I suppose it comes down to the fact that I truly do enjoy people.  Everyone has their own textures and uniqueness that shine through and delight me.  There are very few people I do not like upon first meeting, those I don’t “click” with I just hold at arm’s length.  I’ve also learned to hold back and observe a bit.  This year, as I returned to the academic conference circuit, I found myself sitting back and observing.  Oh, I was friendly if someone approached me but I took the time to learn the “lay of the land” before initiating conversations.  My old pattern of jumping into the deep end seems to be mellowing with age.  If one quietly observes, much can be learned and then conversations are richer and more textured.

I’ve discovered that, particularly in Academia, people are so busy with their own “stuff” that they have little time or interest in other’s work.  At first this completely puzzled me.  When I began as a student (and later faculty member) in the Faculty of Education I felt like I’d sat down to a huge smorgasbord of information.  I was intrigued by the research people were doing and never tired of listening to it.  I was saddened by the fact that there were so few chances for others to listen to what each person was doing.  I found the array of different research areas so interesting.  This was one of the reasons I was involved in Education With/Out Borders for so long – it was one of the few places where I could listen to the research interests of different members of our faculty.

Now having moved to a new institution I’m beginning to realize that this tunnel vision/lack of interest in one another’s work was not specific to the Faculty of Education at my old school.  Here it is the same … people don’t have the time or interest to listen in depth to one another’s work.  Oh, it’s not that they are not interested per se, but time-wise they just can’t manage.  And yet I find it rather sad that in the “Academy” we can’t find time to listen to one another’s work.  A lot of my socializing is sharing what I am doing and listening to what other’s are doing in their fields.  I thrive on it, it helps me understand my world better.

I think this interest I have in others is one of the reasons I love teaching writing.  When students write, they share bits of themselves and a relationship starts between instructor/student, reader/writer.  For some students, particularly in first year studies, this is one of the first times they’ve had an adult read their work.  My response to the writing, is always in-depth and detailed, aimed at helping the student improve their writing, yes, but also commenting and encouraging them in their interest areas.  I delight in those papers that express just what the student is learning or where their interest point lies.  And I am keenly disappointed in those papers that don’t make the effort.  Sometimes I think I feel too much when I teach but, then again, that might be what makes me so good at what I do.

One of my first post-graduate professors told me I would have a hard time fitting into the Academy.  “You have too many interests.”  He stated bluntly, adding: “Academics don’t understand that – they like you to focus on one thing.”  Yes, focus is important and I hope nine years later I’ve developed a bit of focus.  But that doesn’t necessarily eliminate interests, does it?

So, yes, I “socialize” and “network” but really I’m just interested in other people and their work.  As my friend noted during our lunch date, “That’s what makes you so good at it, Cath.  You are genuinely interested.”  Yes, I am.  But surely that is not a unique quality?  Going through life uninterested or self-absorbed makes for a very dull existence.  I am always surprised by the people I meet, their interests and achievements.  We are quick to judge on first-impressions but it is only as we get to know others that we can really appreciate the multi-layer complexity that makes up each individual.  That is something I hope I never tire of …

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