Assuming Rapport Rather Than Rejection

People are always talking about the importance of networking, but the entire concept fills me with dread. Networking gives me the heebies. The idea of cold calling total strangers makes my palms sweaty. The idea of doing some obligatory networking feels like my ongoing struggle to eat enough vegetables. (No, I am still not eating kale. Now I read that I’m supposed to “massage” kale to remove the bitterness? Still yuck.) The word networking makes me think of it as actual work (because it is); it conjures up images of chasing down hapless strangers with business cards and begging for meaningless endorsements on LinkedIn.

Last week on the #withaphd chat, we talked about networking. Turns out, lots of people have networking anxiety. As we discovered, fears range from being perceived as desperate to failing at small talk to outright rejection. These are real and valid fears, but I’ve come to the conclusion that networking as an academic outside of academia is critical. People helping people is how we’re going to succeed.

 I’ve been working on bumping up my networking efforts recently. I often forget that I should be networking regularly, not just when looking for new opportunities or clients. I’m trying to network with new people who are outside of my usual circles and people who do things in life that are not the same things that I do in life. It’s been fun and challenging and terrifying all at the same time.

Even while trying to be out and the world and meeting new people, I’ve never quite gotten over the feeling that every interaction might lead to rejection. Recently, someone suggested to me that instead of operating on assumptions of rejection, I might try to assume rapport instead. I confess that the idea shocked me, as I’d never given much thought to my assumptions about how I connect with people.

I did some research about this idea. It was the brainchild of Nicholas Boothman, author of How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds. This is not the type of book I normally read, so the idea of assuming rapport is brand new to me. (Full disclaimer: I have not read Boothman’s book. I just happen to know that the idea of assuming rapport is a part of his work. He might have some other ideas as well that I am not aware of.)

The idea of assuming rapport felt like a small revelation to me. Thinking over my interactions with people, I realized how often I don’t do this. So often in life, I’m approaching potential relationships with the assumption that other people are out to reject me.  Approaching people with an attitude of rejection makes creating relationships harder than I suspect it has to be. I find that I’m trying too hard. I’m focusing on me rather than them, because I’m determined to prove that I’m worth someone’s time and consideration.

As I thought about this situation some more, I realized that if people are wired for connection, people actually WANT to connect with other people.

We’re making assumptions all the time about ourselves and other people. If we’re going to tell ourselves some stories about our attempts to connect with others, why not make them empowering ones rather than disempowering ones?

I have absolutely zero proof that assuming rapport has changed the way that I connect with people. I’ve only been testing it out for the last few weeks. Now when I’m meeting with someone new and I’m a little nervous about it, I get stern with myself and tell myself that yes, I’m freaking out (always good to validate feelings, even if they aren’t real), but then I tell myself to assume rapport. People WANT to talk to me, right? I psyche myself up, telling myself that people genuinely want to connect with me, even if they don’t know it yet.

Although its too early to tell, approaching people with assumptions about rapport rather than rejection seems to have changed the quality of my interactions with them. Now I just assume that the person I’m trying to get to know and I will be pals from the get go. Just in my personal, rather than scientific experience, I’m more open with people and feel like I have less to prove. I don’t work as hard to try to prove to people that I’m worth talking to and I’m more able to just be me on my own rather than me trying really really hard to get people to like me. The conversation gets to be more about genuinely getting to know the other person and enjoying their company. In fact, assuming rapport feels much like the whole “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy for dealing with impostor syndrome.

Dealing with my fears of meeting people got easier when I realized this: people actually want to connect and help. Sometimes people are looking for someone to help them solve a problem they’re having. Other people might be looking for new friends and connections too. People are incredibly willing to help if we’re brave enough to ask. Of all of the times that I’ve called up a stranger, tweeted someone I didn’t know, or invited a new person out for coffee, only two people have ever outright said no to me. (One was busy taking care of an invalid elderly parent. The other was just a weirdo.) The majority have been totally awesome and cool people to connect with. Some professional connections have turned into new personal friends. Based on my non-scientific completely anecdotal evidence, my chances of connecting with a cool person who wants to help me are incredibly high. Logically, I should be basing my ideas about networking on actual evidence rather than assumptions of rejection.

This week, I’m practicing assuming rapport.
That is all.



Publishing Without Perishing

I’ve been trying to ramp up my networking recently, as more and better networking was one of my goals for this year. I’ve been finding people to network with both personally and professionally with through friends, LinkedIn (meh), and people working at organizations I like. This week, I spoke to a person in charge of an anthropology department. The conversation turned to my research and what I was doing with it.

“Have you published your dissertation research?” he asked.
“Well…no. I don’t have an academic job. I can’t decide how I feel about my research or my writing.” I felt that familiar shame of having to explain that I hadn’t gotten a fancy tenure track job despite the realities of the anemic history job market.
“Doesn’t matter,” he told me firmly. “Publish anyways.”

We talked a little bit more about my dissertation. He seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. When we hung up, I felt more excited about my research and writing than I had in the previous two years. It’s not often these days that I actually get to talk with anyone, let alone a fellow scholar with similar interests in history of archaeology, about my research. I don’t have conversations every day with people who encourage me to publish my work despite having left academia. I felt a little spark inside that I hadn’t felt for a long time.

Since finishing the PhD in early 2015, I’ve had mixed feelings about publishing my research. If you’re on the academic job market, publishing the dissertation is a crucial step towards First Monograph and Respectable Academic Employability. Right now, publishing my research has few benefits, as I’m not on the academic job market anymore. Publishing my dissertation as a monograph isn’t going to improve my CV or make me more competitive for postdocs, as I don’t have a CV anymore and I’m not applying for academic positions. I’m not going to get a promotion at my current job because I’ve published a book. The non-academic world in general doesn’t care if I publish a book of my original research. I don’t include my publications on my resume. Revising the entire dissertation and shepherding it towards publication seems like a huge pile of work for little professional benefit.


Talking about my research with someone who thought it mattered set a small fire under me. Part of what had made deciding not to pursue academia so painful was the feeling that I’d have to give up on a lot of things I’d really cared about. Before this week, I’d forgotten how much I’d loved my research. I’d forgotten that I had personally created some new knowledge about the world that hadn’t existed before. I’d forgotten that my research had something important to say. I looked at the long list of values that I’d written last week. “I don’t give up or give in,” I’d written. And then this thought struck me: if following my personal intellectual passions isn’t part of my current professional life, then I’m going to have to make it happen in my personal life.

Against all common sense and reason, I opened up my dissertation file and started reading. I hadn’t looked at it for two years. When I’d written it, I thought I’d written it in accessible language. I’d wanted non-academics to be able to read and understand my work, so I’d spent countless hours revising. That, of course, was before I’d been writing a (mostly) weekly blog about writing for a couple of years, read some actual academic style guides, and edited many pages of other people’s academic writing. Re-reading my writing was a cringe-worthy experience. I peppered my work with nominalizations, like writing ‘conceptualize’ when I meant ‘ideas.’(May Helen Sword forgive me.) I used the word ‘numerous’ when I meant ‘many.’ (May William Zinsser forgive me.) I used semicolons to string together independent clauses instead of writing with shorter sentences. (May Verlyn Klinkenborg forgive me.) I had failed to omit needless words. (May Strunk and White forgive me.) Mostly, I found myself trying a little bit too hard to convince the reader that I had something interesting to say. I tried reallyreallyreally hard to sound smart, mostly because I wanted my dissertation committee to think I was smart and I wanted to graduate.

So I made a revision task list. The lit review was out, as was the heavy duty theory section where I had written ‘epistemology’ as many times as possible. The historical context part was going to have to be the prologue. One chapter needed some rethinking and a near complete rewrite. The typos were legion.

Revising my dissertation and publishing it (on either academic or popular press) fits with the higher level goal I identified last week: helping other people understand the world better. Even if I don’t have an academic job, having the book manuscript (sounds so much fancier than dissertation) published supports my high-level life goal. Now, in addition to a revision task list (which is hideously long), I have some new mid-range and low-level goals to achieve on my way to fulfilling my bigger purpose. They look kind of like this:
Daily writing practice towards revision task list—>each chapter rewritten (AND THOROUGHLY PROOFREAD FER THE LOVE OF GOD)—>submit for peer review—>wait for response—>(possibly have to find another press)—>way more revision—>eventual publication (I may be missing some steps and inevitable pitfalls but that’s okay)—> all in the service of the high level goal: HELPING PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THE WORLD BETTER.

And that seems totally worth doing.

Pursuing my intellectual passions on my own time isn’t easy. Serious barriers exist to publishing an academic work as a non-academic person. The lack of funding tops the list. I probably won’t add the fifth chapter that I’d always envisioned adding (formation of the Guatemalan zoo), as I don’t have research funding. I don’t have institutional access to a research library anymore. (HI INSTITUTIONAL FRIENDS!) I don’t know when I’m going to be able to return to Guatemala (pleasepleasepleaseletitbesoon). I feel like I’m too busy to write. I often come home from my job tired and cranky; all I want to do is curl up on the couch and binge watch This Is Us.

But really, these are all excuses for inaction. I reject my former belief that leaving academia means that I have to give up on things I care about in the world. I’m not giving up and I’m not giving in.      

Archival Research, Part I

This is the first in a series of posts aimed at people without much archival research experience who need to do some.

A lot of people I know are either at archives this week (spring break or Semana santa, depending on how you look at it) or planning to be at archives this summer. I confess that I’m jealous. Archival research is the highlight of being a historian. (Really!) Tracking down obscure primary sources feels as exciting as chasing after buried treasure. When compared to the difficulties of writing, researching is downright fun.  

However, I wish I’d had some kind of a guide when I started doing my own archival research. I didn’t receive much in the way of instruction; my department assumed that PhD students in the archives would eventually “just figure it out.” I did eventually get a handle on how to do research at archives, but learning required a bumpy process of trial and error. I learned that archival research can be intimidating, overwhelming, and baffling for the uninitiated. I’ve drawn from my own experiences here and also polled the Twitterverse for wisdom and advice for beginning researchers.

[Many thanks to all the #Twitterstorians who contributed ideas to this post: @bookmobility, @cdimas14, @icpetrie, @rachelgnew, @storied_selves, @MexHistorian, @marydudziak, @StuckeyMary, @stschrader1, and lots of nice people who retweeted my question about archival advice!]

Network Early and Often  

I’m not kidding when I say that networking is a vital part of archival research. The success of my archival PhD research was directly tied to the relationships I created with archivists and other researchers. If writing is always better when made social, archival research is way better when made social.

Figure out through your professional network who has been to the archive you’ll be headed to. Do you know any fellow researchers who will be at the archive while you’re there? Network ahead of time so that you’ve already got some friends and colleagues when you arrive. Get in touch with them and ask them what their research experiences have been like. What tips can they give you? Other researchers can help you think through your research, as well as point you to interesting and relevant sources that you may not have known existed. They’ll also help make your archival research experience less lonely.  

Relationships with archivists can make or break an archival research experience. Aside from being nice and respectful to people because it’s the right thing to do, making friends with archivists often leads to research breakthroughs. More than one person I know has reported that helpful documents have magically started showing up when they establish friendships with the archivists. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Little things can help you cement your relationships with archive staff. Introduce yourself to the director. Remember people’s names. Write down names to put in your acknowledgments. Take people out to lunch when possible. Send a thank you card to the staff when you’re done. Bring people brownies.       

Do as much research ahead of time as possible.

Learn the archive’s policies ahead of time. Do they allow photography? Photocopies? Do they charge for it? What are photo reproduction policies? Does the archive require that you send a list of documents you want to examine ahead of time? Does the archive only allow pencils? Some archives have very clear policies about these things, while others have policies that change depending on which staff members are working that day.

If the archive has any kind of online catalog, do as much research ahead of time as possible. Make a list of documents that seem like they might be helpful, just to get you started. Often times, you may not know what you’re looking for when you first start, but you’ve got to start somewhere. It’s okay not to know everything at first.

Despite all of your great research ahead of time, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Anyone who has done archival research will tell you to be prepared to hear that the documents you want don’t exist. Sometimes the things listed in the catalog are not in the box. Sometimes there are no subject headings for your topic. Sometimes documents have been stolen. Sometimes they’re damaged or the paleography is impossible. You could look at these as roadblocks or you could look at them as opportunities. Sometimes having to use your own ingenuity and creativity will unearth some really great stuff.  

Get a good camera.

You may be able to take awesome photos with your smartphone, but for photographing archival documents to consult later, you’ll probably want a an actual camera. I don’t think its necessary to lug a DSLR to an archive unless you really want to. If you can afford it, upgrade your digital camera to the best one you can get. I shoot archive photos with a pocket camera, the marvelous Canon S95. It is worth thinking about the size of the sensor, as many archives seem to suffer from poor lighting. A camera with a big sensor will be able to take clear photos in dim light. A flip screen will also help save your back. A small lightweight tripod also does wonders for producing clear, sharp photos.  Consider these two photos. The one on the right was taken with a cheap digital camera and without a tripod. The one on the left was with my S95 and a tripod.


Practice Self-Care

Archival research, although really fun and exciting, can also be a profoundly lonely and isolating experience. As historians, we’re usually working alone, spending hours a day reading old documents. Self-care is particularly important when you’re researching in a foreign archive. Not only will you be dealing with the usual research stresses, but also with different cultures and languages and all of the stress that goes with travel.

It’s easy to go through long periods where the research isn’t going well, you’re faced with the prospect of sorting through another huge pile of documents that probably aren’t useful, the box doesn’t have the document that was listed in the catalog, etc etc.  Plenty of people get discouraged while doing research.  So, get your self-care practice in order. Eat well. (Especially eat a big protein breakfast!) Hydrate. Get some exercise. Take breaks. Sleep enough. Be social.

Next post: nuts and bolts of being in the archive.