Networking is a key skill if you want to work in academia. It is so important, that The Academic’s Support Kit, an invaluable series of books for anyone wanting to work in the industry, has a whole book devoted to it – Building Networks – and I doubt very much that Boden, Epstein and Kenway are alone in thinking this way. Its a skill that needs to begin early – and as a deaf person, its a skill that I know I am lacking. [at least, in person. Online – I totally rock!]
With this in mind, I recently went to a postgraduate meeting. This, promoted as a series of seminars aimed at postgrads in my field at my university, with cake, tea, and an inevitable trip to the pub after, isn’t unusual in the academic world. It allows students, who often focus intently on their own little sphere, to keep tabs on work that is being done in the wider field; to discuss their work with their peers; to get help and feedback where necessary; and most of all, to make the contacts that in terms of their careers, will be invaluable. These are the people that I may be working with in future. Developing a good relationship with your peers is an absolute must for anyone who is serious about a career in academia.
I had, I will be honest, been avoiding this. I’d gone to the first, set up as part of the induction week and the university paid for an interpreter to come with me. I had a great chat with one chap about the focus of his MRes, and listened to the talks provided by the people who ran the group. So far, so good. Then came the bad news. SFE wouldn’t fund attendance at the seminars as part of my DSA, as its not a compulsory part of my studies. I can’t use any other source of funding for it, like Access to Work, as its not employment. The University can’t fund access to everything, and more to the point, this was strictly a voluntary thing. And there were bigger battles to fight: there was also the risk that DSA would not cover the various field trips that I needed to make throughout the year as part of my studies (in the end, the university agreed to fund those, thank god). So I let it lapse.
Then I got talking to one of my interpreters. She’d been a PhD student herself, in an unrelated field, and knows well the demands of academia, and is a trainee interpreter. When I mentioned this group to her, she offered to volunteer to interpret the sessions, as it would give her greater experience of working in a university setting. I lept at the chance, we agreed the time and date, and off we went.
We walked into the room where the session was being held to find just 5 people in there. We said hello, and then the people returned to their conversation. Fair enough, I thought, they were mid conversation when we walked in, and I talked to my interpreter instead. In sign language, which I think, in retrospect, was a mistake. Other people came in who were greeted and spoke to the group… and they all more or less continued to ignore me. They huddled in a little group at the other end of the room, and the only time anyone spoke to me was to offer me cake, or to respond to a direct question (I asked the speaker where he would be speaking from, and introduced myself and the interpreter – which is only good manners). The talk itself was interesting enough but I left feeling upset and disheartened by the attitude of the other attendees towards me, and wondering if I should persevere with this or just give up on it and find some other way to network.
I discussed it with my other half (who, I should add, isn’t deaf, wasn’t there, and isn’t an academic, but he is ferociously intelligent and occasionally comes out with smart stuff!). He listened sympathetically, let me rant about it for a bit [the words ‘clique’ and ‘bad mannered’ featured a lot, along with ‘disablist’ and ‘gonna write about this for BADD!’] and then simply pointed out: ‘did you say anything to them?’
‘um. well. no. but.. but… hearing! they’re supposed to be welcoming and stuff to new people!!’
Even I saw through the fallacy and stupidity of THAT one as soon as it left my mouth.
Yes, they are supposed to be welcoming but, ahhhh… give them a break. Yes, they made a mistake and they may well be kicking themselves for allowing me to walk out of there without saying anything to me. But seeing it from their perspective, I began to realise. Someone walks in, who they don’t really know, and they don’t know my needs, who I am, anything about me. I could be one of those incredibly touchy people who threatens to sue the entire world if anyone says anything that is even a tiny bit wrong (and yes, we all know they exist) so.. well.. can they really be blamed for taking the safer course? Am I not just as much to blame for continuing that status quo, not introducing myself (I am able to talk for myself, the interpreter is there to help out with communication coming in, not going out), not making my needs clear? Could I have done things better to try to ease their fears and help them to communicate with me?
In a world full of prejudice, regardless of whether you’re the one with an ‘ism’ or not, sometimes its all too easy to take the safe route and not say anything. I do that myself. Sometimes, when I don’t have communication support, its too easy, in group settings with new people, to take the easy route and not introduce myself, or to stand awkwardly and pray that sometime I do know talks to me. Sometimes I’m just tired and I don’t think I can be blamed for that. But if I can’t be blamed … then neither can they.
So. I’m going back to that group in a few weeks, with my interpreter. I’m going to email them ahead of time so they know I’m coming and who I am. Give them enough information so that they’ve got stuff they can ask me about. Bone up on the people who are in the group (the group’s on facebook as well) so that I have stuff I can ask them about. And then [this is one of those times where there’s a fantastic sign for it and the equivalent in English is a bit pathetic in comparison] … I gird my loins and step into the lion’s den.