Thanks to Dr. Crazy for picking up on my comment over at Academic Cog about scripts. She had some good advice about ways of approaching potential mentors, particularly about not just saying “I’m fine” but coming out with an item from your wish list. Nonetheless, I feel I should expand on my own remarks.
Such things may seem obvious to many people. But what passed for negotiation in my family often involved shouting, insults, and sometimes physical threat. Given the situations being negotiated (like rescuing animals from abusive owners), these may have been appropriate techniques, but they’re really not suitable to the corridors of academe. And an intelligent person may recognize inappropriate responses without managing to figure out appropriate ones; awareness of this gap can contribute to social awkwardness.
A corollary to that gender-based training in being a good, quiet girl is that one may have to be mad as hell, or worked up to a high pitch of nerves, to break out of that mold. But mad or excited can sound shrill or hysterical. Watch people who are effective, and try to sound like them. At the very least, take a deep breath, relax your throat, and (mentally if not aloud) count down “Three, two, one” before you speak. This will lower your voice.
Here are some real-life situations I’ve encountered, which may provide both things to try and mistakes to avoid:
1. While the young Dame Eleanor was in graduate school, a well-published former student, DH, returned to give a talk.
DE: I liked your book.
DH: Which one?
DE: The purple one!
DH: Oh, yes, they did a nice job with the cover.
I blanked on the title at a key moment; but DH was gracious, and perhaps also visually oriented. Lesson: try to be specific. Think about what you’ll say to visiting speakers, in advance. Memorize titles; “I liked your article on A in Journal J” is better than “I admire your work.”
2. While I was either in grad school or early on the tenure track, one year at Kalamazoo I was drinking beer in a hallway outside the Toronto party with AC, then a rather scruffy grad student but now a scholar to be reckoned with. DS, a Chaucerian whom AC admired, walked by; AC confessed his admiration for her work—to me. Between not being a Chaucerian (nothing personally at stake) and being outside a beer or two, I was feeling courageous. I hailed DS and said, “This is AC, who would like to tell you how much he admires your work.” She was pleased. I think some sort of collaboration resulted.
Lesson: if you can’t do it yourself, get a friend to toot your horn. Form a mutual support society, go to conferences together, and introduce each other to the scholars you want to meet.
3. I learned a great lesson about preparation from a student who asked me for a letter of recommendation for law school, a few years back. It had been about five years since I taught her. She provided me with a binder containing the following materials: a cover letter explaining her plans and what she had been doing since I had last seen her; a résumé; an undergraduate transcript; graded copies of all the work she’d done in my class; Information for Recommenders from all the schools she was applying to; a cheat sheet tailored to characteristics and skills she hoped I would mention (each person from whom she requested a letter got a different version of this); a list of the other recommenders; a copy of her Statement of Purpose. I might have left out a couple of things, but you get the idea. There was a table of contents, and tabs separating the sections.
My letter basically said “For heaven’s sake admit this woman so that you’ll be able to claim her as a famous alumna.” I had caught on to the idea of providing talking points for recommendation letters some time before, but this was far beyond anything I had ever seen.
On the other side of the coin, in the past few months two students have e-mailed me to ask for letters of recommendation for graduate school. When I replied asking for more information about their plans, neither responded. You don’t have to have a binder, but a list of programs and a statement of purpose would be a good start.
4. Even the shy and awkward eventually come across unusually outgoing, socially adept people. Cultivate them. Accept their invitations. Talk to the people to whom they introduce you. It doesn’t matter if they’re senior, junior, or your own age.
MS introduced me to various intimidating scholars whom she knows well from years of networking at conferences, NEH seminars, and so on. I’m not actually to the stage of asking them for letters, much less to advise on work in progress, but they do now recognize me at conferences, which is a great boost to my confidence. I got to know her when she moved to this area (which I knew from talking to another outgoing person on her faculty), and I sent her an e-mail asking her out for coffee.
JC and I know each other from conferences. I can’t remember if we were first on the same panel, or attended each other’s papers in different sessions. But she put me on her list of outside scholars for her tenure review, and her department contacted me. I get credit in my own department for being asked to review a tenure file.
RY recently gave me excellent advice on avoiding perfectionism and breaking the bad habits instilled by imperfect mentors. I met RY as the friend of one of my professors, long years ago; our relationship has been entirely conference-social, until during a recent catching-up session I was inspired to ask for advice on knowing when you’re finished with a project (or finished enough, anyway). Without the years of casual conversation, I probably would not have asked.
Sadly, the world does contain people who are rude, thoughtless, and unpleasant, who will jump on signs of vulnerability. But the kind, generous, socially adept people will respond very well to sincere, even if awkwardly expressed, gratitude for their interest, advice, introductions, and so on. Piggy-back on their abilities, and copy their methods as best you can.
5. So far, I’ve focused on networking. But what about other kinds of situations, like those that make you mad as hell?
First, try to be aware of what you’re projecting. My colleagues think they know what happens when I’m angry. They have no idea what my temper can actually amount to. And yet, at one meeting with the dean when I was only impatient, they thought I was furious. That voice-lowering trick, body language, and persistence (or the lack of it) convey a lot of meaning.
So square your shoulders, breathe deeply, count down, and translate your inner dialogue of “Are you insane? That will undo everything we’ve worked for over the past three years!” into “I am very concerned about the effects on department morale if we were to adopt that proposal.” Lean forward and explain your position. Lean back and let other people talk themselves out. Lean forward and say, “I completely see your points. However, I remain concerned about morale and the effects on [pick a suitable group: students, the administration, the faculty]. How can we address that?” If someone comes up with your original idea, tell them it’s a brilliant solution.
Of course, if what you’re angry about is that people are always taking credit for your ideas, then you say, “I’m glad you like my idea. As I said in my memo to [the chair, the dean, your co-teacher, the president of the graduate student association], the details are . . . “
6. How do you get someone out of your office?
“I have to go to a meeting; I’ll walk you out.”
“Let’s talk to the undergraduate director about that. Come down to the department office with me.”
“I have to call someone back before [approaching time]; I’ll catch up with you later.”
“We have to stop now.”
“Thank you for coming to see me.”
“The person you need to see is X. Let’s just see if s/he’s in.”
“You always brighten my day, but I have to finish this before class.”
There are books about negotiating, about dealing with difficult people, about making friends and influencing people. Some of these offer scripts. Adapt them to your own circumstances. Practice by talking to the cat, if you need to. If you didn’t learn early, you may never feel real social ease, but you can certainly learn to look as if you feel it.