Scholarly mavens and curators

Talk to people for a while about what makes for good large-scale collaboration and they will eventually mention someone who is a connector: a kind of modern saloniste. Who led you to meet someone.

I can think of several cases where this occurred. Where someone has said “Alex, you are working on X1. That’s a little like X2. Have you met Sally who is doing work on X2?” That kind of introduction is at the basis of polite conversation, but happens too rarely in the strange world of academia. You might argue that is part of the expected role of an academic advisor–introducing the new graduate student to others in the field who might act as mentors, as collaborators, and (of course) as potential employers.

But it is also the traditional role of the editor: someone who has the ability to locate and publish things that are important to the field. In today’s world, editors more rarely play this active role of going out and seeking what they think is important for the field. But there are still people that do this.

I’m not name-checking, because I neither want to embarrass people–nor do I want to blame them for anything–but there have been people in my academic career who have helped me. And not just me, of course; they are known for being someone who helps build up scholars, and by extension, academic fields.

And then there are the same kind of people in the new media field. Folks who may be (in fact, generally are) outstanding researcher on their own, but have built much of their career out of connecting people, encouraging conversation online. Now again, I can think of some great examples of this (and so can you), but I wonder what makes them do their thing well, and whether you can create people like this or if they are born.

Can you train an academic maven?

I ask, not necessarily because I want to become one, though I think I’ve done this a little in the past. More, I’m wondering whether there is a “How to become a scholarly maven” guide, and if not, if it would be worthwhile for me to write one. To do so, I’d need to talk to some of these folks, and try to figure out if there is a sort of set of “best practices.” Do these people exist in every field. Do they do the same kinds of thing? Does every field have its own Erdös? Or is he something other than the sort of maven I am talking about here.

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  1. Posted 2/18/2009 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  2. alex
    Posted 2/18/2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Yes, “Networking on the network” has been in the collection of advice I give my advisees for many years. But this is the sort of advice that applies to anyone trying to break into a field. Perhaps that is the first step toward becoming one of these people who manages to shape the literature of a field (particularly a new field) through her connections. But while everyone has to do some form of “networking” to become part of a field at all, I’m curious about those who become central to that communication network.

    Some of these folks have just co-authored with everyone, but its more than just being a promiscuous co-author, I think. In many cases, they are shaping the work that is not the work they are doing, either by setting up funding streams, becoming what Lazarsfeld called “Institutional Men” and creating programs, schools, and organizations, or by putting scholars together more directly who they think would produce good work. Mostly, these are senior scholars who already have a strong reputation, but many senior scholars with strong academic reputations are clearly not these kinds of connectors.

  3. Posted 2/18/2009 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Oh you actually mean the builders of stuff? good examples of those people exist in my field, sts, and they are easy to see, but if you look behind them you find the people that came before were doing the same sort of carving and making of things. I think it is something you learn from your advisor, but… most people don’t choose advisors with those sorts of skills or mentorship opportunities. One of the classic examples of this is the construction of Rational Choice theory in Political Science and the total machiavellian strategies that seem to have occurred. ‘Get small school x with good rep to hire z as grad director, pump them some good students to get z promoted to head, then z hires only RC people and other people quit, leverage Z’s success for promotion to larger school, etc. etc. It is quite interesting to watch and map with that interpretation. I think the ‘influence’ you say is there… is there. I know it is, i’ve been in plenty of backrooms where things have been decided and they’ve went certain ways and things ended up being worded certain ways. Getting into the backrooms is really about networks of trust, getting out of backrooms and getting your ideas out of the backroom is much harder. I am always surprised at how things work though, most of the time…. it seems to me, that the way things end up…. is according to the way the person that does the work well, first. I’ve seen more things get done because… someone just took the initiative to do them…. That might be the difference there… I don’t know.

  4. Posted 3/20/2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Very timely for me. An acquaintance told me a few weeks ago that he had increased his reputation on the basis of a three minute conversation with Paul Erdos (about whom, there is a film– “N is a Number” which was at my local library).

    Why don’t more academics network? Or mentor? I rmember a professor once publicly complaining about his colleagues who didn’t write letters of recommendation: “This is a public school! Why do they think the taxpayers are paying us?”

    I introduce people to each other at least once a week, starting three years ago. It feels good to be a connector and a diffuser.

    And the Erdos protege? I introduced him to a neighbor two blocks away who it turned out he was glad to meet.

  5. Posted 3/31/2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    More related advice on academic networking is here.

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